The Robin Hood Legend

An article submitted by Paul McElhinney

The stories of Robin Hood appeal to something basic in the human spirit. In most of us, there is a strong feeling of support for the underdog unjustly treated by the tyrannical force, exemplified in the conflict between Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. That conflict can be seen as a struggle between good and evil, between virtue and venality, between order and stability on the one hand and freedom and justice on the other. For most of us growing up, this morality tale helped shape our notions of right and wrong.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men holed up in Sherwood Forest represented the true Anglo-Saxon stock, marginalised to the woodlands of England by the invading Norman power, exemplified by the Sheriff. Robin's power lay in the support of the common people and the cover of the primeval forest, while the Sheriff's on the Norman-imposed law and force of arms. In English historiography, the Anglo-Saxons tend to be lionised as in some sense, the 'true English', while the Normans with their Norse and French associations, are seen as interlopers. Residual anti-French feeling goes some way in explaining this depiction, but in a nation built on successive waves of immigration, it is hard to describe who is really a true Englishmen. Yet, as truth is a fluid concept in history, it has been convenient to depict the Anglo-Saxons in this way. In Ireland, we are no strangers to such lionisations: in the modern Irish state, the Gaelic tradition has been given such pride of place.

As we know from the tales, Robin stole from the rich and gave to the poor, engaging in acts that were both 'illegal' and ethical at the same time. Robin Hood also stands in a long tradition of heroes or anti-heroes existing outside or on the margins of the law. Wat Tyler, Dick Turpin, Oliver Cromwell, the Chartists, the Yorkshire miners of the 1980's, all broadly fall within that tradition. These were people who espoused causes that involved either a breaking or a bending of the law if it is seen to be unjust. They represented people power vs establishment power, at the heart of the Robin Hood tale. It is a theme that has travelled well given its universal relevance.

The balance of power in the Sherwood Forest conflict was heavily in one direction. Thus, Robin had to rely on craftiness, resourcefulness, the support of the people and the cover of the forest. The Normans held superior power backed by a strong military force and wealth. What particularly antagonised the Normans was Robin's defiance of the Norman power and a sneaking understanding on their part that Robin held the moral high ground. He had to be crushed.

The very essence of this struggle was between those competing objectives of order and stability and freedom and equality. The morality tale pits these two forces directly against one another in stylised form. We know in reality, however, that every viable society is some form of compromise between the two. The depictions are important. The Normans are seen as haughty and cruel and the Angl-Saxons as honourable and virtuous. One's enemies are demonised and one's own lionised, all in the interests of the plot.

The conflict can also be seen in a wider context of the development of English law and society around the declaration of Magna Carta. It was because the imposed laws were seen as unjust that Robin Hood engaged in what he saw as a righting of the balance. Had the rights under Magna Carta become common throughout the land, then there would have been no need for a Robin Hood. Those rights under Magna Carta took some time to become seen as the preserve of all Englishmen - the Magna Carta was essentially a document regulating interactions between the King and his barons - a fairly narrow social spectrum.

I used to think that the world could essentially be divided into two types of people: those who supported Robin Hood and those who supported the Sheriff of Nottingham. Life isn't quite a simple as that as I began to see as a youngster that the ' savage Red Indians' in cowboy movies were not savages and the clean cut US cavalry not necessarily paragons of honour.

Still, we like our morality tales clear cut and simple without any complicating ambiguities. The Robin Hood tale is a particularly effective one and if he hadn't already existed, we would have had to invent him.

Paul McElhinney
June 2011

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