by Dan Stumpf


   One of the few advantages of working the Midnight Shift is that I get to listen to BBC World Service Overnight on the Radio, and it’s the sort of show that rivals anything from NPR. Among the interesting features that have livened my work nights was a program on the genesis and development of the Robin Hood legend, which was so fascinating I couldn’t help recapitulating its salient points here:

   Robin Hood apparently started out as just a bunch of stories about a guy who lived in Greens Wood in England; not an Outlaw, just a Hunter and all-around Doughty Woodsman.

He may be related to a nebulous character from Celtic myth and pre-history, the Green Man, who appears in some of the earliest stained-glass windows and illuminated manuscripts, although his exact nature is a mystery.


   At any rate, Robin Hood came to be accepted as the name of any good woodsman, the way names like “Casanova” and “Scrooge” have slipped into Modern language, and outlaws who lived in the woods back in the early middle ages took to calling themselves that.

   As tall tales of their exploits were told and re-told, they began to coalesce around someone named Robin Hood, who in those days was just a flattering portrait of Ye Merreye OuteLawe: Brave, witty, fair-minded and lovable.


   Time passed, History happened, and these worked changes on the character. Forests in England began to shrink, and the legend moved to center on the last largest extant forest, Sherwood. There was a Reeve (local administrator of the law) in that area who came from Nottingham, and he came to be called the Shire Reeve of Nottingham (say it fast).

   Minstrels began making a living at the courts of nobility, and as they told the Outlaw tales to their listeners, they made the central figure more popular with the audience by saying that he was a dispossessed Nobleman, with whom many could identify in those times.

   The tale made its way to France and back, and in the process picked up the Maid Marion character, along with others who represented stereotypes of the times: The lascivious Friar, the strong Woodsman (all that remained of the original character) and the romantic Minstrel.


   The tales were also returning to their Popular Roots, as traveling minstrels and the like began to find a market for their talents in the growing Middle Class.

   Robin Hood began to figure in an early version of Trick Or Treat in which people went from house to house, decorating, dropping off little treats and occasionally making mischief. And now the final wrinkle was added to the character for the stamp of Popular Approval: Charity. Robin Hood now robbed only from the rich and gave freely to the poor.


   In the last analysis, the program said, Robin Hood has survived because he has represented so many things to so many times. In our Century he has been a symbol of fun-loving freedom in the 20s, anti-Nazi in the late 30s, fighter for justice in the 50s, and in the 90s a champion of fairness and tolerance.

   What surprised me was that one professor said his favorite 20th Century treatment of the character was the half-hour TV show back in the 50s. In these shows, Robin was the archetypal Mythical Figure: no Origin, no beginning and no End, just a new tale to add to the legend every week, which goes back to the earliest traditions of story-telling.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #52, March 1992.