I grew up loving stories about Robin Hood. Were these tales based on the exploits of a real outlaw? There might have been a number of Robin Hoods in the original region, including some women. It’s an open question if he really lived or not, but what an inspiring symbol. Each of us knows someone, or about someone who’s been dealt an injustice and had to go into some sort of hiding. Many of us become outlaws ourselves, as children or as adolescents.
From the safety of the dense woods, Robin and his band lived simply in Sherwood Forest, shared everything and redressed the crimes visited upon local peasants by an unjust elite who support an illegitimate ruler. That “rob from the rich, give to the poor” catchphrase isn’t entirely accurate. The rich in these stories got rich through unfair laws and taxes they alone benefit from. The serfs and villagers do all the work farming, maintaining the estates and manufacturing goods, and they are starved and thrown in jail if they object to the injustice. It’s a situation begging for revolt, and always relevant, especially in our age of Capitalism, Corporatism and heartless avarice.
The legend changed significantly over many centuries. 15th Century ballads refer to Robin as a yeoman, a free person of the middle class during the reign of “King Edward” (no idea which). That would date him between 1272-1377. He didn’t turn into a nobleman supporting Richard the Lionheart until much later. That change put the story back to the 1190s, when Richard was away at the Crusades. From the very beginning Robin is accompanied by Little John, Will Scarlet and Much, the Miller’s son, and he is in conflict with the Sheriff of Nottingham. After a couple of centuries he picks up Friar Tuck, Alan a Dale and a band of around a hundred men.
Meanwhile, entirely distinct from the English sources, there was a French play about the love between a knight (coincidentally named Robin) and a shepherdess called Marion. The tales from different countries combined, and Maid Marian evolved into a noblewoman loved chastely (or not) by the outlaw, for whom she provided inside information about what the Sheriff and other nobles were up to.
Author and illustrator Howard Pyle unified most of the extant sources and ballads into a cohesive episodic legend in 1883, with the publication of The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. I read and loved this beautifully illustrated version as a child, but at the same time I was watching The Adventures of Robin Hood each week on TV. The half-hour series (1955-1958) was the first one set in the Middle Ages, and it was a big hit both here and abroad.
The TV series was filmed in 35mm in England, using real castles and sets made to look like them. They cleverly designed a variety of movable trees, stones, huts and facade pieces so things could be quickly rearranged to simulate a new location. Richard Greene, a former movie star who had been a champion fencer at school, was cast as Robin. The 143 episodes were produced in a few days each using one camera, and edited while performers rehearsed and blocked the next episode.
One fascinating aspect of the show was the political ideology behind the scripts. The show’s creator was Hannah Weinstein, a veteran writer in campaigns for Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin Roosevelt and Henry Wallace. In 1952 she moved to London after being targeted for blacklisting by the House Un-American Activities Committee. She didn’t go there to get out of the line of fire. She had decided to shoot back from across the ocean.
After establishing a production company named Sapphire Films, Weinstein pitched the idea of a show about Robin Hood to ITV, and it became the first and most successful of four TV series set in this period. What she knew and ITV didn’t was that she planned to employ blacklisted American writers as scriptwriters and story editors. These men, including Ring Lardner Jr., Ian McLellan Hunter, Robert Lees and Waldo Salt, working under pseudonyms and in secret, wrote episode after episode on themes supporting their views.
Not only were the common people being oppressed by the corrupt nobles, but the Sheriff and his men were constantly bribing and threatening prisoners to get them to betray their friends and protectors, the merrie men of Sherwood. To get out of jail, you had to name names. That’s the blacklist, in a form so simple kids could understand it. “Are you now, or have you ever been an outlaw?”
I don’t know to what degree this show influenced my own progressive political leanings, but I’m glad if it did. Fidelity to your beliefs, loyalty to your friends, and speaking truth to power are important things to learn. Robin Hood’s legend also teaches about living simply and sustainably, in harmony and close contact with nature. Ethically speaking, it supports the idea that no one should want for the most basic needs, and that those who have abundance have a duty to share it with the poor. It’s not “un-earned wealth”, as supporters of Ayn Rand would have it. It’s taking care of the band we all belong to.
I still enjoy leafing through my own dog-eared copy, but you can also read Howard Pyle’s marvelous version of the Robin Hood legend online for free, thanks to Project Gutenberg: