Wednesday 27 October 2010

Robin Hood - what is the appeal?


Robin Hood is the premier English legendary hero. Which is somewhat frustrating, because there never has been a satisfactory depiction of the legend.

While the Scottish-English border had ballads which were in the first rank as poetry, the English mainland ballads of the Middle Ages were almost all about Robin Hood and his adventures - and were pitched, pretty much, at the level of Medieval pop songs or soap operas.

Yet Robin Hood does have a powerful and enduring appeal - what is the essence?


The setting is important - a pastoral idyll, a gang of friends living in the woods: marvellous.

Then there is the idea that each Merry Man has a different and complementary character and role.

Men's groups differentiate in this way spontaneously: there is always a wise and brave leader, a big strong slow one, a clown, a brainy one, a fat jolly one, a scary psychopath-berserker, a singer-poet; and since there may not be any very good examples of these types in a particular group, the men just do their best (e.g. the clown may not actually be funny - but there will nonetheless always be a clown; the brainy one may not really be very smart - but he only needs to be a bit smarter than the others).


For me, Robin Hood was blended with Red Indians - specifically the Hiawatha type who lived in the North East Woodlands of the US, around the Great Lakes, or in New England.

So I liked the elements of woodcraft, hunting, making stuff from bark, thongs and sinews, being able to stalk silently - without cracking a twig.


At the heart of the story is the heroic idea of being in just rebellion against unjust rule - Robin Hood is not really an 'outlaw', since it is the rulers (King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham) who flout the law.

The Merry Men are merely trying to restore the rightful King.

And then there is the idea (which I think Walter Scott propagated) that Robin Hood (maybe himself an aristocrat gone native) is leading Anglo Saxon rebels against the Norman oppressor.


So there is enough and more ingredients here for a genuine folk hero; but even at its root there is an element of playful holiday make-believe about Robin Hood, which deprives the Robin Hood tales of the dignity and depth of the Arthurian legends.



a Finn said...

As a Finn, I feel that these national things are to certain extent sacred and have deeper meanings known only to the British, connected to their culture, ways of life and seeing things, social context, history etc. This restricts my commenting. Although I am not an expert on British culture, this is not a question of quantity of knowledge and study connected to it. It is more a question of sensing certain things and connecting certain inside and outside things.

Many British may have sank to the entertainment and international PC streams, and thus doesn't know much about their culture, but let's reserve potential for the better for them. In any case, my respect is directed to those people who feel and know sufficiently their culture.

Bruce Charlton said...

True, but there may be cross-fertilization - I expect you know how Tolkien's English legendarium was originally based on the example of the Kalevala?

a Finn said...

Re: bgc

I have heard about it. I generally see cross-fertilization of ideas to be more important to those things that change. Certain core things about Britishness don't need to and should not change, although they influence new, creative and perhaps changing things.