Into Sure Wood

(The best Robin Hood in movies was Errol Flynn’s, performed in 1938.)

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:


Filed under Ethics and Morality, Literature, symbolism, Television

18 responses to “Into Sure Wood

  1. Zishaan 'ZuZu' Shafi

    Robin Hood is the personification of hope, justice and a voice for the weak. We need a modern day RH! Great post as usual! Keep up the fantastic blogging! 🙂

  2. LizEccentric7

    Still thinking of the blog title and many thoughts coming into my mind…be back in about 10 minutes. 🙂

  3. LizEccentric7

    Back to business…we must be thinking alike as my next post is going to be regarding a large piece of history that has massive cultural influences in media and movies today. It’s amazing how Robin Hood has changed the way people think about Money.
    It is a great teaching about helping others, and come to think of it, reading the book in school may be the reason I often help others in need.
    The history during that era has always been a great interest to me. My next post will be about a bloody and gory time period, but it has great influences on culture at present. I haven’t read all of the versions of Robin Hood, but I am glad you brought the story to mind. I will watch it today on Netflix.
    Have a review on Moby Dick?
    Loved that book!

    • I do also like Moby Dick, but I didn’t understand it until I was an adult. Robin Hood is a straightforward, romantic narrative in style. Moby Dick was a groundbreaking invention, almost a stream-of-consciousness novel. Melville keeps diverting away from the actual story, the way your mind would if you were taking a long journey.

      Robin represents a hero we can aspire to be, if we divest ourselves of excess property and live to enforce justice, in happy fellowship. Ahab represents the perils of vengeance and unhealthy obsession. His quest to conquer and subdue the force of nature (in the person of the white whale) leads to death for all but one. Both are charismatic leaders. It’s important to choose wisely who you follow. Both stories are great adventures, though.

  4. Thanks Mikey. I didn’t realise Weinstein planned to employ blacklisted American writers as scriptwriters and story editors. You learn something new every day!
    Heros have come a long way since then (not). Now they just smash things up and shoot everyone in sight (sorry – don’t mean to sound so disillusioned).
    I miss these kind of heros and I think our kids are missing out as well – bring them back, I say:)
    Thanks for sharing.

    • I didn’t learn about the blacklisted writers either until I was in college, Dianne. Of course no one except they and Hannah Weinstein knew at the time. She used to bring relatives or secretaries to meetings and parties when ITV executives insisted on meeting the authors of their hit show. Most of the real writers had their passports revoked, and couldn’t go to England.

      I agree with you about the need for these kinds of heroes for kids, but they are around, even if you have to sort through the kabooms to locate them. Get hold of a copy of “Captain America, the First Avenger”, the recent Marvel reboot film. It’s got just what you’re looking for. There’s a lot of service motive in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy too, even though the style is too dark and complicated for most young children. As an adult I do find those inspiring.

  5. Pete Howorth

    I remember going to Sherwood Forest as a kid, with my bow and arrow that had the sucker on the end. I haven’t been since which is strange as Nottingham isn’t that far away. I remember there being a tree that was sectioned off because that apparently was the tree where he died. If it was all just a legend, surely they wouldn’t just pick a tree at random and decide to tell people that’s where he kicked the bucket.

    Still, my favourite version is the Men In Tights 😀

    Russell Crowe, as much as I love him, should not have played him.

    • There were so many Hollywood versions, I expect that’s what Mel Brooks was having fun with. I liked that one too. The Crowe version is almost as bad as Kevin Costner’s (Prince of Thieves). He kept sounding like he was about to say, “Dudes, let’s ride.”

      As to your wondering if they would just pick an old, appropriate-looking tree? Of course they would. You’re talking about significant tourism revenue! Most of the legend sources say he died from either being bled after a bout with fever, or poisoned, by a nun at Kirklees Priory in West Yorkshire. (So they say) as he was fading, he sat up, took his bow and arrow, and told Little John to bury him where it landed. He shot it out the window of his room, and there’s a supposed “authentic” headstone marking it there. Again, probably for tourists. If he lived at all, he likely caught something and died in a tent.

      I’m sure I haven’t any accurate mental picture of Sherwood at all. The 1938 film was shot in Chico and Pasadena in Southern California. The TV series used the Wisley Common in Surrey, and the nearby Foxwarren Estate in Cobham. In my mind’s eye I see the Pyle illustrations, which aren’t based on anywhere real. But I’m quite enjoying the image of Petey Hood and his rubber-tipped arrows.

  6. Oops, I think I hit the wrong button and deleted my last comment. Sorry if this is a duplicate. Of course now I can’t remember what I said, but it had something to do with loving Robin Hood stories as a child. Your posts are always full of information and entertainment.

  7. How fascinating! So many labyrinths in this single tale both in the story, its evolution and the production. I enjoyed reading this.

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