28 February 2010

Will The Real Robin Hood Please Stand Up?

C.J. Stone

This story begins with Robin Hood, not least because he reminds us that it is not at all unEnglish to break the law. But there is more to it than that. Given that Establishment images of national cultural identity are foisted upon us from every angle, it is singularly refreshing to discover an historical or mythological figure who is so decisively anti-establishment.But who is -or was- Robin Hood? The first thing to say is that it doesn't matter in the slightest whether he actually existed or not. Many books have been written attempting to prove that he definitely did exist, and seeking to fix a date and a domain for his activities. Other books will tell you that he is merely a literary figure, while yet more are adamant that he represents a kind of wood-elf, a minor deity, the half-remembered descendant of ancient Woden. All of which, at different times, may seem plausible; and all of which remain matters of dispute. But what is certainly indisputable is that from somewhere -at the very latest- in the early fourteenth century, right until the present time, he has represented something to the British people, that he has continued to act upon our imagination, and that, therefore, he has contributed historically to our own view of ourselves. It is this that matters.I say "British people" and not just the English, because, though Robin Hood may be said to be the archetypal Englishman, it is also true that Robin Hood cults flourished in all parts of these islands throughout the middle ages, and that certain very early references came from north of the border. One particularly appreciative Scottish view was stated by a certain John Major, writing in Latin in 1521: "He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from abbots. The robberies of this man I condemn, but of all robbers he was the most humane, and the chief." Would our own John Major speak so kindly of a man who -in effect- made it his life's work to redistribute wealth?The first thing we have to do is to clear away the large amount of historical baggage that has accumulated around the figure of Robin Hood. People of my generation are almost certain to begin by singing the theme tune from a 1960s TV programme:"Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen,Robin Hood, Robin Hood, with his band of men,Feared by the bad, Loved by the good,Robin Hood, Robin Hood, Robin Hood."So let's get it sorted out: Robin Hood is decidedly not that '60s figure, complete with quiff and feathered cap. Nor is he Kevin Costner, nor Errol Flynn, nor anyone else who ever played the part in film or TV drama. He didn't wear a cap, and he didn't wear tights. He rarely rode a horse (and certainly never through a Glen). He wasn't well-washed, scrubbed, polished or clean. He didn't sport a pencil moustache, nor speak with an American accent. He was not a hero.He was dirty. He lived in the woods, sat by an open fire, climbed trees, slept in a bower. What's a bower? It's a structure of bent branches covered over in leaves. A bower is a bender, in other words. The closest modern equivalent of a Robin Hood figure would be a New Age Traveller, complete with skinny dog, cast-off patchwork clothing, feathers and bells and tattoos, maybe even nose rings, who knows? His face would have been streaked with dirt, and he would have smelt of woodsmoke and leafmould. His hair would have been unkempt and matted, probably a nest of dreadlocks, sprouting leaves and twigs, perhaps decorated with beads and feathers and flowers.Another historical misinterpretation of Robin Hood -though this time of more ancient origin- is that he was a disinherited aristocrat. He was not. He was of decidedly plebeian origin. As the Lytell Geste Of Robyn Hode, the earliest extant Robin Hood ballad, tells us:Lythe and lysten, gentylemen,That be of freebore blode,I shall you tell of a good yeman,His name was Robyn Hode.He was a yeoman, then, the equivalent of an artisan. A freeborn, landless Englishman, the type of the self-confident working class that we can still recognise today. The fact that he was of yeoman stock is repeated again and again throughout the ballads. His weapons are the longbow and the stave or staff, weapons that can be constructed by any clever artisan out of found objects. He is a kind of King of Staves. Ordinary. Down-to-earth. Robust. And his audience, too, were almost certainly composed primarily of the lower classes. The very language of the ballads makes this clear. They are bawdy burlesques, crude and humorous, scornful of the church and the aristocracy, the merchants, the landlords and the rest of the greedy rich. They represent a kind of literary revenge on all that is selfish, self-serving and self-righteous. Robin Hood represents honour and honesty in a corrupt world. He is a good man.He is also funny. "Jolly Robin" as he is rýÿÿÿ‚

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