Female Bandits? What next!

Wendy Doniger

  • Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography by Stephen Knight
    Cornell, 247 pp, £14.50, May 2003, ISBN 0 8014 3885 3

In the 1964 film Robin and the Seven Hoods, when someone compares ‘Robbo’ (Frank Sinatra) to Robin Hood, one of the gangsters asks: ‘Who’s Robin Hood?’ And another replies: ‘Well, he was a hood, some Englishman who lived long ago and had an operation going for him in the forest. And I guess the "robin” means he stole birds.’ Robin is more likely to be a nickname for Robert, though the resonance with ‘robber’ may also count for something, and Hood may suggest his frequent disguises, for Robin is a great trickster whose masquerades inevitably bamboozle his foolish oppressors: he specialises in pretending to help people capture Robin Hood.

He is the only figure in the DNB who is said never to have existed. Stephen Knight grants that ‘it seems highly improbable, or at least unprovable, that a Mr R. Hood ever existed,’ though, for some people, Robin Hood, King Arthur ‘and even God himself all existed because of their manifold presence in human life and culture’. Knight concludes that ‘Robin Hood’s biography is mythic in that the multiform figure does not have physical identity.’ His biography is thus doubly mythic, for it traces both the life of the myth and the life of a mythic person.

Does it follow that there wasn’t a historical Robin Hood? Many people firmly believe there was. We owe the widespread belief that Robin lived in the time of Richard I (1157-1199) to William Stukeley (1687-1765), an eccentric scholar of ancient British history who fabricated for him a crazy family pedigree going back to the Normans. Knight argues that the search for the historical Robin is as quixotic as the search for the historical Jesus. His mythic status does not necessarily mean that there was not a historical Robin Hood, merely that the myth has supplanted whatever traces there might have been of such a person.

Knight’s argument that Robin’s biography is ‘mythic, in that it has the scope, variety and dynamic continuity of a myth’ is semi-circular. He tells us more when he compares Robin Hood with Jesus and Buddha in the matter of ‘mythic multiplicity’: ‘in many ways Robin Hood seems to have at least some of their compulsive flexibility and enduring sense of positive force.’ This is a defining characteristic of a myth, which is a much retold narrative transparent to a variety of constructions of meaning. This ‘compulsive flexibility’ allows it, more than other forms of narrative, to be shared by a group (whose members have various points of view) and to survive through time (through different generations with different points of view). This is myth’s ‘dynamic continuity’.

A myth is like a mercenary, it can be made to fight for anyone. Every telling puts a different spin on it, implicitly inviting the teller, the listener or the commentator to moralise. Although the word is often used nowadays to designate an idea (particularly a wrong idea), a myth most certainly is not an idea. It is a narrative that makes possible any number of ideas, but that does not commit itself to any single one. Its ability to contain in latent form several different attitudes to the events it depicts allows each different telling to draw out the attitude it finds sympathetic.

As Robin McKinley has written, ‘the tales of Robin Hood have always reflected what the teller and the audiences needed him to be at the time of the telling.’ And Knight agrees: acknowledging that Robin ‘has over centuries and in many places and many genres had a varying but powerful identity’, he lays out Robin’s ‘essentially surviving identity’ at the start the better to demonstrate the variations: ‘He lives in the greenwood and is expert with a bow; he leads a group of doughty fighters who resist the corrupt church, the sheriff and his minions but remain loyal to the king. He rescues prisoners, celebrates at forest feasts, uses disguise to trick his enemies, and survives the dangers of town and castle.’ This core is supplemented by a ‘pattern of interlocking themes’ which usually differ on one point or another from plot to plot but attach themselves to Robin to give us a Venn diagram of the Robin Hood we now know and love: ‘noble, handsome, gentlemanly, rashly brave, violent in the service of good, blandly representative of national and even international liberalism, devoted in a slightly distant way to his lady, leader of a loyal band of ready and lower-class fighters who are often comic and even a little oafish’. Knight traces these changes through a vast number of texts, from the early ballads and gestes, as well as plays, games, references and songs, through romantic novels and plays, to end up in Hollywood. He manages to distill his staggering knowledge of the subject (which generally lies down quietly in the extensive critical apparatus and only occasionally raises its head to interrupt the narrative with brief but tedious tale-tracings) into a vivid, elegantly written and often very funny biography.

He never loses sight of the myth’s moral ambiguity. In the 1973 Disney cartoon Robin Hood, a voice at the start assures us that Robin Hood robbed the rich to feed the poor. But when Little John (a bear) asks Robin (a fox), ‘Are we good guys or bad guys?’ Robin hedges: ‘We never rob; we borrow a bit from those who can afford it.’ Later in the film, bad King John (a lion) tries to firm up the moral categories a bit by saying: ‘To coin a phrase, we rob the poor to feed the rich.’ But in the Warner Brothers’ cartoon Robin Hood Daffy (1958), when Robin Hood (Daffy Duck) tries to persuade Friar Tuck (Porky Pig) that he is Robin Hood by robbing a rich guy and giving the money to another, presumably poor, guy, Porky is still not convinced. (As a song in Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman’s 1975 When Things Were Rotten put it, ‘They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank, they jumped a lot of fences . . . stole from the rich, gave to the poor – except what they kept for expenses!’) When the moral and economic questions at the heart of a much-told tale are ambiguous even to cartoon characters, we are in the presence of a myth.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in