The early days of Robin Hood

Published May 30, 2009

My only knowledge of Robin Hood comes from three places: that film with Kevin Costner, the film by Mel Brooks, and the current BBC TV series. I know that all three are a pile of tosh, there for pure entertainment value rather than anything historical or mythical.

Therefore, I’ve started looking into the legend of Robin Hood and would like to share some of my findings with you.

Naturally, no one knows whether Robin Hood was a real person or not, but he has certainly been given plenty of attention in words and pictures throughout the years. The way Robin Hood is depicted these days falls within a very narrow window of personality. He robs from the rich to give to the poor, he may or may not kill people but only for the greater good, and he is fiercely loyal to his King and Country. Some of the earliest works revolving around the character known as Hood are vastly different. In fact, even within each poem, his personality traits can get very mixed up.

In a very general sense, the early ballads cast Robin Hood as a man of mischief, either violence or cunning, and he wrongs his friends only to make it up to them by the end of the tale. It also seems that Hood, although deeply religious, rejected the Church and it’s authority - it certainly looks like the chap didn’t like being told what to do.

There are three particular works which offer contrasting opinions of the hodded figure - Robin Hood and the Monk, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, and Robin Hood and the Potter. In the Monk’s ballad, Robin actually ends up giving Little John the leadership of his gang, as it was the big man’s heroics that see Hood freed from prison. In Gisborne, Robin actually beheads Sir Guy, only to steal his identity to save his colleagues. In Potter, our hero is pretty much classed as a conman, avoiding the violence of the other stories.

The way the Robin Hood story has evolved to it’s more family friendly version today reminds me of what happened with Santa. Starting out as a real person, a figure of religion, who gave gifts in the dead of night, Father Christmas has become a big, bubbly character with flying reindeer and a penchant for mince pies. Similarly, Robin Hood was a terror of the forest, who may have ultimately had good intentions but would stop at nothing to see them through. Nowadays, he is a figure clad in green, waving a bow around, welcoming waifs and strays into his gang, and handing out bread at every opportunity.

What happened in between?

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