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Literary development of the legend of Robin Hood

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The development of the legend of Robin Hood

Literary heritage is literature that has passed down from generation to generation, often over many centuries. Britain has a past rich in literature, from well known legends to famous playwrights to celebrated authors, all of which are read and studied the world over. Legends are ‘unverified popular stories handed down from earlier times’[1] which contain an element of mystery and usually appeal to people of all ages. However, the original stories have inevitably changed over the years to reflect cultural and social changes, each generation can make a legend their own. The legend of Robin Hood is no exception to this. His story spans centuries and has lasted for so long because it is adaptable to the changing needs of society. The legend has been told through song, book and more recently, film and television. Although historians and fanatics have tried to discover who the real Robin Hood actually was, no hard evidence has been found which perhaps adds to the appeal of this character and enables the imagination and contemporary societies to create different stories for Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men.

        It is not known exactly when the Robin Hood tales first began but the character is first mentioned in 1377 in the Vision of Piers Plowman where the writer says “I do not know my paternoster perfectly, but I know rhymes of Robin Hood”. For the name to be mentioned without any further explanations means Robin Hood must have been already well known before this date. Although none of the early rhyme’s have survived, we do know they were told by minstrels which travelled around the country, performing for people in the middle ages. The ballads they recited were a popular form of entertainment with the largely illiterate population. The medieval audience is important in explaining why the story developed and became so popular. The Normans invaded England in 1066 and subsequently created a society based on serfs, yeomen and nobles. Life for the serf was hard. He was bound to the land and bordered on being a slave; the society that controlled them was understandably unpopular. The serfs and yeomen no doubt would have gladly stole from or killed any Norman if given the chance and so it is ‘not surprising that men like Robin Hood, who were successful in this form of protest, became famed and revered by the common people of the day’.[2]

        Ask people today what they know as the Robin Hood legend and most will tell you that Robin,

  • Was a devout Christian who went to fight in the Crusades with Richard the Lionheart. He stole from the rich to give to the poor
  • Had a right-hand man called Little John. Will Scarlet and Friar Tuck were also in his band of merry men
  • Loved maid Marian and had was enemies with the Sheriff of Nottingham
  • Was the disinherited Earl of Huntington with the surname Locksley
  • Wore Lincoln green and lived in Sherwood Forest.

What they may not realise is that the legend has not always contained these elements, and has in fact evolved over the 700 or so years that it has been told. Even in the early stages, there were likely to have been changes to the legend. For example, the travelling minstrels may have altered the story depending on where they were telling it. The audience would have been far more entertained if they thought the outlaw had lived or come from their area. Also, when the ballads were written down, the transcribers may have altered stories to their own tastes.

To address the first bullet point above, it is possible that Robin Hood may not have been a Christian in the earliest rhymes and could of instead been associated with pre-Christian mythology. This would have appealed to the medieval audience who were ‘closer in time and temperament to the old religions and would [have been] superstitious’.[3] However, as society turned to Christianity, Robin too became a devout Christian. The audiences’ dissatisfaction with high taxes and corrupt church officials was reflected in Robin Hood’s actions. The fact he was disobeying one of God’s commandments by stealing did not alarm the audience because he was doing it to help poor people like themselves. Therefore, in a modern society that is becoming increasingly secular, Robin should in theory be less religious. The audience does not need to see him as a devout Christian in order to associate him with being a ‘good’ person. In film and television, the modern medium, a change is in some ways occurring. The 1976 film, Robin and Marian, saw Robin returning from the Crusades but sounding very disillusioned with God. The medieval audience would probably not have liked the idea that God’s motives could be questioned whereas today’s audience is used to the questioning of religion. The television series, Robin of Sherwood, has mysticism and sorcery incorporated into the story, an angle which never appeared in any of the ballads and has probably not been adopted since the beginning of the legend. This demonstrates how reality is less important than entertainment value; we do not feel the need to be able to identify with Robin Hood, we just want to be entertained by him.

        Over time, characters have been added to the legend. ‘The adventures and exploits of many bandits, outlaws and others were joined together with contemporary beliefs and attitudes’,[4] thus increasing Robin’s band of merry men. Little John and Will Scarlet appear in the earliest ballads as trusty henchmen and the sheriff is also present early on, although he is not referred to as the Sheriff of Nottingham until 1449. Friar Tuck was a later addition and did not become a regular character until after the 1470’s. The Friar appears in all film adaptations of the legend which shows how ‘in the realms of fiction, [there is] scant regard paid to accurate historical background’[5] as Hollywood films are generally set in the years1189-1199 and friars did not arrive in England until 1212.

Another later addition was Maid Marian who was introduced partly because of the change in the style the legend was being told. By the late 1400’s, minstrels were in decline but the Robin Hood legend was kept alive in mummer plays which were performed on May Day and at Christmas. Around this time, Maid Marian enters the story as Robin’s love interest. By 1500, popular entertainment had moved on from plays and Robin and Marian ‘became popular figures in May and Summer games and often took the role of “King and Queen” of the revels accompanied by the rest of the gang of merry men’.[6] Marian became a bigger part of the legend after the late 16th century due to a number of cultural changes. The powerful and rich abbeys had dissolved and the monks dispersed. Sheriffs were not so powerful and archery was no longer a national exercise. Overall, the audience did not feel as oppressed as previous generations and so required an aspect to the story other than Robin’s fight against the nobility. True love added to the appeal of the legend, so much so that the romance between Robin and Marian has become an integral part of the legend.

In addition, the change in women’s social status over the last century has forced Maid Marian’s character to move with the times. Women in the 12th century were treated as property and were controlled by their fathers until being married whereby control of her actions and property would pass to her husband. If Marian were portrayed as a 12th century woman in film and television, the female audience would find her totally unbearable and unrealistic. As a result, strong female Marians have appeared more recently. The children’s television series, Maid Marian and her Merry Men, saw Maid Marian as the swashbuckling hero with Robin as a vain and rather camp wimp. This role reversal of Robin and Marians’ character is also seen in a television advert for Weetabix. Robin is supposed to be rescuing Marian from the sheriff of Nottingham, but on seeing the enemy, gets scared and rides back to the forest. The age of chivalry is truly over when the advertisements jingle ends ‘Should he retreat back to Sherwood, of cause he should [x 3]’. It is worth mentioning the animated film Shrek (2001) due its strong female character. Whilst in the forest, she meets Robin Hood who offers to rescue her but she refuses. She then goes on to use her martial arts skills on him. Although she is not technically Marian, Robin is very recognisable as Robin Hood even though he is sporting a French accent. Robin is overtly wearing Lincoln green and is a comical character, again acting camp by breaking into a rendition of YMCA with his merry men. However, there is usually a compromise to Marians independent nature when the storyline is serious rather than comical. The 1991 film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, is a prime example of how Marian begins as a strong female character but in the end, needs rescuing from harm by Robin.

 A further development in the legend is the change in the social background of Robin Hood. The most famous early ballad, A geste of Robyn Hode, first published in 1510, reads

I shall tell you of a good yeman

His name was Robyn Hode

Geste, fytte 1, v.1

Although Robin at this point was not as low in society as a serf, he was not a nobleman. However, the Elizabethan playwright, Anthony Munday wrote two plays titled The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntington and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntington in which Robert is outlawed and assumes the name of Robin Hood. The prospect of a nobleman giving up his riches to fight for the poor romanticises the legend, which is why Robin is usually the Earl of Huntington in film adaptations. For example, Disney’s animated Robin Hood (1975) has a very well spoken voiceover for Robin and in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, we actually meet Robins father and see his estate.

        Much debate has taken place over the place of origin of Robin Hood. Was he from Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire? The presence of the Sheriff of Nottingham would suggest he spent his life in Sherwood Forest but in fact, ballads and manuscripts place him in both Sherwood and Barnsdale Forest,

“My dwelling in this wood.” Sayes Robin,

“By thee I set right naught:

I am Robin Hood of Barnesdale

Whom thou so long hast saught.”

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, v.36[7]

Robyn hod in scherewod stod, hodud and hathud and hosut and schod

Four and thuynti arowus he bar in hits hondus[8]

If the legend spans both Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, why is it that today’s audience automatically associate Robin with only Sherwood Forest? Film and television could be to blame, after all, there was Robin of Sherwood and all the films I have come across are always set in Sherwood Forest. However, there is a bigger influence promoting Sherwood as Robin Hood’s home and that is the heritage industry. The economy of a city/area is greatly boosted through tourism as Nottinghamshire County Council have undoubtedly found. They have promoted Nottingham and Sherwood Forest as ‘Robin Hood Country’ and everything down to the County Council logo is associated with some aspect of the legend.[9] As a result ‘people from all over the world visit Sherwood Forest in pilgrimage to him’, whilst all but the fanatics do not recognise the presence of Yorkshire in the Robin Hood legend.

        The Robin Hood legend has survived for so long because the story is so adaptable. Even in a society that does not need rescuing by a heroic and chivalric figure still finds the legend appealing and entertaining. Hollywood productions have at least kept the Robin Hood character alive by making it appealing to even the Playstation generation by using special effects and animation. Although the heritage industry has centred the legend around one particular area, it is none the less helping to preserve our literary heritage. It is a legend that will probably still be told in another 700 years time providing that future generations find ways of adapting the story to their own cultural and social requirements.


[1] Reader’s Digest, 1994, Universal Dictionary, Reader’s Digest p879

[2] Green, B., 1991, The Outlaw Robin Hood, Kirklees Cultural Services p8

[3] Green, B., 1991 p11

[4] Hool, D., 1983, The Tales of Robin Hood, Nottingham County Council p8

[5] Green, B., 1991 p7

[6] Hool, D., 1983 p29

[7] Green, B., 1991 p7

[8] Quoted in Holt., J.C., 1982, Robin Hood, Thames and Hudson p142

[9] See appendix for examples of this.

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