Ridley Scott claims his new "Robin Hood" will be the most accurate rendition





Next month sees one of the most long-awaited clashes in a while. At its heart is the age-old duel between dependency and private initiative, between individual freedom and oppressive authority, between youth and age.

The general election? No. I’m talking about Robin Hood, Ridley Scott’s new film starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, which premieres next month. But the very fact that the election crossed my mind gives the clue as to why Robin Hood survives while almost every other figure from folklore has vanished into the gloaming. He is with us today in the shape of Nick Clegg, whose plans to rob the rich to pay the poor are meeting with delirious applause....

By the 15th century, Robin Hood was well established throughout Britain as a national hero. A Scottish historian writing circa 1500 places him in the 1190s, in the era of Richard the Lionheart and his cruel brother, Prince John. “About this time, as I conceive, there flourished those most famous robbers, Robin Hood and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods but spoiled of their goods those only who were wealthy. They took the life of no man unless he either attacked them or offered resistance in defence of their property. Robin was supported by his 100 plundering bowmen, ready fighters every one, against whom 400 of the strongest would not dare to engage in combat....

Here we see Robin the Warrior. It is the version that comes nearest to the forthcoming Robin Hood, in which a grizzled, rather portly Crowe preys on the corrupt upper classes and leads an uprising against the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham. (That’s before the film somehow segues into a battle for Britain “which will forever alter the balance of world power”.)

At the other end of the spectrum is Robin the Prankster, the King of the May revels that were celebrated for centuries, up to the 1900s, when small children went a-maying through the streets of London, collecting pennies from passers-by.

But who was the real Robin Hood? The first name-checks, dating from the early 13th century, are scattered, mysterious. A bandit calling himself Robin Hood, another, Friar Tuck. In 1377 appears the first allusion in literature, in the poem Piers the Plowman. “I can’t sing the Our Father like the priest, he admits, but I know the rhymes of Robin Hood, and Randolf, Earl of Chester”. An early 15th-century chronicler writes that in the year 1283, in the forests of Barnsdale and Inglewood, Little John and “Robert Hude” were well praised as forest outlaws and all the time they continued “their practices”....

The truth is that nobody has yet succeeded in running Robin to ground. He remains as elusive as a sprite, a rustle of leaves in the undergrowth, a burst of laughter in an empty clearing....

The truth is that Robin Hood is most likely to be a contraction of Robin o’the Wood, a legendary being whose nickname, possibly taken from a fugitive or an outlaw, first came into common parlance in the dark days of King John and spread through balladry and Mayday games, here and in France – the Jeu de Robin et Marion dates from 1280 and Maid Marion herself was imported from France.

Since “hood” was a common dialect form of “wood” in that era, it makes sense. The ballads took over, and the legend was buttressed with place-names: Robin Hood’s Well, Robin Hood’s Bay, even Robin Hood’s Oak in Sherwood Forest – although it could have been only a sapling back then.

This carnival spirit, which in the Middle Ages survived as consolation for the daily injustices of life, is a long way from Crowe’s Robin Hood, with its background of the Crusades, borrowed from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe....



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