In the United States, when we hear the word "outlaw" we think of cowboys wearing sheepskin chaps, leather vests, spurs, and sixguns. We don't think of sneaky bad guys who shoot their enemies in the back for a couple of dollars. Probably the most famous American outlaw is the "great" Jesse James, friend of the poor, enemy of the oppressor, the Robin Hood of the West.
The pinnacle of legendary status is to have other legends named after you. Jesse James is famous; but he's not as famous as his 12th-century English counterpart, the wild forester clad in green and shooting, stickfighting, and fencing for the heart of Maid Marian and the good of Olde England. Kids still dress up like Robin Hood and make bows and arrows out of sticks and twine, and while a few still dress like bandits, how many dress like Jesse James?
What does it take for a legend to become a Robin Hood? By now, the litany is well-known: a Robin Hood steals from the rich to give to the poor, woos a fair maiden, is funny and insolent, runs around with Merry Men, and is the best bowman and swordsman around. These attributes can be transposed to any culture in which a Robin Hood appears—if he's Japanese he might be a rogue samurai, if he's Latin American he might be avaquero, etc.
But why talk about a Robin Hood? What about the Robin Hood? What about the actual outlaw who roamed Sherwood Forest and fought the Sheriff of Nottingham and was loyal to Richard the Lionhearted? What about the guy who defeated Sir Guy of Gisborne, was friends with Little John, carried Friar Tuck across a stream, rubbed salt in Will Stutely's wounds, and shot his last arrow out of a window? What about the Robin Hood we love?
It's not that easy. The Robin Hood we love is whatever Robin Hood we've pieced together in our own imaginations, a composite of movies we've seen, books we've read, and scenes we've acted out. Part of the problem is that there was likely no "historical Robin Hood"; if the character was real, he was several outlaws who didn't live in Sherwood and weren't the good guys.
The fact that a bandit became the good guy is weird to begin with, at least until you understand what was going on in England in the late 1100s. John Lackland, brother of the king, eyed the throne while his brother King Richard killed Saracens in the Holy Land. Robin of Locksley opposed John and protected the poor from oppression at the hands of wealthy nobles.
The legends say so, anyway. The actual situation in 12th-century England was more nuanced, but for the sake of the Robin Hood myth the stage was set this way. It's accurate enough, especially if you're interested in a man whose sense of justice was stronger than his desire for personal wealth. Some reinterpretations of Robin Hood cast him as a true villain, but that only works if oppression and murder are considered morally acceptable.
All the good versions of Robin Hood show him as a selfless hero who works for the good of England and his people, not to make a profit or spread anarchy. These versions differ on particulars but essentially show the same Robin Hood, a man that appeals to every generation. He's the warrior every boy wants to be, the hero every girl loves, the altruist everyone wants to imitate.
Reading multiple versions of the Robin Hood legend helps us understand how people through the years have thought of goodness and honor. Different authors emphasize different elements, showing aspects of heroism that other writers miss or disregard. Other outlaws may be compared to Robin Hood, but he can't be compared to them: he isn't a mere bandit, he's a martyr for justice, outlawed because of his stand for truth and goodness.
Howard Pyle's Robin Hood is noble and mischievous; Henry Gilbert's Robin Hood is a man of action; Roger Green's Robin Hood is the most popular, the one who can out-shoot, out-wit, and out-woo any man in England or elsewhere. All these Robin Hoods are virtuous, good role models for our sons, the kind of hero to enliven even the most reluctant imagination.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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