Classic Characters: Robin Hood, the Pastoral Rogue

Robin Hood is a fascinating character that has seen quite a few face-lifts over the years. The basic idea is that Robin and his band of outlaws, the merry men, ambush the wealthy and redistribute their ill-gotten gain to the desperately poor. Any mention of this character in the modern context is sure to excite those who are overly sensitive to the ideas of class warfare. Then again, maybe we are due for a really good Robin Hood movie, especially in the age of giant banks engaged in criminal activities and the NSA spying on the little guy.

The costume is a little too idealized though…

The early mentions of Robin Hood do not place him in the nobility, but rather have him belonging to the Yeoman class, a ground somewhat above peasants in the medieval order. In these stories Robin does not always give his gains to the poor, but he nonetheless show uncommon compassion for an outlaw. These lines from the Gest of Robyn Hode (~1475)  sum it up nicely.

loke ye do no husbonde harme 
That tilleth with his ploughe.
No more ye shall no gode yeman
That walketh by gren-wode shawe;
Ne no knyght ne no squyer
That wol be a gode felawe,
he was a good outlawe,
And dyde pore men moch god.
(Basically don’t pick on poor people, including good Knights)

In later tales Robin Hood is often portrayed as a displaced nobleman, and a jovial one at that. Ivanhoe popularizes this view. He is still kind to the poor however, that rarely changes.

The outlaw leader is often portrayed as highly skilled with sword, staff, and wrestling. However his skill with a bow stands out. Very few characters arising from the medival tradition are celebrated for their archery, but Robin stands the test of time as a brilliant marksman, whose feats of skill with arch and arrow rival those of older Heroes like Odysseus and Apollo in some ways. The favoured tale of Robin sneaking into an Archery Contest and splitting an arrow down the centre of the bull’s eye to win leaps to mind.

Robin is also known for his survival and leadership skills. He can coordinate and control his varied band of outlaws, who seem to follow him with the sort of congenial loyalty reserved for the very best leaders. Often they join his band after he beats or engages them in some sort of contest. They live in great comfort in the wilderness, and are often portrayed as living off the land in a comfortable and idyllic fashion. Robin in particular is familiar with the land, very much at home in the wilds, be they idealized or dangerous. Often this gives him a tremendous advantage over his foes.

I feel that Robin Hood, especially early Yeoman Robin Hood, provides an archetype for many rogues in Modern Fantasy. He takes advantage of stealth and trickery, fighting from ambush and employing less than honourable tactics. His motive is not to conquer or do harm, but to profit and live free. If you were to removed Robin from the wilderness and gritty up the Merry Men, you would have a ready made fantasy take about a gang of misfits hunted by the law or a deadly assassin rebelling against the law. I don’t think that this a coincidence at all. The tale resonates especially well with modern audience with so many of the characters achieving greatness despite coming from lowly backgrounds instead of the aristocracy. There is a little bit of Robin Hood in many of the Rogues in Fantasy, these days.

Another rogue-like trait is Robin’s use of cunning to overcome foes with a great advantage in brute power, a trait that is turned against him in the tales of his death when he is betrayed by a corrupt Prioress. The idea of intellect over brawn is a very agreeable notion to most modern readers.

The Aristocratic versions of Robin hood bear a resemblance to Batman. Like Robin Hood, Batman is a tremendously skilled, tactically-minded individual, who often works as an outlaw. Batman defends the people of Gotham, and while he does not rob to the rich to give to the poor his skill set and method of operation are very similar. Robin is portrayed as moving through the trees in a fairly similar fashion to the way Batman gets around the concrete jungle. Both rely on stealth and cunning against foes who are much stronger, and both take on a corrupt social order. Batman is often portrayed as grim, but at some points so was Robin Hood (and Adam West Batman was hardly grim at all.) It is interesting to see close ties between two characters who seem so different and it is worth further consideration…

Finally the most interesting pattern that Robin Hood invokes for Modern Fantasy lies in the idea of Guerrilla Warfare. In many versions of the story Robin and the Merry Men wage war against an illegitimate government. Much like historical Guerrilla Fighters they shelter in the wilderness and seek allies among the common people. On both accounts; the damage they seek to inflict on the enemy is often economic and logistical, humiliating the enemy and causing them to look foolish. Can I picture Robin Hood as a Che Guevara type figure? easily. The comparison is a very easy one to make, and is one of the reason that hackles rise among the local 1% fan club every time a Robin Hood movie comes along.

Robin Hood, leader of the Merry Men of Sherwood forest is an influential character. He provides a clear archetype for many daring and cunning Rogues, even if their adventures take place in cities instead of forests. And if you dig a little deeper you can come with some far more interesting parallels for devices that would be excellent in Modern Fantasy!

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