Robin Hood: Too Good to Be True - A Real Folk Hero or a Romantic Embellishment?
Robin Hood is arguably one of the best-known figures in English folklore. Today, he is generally portrayed as an outlaw dressed in Lincoln green who ‘robbed from the rich to give to the poor’. Now a larger than life character, Hood is commonly depicted as a skilled fighter, especially when it comes to using the bow. The legend of Robin Hood originates in the medieval period, and has developed over the centuries. As the tales changed, so too did the character of Robin Hood.
Rhymes of Robin
The earliest appearance of Robin Hood in a text may be traced to around 1377, in William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman . In this poem, one of the characters, Sloth the chaplain, mentions that “I kan nought parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth, But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf, Erl of Chestre”. This suggests that the tales of Robin Hood were sung as drinking songs, perhaps popularly amongst the common folk in taverns. This may also further imply that Robin Hood was a folk hero, though perhaps unknown amongst members of the upper class. It has also been pointed out that the popularity of outlaws like Robin Hood amongst the common folk is an indication that the rulers of that time were tyrannical, and that they did not provide good governance.
Little John and Robin Hood by Frank Godwin, circa. 1920 ( Public Domain )
Early Literary Record
The main body of texts about Robin Hood, however, date to the 15 th century. One of these, for example, is The Lyttle Geste of Robyn Hode , which is thought to have been written down around the end of the 15 th century / beginning of the 16 th century, but composed around 1400. Contrary to the popular view that Robin Hood robbed from the rich to give to the poor, there is no mention in this tale that money was re-distributed by Robin Hood to the needy.
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Whilst the tales and exploits of Robin Hood continued to be told in subsequent centuries, it was during the 19 th century that the legendary outlaw enjoyed a surge in popularity. Authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Thomas Love Peacock and Pierce Egan included Robin Hood in their works. Scott, for instance, has Robin Hood as one of the characters in his famous work, Ivanhoe, whilst Egan’s serialised tale of Robin Hood was published in 1840, under the title of Robin Hood and Little John: or, the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest . This period of heightened interest in Robin Hood culminated in the work of Howard Pyle towards the end of the century.
Portrait of Sir Walter Scott and His Dogs by Henry Raeburn, circa 1820s ( Public Domain )
A Folk Hero Emerges
By the time of Pyle’s 1883 novel, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood , Robin Hood had become the truly noble hero that we are familiar with today. Additionally, to enhance his positive qualities, the outlaw’s enemies were twisted into truly villainous characters. Pyle’s tale of Robin Hood’s struggle against the injustice of those in power was very popular, especially amongst the young. Whilst what we may consider to be the ‘traditional’ character of Robin Hood had been established by the end of the 19 th century, the development of this folk hero did not stop. Further developments of the figure of Robin Hood may be seen in 20 th and 21 st centuries.
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Statue of Robin Hood and Little John in Sherwood Forest ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The Legend Lives On
Robin Hood has been, and continues to be, a popular character in television and films. An example of the adaptation of the Robin Hood legend to this modern media is Walt Disney’s 1973 Robin Hood . In this animated film, the characters of the folktale are portrayed as anthropomorphic animals, along with their associated traits. Robin Hood, for example, is depicted as a fox, an animal known for its cunning, whilst King Richard and his brother, Prince John, are portrayed as lions, a beast regarded as the king of the animal kingdom. As another example, Robin Hood also makes an appearance in the popular British sci-fi series, Doctor Who . In the episode ‘Robot of Sherwood’, the Doctor and his companion travel to England in the year 1190, where they encounter the real Robin Hood, though the Doctor refused, for much of the episode, to believe that Robin Hood was indeed an actual person.