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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Robin Hood: A man of many media .... and a merry one at that

The figure of Robin Hood has been adapted to so many different medias it makes sense that his presence on the internet is as ubiquitous as in any other format. Something about this 'historical' outlaw has captured the imagination of so many individuals, including myself, as is evident from the unhindered glee apparent on my face in the above picture. The passion that he invokes really comes through in some of the websites dedicated to Robin Hood Studies; very few will present an objective enumeration of the facts. Most gush, but consequently have a great deal of information to offer. I am going to try not to gush, but I would be lying if I claimed that I had no emotional connection to this particular topic.

This is meant as an introduction to Robin Hood Studies on the web, therefore the information provided will be rudimentary, but with many options on how one can find out more.

The Historical Robin Hood

More trouble to track down than the Merry Men's secret hideout, such a figure probably did not exist. There are however, many theories to the contrary. Outlaws, however, were very prevalent. In fact England in particular prided itself on its outlawry. Terry Jones has a series on the BBC, and consequently a book, that talks about different medieval stereotypes. One of these stereotypes is that of the outlaw. This is an excellent series, and an excellent book. According to Terry Jones the outlaw was a popular figure in England partly because it was a great deal more appealing than standing trial in many cases, and also because the unique style of justice imposed by Henry II meant that there may have been too many laws. Here the contact between ruling Normans and conquered Anglo-Saxons does come into play, though it should be taken with a grain of salt. The story that is passed down to us moderns incorporates the romancing of an ancient past, and the overly heroic struggle of an oppressed people.
The stories of Robin Hood as we know it all involve the triumphant return of the good King Richard, who takes the throne back from the evil Prince John. This plays on the history of the time, but it is romanticized, like the Norman/Anglo-Saxon conflict. It should be noted that King Richard spent almost all of his rule on crusade, using taxes to finance his campaigns and spending almost nothing on rule or public works. John, on the other hand, tried to re-centralize the kingdom, taking back some of the power from the lords who had been allowed to rule at their leisure while Richard was away. I would not call one evil or one good, but the history states that Prince John, who eventually became King John though the Robin Hood tale always ends before that happens, was more involved in local politics than King Richard ever was. There is a book by Frank McLynn called Richard and John: Kings at War. A good portion of this is on Google Books. However, it should be noted that the earliest references to Robin Hood put him closer to the end of the 13th century, where as Richard and John ruled at the end of the 12th. Here is a link to the British Library's copy of the Magna Carta, the document, and 'accomplishment' that King John is most known for.

The Tales of Robin Hood

So Robin Hood know doubt grew from an amalgamation of stories that could be attributed to several medieval outlaws. Eventually the story would be influenced in turn by each generation that it passes through, creating the legend that we are more familiar with.
There are several good websites containing some of the original Robin Hood tales, including; and
It should be noted that many places claim Robin Hood, because early traditions put Robin Hood as often in the Barnsdale Forest as they do in Sherwood Forest. There are claims in Nottinghamshire and many in Yorkshire. Wikipedia has an excellent summary of where early references can be found.
The earliest references call Robin Hood a Yeoman, and more particularly he appears to be one of the King's foresters who perhaps did take his share from the King's Foresters. At this point the forest just means land that has been set aside for the King's hunts, a situation that developed with the arrival of the Normans. It is not until romantic ideals of chivalry take hold that we see Robin Hood becoming a noble, the Earl of Huntingdon. It is closer to this time that the stories begin to incorporate references to Maid Marian and Friar Tuck. It eventually became tradition that on May Day you would have a Robin Hood and a Maid Marian preside over the frivolities.
On the Index of Sacred Texts website there is a collection of 15th century Robin Hood ballads, starting with The Geste of Robyn Hode.
As was stated above, he is adapted for every generation, and represents what it is he needs to represent for each. He continues to show up in Literature; for instance is a character in Sir Walter Scott's novels, including Ivanhoe. The link here takes you to an edition of Scott's book. Books continue to be written that have Robin Hood as the main character, such as Robin Hood, by Antonia Fraser, which is the one I grew up with.

Film and Television

And so we adapt to him too, picking up where our literary predecessors left off. He first appears on screen in Robin Hood and his Merry Men, directed by Percy Stowe, in a silent film in 1908 (there is not much on the internet about this film yet). In film he goes on to have many incarnations, some of the most notable including Errol Flynn's role in The Adventures of Robin Hood, the Fox in Disney's Robin Hood (they have a live action version, The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men from the fifties as well which is thoroughly entertaining, but not of as much note), Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves, Carey Elwes in Robin Hood:Men in Tights, and most recently Russell Crowe is set to play the part in the upcoming film directed by Ridley Scott.

In the upcoming film Robin will once again be re-interpreted based on our expectations. When I attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies at the University of Western Michigan this past summer I attended a panel on the upcoming film. Originally the title was going to be Nottingham, and it was going to make the Sherriff the good guy and Robin Hood the evil outlaw. However, this was scrapped because it put too much emphasis on authority, and it was felt to be inappropriate given that is was a representation coming out of the United States.

This is a clip someone has taken of them filming the new movie off the coast of Wales. It truly speaks of Ridley Scott's style. I thought that the addition of the 'Living Daylights' theme song was a nice touch.

The most recent television incarnation has been the BBC's Robin Hood. They are currently on their third, and I believe final series. That Robin Hood they reinterpreted for the modern age. First of all, they look cool, and have rather obviously modern hairstyles. But more importantly added to Robin's gang was Jack, the Muslim woman, and much of the focus was on whether or not Robin thought the crusades were really the right thing.
But there have been others. My father used to always tell me about watching The Adventures of Robin Hood on tv, and how right in the middle of the show they would cut away to an arrow flying through the air. It would hit a tree, and an announcer would say 'brought to you by Johnson's and Johnson's baby powder.' For some reason my father thought this was hysterical. It kind of is. This one says Wildroot Cream Oil, which is less funny I think. This was the series from the fifties.
There have been quite a few incarnations, mostly in England. In the eighties in Robin of Sherwood they had a Robin Hood who was more mystical, having been given a sacred charge by religious forces that predated Christianity.
And of course, my personal favourite, Rocket Robin Hood.

Wikipedia has a good list of Robin Hood, as he appears in film and television. It is quite a long list, as he still seems to be able to capture our imaginations in a rather singular way.

Robin Hood Studies

But as he is ubiquitous he is more than easily the subject of whole units of study. In fact what prompted this study was this blog post on, about the conference that happened two weeks ago at the University of Rochester. At the University of Rochester is Professor Thomas Hahn, the scholar who founded the International Association for Robin Hood Studies in 1997, and on the Rochester Website there are excellent resources, including a digital archive, and a link to other Robin Hood resources on the web.
In addition, the University of Nottingham offers a one year MA in Robin Hood Studies. You could, therefore, be fully trained as a follower of Robin Hood, a Merry man if you will.

Other sources for Robin Hood

As you can see when you look at the list of Robin Hood references in movie and television that is on Wikipedia, they have a separate list for places where Robin Hood is mentioned in another show. Likewise, because he is everywhere, there are many ways to study Robin Hood by looking at things where Robin Hood is not the focus, just a part of the interpretation. For instance, in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire there are many places that trade off of the Nottingham legend, though there main focus is something else. Sherwood forest, for instance, has many different parks and preservation projects, but draws on the local legend for support. If you go looking he is everywhere.

I will leave you with this., the least scholarly of my observations about the use of Robin Hood in modern culture. This one is fairly removed from Robin Hood. This is the song written by Roger Miller for Disney's animated Robin Hood. During the opening credits, listen to the Rooster's song.

This is the hamster dance song. Now imagine the first song sped up, and add some dance beats behind it.It is the same song!

See, if you look for Robin Hood, you are sure to find him.

Tags; Robin Hood, Medieval Ballads, Outlaws, English Literature, English History, University of Rochester

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