By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Paul Buhle, “Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw or Forest Hero.” Illustrated by Gary Dumm, Christopher Hutchison, and Sharon Rudahl (PM Press, Oakland, Calif. 2011), 106 pp., $15 paper.
As I write, in late May 2012, a playhouse here in Philadelphia is advertising its production of “Robin Hood” as an action play “aimed at kids five years and up.” At the same time, in Chicago, anti-NATO demonstrators are calling for a “Robin Hood tax” on financial transactions, as part of their demand to “tax the rich.”
Who is the real Robin? Is he the swashbuckling hero portrayed in cartoons, TV, and Hollywood musicals? The class-conscious guerrilla leader, fighting to avenge the peasantry against their oppressors? Or perhaps the “Green Robin,” who with his Merry Men inhabits the woodlands in respectful harmony with Nature?
Robin is not the same champion to all people. Throughout the centuries, he seems to have been redefined, if not re-invented, with each telling of the tale. Nonetheless, scores of works have probed into the question of Robin’s identity—an extraordinary quest, considering that most investigators agree that the Robin Hood stories are mainly fiction.
With his new book, “Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero,” Paul Buhle, editor of the left journal Radical America, enters the ranks of historians seeking to uncover the multiple themes and meanings of the Sherwood Forest legend. In his conclusions, however, Buhl readily sides with those who perceive that Robin over the centuries has appeared primarily as a standard-bearer in battles against injustice.
He states, “No other medieval European saga has had the staying power of Robin Hood; no other is wrapped up simultaneously in class conflict (or something very much like class conflict), the rights of citizenship in their early definitions, defense of the ecological systems, and the imagined utopia of freedom disappearing into a mythical past.”
Buhle acknowledges, of course, that scriptwriters often eviscerate the political content of the Robin Hood legend. A number of recent movie renditions reduce the hero to little more than a romantic or heroic action figure. Or worse, they present him as the willing agent of jingoistic big-power politics. For example, says Buhle, while Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” mega-feature of a couple of years ago might give a slight nod to Robin’s role as the defender of downtrodden villagers, the subject “in practice only manages to protect one empire against another.”
The earliest known references to Robin Hood in popular culture appeared in the early 13th century, including in the rolls of several English justices. This suggests that the outlines of the fictional character might be based, however loosely, on the historical memory of the exploits of a real person or persons.
Buhle skips over this tantalizing question, however, and begins his chronology many centuries later with “The Dream of John Ball,” a novella by William Morris, artist and “father of British socialism.” In this work, which was serialized for newspaper readers in 1886-87, Morris plots the adventures of a man who leaps from the modern era into a 14th-century English village. There he finds a group of yeomen (independent small landowners) who have risen up against the corrupt local sheriff and other Crown officers who seek to oppress them.
The villagers are led by the lay preacher John Ball, a real though obscure figure in English history. According to Morris, Ball led his followers along the trail of rebellion blazed by Robin and his men. Thus, a ballad singer in Morris’ narrative states to the time-traveler, “Was it not sooth that I said, brother, that Robin Hood should bring us John Ball?”
John Ball was a participant in the uprising of 1381, whose major leader was Wat Tyler. The yeomen under Tyler’s command armed themselves with staves and pitchforks and marched on London to protest high taxes and growing poverty. After meeting with the King, Tyler was betrayed; he and Ball were assassinated, and the movement was dispersed.
Buhle argues that Wat Tyler’s uprising of 1381, “the first major outbreak of a class and social conflict across England … prepared the ground for the popularity of the Robin Hood saga.” Robin Hood was called into existence by popular desires for a hero figure to represent their struggles for social justice.
Perhaps the first allusion to Robin in literature, William Langland’s “Piers Plowman,” appeared in manuscript in the years immediately proceeding Wat Tyler’s rebellion. In the story, Sloth, a priest, confesses, “I kan [know] not parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it singeth, / But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre.” In other words, he cannot always remember his prayers, but he can readily recite the ballads of popular heroes. (Five centuries later, Mark Twain put a similar statement into the mouth of the whimsical young rebel, Tom Sawyer.)
While Buhle convincingly argues that the period of Wat Tyler’s rebellion was a “Robin Hood era,” the reader might wonder why Buhle concentrates the better part of two chapters on those years alone. It was a full century after Wat Tyler that the efforts by landlords to enclose the pastures began to get fully underway in England, expelling thousands of small farmers from the countryside. Didn’t the impoverished population need Robin Hood at that moment to help chart a path of resistance?
Indeed, Buhle briefly notes, Robin as protector of the poor appeared again in the late 15th century in a collection of verse tales under the title, “A Lyttell Geste of Robyn Hode.” But from the late 16th century onward, a more conservative Robin began to enter English literature, often as an official project to erase the militantly radical one. Following the defeat of the Spanish armada, audiences saw Robin Hood as a patriotic national hero on the London stage.
And Shakespeare’s Robin Hood-type characters, such as Orlando and the Duke in “As You Like It,” were noblemen who had temporarily fled palace life for a sylvan arcadia.
From there, Buhle follows the contrasting renditions of Robin Hood and his band through the centuries. Important examples include Joseph Ritson’s popular volume of 1795, poet John Keat’s antiwar Robin and Marian of 1817, Walter Scott’s patriotic “Ivanhoe” of 1819, storyteller and illustrator Howard Pyle’s “Merry Adventures” of 1883, and Errol Flynn’s version filmed on the eve of World War II (1938), in which he vanquishes (Hitlerite?) evil while vying for the heart of Olivia de Havilland’s Maid Marian.
Buhle presents his chapters as a series of almost autonomous essays. Each chapter is packed with facts and critical insight, but often on themes that to a certain extent had been dealt with earlier. The discontinuity and repetition in the narrative left me a bit confused, at least on my first time thorough the book, over where the author was leading his readers.
Luckily, the book’s illustrations provide a framework to help us make sense of Buhle’s choppy structure. The illustrations appear in four separate sections that underscore major themes of the adjacent chapters. Gary Dumm gives us a comic-strip portrayal of the peasant and religious struggles in England of the 14th century. Christopher Hutchinson, a supporter and contributor to Socialist Action newspaper, uses collage to provide “Robin Hood” heroes for the modern age (Che, Malcolm, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Luxemburg, etc.). And Sharon Rudahl’s cartoons tell the tales of Maid Marian—warrior, revolutionary activist, and proto-feminist.
Why read this book? Because the world still has a need for Robin. Today, Buhle points out, “the rich and powerful now command almost every corner of the planet and, in order to maintain their control, threaten to despoil every natural resource to the point of exhaustion. Meanwhile, billions of people are impoverished below levels of decency during centuries of subsistence living.” Yet resistance to authority continues, and so, Robin lives on “in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and Madison, Wisconsin, USA, among the many other places where people dream of a better life and struggle for it openly, cheerful to be rebellious.”