Princes and Kings of Dynamic Folklore From Minstrels to Movies: Robin Hood

By Jeffrey Badders

Having reviewed any number of popular films centered on reviews of historical topics, one has to accept or, at least, take into account that film makers will undoubtedly change or misrepresent to some degree the historical content of the subject. This is due perhaps to the “mass-appeal” nature of the entertainment industry. Viewers often come (somewhat self-righteously) to one of two ultimate “conclusive” judgments on a “history” movie: either errors are excusable because of a film maker’s attempts to stay somewhat loyal to accurate historical representation or errors are inexcusable in cases where inaccuracy or modernization is egregiously simplified or ridiculously exaggerated.

This perhaps deserves some explanation. For example, I thought the film Troy, (2004; starring Brad Pitt), was severely edited from Homer’s original Iliad in order to fit a two hour film format and a modern audience (by embellishing romance and sex appeal); one might argue for the “excusability” of such license since the film does create a magnificent modern depiction of the ancient Greek world. In the film the pagan gods, for example, are removed from Homer’s story. While this certainly violates the Homeric view, it does make the film more realistic and historical in modern terms. In other cases, however, historical ineptitude is so offensively obvious that it actually ruins what could have easily been a good film had it been slightly more respectful to the past: A Knight’s Tale (2001, Heath Ledger) comes to mind. However, if one almost automatically labels a History film as excusable or inexcusable for such reasons, two movies create a paradox, or perhaps a loophole, in this strategy, and it is because of the very nature of the historical figures they represent. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and King Arthur (2004 ) are the most recent blockbuster renditions of two often filmed legendary figures of English folklore and literature. Unlike most other historical films, the stories they represent are, and always have been, fictional folklore that has been molded throughout history to fit and serve the ideals and views of the time in which they are being told, or sung, rather than the times in which the stories are reputed to have taken place.

A Tale of Directors and Bards

Little is known about the real historical figures that the two films represent, to the point that historians can unfortunately only make guesses (albeit, well educated guesses) as to whether these two men ever existed The great majority of what is popularly seen as the tales of Robin Hood and King Arthur originated from oral tradition or minstrelsy or folklore. As early Celts had no written language, oral history was passed down by bardds in the form of lyrical poetry, in order to memorialize warrior deeds or tribal history. This bardic tradition later evolved into a formal feature in medieval courts or celebrations, as a way to flatter one’s own noble lords and ladies. Many elements of English literature and poetry can easily be traced to such Celtic tradition. Indeed, even as late as the seventeenth century, William Shakespeare was referred to as the bard. Of course, such lyrical poetry from Celtic descent would also have no small influence on common minstrels. For the commonly illiterate man, spanning most of English history, such music and poetry provided not only entertainment but a vision of history.

This gigantic and expansive English oral tradition, assuredly filled with more artistic creativity than mere historical fact or record, produced the great plethora of Arthurian folklore and later Robin Hood ballads. In many ways modern authors, artists, and now, film makers who told their stories afterwards are the newest bards and minstrels to carry on the legends in a new medium. In the modern world, of course, the public does not go to hear the various different ballads of heroes sung at the local festival or to hear legends recited, like beat poetry, at coffee houses or at the tavern; we go to the movies or watch television.

The writers, directors, and film crews of a movie involving Robin Hood or King Arthur have very few authoritative sources to abide by beyond previous fictions, and thus, have a lot more freedom in telling an old story that pleases a contemporary audience. With these newest resurrections of the immortally dynamic characters of folklore, directors conform to their current culture in order to continue a centuries old process which has begun long before motion pictures. It also makes money!

Does the “bardic” and profitable nature of the movie industry mean that these film makers are thus free from the judgment of history? Of course not. In particular, the visual depiction of the historical setting in the films should be analyzed for accuracy. Yet, the characters and plots deserve be judged by a slightly different set of rules; such rules have been determined over hundreds of years of fictional tradition. Moreover, they are required by literary tradition to contain a very distinct set of characters, elements of drama, and themes consistent with multitudes of previous representations throughout centuries of history. On top of their burdens, they must appeal also to current taste and knowledge. In this case, a modern movie goer, generally already has opinions and expectations (absorbed in some way from ancient cultural folklore) of the characteristics required of a “Robin Hood” or a “King Arthur.”

Therefore, it seems to some degree appropriate to judge such films in large measure on historical accuracy. One tends to ask: is this Robin Hood? Is this portrayal worthy to be King Arthur? Do these films successfully portray the important
themes, stories, and characters expected, nay, almost required by tradition, in the culture of the twenty first century?

Robin Hood: Outlaw and Prince of Song For those unfamiliar (if any still exist) with the popularly known Robin Hood tales a list of the common elements of Robin Hood literature might help. Robin Hood lived, at least in fiction, in medieval England, most commonly in Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. He’s a thief who “steals from the rich and gives to the poor,” an excellent bowman, witty, chivalrous, and charismatic. His band of “Merry Men” commonly includes characters such as Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, Much, the miller’s son, and various other good-natured jolly lower-class criminals who rob rich and petty nobles, fight corrupt law enforcement, save poor peasants, and generally cause a ruckus for the upper class of society. Other common elements include Robin’s identity as a displaced nobleman, vehemently loyal to King Richard, the victor in a crucial archery contest. He also has a turbulent relationship with Little John, and is related to Will Scarlet, often identified as his uncle.

How many of the elements are original rather than later additions to the Robin Hood story? Very few, assuming an actual outlaw by this name did exist. Nothing can really be said about this mysterious man with certainty other than the casual attribution of a number of spectacular feats and tales for hundreds of years after his supposed existence. In the words of two respected scholars of medieval folklore, “[A]ll we know for certain about the Robin Hood legend is that it exists”. (R.B. Dobson and J. Taylor).

Robin Hood has been the prince of the medieval England. He is society’s phenomenon of a good outlaw, the medieval equivalent of America’s Old West vigilante or the more recent street-smart gangster persona. The earliest known mention of him found in written literature is an off-hand reference to him in the ballad Piers Plowman from 1377, and the very nature of the reference implies that by then Robin Hood was already a popularly known figure.

Interestingly, most other references from the 1400’s are found in early 15th century law cases, where an authority figure might refer to a gang of outlaws who act like “robyn hodes.” In some cases there are even literal reports of people using character names from the folklore; in 1417, a chaplain in Sussex led “a gang of thieves and marauders… [and] assumed the name of Frere Tuck.” Historians are unsure whether this chaplain was the namesake of the friar or if he took it from the story, for thereafter exist numerous instances of outlaws posing from characters in the story, such as one man accused of instigating a riot in 1497 under the title Robin Hoode (Dobson & Taylor 4). It is obvious that by the 1400’s, before anything valid was written about Robin Hood, he was already what the modern entertainment industry would call a “household name” in England.

The earliest available ballad actually devoted to Robin Hood himself, Robyn Hode and the Monk originates seemingly a full century after the first obscure reference; certainly sometime after 1450. The ballad contains a few of the popular story elements either known today or in the later medieval period. Litull John (and his turbulent relationship with Robin) and Moch the Myler’s son, and Scarlocke (possibly Will Scarlet) are present, and Robin and his merry men battle the sheriff’s men, exhibiting excellent marksmanship. They even trick (but are forgiven by) an unnamed king of England. The basic nature of Robin Hood’s “outlaw-socialism” is absent from this early story, and the sheriff is not named Norris Nottingham; nevertheless, the typical forester-bandit action and clever trickery is indeed little different from today. (Robyn Hood and the Monk, Dobson & Taylor).

Robyn Hood and the Monk shows signs of being from other older, separate ballads, and when one considers the fact that a popular English folk ballad was more than likely memorized long before being written, historians realize that even Robyn Hode and the Monk probably had several different “originators” of its content. Overall, the mysterious stories of Robin Hood are, and always have been “the product of a largely oral and therefore to us impenetrable culture,” and one that has constantly adapted over time (Dobson & Taylor 10-18).

Thus, virtually all of what is seen as heroic in Robin Hood today is adapted through fictional plays, songs, and narratives over long periods of time. Fortunately the traits added to Robin’s character throughout the ages meet the qualities required of the contemporary audience’s hero. He is from the first ballad sympathetic and kind towards others in need, respectful towards women, and honorable in battle, ironically making him the common-man’s representation of medieval knightly chivalry. Ironically, pure medieval portrayal (then and now) certainly is one of implied revolutionary thoughts on the social class of England; nevertheless, his character is not that of a generous welfare donor as depicted in most versions today.
Robyn Hode, for example, does indeed steal from the rich; he and the Merry Men need the money themselves; of course they are the poor so in the minds of a medieval minstrel, there’s no need to “give it” to anyone. While he does exhibit benign moments, these often satirically reveal ironies in medieval English society. In the Gest of Robyn Hode, which is obviously pieced together from several other sources, he shows kindness towards a bankrupt knight but robs a rich monk and other members of the clergy. Ideally, of course, a medieval knight should be a wealthy and illustrious member of society, while the monk, as a representative of piety and humility, should be poor; Robyn’s actions are justified because the other two characters, greedy and corrupt, are “put in their place.” (A Gest of Robyn Hode, from Dobson & Taylor 72-112).
The various later developments of Robin Hood’s story are a product of later times, not the mysterious period from 1200-1350 in which scholars can only guess he lived. Only by the later sixteenth century does the Robin Hood legend known today take shape, but it would and does consistently change. The romance between Robin and Marian, for instance, is believed to have been adopted from an earlier French ballad, and became an integral part of the tales through the “May Games,” annual theatrical productions and celebrations in the 16th century. Other characters such as Guy of Gisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham are believed by many historians to have been subjects of their own respective tales, and later tales of Robin’s adventures. In addition, rather than Sherwood Forest, some believe the tales are even more confusingly based in Barnsdale. And, to be certain, any connections between Robin and the time of King Richard I or King John are believed to be later additions to the tale, as Edward is reportedly the king in the early 16th century Gest.

Over 500 years after Robyn Hood and the Monk, when director Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was released in 1991, it was attacked by most critics as one of the worst representations of the classic folktale ever. The often quoted critic Roger Ebert reportedly claimed it contained none of the typical elements of the “lightheartedness and romance that we expect” from the tale. In contrast to the damnation of critics, the film experienced excellent success in the box office as well as in sales of VHS copies later. Now, almost two decades after its release, one could bring the film up around those who were children at the time of its release, and find that this blatantly American and cheesy version of Robin Hood is considered a genuine classic film for the current generation. Fans offered to lend me copies from their old VHS collections; even parents recall it fondly, including my mother, perhaps as good clean fun. Maybe so, but it is very weak history. Why is this version so popular twenty years later? Perhaps it is because, for all general purposes, the characters, typical action, and the ever-socially conscious theme of a “noble-minded outlaw,” are indeed present in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
The most common public criticism involving realism concerned Kevin Costner’s role for his inability to learn an English accent (a criticism Costner rejected, claiming his British accent had been acceptable in the film. The great importance placed on one unrealistic accent seems trivial coming from critics who usually seemed not to care about outright crimes against historical fact. However, the accent oddly magnifies the fact that this Robin Hood, in almost all its qualities, is unarguably an American version of the outlaw.

Keep in mind, however, that the concept of “stealing from the rich and giving to the poor” is actually a much more modern development in the Robin Hood tale, and that Robin originally served as a symbol to lower class views of medieval justice and ideals. Then, listen to Kevin Costner speak about freedom, or hand out food and money to the poor citizens, or watch the revolution he and the Merry men incite against the Sheriff, (played by Alan Rickman) who for all purposes is a modern dictator. Land crazed, this Robin Hood, like the original role model, performs the same service as his medieval counterpart: acting the part of what our contemporary American culture sees as the outlaw hero. True, Costner’s accent makes him stand out from the rest of the British cast but so do his costumes and even his physical gestures as the charming ‘star’, and stands out from the rest of the cast like a foreigner, almost as much as his beloved friend, Azeem. But in the case of his brand new attire, shortly after escaping from a Near Eastern prison, the film makers were certainly aware that green tights worthy of Errol Flynn in 1940, would not be seen by the modern film audience as “heroic.”

Two main characters are added into the Robin Hood saga with various effects in Prince of Thieves, however. The sheriff’s evil mother, a witch, Mortianna, (played by Geraldine McEwan) serves the same purpose attributed in later medieval Robin Hood literature’s attempts to link the sheriff to a practitioner of witchcraft. With a witch involved, there can be no doubt, in the eyes of either medieval culture or modern American audiences, who the “bad guy” is. Even in the introduction of an Arabic black character as Robin’s companion, the film makers at least created a historically-plausible reason that also fits well enough within Robin Hood framework of elements. If, as is the case with many Robin Hood tales, Robin was a nobleman and a supporter of Richard I, (1189-1199) then he fought in the Third Crusade. This simple hypothesis provided the film makers a hinge for Robin of Locksley, a nobleman who is absent from his country and estates, to be stripped of his property, position, wealth and eventually take to thieving, after his father’s murder. The movie opens with a dramatic and vivid scene in which Robin, a prisoner of war taken by Saladin’s Warriors, escapes from a prison in Jerusalem. On his way out he saves a Moorish fellow prisoner, Azeem, who vows to follow the Englishman until the debt of saving the Moor’s life is repaid.

The opening scene of the escape allows an opportunity to create a Robin Hood who could appeal to an audience that was no longer confined to medieval England, but rather to modern day American and European audiences, both of which are now ethnically and religiously diverse cultures. Indeed, as played by Morgan Freeman, the addition of Azeem is in the long tradition of the stories …….. The presence of a wise, honorable, and well educated Muslim character in Robin’s band makes the Christian Crusades more palatable for a multicultural movie audience. It is of course, ridiculous to believe that a twelfth century Muslim would willingly travel to England as the comrade of a crusader, but when has the ridiculous alarmed Hollywood?

Finally, of course, in Prince of Thieves, audiences are apparently willing to suspend all reality. The Merry Men, who are already a band of misfits, accept a Black Muslim member of only for one reason; and as one critic noted: “oh come on, it’s Morgan Freeman with a scimitar!” The acting and the inimitable voice of Freeman have saved many a movie, why not this one? Quite frankly, Morgan Freeman’s Azeem and Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham are the characters that make this movie a unique and memorable Robin Hood adventure. These two additional characters do not conflict with the main Robin Hood folklore because they can be added or removed together without really affecting the traditional characters that have passed down through the centuries.

King Richard the Lionheart, played by Sean Connery, makes a cameo appearance. His reject, Prince Jolen, is wisely omitted. Richard’s persona in the film probably typifies popular images of kingly character. But Connery’s aging Richard offers further evidence that Robin Hood belongs to literature more so than history: Richard I would have only been in his thirties in 1194, and in fact spent only a few months in England over a ten year reign. This is not the Richard I of English history.

A serious historian or an ultra sophisticated film critic might take strong exception to this film’s faults; he might be offended by the numerous and often ridiculously modernized themes, content, dialogue, and (even completely out-of-place) additional characters. Yet most viewers accept the film light heartedly as just another enjoyable Robin Hood adventure, in a long line of literature and cinema.

If social, cultural, film fans or historians are already aware that they are watching a fairy tale, exactly how much reality can be expected? If evidence of a true Robin Hood could be found it would undoubtedly reveal someone nothing like Robin Hood of mythology. Contemporary historians such as Stephen Knight now argue that Robin Hood exists for us, as a long-present and adaptive cultural icon and a representation of cultural values. Thus, this version is simply representative of the continuing Robin Hood mythology, on top of being just a good old flick.

The strange question is, however, the love affair viewers still have for this version of Robin Hood. Perhaps viewers like the movie because it was ultimately a contemporary and evolving addition to the mythology. Older Robin Hood versions on television and movies are abundant, and are read in children’s books, and of course the much loved comical Disney featuring a ‘wily fox’ keeps the interest alive. Many viewers grew up with Robin in green panty hose, and then any half adult approach reminds us that Robin is a hero for the ages.

Many other pop-culture superheroes have also undergone recent wardrobe changes and have introduced social issues or “relevancy” in recent films. In order to appeal to the modern audience, for example, DC comics decided to, at least temporarily, nix Batman’s sidekick Robin (ironically somewhat modeled after Robin Hood himself) because of the boy wonder’s colorful and slightly feminine outfit. Bat Boy had become the butt of jokes and was deemed dated in the dark atmosphere where Batman worked. Batman lost a sidekick; with Azeem, Robin Hood gained one. Perhaps this evolutionary process in culture is what allows folklore characters like Robin Hood to survive.

Although after more than a decade Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves continues to be the most popular film about the legendary hero, there are many more available; a few that are seriously awful and a few that are wonderfully entertaining for film buffs, even if sometimes a bit creaky. Walt Disney’s foxy Robin as a musical has gained charm over the years with youngsters and parents who use the word “wholesome” a lot, while Robin Hood: Men in Tights was obviously made for lovers of The Three Stooges or others who may be intellectually deprived.

Better options include Douglas Fairbanks’ 1925 Robin Hood which stunned audiences with its daring stunts and grandiose sets. Douglas virtually made the term “swashbuckler” a generic term in cinema. Wallace Berry’s, pre-weight and pre–alcohol, effort as Richard the Lion Heart as well as a cast of Hollywood regulars, make the film a good example of the silent film adventure genre. Crisp, at times subtle and increasingly fast paced; the film reminds viewers that movies were once the interactive media for game players. Another choice is the classic produced in 1938. Errol Flynn, so often derided as a sexual buffoon and a dramatic lightweight, proved to be an agile and charming Robin and held his own against the heavy weights such as Claude Rains and Basil Rathbone. The film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, still plays well today for younger audiences despite the rather weak sets and cheesy costumes.

Equally entertaining, but with absolutely wonderful sets and costumes, is the television series The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Jonas Armstrong. The series, highly popular in England, but neglected in the United States turned the legendary thief into a medieval soap opera, but one that held up well for several seasons. It is available now and should be rented or even bought by the hard core fans of Robin and the denizens of Sherwood Forest. Robin and Marian, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn in 1976 is intelligently mature, charming and romantic, a new twist on the old adventure story. All in all, Robin has proven a good friend to the actors’ union, although actors have not always done their best by him!

Recommended Reading: Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography; Helen Phillips, Robin Hood: Medieval and Post-Medieval