Thursday, April 29, 2010

Who is Robin Hood!

Who is Robin Hood? One of the books I’ve been researching for takes place in the late thirteenth century and has (theoretically because I can never say exactly where a book will go) quite a bit of Robin Hood in it, so this is a question I need to answer. I will not ask myself who WAS Robin Hood. Robin Hood WAS (if he even existed) some poor bloke who stole in order to survive. He might have been noble. He could have been driven to it by the injustice of feudalism. He may even have lived during the reign of Ceor de Lion. We’ll never know. Whoever that man was he has evolved into something so much bigger, so much vaguer and so much more true since his death. He has become a legend.

Legends evolve. They are retold so many times, collecting new details and shedding others that no one remembers where they came from or which of the details are fact.

I say fact, not truth. All legends are true in some way or another. Sometimes truer than fact. Legends are in many ways the personification of truths (oh yes, I’m very big into metaphysics. You’re just gonna have to get used to it). They tell us about their storytellers if nothing else. Studying the evolution of Robin Hood I have watched him go from bold but violent yeoman to disinherited nobleman to champion of the people to champion of the king. It all depends on who is telling the story.

Many things have become “Robin Hood” from mere repetition. One storyteller added in a detail and the others liked it and used it again. Listeners grew used to hearing it and it became part of the hero’s tradition. It has become a trend with recent authors get rid of these traditions in order to make the character seem more “real” or “fresh”. I do not like this trend.

The reason we are still telling stories about Robin Hood seven hundred years after his (possible) death is as difficult to pin-point as the man himself. Because he defied authority? Because he was noble at heart? Because he represents a kind of hope for the oppressed? Who knows? Perhaps simply because he can be so ambiguous. Nothing about him is set in stone and yet there are traditions that have become a part of his legend. We hear of a bugle horn sounded in Sherwood and know that he will be along soon. We see some greedy merchant from Nottingham set off down the road and know what his fate will be. True, it is predictable but it is part of the life of Robin Hood that he breathes on his own even without a story to place him in. Deliberately pulling away from these images seems to take some life out of the legend. When we retell his story we are not simply retelling one man’s story. We are retelling thousands of people’s stories as they told them from generation to generation.

So who is Robin Hood? I have no idea. He can’t be everything that legend calls him. A yeoman and a disinherited lord? A man who lived during the reign of King Edward (which ever one) and King Richard? He married the shepherdess Clorinda? He married the queen of the May games? He worked for the king of the fairies? He is loyal to the king? He leads a rebellion? I must choose which traditions work best for my story.

Does that mean I am doing the same thing as all those “modern authors” who so annoy me? Will the legend be shedding other people’s stories in order to make way for my own? Will he even be “Robin Hood” at all or just some new character with the same name? I guess the only question I can really ask is who Robin Hood is to me. I can hope some residue of the legend still clings to my version but I can’t tell everyone’s story.


  1. The same thing happened to Sherlock Holmes. He never says "Elementary, my dear Watson," in the books, nor is he necessarily shown to wear a deerstalker hat and smoke a pipe, yet these are signature Sherlock Holmes things.

    They came about because an actor, when doing a stage adaptation of the books, thought they were adding to his character. They were liked enough to continue into the film versions, and it's only recently (with the new Sherlock Holmes) that those things have stepped by the wayside. So it's difficult, because SH is a more recent example, one for which it wasn't just oral tradition and we have the source material, yet he is also a legend and has been associated with legendary characteristics despite being fictional. Is it a bastardization of Holmes to take him back to his earlier roots, despite the embellishments of the legend? I don't know. I kind of like the stripped down, true-to-canon version myself. Or maybe it's Robert Downey Jr.

    At any rate, it really is a conundrum because with Robin Hood we don't have the source material. All we have is the legend. And with a 700 year span before the printing press, it's hard to trace a legend's sources and embellishments with any degree of accuracy. Also, since Robin Hood is supposedly "real," in that we cannot find a novel by someone creating him for the first time, he is anyone's character to take and mold into their own vision.

    So I guess, in my very roundabout and lengthy way, my answer to who is Robin Hood is-- he's whoever you want him to be. Whichever parts of the legend work best for your story at the time that you need them to. And maybe you'll find something fresh to do with the character while staying true to his ambiguous roots.

    Great post!

  2. Interesting thoughts. I really liked when you said that you have to tell who Robin Hood is to you. That's what storytelling is all about. What rings true to you is what will shine through in your writing.

  3. I find the Robin Hood story fascinating though I've never researched it. And I agree with your conclusion--he/she is whomever you want them to be.

  4. you can absolutely make robin hood your own. that's the amazing thing about being a writer -- you have the power to create new worlds and new friends and new people. don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

    great post!

  5. Robin Hood is one of those enigmatic historical characters you can get creative with. If you take creative license with Theodore Roosevelt or Henry VIII you'll have people down your throat. Not so with Robin Hood. That's a good thing!