Friday, February 19, 2010

In Defense of Robin Hood

Of all the old and chivalrous heroes whose memory modernity has warped, one of the most ill-treated is Robin Hood. The attack is two-pronged in nature, giving the impression of a concerted effort; but, like so many other apparent alliances between hard left and hard right, the alliance against Robin Hood is an unintentional one, which, if recognized by either side, would be immediately repudiated by both.

The attack from the left is indirect and unconscious, but typical of a socialist and progressive agenda. The left is always quick to embrace literary and historical figures if they can by any stretch be shown to represent leftist ideology: this man, this hero whom you each loved as a child, is actually one of us—a red or a pinkie in disguise. To the left, Robin Hood is the quintessential enforcer of social justice. He steals from greedy capitalist land owners and bestows their ill-gained wealth upon the righteous beggar, pig-keeper, and indigent farm hand.

This is propaganda of the worst kind. Its subject is not fresh, but old; it corrupts not by invention but by parasitism. There is no symbiosis. Robin Hood does not rise in the estimation of the masses by being transformed into a force for the redistribution of wealth. Indeed, the longer he is represented as such a force, the less likely he is to be loved as a character, and the more his value as a propagandist’s tool declines. It is not unlikely that in some later day the average man may look back on Robin Hood as he now looks back on the Jesuits and, viewing Robin’s leprous corruption, forget his glorious inception, to reject him as heartily as Howard Roark rejects the "altruism" of Elsworth Toohey.

This melancholy effect of Robin Hood's remodeling has led to a predictable attack from the right. It is a sad reflection on a political wing known to house conservatives, marked by strong reactionary temperaments, and claiming to possess a knowledge of history (and the advantage of a commensurate authority via the democracy of the dead), that it should on the whole know so little about literature. To listen to the capitalists, Robin Hood is no better than the thief the socialists wish he had been. Robin Hoodism is the epitome of the communist agenda, says the right; Robin Hood, an archetypical pre-Acornite, who feels that everyone is entitled to his "fair share" of anyone's profits—regardless of who earned them and how honestly.

If this were the real Robin Hood, I would loath him too. But look at the facts—at the Robin Hood of R.L. Green, Howard Pyle, and a thousand anonymous ballad writers, not to mention the one portrayed by Errol Flynn in the classic 1938 movie, by Richard Greene in the British 1950s TV series, and by a dashing fox in Disney's 1973 cartoon. First, an admission: Robin Hood does indeed steal from the rich and give to the poor. But he steals from the rich the very money that they have taken from the poor in taxes—usually taxes gathered under false pretenses. To take one case out of many: In the 1938 Robin Hood, Prince John (played with beautiful villainy by Claude Rains, who later [“Angel on My Shoulder”] would portray the Evil One himself) levies a tax, allegedly to ransom his brother King Richard, who is imprisoned in Europe post- crusade. In fact, John has no intention of freeing his brother; he plans to have him murdered and seize the throne—and the ransom money—for himself. It's this money that Robin Hood steals. Incidentally, in this case he does not return it to the poor (who were willing to pay the tax if it could secure the release of their rightful ruler), but forwards it to Richard's captors, who set the king free.

To modernize the legend, suppose that the US Congress were to levy a tax on small businesses for the purpose of aiding single parents with young children—a cause which, let us suppose, many of the small business owners grudgingly support. Unfortunately, by the revenues are
collected, the bill providing for single parents has been altered to reflect the new Congressional desire to vastly extend welfare payments to able bodied males between the ages of twenty-five and fifty. The small business owners are irate, but helpless. At this point Rob Hued, the former owner of a large technological corporation, recently escaped from jail after being wrongfully indicted for tax fraud, rounds up a few corporate buddies and infiltrates the US treasury. There they so cook the books as to actually return the money to the small business owners from whom it was taken—only to be discovered in the act, and forced to escape in a high-speed car chase. The whole affair comes to the attention of the press, and several Congressmen are impeached and forced to leave office. Meanwhile, Rob's actions win him the support and affection of Ms. Mary Han, the only successful female CEO under the age of thirty, who just happens to have grown up next door to him. Later in life Rob and Mary are elected to Congressional office from adjoining districts, where they continue to support the small businesses who are still grateful for Rob's help. Rob is eventually assassinated by a Cuban communist supporter, but lives on in the hearts of Americans everywhere. Now that’s a Hollywood film I would pay good money to see . . .

This is the pattern for all the true, all the old, all the honest Robin Hood stories. He is a champion of the oppressed—the fiscally oppressed, oppressed not by evil capitalists but by a government that is unjust. He is a classical liberal hero; a compassionate libertarian—and, incidentally, a Catholic with a devotion to Our Lady. (In this respect he resembles King Arthur; but modern versions of either legend are little apt to recall this facet of their characters.)

There is one other perversion of Robin Hood which occasionally makes its way to the big screen: the post-modern Robin Hood, the pirate with the bloody sword or poisoned arrow, the angst-ridden murderous avenger of wrongs more against himself than against others. We all know this is an impostor. The real Robin Hood is clothed in Lincoln green, not in Caribbean black; he is the protector of women and children; he is quintessentially cheerful in nature; he is humble. His three best friends are a minstrel, a fat monk, and a man who can beat him up. He marries his childhood sweetheart. If he does die by poison, it is administered treacherously, as Mordred treacherously kills Arthur, and not by the hand of his lover. He dies not because he knows he has ceased to be great but because, even in the days of his decline, he is still a threat to those who would hurt the ones he loves.

It is not Robin Hood's death that we remember. Robin Hood, like Arthur, is immortal. While Arthur sleeps, waiting to return, Robin Hood has been reincarnated time and time again. Historians say there were many outlaws with the name of Robin Hood, because that name meant justice. There will always be many, not-quite outlaws, who do not share the name—especially now that it is sullied—but who do share his honesty, his roguery, and his humble submission to the judgment of the true King.

Well—anyway, I hope there will be.


  1. Is this in response to the trailer for the new movie starring Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett? Because I saw it recently and I completely agree with you! Robin Hood is being twisted and turned into a common and occasionally contemptible creature.

    In between the wholesome, honest character in the Disney version and the absolute travesty that will be coming out soon, there was one called "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves" that stared Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. It was funny in many places but it's a clear example of the perversion you're talking about. Robin Hood is an angsty young man who followed King Richard to war after a huge fight with his father. He comes back, finds his father hanged as a Satanist, and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham in possession of his lands. Robin Hood finds some rough outlaws and manages to save Maid Marian and kill the Sheriff through a mixture of good luck and _inglorious_ if not actually _dirty_ fighting.

    From there, it's an easy step to the wild, bloody violence and... questionable conduct that the new Robin Hood features in its trailer. *sigh*

    Maybe you could develop a screenplay for your corporate Robin Hood scenario? :)

  2. Funny you should bring up the new Robin Hood movie. I haven't seen the trailer, but I think it was hearing about it that ticked me off to first write this post . . . Actually, I was thinking of "Prince of Thieves" and to some degree "Robin and Marian"--neither of which I have actually seen, but both of which I know a fair amount about.

    Yeah, a screenplay . . . It's a great idea, and it just might fly; but I've got a lot of other ideas in the queue right now, all banging at the doors to get out. Not to mention the fact that I'm taking a break from writing fiction for Lent.

  3. Hey, I took a break from writing fiction too! (Except for my thesis...)

    Anyway, this reminds me of a book which I haven't read, but tells you all about how to know what a book says without reading it.

    Keep it up. ;-)

  4. Soooo . . . when do I get to see the fiction you HAVE written? (And yes, that includes your thesis, naturally.)

    When you find that book you haven't read, let me know.

    You too. ;)