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Saturday, November 13, 2010

Robin Hood

The Wikipedia entry on Robin Hood offers a dismayingly complex and inconclusive explanation as to the possible origins of his story. I had looked it up hoping to be able to pick from maybe two or three competing versions of his story, and possibly come to a conclusion based on some little bit of logic that others might have overlooked. But there are a myriad of possibilities as to how the legend originated, and they are all very, very iffy. It's not at all clear whether or not he was based on a real person, or possibly a number of people. It's not even clear exactly when he lived (it could have been either the 12th or 13th centuries). If he existed, he may have been a peasant, and he may have been an artisan. And he may have been loyal to King Richard the Lion-Hearted (and resentful of his brother King John) -- or he may not have been.

Robert was a common name in the early Middle Ages, and Robin was its diminutive. Wood was a common surname, and might easily have been changed to Hood. There are evidently a number of people by that name who fell afoul of the law, although it's not clear that any of them had anything to do with the legend. One possibility is that "Robin Hood" was just a stock alias used by all thieves of the era. And some feel that the legend was based on a famous outlaw who lived in Sherwood forest in the 13th century whose name was Roger Godberd. (There is also a school of thought that Robin Hood was in fact based in Yorkshire rather than Sherwood.)

Given that questions still swirl around Shakespeare's identity -- and he left a discernable paper trail --  it's not surprising that there would be some question about Robin Hood. Unfortunately, there are nothing but questions. (Why did Shakespeare never write a play about Robin Hood, by the way? He does make brief mention of  him in Two Gentlemen of Verona.)

Over time the legend -- and it is an appealing one -- has evolved a bit. In the 14th century Robin Hood was generally depicted as a brigand. By the 15th century people started ascribing noble blood to him, and Friar Tuck came into being. Maid Marian was most likely a later addition to the myth as well.

There is simply too much confusion to be able to even form an opinion.

One intriguing possibility was suggested by Walter Bower, who wrote in 1440: 

"Then [c. 1266] arose the famous murderer, Robert Hood, as well as Little John, together with their accomplices from among the disinherited, whom the foolish populace are so inordinately fond of celebrating both in tragedies and comedies, and about whom they are delighted to hear the jesters and minstrels sing above all other ballads."

Robin Hood as multiple murderer -- and possibly serial killer?  Is it possible we have been celebrating another Ted Bundy all these years?

In any case, we are all familiar with the legend as it has evolved: Robin Hood, together with his friend Little John and their merry band of men, robbed from the rich to give to the poor. His lady love was Maid Marian and his chief adversary was the Sheriff of Nottingham. (Traditionally, most who have robbed from the rich have given to themselves; whether or not there was a Robin Hood who flouted this rule is questionable.)

Since then, every liberal politician has at some point fancied himself a latter day Robin Hood. Back in Robin's day, if indeed he did exist, the peasantry were not allowed to hunt in the king's forest, and if they did, they could have their eyes put out. You were either a noble with inherited lands or you were not, and if you were not, there was simply no way you could advance.

Today, of course, things are much more complex. 

In any case, it would have been more fun if the Wiki account had been more definitive. They chose accuracy and completeness instead, which is, as always, less gratifying.

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