These articles serve as short summaries of the Radio Show In Our Time (IOT) with Melvyn Bragg. This week, we begin with the IOT: Top ten essentials list.
An ancient rhyme goes
“Lithe and Lysten, gentylmen,
that be of frebore blodel shall tell of a good yeman
His name was Robyn Hode
Robyn was a proude outlawe
Whyles he walked on grounde
So curteyse and outlawe as he was one was never none yfound.”
These lines are from William Langlan’s epic poem Piers Plowman, dated back to the 1370’s. They contain the first ever reference to Robin Hood, a ‘yemen’ (pronounced ‘e-yomen’) or a freeman according to the poem, and a ‘proude outlawe’ who has captured English imaginations for centuries. Robin Hood was allegedly a master swordsman, bandit, vigilante, and a hero. Oh, and also a master archer, wearing his conical Lincoln green. We now know him as the heroic outlaw who stole from the rich to give to the poor. But studying the old ballads present us with a different picture of the proud thief. In fact, none of the earliest ballads mention Robin Hood ‘robbing from the rich to give to the poor’. So how did the myth develop?
The many ballads of Robin Hood (RH) were one in a sea of folk tales on the lips of the English peasants, transferred orally through ale houses, taverns, and village festivals during the middle ages. RH’s ballads however, were unnaturally popular among the local people, so much so that in another classic ballad, a priest complains he does not know his prayers but has every song about Robin Hood memorized! The popularity of these ballads no doubt, troubled the established authority of the church. Unsurprisingly, the early Robin Hood was a fierce opponent to authority of every kind – particularly the church. The early stories were also a tad gruesome, and certainly not ‘kids’ material. For example, one particular early ballad has RH arrested by a monk and his men. Only a short while later, RH and his friend Friar Tuck kill the monk and his boy assistant, buries them on the side of the road, and then goes on their way. There seems to be no indication of regret or horror in the text, but rather codonment, as if RH killing a holy man was justified in this case and we shouldn’t bat our eyelashes at all. Another story has RH engaged in a fierce battle in which he decapitates his opponent, and then carries around the head in his hood. The early RH it would seem, was a strong figure of masculinity, a fighter of local corruption (he didn’t care much about the King, but would deal with local corrupt officials in a gruesome manner), and a no-do-gooder. He is portrayed as a rabble rouser and an entertainer, and would hold great comedic events in the countryside or in the forests of Sherwood where entire villages would gather together to have a good time (these events were supposedly held on Sunday). He is the first green man, or a man of the forest, drawn by the boundaries of civil society, and the limits of freedom. In a sense, his ballads were a reflection of the wishes of the populace.
But as times changed, so did Robin Hood. The modern RH begins in the 17th century, with Anthony Munday’s ‘The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon’, an Elizabethan play that reinterprets almost every quality of the then popular Robin Hood and turns him into an aristocrat. And rightly so, since this play was aimed at the posh, Victorian upper class. Even the rich needed their myths. In The Downfall, RH, is not so anarchic. He is an upholder of ‘good’ authority by being on the King’s side. He is less masculine, and more of the do gooder. Ironically however, Munday’s RH meets a bitter end in the forest. The forest is a foreign place for RH and he is not a man of the world and of the trees like the earlier conceptions. This is an example of Victorian royalty adopting popular myths for their own usage. In this conception, Robin Hood becomes the gentleman, whereas the previous RH was just a bandit killer.
RH is not a unique English myth. It is one among thousands of ballads about heroic bandits and outlaws. So why has it persisted? The credit for this goes to the great Romantic writers of Scotland, most notably Sir Walter Scott. Scott repackages Robin Hood as a cool, collected man of skill and honor in his celebrated Ivanhoe. It is in Ivanhoe we get the first mention of Robin Hood splitting an enemies arrow right down the middle like a badass. Scott’s writing catered to the English lust for a Romantic history, and additionally to a wider audience worldwide. He is the first to create the Robin Hood we know of today: utterly masculine, romantic, heroic, pensive, and vigilant. He is both the killer and the gentleman.
But what of historical accuracy? Is there one Robin Hood in history? This question would seem irrelevant to the early ballad singers, because to them, RH existed in their voices, and in the effects their songs had on other people. The concept of ‘historicity’ is a modern invention and for the people of the past, the myth was both perfectly true and perfectly false. It would evolve into whatsoever was required in its time. This is how stories and legends retain their relevance, by speaking to the wishes of their readers and listeners. This is certainly what the legend of Robin Hood has done and continues to do (see Hollywood).