In the collective imagination of the Anglosphere, Robin Hood is second only to King Arthur in the hold he has on the public mind. The idea of the Merry Men living in self-constructed freedom “all under the merry greenwood tree” in Sherwood Forest – robbing the rich and helping the poor and staying loyal to King Richard the Lionheart during the regency of his brother – has been embraced by countless generations.
Robin, his chaste but passionately loved Maid Marian, doughty Little John, fat but lethal Friar Tuck, the minstrel Alan-a-Dale and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham have been loved and reimagined in ways congenial to each new audience. The socialist is attracted by the Merry Men’s opposition to authority; the Tory by their unshakeable loyalty to their rightful King; the English nationalist by the theme of Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Norman conquerors; the harassed urbanite by their life of freedom in the forest; and the endangered hunter by their pursuit of his favourite sport at the government’s expense.
In all of these there is some truth mixed with a little distortion – but the most bizarre of all, and expressed clearly in the 1980s British TV series Robin of Sherwood – is the association of Robin Hood with paganism.
Before we can understand just how silly and recent that now widespread (thanks to the TV series) notion is, we have to look at who Robin Hood was in reality. That is an even harder assignment than figuring out the historical truth behind King Arthur.
Although there are a few earlier references, the earliest outright mention of Robin that we have is in 1377, by William Langland in his Piers Plowman: “I know not perfectly my Pater Noster as the priest sings it; but I know rhymes of Robin Hood and Ranulph, Earl of Chester.” The earl was in fact an historical figure, known for his loyalty to King Richard during Prince John’s regency. Although only a glancing reference, it does sound as though Langland expected his audience to be acquainted with Robin – and bracketing him with a Ricardian loyalist like the Earl would seem to imply that he held similar views.
Starting in the 1400s, we have an ever-increasing crop of ballads and folk plays about Robin Hood appearing in writing. Ever more characters were added – both friendly and inimical – to the stories, and the tales themselves became ever more complex. Robin and Maid Marian became popular characters in plays on May Day, and Robin’s lady love may have had a separate existence before being subsumed into his stories. With the Reformation came, as with King Arthur, some lessening of interest in the tales, though Robin’s anticlericalism was sometimes (wrongly, as we shall see) turned into anti-popery. But it was Sir Walter Scott’s portrayal of him in Ivanhoe that fixed the bandit of Sherwood in the guise we know today.
With a huge amount of legendary and literary material at hand, 19th- and 20th-century writers amplified and added to his story. When the movies dawned, Robin and his Merry Men came into their own – the apogee of which was Errol Flynn’s portrayal of him in the 1938 extravaganza, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Sean Connery performed as an older Robin reuniting with his lady love (Audrey Hepburn) in 1971’s Robin and Marian, and Connery’s King Richard would be the only thing worth watching in Kevin Costner’s dreadful vehicle, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves.
But where older films and television had maintained Robin’s Christian religiosity, Robin of Sherwood introduced Herne the Hunter (legendary denizen of Windsor Forest in folklore) as a pagan priest. Other recent versions claim that Robin is an incarnation of the Green Man, a character in medieval iconography whom modern neopagans like to lay claim to. These pagan identifications were made on a twofold basis: that anything to do with a forest would be related to paganism, and that Robin must therefore be a pagan himself. The claim about Robin is easily dispatched. Despite its many claims on innumerable blogs, the truth is that like the age-old Wiccan faith itself, the Robin-as-pagan myth was actually invented in the 1920s by one Margaret Murray. But what about the supposed paganism of forests? Unravelling that question is key to understanding the legendary Robin Hood.
First, as the folklorist Ronald Hutton maintains, an “Old Religion” does indeed underpin much English folklore, including the tales of Robin Hood. But far from being pagan, this Old Religion was in fact medieval Catholicism. We must then look at the forest not as the nesting ground for remnant pagans, but something entirely different.
In most European countries, forests were wild tracts reserved for the king for hunting purposes. Depending on the time and place, these reserves had inhabitants to whom the King conceded various rights – allowing their pigs to root for food, for example, or to use fallen branches as firewood. In addition to the wild and often dangerous animals known to dwell deep in the woods, there were often thought to be such beasts as the unicorn and the dragon, to say nothing of elves and fairies.
Various hermits and monks often enough withdrew to the forest to contemplate God – and in time, great abbeys sometimes grew up around the primitive retreats. There might be chapels or holy wells, and not surprisingly there were stories of saints. St Giles’s solitude was discovered when his tame deer companion fled a band of hunters, leading them to him. St Hubert was converted when a deer he himself was hunting suddenly turned, and bearing the crucifix between its antlers, said “Hubert, unless thou turnest to the Lord, and leadest an holy life, thou shalt quickly go down into hell.” He did so and became the patron saint of hunters.
In and among all these dangers, wonders, and sanctity, there dwelt both in history and folklore various bands of desperate men, either or both refugees and robbers. The mystique of such folk, from the medieval German Friedschützen to the anti-Soviet Forest Brethren of the post-war Baltic States, has been one of dedication to a cause mixed with personal freedom – until caught. Regardless of their historicity, Robin Hood and his men fall squarely into this camp.
In the oldest stories, Robin and his followers were opposed to corrupt clerics, while extremely devout in practice – a combination not unknown in our own day. One of the oldest stories, Robin Hood and the Monk (first seen in a manuscript from 1450), opens with Little John telling Robin how wonderful it is to be out in the woods on a May Day. But Robin is depressed, being unable to go to Mass or Matins, which he dearly wishes to do. In the end, he goes in secret to the church of St Mary in Nottingham to pray, where he is recognised by a monk whom he had previous robbed – and from which comes the action of the story.
The Geste of Robin Hood, also 15th century, declares of Robin:
A good manner then had Robin; In land where that he were, Every day ere he would dine Three Masses would he hear.
The one in the worship of the Father, And another of the Holy Ghost, The third of Our dear Lady, That he loved all the most.
Robin loved Our dear Lady; For doubt of deadly sin, Would he never do company harm That any woman was in.
As far as our earliest sources are concerned, Robin is neither a New Age avatar nor a proto-Protestant nor an ur-socialist, but a devout Catholic, loyal to his God and his King. Circumstances had forced him to take to the woods; but they did not change his essential nature. Just as with King Arthur and the Holy Grail, with Chaucer and much of Shakespeare, the inability of modern film-makers to come to terms with the Catholic nature of Robin Hood makes it difficult for them to portray him on the screen faithfully.
This inability to come to terms with Robin either religiously or politically should not surprise us, as it hampers the same people in dealing with the work of more recent figures, such as JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis or even Madeleine L’Engle.
What is required to bring Robin to the screen in a manner as compelling as the way in which he has haunted generations is to find a film-maker who himself combines mastery of modern technique with the worldview of Sherwood Forest’s hero.