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.

One sign that the myth is alive and well today is that Robin still makes businesses nervous: ‘In 1998, the Nottingham City Council debated whether Robin Hood was really the best public image of the town.’ Apparently they were worried that their association with such a notorious outlaw might put off foreign investors swarming to spend money in Nottingham. Was Robin a proto-Communist? Were some of the Men in Green actually Men in Red? In the early texts Robin doesn’t give to the poor (a point Eric Hobsbawm missed in Bandits); he just gives, like most common or garden bandits, to numero uno. But he certainly robs the rich, and his politics are satisfyingly proletarian: he challenges injustice and hates oppressive kings. But non-oppressive kings? That’s where it gets tricky. Was Robin a terrorist or a freedom fighter? It depends on who is telling the story.

Robin is, in many ways, conservative: he worships Mary (but opposes the corrupt church) and reveres the king (but hates the corrupt nobility). His loathing of certain churchmen comes not from anti-clericalism but from piety: he goes to Mass at peril of his life, but in Martin Parker’s 1632 ballad, ‘A True Tale of Robin Hood’, his post-Reformation fervour leads him occasionally to castrate clergymen. His loyalty goes straight to the top; his enemy is the corrupt middle man. In order to maintain Robin as the hero of resistance, each storyteller in each new age merely had to adjust the nature of the authority that Robin resists. The early Robin was celebrated as a social bandit, but the political winds had shifted by the time Parker wrote:

In those dayes men more barbarous were,

And lived lesse in awe;

Now, God be thanked! People feare

More to ofend the law.

Anthony Munday, in his play The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1598), redated the hero to the end of the 12th century, which had ‘the remarkable effect of reversing his political tendency’. Munday makes Robin’s enemies ‘only the corrupt and the dishonest, the enemies of a loyal lord’, and by opposing them the now domesticated Robin is the defender ‘of true order, aristocratic, religious and royal’. Where the early Robin had fought against the embodiments of local power and injustice – the sheriff and the abbeys who were regarded as corrupt by definition, by their social roles and powers – he now fought only against those who were evil by individual nature. Robin, too, became depoliticised and personalised, opposed only to noblemen who were personally treacherous to him. In Munday, Prince John is Robin’s enemy only because he is a rival for the love of Maid Marian.

The rule in all of these stories, from the earliest to the most recent, is: if you rebel against a bad king, you’re a hero, against a good king, you’re a traitor. Robin is by definition for good King Richard and against evil King John (whose badness is established in the Disney film by the line in the Johnny Mercer song, ‘Too late to be known as John the First, he’s sure to be known as John the Worst’). One of the few people even to imagine the possibility that there might not be such a thing as a good king, that all kings rob the poor to feed the rich, is Richard Lester. In his Robin and Marian (1976), King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham are perfectly horrid, as usual, but King Richard (Richard Harris, already well known as a good king, after playing Arthur in Camelot) who used to be a good king, inspiring Robin to follow him on the Crusades, has now become cruel and greedy, casually murdering women and children to get gold. When Robin opposes him, Richard throws him in prison, just as King John does in other films.

The idea of resistance, too, can be inflected, as the hero who rebels against authority morphs (under a full fascist moon) into the anti-democratic vigilante. We have seen this particularly in films, in the sort of scoff-law individualist celebrated by Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead (1949), or in the prize-giving scene in the first Star Wars film (1977), with its chilling echoes of the award scene at Nuremberg as recorded by Leni Riefenstahl.

Political agendas of stunningly different sorts were woven into the Robin Hood films, and Knight helps us to see each in the context of its time. In the Douglas Fairbanks silent Robin Hood (1922), Robin’s decision to return from the Crusades reflected contemporary American isolationism: stay out of wars in Europe. The Errol Flynn film The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) imagined a New Deal camp in Sherwood Forest as well as resistance against the Normans, who are depicted as storm-troopers. As Knight notes, ‘that Warner Brothers’ own agent in Berlin had been beaten to death in 1935 for being Jewish makes this a credible argument, and . . . Wolfgang Korngold’s decision to stay in Hollywood and write the score was itself conditioned by Hitler’s move against Austria.’ Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) thrives on Gulf War Orientalism, mixing (good) Arabs and African-Americans together in Lawrence of Arabia robes in opposition to Ku Klux Klan robes, resonating with ‘the 1980s sense of frustration at the impact of right-wing governments in the West’. Politics was at work behind the scenes, too. The 1950s Associated Television series with Richard Greene employed writers blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, including Ring Lardner Jr (using the pseudonym ‘Eric Heath’).

Knight cautions that ‘the anti-fascist interpretation may have more to do with the political context then and now than with any conscious plan on the part of the film-makers.’ And that is the point: the context provides the spin. Proto-fascism (the tendency of the strong to beat up the weak, particularly minorities) is a part of the ancient myth because it is one of the enduring strands in human nature, and it emerges explicitly, on screen and in real life, whenever real fascism develops from the always present, sometimes dormant seed, and anti-fascism arises to combat it. But does Robin Hood really combat it? Although the story was most popular in times of repressive government, it offered no plan for resistance, ‘no plans for genuine redistribution, no new electoral system, no models of political organisation that might actually work better’. Robin is just a poster boy for resistance, not ‘the figure on the banners of revolution’. True reform is not accomplished by jumping a lot of fences (as Mel Brooks put it) or looking good in tights. Yet, Knight concludes, ‘the idea that such energies should be committed to some form of resistance is at once the central idea, the basis for endurance, and the strongest value of Robin Hood’s mythic biography.’

Its mythic qualities make this story, which in many ways defines English self-understanding, more than English. There are recurrent, prefabricated mythic patterns in the Robin Hood corpus, set pieces such as the episode of shooting an arrow into another man’s arrow, which Knight calls both archetypal and phallic. But he fails to note that this motif, being truly mythic, is cross-cultural, occurring, for instance, in the Mahabharata. Its variants are also cross-cultural. At the end of Robin and Marian, Robin (Sean Connery), on his death-bed, shoots an arrow and asks Little John (Nicol Williamson) to bury him and Marian (Audrey Hepburn) close together where it falls. This variant comes from an ancient Indian motif best known in our day from Kipling’s Kim, whose Lama seeks his final enlightenment in a river that sprang up where an arrow fell. (Both variants occur in the Disney cartoon: Robin shoots his arrow into the middle of the Sheriff’s arrow, which inspires a baby bunny, to whom Robin had given a bow and arrow, to shoot it into the castle grounds, where it leads them to Marian. Marian kisses the bunny.) But how much variation can there be without making the myth unacceptable or unrecognisable? Since Robin’s death is not a popular part of the story, and is rarely narrated, the Connery film went, as Knight suggests, ‘one step too far for the Robin Hood faithful, and this version of the myth was outside the biography that most people acknowledge for the forest hero’. How do we define the boundaries of a myth, or exclude variants that go beyond it? History, like myth, varies, but the two genres of narrative have different limits. Even R.G. Collingwood admitted that, though you can indeed tell the story of Caesar’s assassination in various ways, there are ways in which you can’t tell it: you can’t say that Caesar killed Brutus. Myth, by contrast, can say that Marian killed Robin – or can it? And can it say that Richard I was a bad king? Robin and Marian, unlike most Robin Hood films, lost money, especially in America, and that’s as good a measuring stick as any: the audience voted with its feet that Robin’s death was not part of the myth.

Knight divides the various Robin Hoods into four types. First is the yeoman, a man of the people, but propertied. Second is the fallen nobleman or distressed aristocrat, who has been brought low either by overspending (a popular virtue) or by speaking truth to power (ditto), and becomes a man of noble birth leading the people. Third is Robin Hood Esquire, ‘a title that indicates the respectable leader of a characteristic English family’. This persona, also called the Romantic Robin, was created early in the 19th century by Keats, Thomas Love Peacock and, above all, Scott, whose Ivanhoe not only features the character of Locksley (Robin Hood) but bases its plot on what Knight calls ‘a displaced Robin Hood story’. The fourth category is Robin on stage or in film.

But the apparent tension between bandit and gentleman melts away like the apparent tension between myth and history; the tales blur the class stereotypes. In the early texts Robin starts out lower class: he is generally depicted as illiterate and only rarely rides a horse. He is seldom represented in upscale art forms, but lives primarily in the popular arts (his high point is a play that Tennyson wrote about him and Sullivan set to music). Yet, since he becomes noble (knighted for his manhood and chivalry) in the course of most of the tales, the difference between the nobleman and the yeoman often comes down to no more than the difference between someone being born noble (and falling from his noble status) and having nobility thrust upon him (rising from his humble origins). And since, in either case, he usually gets his noble status (back) at the end of the story, he is always a class hybrid. At the end of the Errol Flynn film, the king makes Robin Baron of Locksley and Earl of Sherwood and Nottingham, for good measure. Mel Brooks, in Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993), mocks his upward mobility by having people refer to Marian, after Robin has been knighted and has married her, as Mrs of Loxley. This double shift of classes, from high to low to high, is a cross-cultural pattern that Knight might have (but hasn’t) illuminated by referring to the corpus of myths that Freud called the Family Romance: a child is taken from his real, high-born parents and raised by low-born people or animals (often in the forest) until, years later, he finds his parents, establishes his noble birth and comes into his inheritance. (Oedipus, Krishna, Jesus, Tarzan and Mowgli are famous examples.) The Family Romance provides a natural link between Robin the man of the people and Robin the nobleman: the prince is taken for a pauper. Indeed, real princes have masqueraded as the pauper Robin Hood; according to Edward Hall’s 1548 chronicle, in 1510 (good?) King Henry VIII and his courtiers one morning dressed up as Robin Hood and his ‘out lawes’, hoods, tights and all. Presumably, nobody was robbed – or no more than usual.

In some texts, the opposition between rich and poor is replaced, or complicated, by the roughly parallel opposition between Norman and Saxon. All the texts of the Esquire period assume that Robin is ‘quintessentially, racially, English’, largely because of his hostility to the Norman French, but it was Scott who traced Robin back to the Saxons (as Stukeley had traced him back to Normans) and racialised the Saxons. In the Errol Flynn film, Robin is rich – but a Saxon, and therefore OK. The Norman cliché even gets into the Disney cartoon, when King John, seizing power, says: ‘It’s a coup d’état, to coin a Norman phrase.’

I would reduce Knight’s four social categories to two: the lower class (yeoman) and the upper class (lord). The ‘Esquire’ or Romantic Robin is a kind of synthesis of the first two, a hero who is undeniably gentrified but also bold and adventurous, half bandit, half earl. And the theatrical Robin is a category error, a genre that can depict Robin’s class as upper or lower or mixed. Nor do the types fall into four discrete periods; each continues into the next period, as most myths do, thrifty with their leftovers, and the latest films are generally more like the oldest stories – crude, quick, fast and dirty – than the more elaborate and romantic versions that immediately precede them. Knight’s typology by social class works well for the political variations, but there are other points to make and other criteria he might have used to make them, such as gender/sexuality. Robin’s attitude to women ricochets between two closely related sexist attitudes: Arthurian courtliness and reverence of the chastity of damsels in distress, on the one hand, and participation in several nasty episodes of rather jolly gang-rape, on the other. The early corpus, in particular, is a feminist’s nightmare, though Robin’s mother and sister are raped, and there are nude flogging and spankings, as late as The Ribald Tales of Robin Hood (1969).

The most striking variations of gender occur in the character of Maid Marian and the use of cross-dressing. The early Robin loves the Virgin Mary, not Marian. Robin lives in his forest with his merry men, a happily homo-social world. Only in Munday’s play did Marian begin to have a real role in the story; it is for Marian that Robin fights Prince John (an episode that Munday stole from the story of Mathilda the Fair, pursued, to suicide, by the evil King John). Peacock further developed the character of Marian, though Scott left her out of his story, and in Thomas Miller’s 1838 novel, Royston Gower, Robin marries a woman called May-rain (in whose name some have seen a nature myth etymology of Marian, the sort of thing that makes linguists wake up screaming in the middle of the night). Though the gentrified, romantic Robin is sensualised and sexualised, in general Robin and Marian are childless. Yet, in Royston Gower they have many sturdy Victorian sons, in Robin Hood and Little John (1840), by Pierce Egan the Younger, they have a child who dies, and in Jennifer Roberson’s Lady of Sherwood (1999) Marian has a series of miscarriages.

The feminist Marian has an interesting history of her own in films, of which for my money the highlight was the Muppets’ Robin Hood: Prince of Frogs, with Miss Piggy as Marian, wooed by a strangely familiar frog with his own green skin. Other feminist variants were more predictable. In 1988, there was a BBC series called Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, and then, in 2001, Princess of Thieves, starring Keira Knightley as Gwyn, the (previously unknown) daughter of Robin and Marian, who rescues her father and his no longer so merry men from the enemies of Prince Philip, ‘a son of King Richard I unknown to history’, as Knight puts it. But Marian could also be rather sinister. In Robin and the Seven Hoods, Marian (Barbara Rush) is the daughter of a gangster (Edward G. Robinson) whom the sheriff kills; in the end, she takes over the business, kicks out Robbo (Sinatra) and Little John (Dean Martin), and takes Allen A. Dale (Bing Crosby) for her new lover. In Robin and Marian, she becomes a prioress and poisons Robin (and herself) at the end, a Liebestod that she persuades him is for his own good but that we may see as passive-aggressive at the very least, especially when we consider its indebtedness to the scene in Egan’s Robin Hood and Little John in which Robin is betrayed by the prioress, a ‘dangerously sexualised woman’.

Long before Hollywood, there were false Marians of another sort, not false to Robin but false in the sense of being unreal, untrue: fake Marians. In Munday’s telling, Queen Eleanor disguises herself as Marian; in Ben Jonson’s unfinished The Sad Shepherd, the Witch of Papplewick assumes Marian’s identity and vilifies Robin, making him hostile to the real Marian. In John Irvin’s 1991 film Robin Hood, the sheriff’s mistress plays a false Marian until the real Marian (Uma Thurman), dressed as a boy, breaks the spell – by kissing Robin. Knight notes that the false Marian ‘recurs with surprising – depressing – regularity, right into modern films, and indicates a strong undercurrent of male gender anxiety in the tradition’. Knight (who invokes male anxiety so often that it seems to be his anxiety) does not, however, mention the wider spread of this myth in the medieval European tradition, the older stories told of the false Guenever, the false Isolde and, behind them, the still older and wider-spread folk-tale of the black and white bride. All of these stories play on more than male gender anxiety; they invoke ancient mythological motifs of double goddesses and the cruel illusion of beauty and desire.

Marian’s idea of dressing as a boy to combat the false Marian is sanctioned by tradition. In the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and Maid Marian’, he doesn’t recognise her when she is disguised as a page and is about to do battle with her when he recognises her voice (another cross-cultural motif). In the ballad of ‘Robin Hood and the Bishop’, she escapes to the forest dressed as her brother, and Will Scarlet mistakes her for a witch. In the musical Robin Hood (1890), Marian cross-dresses in order to join the band of merry men. This pattern is balanced by one in which Robin dresses as a woman. In the ballad of ‘Robin and the Bishop’ he cross-dresses to escape the bishop; in the Renaissance play Looke about You, Robin, an aristocrat who helps Richard I woo Lady Marian, on one occasion dresses in her gown, with ‘night attire on his head’. In Son of Robin Hood (1958), the outlaw is Robina Hood (June Laverick), not the son but the daughter of the dead Robin. Even in the Disney film, Robin and Little John put on drag, and when the king is warned that they may be bandits, he laughs it off: ‘Female bandits? What next!’

All of this, together with a growing uneasiness about the reasons a man might live in the forest with a lot of guys wearing tights, led to whispers about Robin’s homosexuality. From Munday on, Robin often has a quasi-homoerotic relationship with other men who are rivals for Marian’s hand, in a pattern identified by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s Between Men. In the TV series Robin of Sherwood (1984-86), the sheriff makes eyes at Robin, not Marian. Knight confesses to having raised the possibility, in an academic joke that got into the Sunday Times in 1999, that the title of a 1849 novel, Maid Marian, The Forest Queen, referred to the ‘doubtful sexuality’ of the male outlaw: ‘The gay media were thoughtfully interested, the Nottingham press predictably outraged, and I received a gratifying amount of hostile mail, in small white envelopes with neat handwriting.’ In fact, most of the fans objected not to the idea of Robin’s homosexuality but to the idea that he had any sexuality at all. Here is another atavism of the mythic hero, who loves his country and his king more than he loves any woman (or man).

Stephen Knight’s book documents the enormous scope of the myth – revolutionary, reactionary, chivalric, homosexual, patriotic or whatever the audience will allow, even slapstick. A final mythic trait of Robinalia is its ability to parody itself. Errol Flynn defined the character for film: the animated Robin Fox in the Disney cartoon imitates Flynn, and his was the voice, uncredited, of Rabbit Hood in the 1949 Warner Brothers’ cartoon. Prince of Thieves was mocked by Princess of Thieves and Prince of Frogs, and so on. Like any great myth, this is a tale that no one ever hears for the first time.