The Legend of Robin Hood

MAY 5, 2013

By Alexandra Juckno

Unlike other outlaws from the Middle Ages, Robin Hood has proved extraordinarily difficult to kill. The pages devoted to his adventures might equal a Sherwood Forest’s worth of trees, and he has appeared in all manner of guises, from a Saxon freedom fighter to a singing gangster and even a cartoon fox. The character possesses a protean quality that has allowed his legend to survive over five centuries of vigorous rebranding, finally producing the Robin Hood we know and love today—an outlaw, but a charming one, whose band of Merry Men rob from the rich to give to the poor, nobly defending the common man from injustices with a wit as quick as his arrow.

It might come as a surprise then that Robin Hood started life happily robbing the rich…and keeping the spoils for himself. The first written account to appear was in the late fifteenth century as a Middle English ballad-poem: A Little Gest of Robin Hood. The Gest packs Robin’s adventures with plenty of thieving, double-crossing, and murdering—committed by both stock bad guys like the Sheriff of Nottingham and the Merry Men. In these tales, Robin is a simple yeoman who always returns to the greenwood richer and triumphant, preferring the dark and mysterious wood to the society of the King and court.

Robin Hood received a makeover in the late sixteenth century, as a character who preferred forest life to a king’s beneficence made those in power uneasy. Thus, Robin changed from thuggish thief to dispossessed earl when Anthony Munday published The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon in 1598. In these plays, Munday backdated Robin Hood to the twelfth century: Sir Robert is outlawed by Prince John, ruling while the rightful king, Richard I, fights in the Crusades. Robert flees into the forest with his beloved Maid Marion and loyal followers, rechristens himself Robin Hood, and picks up a bow to fight for the king’s justice. Munday pillaged a 1521 history book for the most enduring detail—that Robin began robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

Despite the political subtext, theater audiences loved this new Robin Hood. The Admiral’s Men, who produced Munday’s plays, soon did a roaring trade in Robin Hood entertainments. William Shakespeare, who worked for a rival theater company, never wrote a Robin Hood play; but he did get in a subtle jab at the Admiral’s Men in As You Like It, his take on the outlawed aristocrat theme, when a character dismisses the banished Duke Senior, saying that he and his men “fleet the time carelessly,” living like “old Robin Hood of England.”

Although the Puritan government closed English theaters in 1642, broadside printers kept the legend of Robin alive. These single sheets of paper, sold for a penny, told a story of Robin Hood and printed an accompanying tune to which it was sung. The broadsides kept the innovation of the dispossessed earl, but borrowed older plots from the Gest to keep Robin’s adventures fresh.

Robin Hood again became a stage favorite when theaters re-opened in 1661, but most writers didn’t know what to do with the hero. On one hand, the Robin Hood from medieval tales, who would stick an enemy’s decapitated head on a pike, was too raw for Restoration audiences, who preferred light operas and pantomimes. On the other, there were only so many ways to retell the story of an aristocratic Robin Hood’s banishment before the story got stale. Thus, Restoration dramatists of the 1700s trod a middle ground, presenting a gentleman Robin whose chief problem was winning Marion’s love from rivals. This Robin, though living in the forest, rarely picked up a bow or displayed any of the derring-do he had possessed in previous incarnations.

Robin conquered the novel in the nineteenth century appearing as a Saxon freedom fighter in Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel, Ivanhoe. Following Scott, Thomas Love Peacock published Maid Marian in 1822. Peacock’s luminous Marian, entering the forest armed in pursuit of Robin, possessed the combination of chastity and sublimated eroticism beloved by Victorians, and the novella became a smash hit. It was immediately turned into an opera, sparking a craze so great that when Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Arthur Sullivan musicalized their version of Robin Hood in 1892, they called it The Foresters because the original title, Maid Marian, was already taken by three other operas.

Given a new robustness in novels, Robin Hood’s popularity exploded. He enjoyed increasing publicity in children’s literature. Writers of the Georgian age, obsessed with the intrinsic value of English culture, placed his exploits in countless textbooks. Publishers marketed Howard Pyle’s sumptuously illustrated The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood to young boys. Mark Twain’s boy hero Tom Sawyer gave Hood a ringing endorsement as a “proper robber” and “the greatest man that ever was.” The entertainment market boasted a Robin Hood for every occasion and every type of audience.

The birth of cinema in the early twentieth century ensured that Robin’s legend would never die. On screen, Robin’s world could be experienced as never before with the aid of lavish sets and editing techniques that allowed seamless action sequences. In 1922, Hollywood power player Douglas Fairbanks initially refused to play a “heavyfooted Englishman trampling about in the woods,” but he was convinced of the filmability of the story when producers converted the backlot of his studio into a huge Sherwood Forest.

The rate at which celluloid Robin Hoods have accumulated suggests an insatiable taste for outlaw stories. In bold Technicolor, Robin Hood’s adventures became even more grandiose and compelling. On television, The Adventures of Robin Hood made Richard Greene synonymous with the outlaw in the 1950s, but those born after 1970 are likely to remember Michael Praed from 1984’s Robin Hood. The numerous iterations illustrate the tale’s capacity for reinvention—when Praed tired of the role, the show-runners simply cast a new Robin. As recently as 2006, the BBC updated Robin Hood with a band of attractive young stars constantly engaged in slow-motion fight sequences.

Centuries of reinvention have allowed for a grab bag of Robin Hoods. Some versions emphasize Robin’s swashbuckling adventures, others his historical value as a freedom fighter, still others the element of breaking the law for the greater good. Disney animated Robin Hood for children in 1973, telling the tale of Robin’s fight against Prince John with the characters rendered as animals. Outlaw Robin becomes a sly fox, the Sheriff a wolf, and Richard I and John lions. Frank Sinatra and his Rat Pack turned the story into the gangsterland musical Robin and the 7 Hoods in 1964. Funnyman Mel Brooks sent up the inherent silliness of the canon, creating the sight-gagrich serial “When Things Were Rotten” for television in 1975, and, in 1993, the parody Robin Hood: Men In Tights, in which a chorus line of Merry Men dance a can-can, and Marian is oppressed just as much by her chastity belt as by the Sheriff.

Newer adaptations have foregrounded Marion. “The New Adventures of Robin Hood” in 1997 included a mini-skirted, whip-wielding Marion, and “Maid Marian and Her Merry Men” cast her as primary hero. When playwright David Farr began writing The Heart of Robin Hood, he kept his young daughters in mind when fashioning a tale about Robin Hood meeting his match in a capable, sword-wielding Marion and looked to the earliest tales for inspiration, feeling Robin’s journey from thug to good thief lent the character a more compelling arc. The recent emphasis on Marion proves that the legend of Robin Hood has gone far beyond the character attached to the name—after centuries of refashioning, the name Robin Hood has come to evoke the spirit of a hero dedicated to justice, freedom, and putting up a good fight.


Alexandra Juckno is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./Moscow Art Theater School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.

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