From medieval ballads to the poetry of John Keats, stage productions to children’s songs, novels to comic books, silent movies to glorious technicolour, Disney classics to Kevin Costner blockbusters to Mel Brooks parodies to gritty re-imaginings and lots, lots more, Robin Hood is certainly one of the most recognisable characters in all of western popular culture.
Joining me to explore the legendary outlaw is Prof Valerie Johnson, from the University of Montevallo, Alabama.
Prof Valerie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of English in the Department of English and World Languages in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Montevallo, Alabama. You can read more about her and her work on her faculty page or on her website
The Bulletin of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies can be found here, This is a peer-reviewed journal Prof Johnson co-edits with Dr. Alexander Kaufman (Ball State University).
For more on Robin Hood, Prof Johnson also recommends the The Robin Hood Project, which is a wonderful accessible resource for Robin Hood material that is out of copyright. It can be found here. She also strongly recommends the very accessible work of Allen Wright, who maintains https://boldoutlaw.com/
Works Referenced and Mentioned
John Keats: “Robin Hood”
Anon: Robin Hood and the Monk
Walter Scott: Ivanhoe
Howard Pyle: The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood
Robin Hood (Douglas Fairbanks as Robin, 1922)
The Adventures of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn as Robin, 1938)
Robin Hood (Disney film, 1973)
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner as Robin, 1991)
Robin Hood (Russell Crowe as Robin, 2010)
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Want to listen to more? For more forests, but of a spookier kind, you could try this ep on gothic forests.
I also mentioned Tarzan, so you should check out this episode on all things Edgar Rice Burroughs
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Transcripts: Robin Hood
I’m Conor Reid, with Words To That Effect
Stories of the fiction that shapes popular culture
Honour to the Lincoln green!
Honour to the archer keen!
Honour to tight little John,
And the horse he rode upon!
Honour to bold Robin Hood,
Sleeping in the underwood
[Various Robin Hood clips]
From medieval ballads to the poetry of John Keats, stage productions to children’s songs, novels to comic books, silent movies to glorious technicolour, to Disney classics to. Kevin Costner blockbusters to Mel Brooks parodies to gritty reimaginings and lots, lots more…Robin Hood is certainly one of the most recognisable characters in all of western popular culture.
As the Keats poem, and the various clips you just heard illustrate, Robin Hood has got a signature costume, he’s got his bow and arrow, an instantly recognisable band of merry men, a recurring arch nemesis, and a moral code: steal from the rich and give to the poor.
But how much of this actually dates back to the time of the first stories and what came much later? What is it that’s kept Robin Hood’s name alive and his exploits so popular? What does Robin Hood mean for us today?
And where can I find an expert from the International Association for Robin Hood Studies?
Okay, so I am Valerie Johnson. I am a professor of English literature at the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama, USA. At the University of Montevallo.
There we are.
So Prof Johnson is a medievalist and this is where you need to start if you are attempting to trace back the Robin Hood story, because it goes way back to at least the 13th century, and almost certainly much further. The problem with these sorts of things, of course, is that it’s almost impossible to trace an oral tradition. If people were telling the story of Robin Hood, but not actually writing it down, then the records are always going to be pretty much non-existent
So instead, what we have to do is we have to look for manuscript witnesses, and the literature, so the literary references come several centuries after the earliest historical references, so there are references to, you know, Robin Hood, or
,, people named Robin Hood, either surname, Robinhood, or Robhood, or hob hood, or sort of inserting the names of Robin Hood and Little John and Much the Miller, you know, into tax rolls, like as a joke, you know, or using the names a sort of non de guerre, or as a sort of a pseudonym, like a protection for your own name
So this is about as far back as we can go with any certainty – we have records and mentions of the name and the story from the 13th century. Then, as we move through the next century or two there are fragments and scraps of stories, Robin Hood and the Monk being one of the earliest:
You know, it is really interesting that Robin Hood and The Monk is this earliest piece that has been recorded because the owner of the manuscript was himself a cleric, and Robin Hood and the Monk is rather anti-clerical, like, spoiler alert, the monk doesn’t make it,. So, you know, a lot of that material, it’s mid 15th century, which by some, some standards is not even properly medieval, we call that late medieval, slash early modern.
and then there was this real explosion of performance, thanks to the Tudor era. And so, you know, the material just starts to be copied, and we have more copies, we have more surviving witnesses. So the printing press also makes it much easier to distribute these materials, broadsheet ballots that are just sort of like mass produced and and are easily accessible by more and more people; functional literacy increases, you have a lot of social movement and whatnot. And so people would be looking for material to read, you know, or to play or to sing. And so the stories seem to have been coming out of that sort of context.
So at this point in the early modern period the Robin Hood story is well established. But what sort of story are we talking about exactly?
How many of the Robin Hood tropes – the characters, settings, plots – can we tick off the list here? What do you know about Robin Hood?
Well first off, he’s the main character, these are stories of his exploits, and his band or merry men are secondary characters:
those early ballads really should be called “The Ballad of Robin Hood Little John and insert other character here”, right, in it because Robin Hood and Little John are a unit there they’re constantly together and playing off each other they’re very much comrades and you know John is not supporting cast, he’s co-star.
OK, so not quite. Certainly though, with or without Little John, Robin is a heroic figure, fighting injustice with his weapon of choice, the bow and arrow:
Robin Hood is not always recognizably heroic. In fact, many scholars have the early tradition. Don’t call him the hero. They call him the protagonist for a reason. You know, he is not a good person. And in some stories, he’s much more of a sort of full-throated medieval brigand than anything else. it’s not as as sanitized as the modern tradition would have it. I think there is some recognizable material there. Like the the emphasis on archery, for example, not as not as common there are of those four early ballads. I think that archery appears in two, but it’s more of a sport. It’s not, you know, the primary weapon, you know, mostly when they fight they’re fighting with swords
Ok, so it turns out quite a lot of what I, and I imagine many people, associate with Robin Hood, was not really there at all in the early stories. Certainly he’s an outlaw, and he lives in a forest, but he’s not using a bow and arrow, he’s not always a particularly heroic figure, in fact often part of the comedy is his incompetence and how bad he is at what he does. Also, as we’ll see, many of the most recognisable characters – like Friar Tuck and Maid Marian – don’t arrive until much later.
At this point he may not exactly be stealing from the rich to give to the poor, but the outlaw element of the story is crucial, and Robin fights injustice. He does this, however, from within a fairly conservative framework, which may have been part of the appeal of the stories
The medieval stories, I think, are speaking to a recognition of the necessity of pushing back against unjust authority. And the necessity of working within a system, right, the existing system. So the Robinhood stories are inherently conservative in that they don’t advocate revolution, they don’t advocate total destruction of an existing system. They see the problem, not with the governmental structures, but with corrupt individuals in particular offices. And so removing a particular individual from an office will solve the problem. And so that also makes it a much more easily consumable, classifiable story, a nice little ballad, and we’re done, right? But unfortunately, it also means that, you know, the stories seem like they have all this sort of revolutionary or reformist potential, and they ultimately fall completely flat.
So you can have the thrill of revolution and fighting against corruption and injustice, but safely within the confines of the established system. It’s not the monarchy or government or hierarchy in Britain that’s wrong, it’s simply the Sheriff of Nottingham who has corrupted it for his own ends.
So this political element is one aspect of Robin Hood’s early appeal. And of course this isn’t some sort of Marvel Cinematic Universe we’re talking about here – there are lots and lots of Robin Hood stories, written entirely independently, by writers with wildly differing literary skills, opinions, or political persuasions. There is a common thread, though, of an outlaw questioning certain elements of the political system and working to undermine it for the common good.
And this leads on to another element which makes the stories so appealing:
Robin Hood is not a king, he’s not an exemplary figure, he’s much more average. You know, I think we are encouraged to see him as not real, but as a little more relatable.
You know, he’s, he’s defined by his failures, you know, and it means that he’s accessible to us in ways that say, Arthurian knights or princesses, or whatever, you know, your category of interesting person who lives sort of outside that normative element of society. He’s accessible in ways that all of these exceptional figures are not, right, because he’s allowed to mess up. In fact, he’s encouraged to mess up, part of the narrative push of almost every Robin Hood story is Robin Hood has messed up in some way, shape, or form. And he needs help, he needs to rescue someone, or he needs to be rescued. So he is a person in a way that many audiences find appealing
And when Robin needs help, it comes from his band of merry men.
Little John, Friar Tuck, Will Scarlett, Much the Miller’s Son and a small band of others. You heard earlier that Little John was there from the very beginning – he’s vital as someone for Robin to play off, and for the friendship and camaraderie that stories like this need. But what about some of the others?
Well, on the side of the law there’s the Sheriff of Nottingham, a character who appears in the stories from very early on.
The sheriff is always the Sheriff of Nottingham. Interestingly, even when the forest that Little John and Robin Hood inhabit is not Sherwood.
He’s representing some sort of concept or condition that the Robin Hood stories are pushing back against. So whether that’s a corrupt individual in a position of power, whether that is a representative of centralized government, whether that is someone who is not particularly corrupt or bad just there in in my way, whatever the sheriff is, is sort of serving in that sense. He’s serving it for Robin Hood and Little John to push against. And so you know, he’s almost never named. He’s very much a blank slate until I think the 1970s when various films and television shows and books and comic books start to provide him with a personal name, they start to actually focus on his perspective.
At this point, in the medieval and early modern version of the stories, there are other regular characters but they tend to be very minor, and are rarely developed in any detail:
you’ll see, like a reference to, you know, Will Scaselock, or, you know, Scarlet is the sort of later use of it, but not really often, there’s Much or Moch the Miller or the Miller’s son or Little Much, you know, kind of as almost as a page position, but they’re not really ever developed, they don’t really have dialogue, they’re just sort of there. So it’s really, Robin, John, the Sheriff, and then the antagonist of the week,
At a certain point, around the 16th century, Friar Tuck becomes a regular, even if historically this doesn’t quite work with the typical late 12th-century, Richard of Lionheart era, setting of the stories:
And, you know, we think of the Robin Hood tradition as being set in the 1190s. Little bit of crusade, a little bit of jousting, you know, we need to have a condition under which the king is not responsive to his people, because he’s out of the country. [ ]
Friars did not enter England until the 1220s. And the Mendicant Friars, I think we’re not even developed outside of England until about 1215. So there’s literally no way for a character or figure named Friar Tuck to be part of a Robin Hood tradition in like an actual historical group because friars didn’t exist in the 1190s in the late 12th century, right.[ ]
But I mean, he’s also really interesting, because he seems to have been, you know, a much, he’s later, but he’s part of a performance tradition, we think, probably out of the Morris Dance tradition, that there’s a sort of a friar who’s sort of jolly and round and kind of good natured and you’re drinking and all that. It sounds like Friar Tuck, but it comes out of the Morris tradition. And so I think I think that’s really where he comes in. There’s a increase of his, like an uptick in occurrences of the character. In the mid 16th century.
And that reference sent me down an online rabbit hole looking at the origins of Morris dancing, but that’s a whole other area. Let’s stick to Robin Hood.
So around the same time as Friar Tuck became a regular, Maid Marian entered the stories. This was mostly due to a change in Robin’s rank. Traditionally he had been a yeoman – a kind of a middle ranking in medieval hierarchies – a yeoman owned and cultivated their own land – they weren’t a serf or a peasant – but neither were they landed gentry or aristocracy. And at a certain point the Robin Hood character shifted and he moved up the hierarchy. Which is where Marian comes in.
Marian does not seem to be part of the tradition because it’s so hyper masculine. It’s so centered around men and men in the company of other men and doing work with other men, that there’s really no place for her. And so she doesn’t really enter the tradition until Robin is elevated out of the sort of like peasant-yeoman position and into upper Gentry or, you know, he becomes an exiled Noble or a displaced, you know, a royal fallen on poor times, sort of thing, like very romanticized. But as his rank, his social rank increases, there is a need for him to have a lady, because that’s part of the requirement of that genre. And so once he has a lady, that’s where Marian comes in
So at this point, by the 16th, into the 17th, century you’ve got a Robin Hood and supporting cast that is recognisable today. The only other element I haven’t talked about is perhaps the most important part of all, the forest or greenwood setting. Because what would Robin Hood be without his beloved Sherwood Forest? And where, for that matter, would Sherwood Forest tourism be today without Robin Hood?
But before I delve into the forest, I want to take a quick break to remind you about two things. The first is that this show is part of the HeadStuff Podcast Network, a collective of creative Irish podcasts, and you can support WTTE and all the shows on the network, by becoming a member of HeadStuff+. You’ll get bonus episodes from every show on the network, discounts on things like merch and live shows, and lots more. Check it out at headstuffpodcasts.com I would really appreciate it.
If you’re interested in other shows on the network, you can check out I Know That Face, a show all about character actors – you know those actors where you definitely know their face, even if you don’t know their name, because they play all sorts of interesting supporting roles, rather than being the main star? Have a listen:
Outside the HeadStuff network, another podcast I’d recommend is I Know Dino. I did an episode on dinosaurs a while back but if that only whetted your appetite for more dino knowledge then check this out:
So back to Sherwood Forest, a crucial part of the Robin Hood story, a place of freedom, in quite a number of ways:
Yeah, so the forest is a space where, in the early tradition, men can be men, and they can be men together outside of the restrictions and requirements of society, which would include things like, you know, laws and social rank and whatnot, but also the presence of women. So there’s some negativity in that, you know, as a sort of escape like, finally free, right.
But also the forest is a space where it can be a space of transformation, it can be something that is offering an alternative to city life, or that what the city represents, it kind of becomes almost symbolic in this way.
There is also the importance of forest law, and in medieval times a “forest” was a legal term, an area of land set aside for the king’s use. It didn’t necessarily have to have any trees in it, and Robin Hood clashes directly with forest law:
Of course, like historical forest laws were pretty restrictive. But they were also laws that instead of going out through the Shire court, and the hundred court and the sort of civic life that is very distributed, and decentralized, forest laws, it went straight to the forest court, and technically the king is the head of all that. And so the forest spaces of England, medieval England, were much more closely linked to the king than they were to civic life. So there’s not only the town versus country, you know, urban versus nature dichotomy. There’s also a legal system dichotomy, potentially. And I think all of that together, turns the forest into a sort of symbolic liminal space where things can transform. Different activities can go can can happen, you can become a new person, you can model your more ideal society, you can improve society
There are certainly parallels here with other similar spaces. I talked before in episode 39, on Edgar Rice Burroughs, about Tarzan, and the jungles of Tarzan adventures work in a very similar way. So too does the fictionalised American frontier of the western genre – another space of transformation, another overwhelmingly male space, away from the supposed limitations of women and society and laws. These tropes get repeated again in space and on other planets in science fiction tales, and on and on. The forest is a space outside time and society, it’s wild and full of potential to transform. It’s also full of potential for adventure and romance and action. Which brings us to some of the more recent retellings of this centuries old tale.
The 19th century saw a surge of interest in Robin Hood, wth Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1819 a major part of this.
Ivanhoe, you know, is the one that everyone remembers, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, but also Thomas Love Peacock was working on a novel called Maid Marian. He actually was beaten to publication by Scott and he had to put in a little disclaimer saying, like, I swear, I was working on this, and I’m not ripping you off, you know, I was working on it before. And, you know, whether or not that’s true or not, we’ll see. But he felt he had to say that. At about the same time, the poet John Keats is having a sort of correspondence with his friend, John Reynolds, and they are exchanging Robinhood poems and speaking to each other through this poetry and sort of pushing back, and they’re all doing slightly different things with these poems and the novels.
It was also around this time that the story began to be adapted as a children’s tale. For the vast majority of people today, it is as a children’s story that they first encountered Robin Hood. I was obsessed with medieval stories as a kid and Robin Hood was very much a part of that. I read all the stories I could get my hands on and had lots of “Forestmen” lego, which was basically just Robin Hood lego.
One of the more influential children’s versions, later in the 19th century, was by the American author and illustrator, Howard Pyle
Howard Pyle creates the Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, which he designed. He designed the cover, he wrote the text, he illustrated it, he typeset everything. I mean, this is an art book from start to finish, but he was able to mass produce it. And so it’s so beautiful and so iconic, that that image, plus the images of what is already on the stage really are locked in.
So, yes, the image, the visual iconography is a crucial part of the Robin Hood story. And it was in the 19th century that this came together – the Lincoln green colour, the cockade cap, the bow and arrow, the tights. This imagery was used on stage, and in illustrations by the likes of Pyle, and it all fed into the medium that would bring Robin Hood to the widest possible audience.
Exactly 100 years ago, in 1922, was the Douglas Fairbanks silent movie, Robin Hood.
Fairbanks is very much performing acrobatics, and he you know, high energy sort of boyish energy, which hooks into of course, the connection between Robin Hood and children, as well as health and outdoorsiness. And then they’re also connecting it to the Crusades and King Richard. And it turns into this really striking visual that clearly was already popular and present, but it becomes much easier to distribute when its on film
that costume is not only visually striking, you know, so it’s recognizable, but it’s also very easy for a performer to move in. So it’s a costume that is comfortable. It’s not one that’s painful, or embarrassing. You know, you mentioned Tarzan, and I know that there are a great many performers who wouldn’t want to take on that role, because they don’t want to wax. Once you have that muscle structure, you know, they don’t want to parade around in a tiny little, itty bitty, you know, leopard skin bikini, you know
The 1922 Robin Hood was a blockbuster production and was both commercially successful and extremely influential on the many, many Robin Hood films to come. The most important of these is the 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn
Fun fact: Maid Marian was played in this film by Olivia de Havilland, who only died the year before last at the age of 104.
So everything that came after the 1938 film has referenced it in one way or another. And there have been a lot of adaptations. Type Robin Hood into IMDB and you get 200 results, from the 144 episodes of the 1950s tv series The Adventures of Robin Hood, to the 1993 classic, Robin Hood Men in Tights to the 1969 film: The Erotic Adventures of Robin Hood, his Lusty Men and Bawdy Wenches
You may have seen some, or none, or maybe all of these. What you have almost certainly seen though, is the Disney version:
And for many folks, that is their definitive Robin Hood, the Robin Hood of their childhood. So, you’re always going to have the Robin Hood of your childhood, you’re gonna have the Robin Hood that like everyone watches across generations. And then sort of generational favorite Disney has a lot more endurance. And so I think the 1973 Robin Hood is one that will show up again and again.
Personally, it was Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that I loved and saw so many times as a kid. It came out in 1991, starring Kevin Costner as Robin, and was a massive blockbuster. Apparently it wasn’t the only Robin Hood of 1991:
there was also a much less well – well, I mean, it wasn’t even released in theaters because they realized that they couldn’t compete against a Kevin Costner blockbuster. And it’s titled, of course, Robin Hood. It stars Patrick Bergen as Robin Hood and Uma Thurman as Maid Marian – it’s a fantastic movie. But it doesn’t, it’s not as slick. It doesn’t have the high production values as the 1991. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves does. And so I think Prince of Thieves becomes a sort of landmark in a way
And from there maybe you’ve seen any number of other adaptations right up to the 2010 Russell Crowe version, or the much-derided 2018 version.
21st century Robin Hood, whether in fiction, film, tv, or elsewhere, has of course retained lots of what made the tale so popular in the first place, but there have also been changes.
For one, there has been a focus on Marian, and having a more engaging female character in the story:
there are many people who would like to see a Marian who is, you know, active and engaged and is not a victim of circumstance. And I think the 2018 film is starting to move towards that. And, you know, again, though, every single one of these films like so, Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves in 1991, the 2010, Robin Hood with Kate Blanchette, and the 2018 film as well, they all have a Marian who starts out really interesting and intriguing. And then she’s completely undercut because of her relationship with Robin. she’s able to shoot, she’s able to fight. She looks pretty in a dress, she looks great in tights, you know, what? We don’t need Robin just make it about Marian. Noone listens to me of course!
More recent versions have also downplayed the forest adventures in favour of the Robin Hood backstory. I mentioned Marvel and shared universes earlier, and certainly Robin Hood is closely connected to superhero stories (and of course the superhero Green Arrow is another Robin Hood inspired character). And that somewhat obsessive interest with The Origin Story in superhero tales is certainly a part of more recent attempts to look at how Robin Hood became the outlaw he is, or versions which look more closely at other characters in the canon. It’s not hard to imagine a film simply called “Little John” or “Marian” coming out at some point. Right now, though, it seems as if the Robin Hood story doesn’t quite have the same instant blockbuster appeal as, say, a James Bond or a Batman.
Robin Hood used to be, as an intellectual property, a guaranteed blockbuster, you would make insane amounts of money with a Robin Hood movie, guaranteed, and it could be pretty poorly constructed, like the Disney film is one of their top earners. And they are pulling, what is it motion capture footage from Snow White, they’re pulling character builds from The Jungle Book, they sort of put it together very rapidly. It doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t really have much of a plot, you know, so it’s not the sort of complex film that Disney is known for. It’s not as good, but it’s Robin Hood. So people want it. But for some reason, like the 21st century, just, it hasn’t been working out. And I honestly think it’s because audiences are probably much more, they want the, they want things that are familiar. They do want that repetition. They want the pleasure of knowing what’s going to happen, but I think they’re also very much ready for something different, something that will push a boundary.
It seems fairly certain that at some point in the near future a huge blockbuster film, or a best-selling novel, or West End musical, or computer game, or all of the above, will reinvigorate the Robin Hood story once again. Robin Hood is an everyman who fights for justice and defends the underdog, who lives in a fantasy world filled with action and adventure and surrounded by a band of merry men. And after 800 years, his story is not going away any time soon.
That’s it for another episode of Words To That Effect, thanks so much for listening.
A huge thanks to Prof Valerie B Johnson for chatting to me for this episode. I’ve put links to her and her work on the website, including to the International Association for Robin Hood Studies – they are on Facebook, have a blog and a peer-reviewed journal and lots more. So the links for all that are on wttepodcast.com
You can find references, recommendations, back episodes and full transcripts on the website too
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