The archetypal figure known as Robin Hood is like a diamond with many facets. Looked at from one angle, Robin is a commoner, a yeoman from humble roots who retreats into hiding from the authorities and escapes grinding poverty by becoming a thief, albeit a thief who steals from the corrupt wealthy aristocrats and clergy of the mediaeval period. However, if the diamond is turned, another side is revealed which shows Robin as a dispossessed overlord of the English countryside, fighting both to recover his rightful lands and to help others who are the victims of injustice.
Turn the diamond again to show another facet and Robin is a native of Nottinghamshire, residing in Sherwood Forest. However, another twist of the diamond shows Robin to be based in Barnsdale, Yorkshire. Again, is Robin a product of the overactive and romantic imaginations of balladeers from the Middle Ages who fancied that, with a little embellishment, ordinary villains could become champions? He might be a much older figure, rooted in ancestral memory as an aspect of the Green Man, Puck, Robin Goodfellow or other English woodland spirits. There are placenames connected with Robin all over England, suggesting a truly national hero, although he is often localised (helping the people of Sherwood or Barnsdale), and also internationalised: witness his involvement in the Crusades. Robin can go anywhere, which marks him out as a desirable avenger. Where will he strike next? Wherever there is injustice.
The pun contained in his first name, 'Robin' for robbing, is a clue to the elusive nature of this character. The truth is that Robin Hood is almost an allegory for the way in which the English, and people from other countries, find not just comfort but a rallying point in an heroic figure. The first recorded time when Robin and his band of Merry Men (plus Maid Marian) appeared to lead the just cause was on behalf of the Anglo-Saxons against the Normans. Having gained a good grip on England by 1086, the new invading overlords could now control the land through taxes. Who else but Robin Hood would appear out of thin air to redress the imbalance and make the vanquished feel that they had not lost everything?
The image of Robin Hood can be borrowed in any era. In 1938 a film was made in Hollywood called The Adventures of Robin Hood. At the time totalitarianism was on the rise in Europe and some countries had already been annexed or occupied. The film depicts Robin in his classic role as defender of the innocent against tyranny, albeit the tyrants are King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. When the film was on general release in Britain, America and elsewhere, the symbolism was blatantly obvious: occupied England under the Normans equates to occupied Europe under the Nazis, and the Sherwood band of outlaws represents the partisans in various countries. Like the contemporary revival of Sherlock Holmes, the character of Robin Hood was directly transposed into a wartime setting in order to allow England and the Allies to invoke his appeal as a resistance symbol against the Nazis.
In the 1980s, with the rise of New Age interests and the resurgence of Paganism, the television series Robin of Sherwood cast Robin and his band very clearly as Pagan followers of the sect of Herne the Hunter, a mythic archetype. Herne in folklore is variously one of the members of the Wild Hunt, coursing across the stormy night sky, or a forester in Windsor Great Park who allegedly hanged himself from a tree. In the television series Herne is an atavistic shaman who chooses Robin to be his son and do his bidding. This involves redressing injustices and respecting the ancient traditions of the Pagan religion.
Modern or Neo-Pagans claim a much older lineage for Robin than the ballads of the mediaeval period, in the same way that King Arthur can be seen as an Iron Age warrior. In this view, the involvement of Maid Marian is deeply symbolic as an aspect of Mystery Plays and the sacred alchemical balance between male and female, sun and moon, with the Merry Men as the stars of the firmament. The struggle with the Sheriff of Nottingham is like the battle between good and evil, light and dark. It is almost pointless to try to establish historical authenticity for Robin, because various real figures might well have adopted his legendary name to attract its powerful imagery. Indeed, part of Robin's significance is that people continue to seek his strength by associating themselves with the legends.
An example of the esoteric meaning ascribed to the apparently merely entertaining side of the traditional ballads can be seen in respect of one of the most famous tales. The Sheriff of Nottingham advertises an archery contest with the prize of a golden arrow for the best archer: a plot to trap Robin Hood. In the contest, all of the archers are eliminated until only Robin (in disguise) and another remain. The opponent's arrow hits the centre of the bull's eye, and the assembled company say that no one can best this shot. Robin takes aim and splits his opponent's arrow down the middle, leaving his own arrow intact in the target, and thereby achieves the impossible. He wins the contest and covertly reveals the Runic or Druidic Nod in the process. The Nod is a symbol like an arrowhead, which represents variously light energy, a holy word and letters of the Bardic Alphabet. This symbolism excites Neo-Pagans and suggests that Robin was never solely an Anglo-Saxon hero, but that his roots go further back to the Celtic occupation of England.
The character of Robin Hood reappears and the story is retold according to the needs of the time. The current Hollywood film Robin Hood and the recent BBC television series of the same title have both appeared at a time when Green issues are more than topical. They reveal that Robin remains in the collective consciousness as the champion of those who are victims of rapacious greed. Neither version is a particularly accurate representation of the original stories, but this is not important; rather, the modern mind is once more drawing upon ancient symbolism. Exploitation of the land is a nascent theme of the current retelling, and the flexible yet enduring image of Robin has transformed again. There is more than a passing resemblance between the Robin Hood stories and the legends of King Arthur, the once and future king, who will return to save England in the greatest hour of need. (It is no coincidence that new film and television versions of the King Arthur tales have also appeared in the past few years.) This time, the entire planet needs Robin to save it from the depredations of rapacious multinational corporations and unscrupulous governments: Robin will inspire and guide those who would do right and defy these powerful new overlords of the twenty-first century.
If Robin is like a diamond with many facets, he is undoubtedly a diamond geezer. Whether a dispossessed nobleman or a humble yeoman, he is loved by men and women of all classes who believe that despots must be defied. The ends clearly justify the means, for although Robin exemplifies many of the virtues of the stereotypical Englishman (fairness, good manners, sympathy with the underdog, and a love of freedom), he is also ruthless and remorseless in the right cause. Here there are hints of a type of Englishman who will resurface in the character of James Bond. Both Robin Hood and Bond live outside the law and social norms, rebellious and defiant of authority and the establishment, but both are romantic adventurers with great appeal to the general public. From another perspective, Robin can also represent the intemperance of youth. In one early story the teenage Robin encounters a group of fifteen men who challenge him to an archery contest. The young Robin beats them all and claims the prize, but the men refuse to give it to him and send him on his way. Once he has walked a sufficient distance to demonstrate further his skill with the longbow, he systematically shoots all fifteen men dead. This is not the usual image of the freedom fighter or righter of wrongs, but a rather terrifying figure of youthful wrath-- a much darker side to Robin's character which does not feature in most of the tales.
The most recent invocation of Robin harkens back to his role as a redresser of social wrongs. So, apart from environmental issues, the other subliminal impulse to revive him currently comes from the recession. Indeed, the Robin Hood Tax explicitly names him as the exemplar of the principle that the wealthy bankers and speculators who are widely blamed for the current economic crisis should pay a small sum on each financial transaction, so that the money collected may be used to assist the poorest members of society, both here and abroad, as well as deal with environmental problems. Whilst not exactly robbing the rich to give to the poor, it is a classically English solution to a very difficult situation.
Another fictional character, A. J. Raffles (a Victorian/Edwardian gentleman anti-hero) is sometimes seen as half-way to being Robin Hood, because Raffles robbed the rich in a daring and romantic style but kept the money for himself. Perhaps Raffles reflected the late nineteenth century commercial ethos in the way that Robin appears to symbolise the true values of the perpetual Englishman. Yet Robin still remains as elusive as ever. Just as we think we have him, he disappears into the forest, perfectly camouflaged in Lincoln Green. There he remains until we need him again, a diamond in the rough.--Alexander J. Betts