Hoodolatory: history, myth and Mr R. Hood

April 12, 1996

Was the green-hosed outlaw really out there? asks Stephen Knight.

Robin Hood, according to the old stories, took money at arrow-point from travellers in Sherwood Forest. The Nottingham tourist industry honours the noble robber's name and his practice - but to collect coins from passers-by the favoured weapon nowadays is to insist that Robin Hood really lived and was firmly confined to the Nottingham area.

Even the sheriff was no more possessive than today's Sherwood foresters, as you soon find out if you suggest the hero was never more than a myth. They are very sensitive to arguments that Robin did not exist at all or that he operated somewhere else. Proponents of a real but relocated Robin Hood are at least working in the same biographic mode as the Nottingham Hoodolators - it is just that the forest becomes Barnsdale in Yorkshire and Robin the Fred Trueman of highway robbery. These positivist identifications weaken as the locations multiply: there is a more northerly Robin Hood near Carlisle in a 1420s chronicle and the name appears in legal records in Cirencester, York, Reading, Northamptonshire and Sussex. In these early fictional identifications he could have been a strolling swordsman from south Yorkshire, a Berwick warrior of the mid-14th century, even a fisherman in Scarborough.

This multiplicity must support the argument that Robin Hood was never a real person, simply a symbolic function. Being a figure of justified resistance to bad law, he takes as many forms as there are types of oppression. The name is no more - or less - than a title used in a social role. In fact, there appear to be medieval instances of people assuming the name because they were in fact forest outlaws or because they played the hero's part in village festivals.

Some Robin Hood historicists would accept that mythic argument, but also insist there was a Mr R. Hood who gave rise to the myth, an eponymous hero like Ned Kelly or Jesse James. That seems conceivable, but the quest has so far not found a credible quarry. A York man called Robert Hood from 1226 is the current favourite, because a Reading record in 1262 was altered to change a criminal's surname from Le Fevere (or Smith) to Robehod. Voila, the myth of the York man at work.

Two problems arise: one, the myth could work like that without a real predecessor, and two, what is wrong with a previous Robert, an abbot's servant convicted of murder in Cirencester around 1215? The early hero can be friendly to the church, and was certainly well known in the west. The York man himself dissolves in doubt.

Whether there was or was not an original person is, as with King Arthur, both undiscoverable and unimportant. Genuinely worth analysis are the many forms this uniquely popular and long-lasting myth has taken through time. The reconfigurations of the outlaw and his tradition reveal how changing periods have culturally reshaped the patterns of authority and resistance, often constraining, but never quite abolishing, the more radical and resistance-oriented features of the tradition.

This robust figure changed over time. In the early 16th century a Scots historian named, prefiguratively, John Major, restructured the pattern for conservative values by the device of making Robin a displaced gentleman operating in the days of bad King John. At a stroke, resistance became both honourable and hierarchical and the outlaw was noble in spirit and blood. This appropriation of the rebel, allied to his anti-Catholic activities, made the gentrified Robin a much-admired figure through the 17th century, though some street ballads still cherished the militant tendencies of the anti-authority outlaw.

Elements of the radical and the gentrified hero have come down to the modern Hollywood Hood, but intervening authors have added other features, which are probably the main reason the myth has survived. Scott, in Ivanhoe, made Robin a hero of nationalism. Not only did he split an arrow (a feat unknown in toxophily-aware earlier days); the real point was his Norman-French origin. Soon after, this rough-hewn national hero was given an appealing greenwood and heritage gloss by Keats in a verse letter to Reynolds and by Thomas Love Peacock.

So Robin Hood became a beau ideal for nostalgic nationalist manhood - most of the Georgian poets early this century celebrated the outlaw in choruses of jingoistic homosociality. But others projected him into the stratosphere of pure myth. Robert Graves and Margaret Murray thought he was the horned god, and weightier yet was the appearance in the Dictionary of National Biography: Hood, Robin, enjoys the distinction of being the only entry in the whole DNB who never existed.

That is hardly what they want to hear in Nottingham. But the insistence that the outlaw was real and human is itself a recreation of the hero in terms of the myth of modern materialist individualism. Some versions of this are less convincing than others. Readers of the New York Sun on November 17, 1992 could admire under the heading "Robin Hood's Body Found in Sherwood Forest" a photo of a wrinkled corpse. Upon the body was found a medallion engraved "To Robert of Locksley for invaluable services to king and country" dated 1172 (a scoop - that is 17 years before Richard came to the throne).

Gentrified by Major, nationalised by Scott, romanticised by Keats, mummified by the Sun; the famous outlaw has had a varied career. When people ask was there a real Robin Hood, the answer is yes. He is a cultural reality in the past and the present, and the outlaw myth has been constantly realised to reveal, mock and resist unacceptable forms of authority.

Stephen Knight is professor of English, Cardiff University of Wales and the author of Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw (Blackwell).

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