Robin Hood Literature

Stephen Knight

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Robin Hood Literature

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The Robin Hood tradition is late medieval in origin and was initially an inherently popular element in English culture; in many respects, it has remained so. At first he was a figure who resisted wrongful authority, in sometimes violent but also tricksterish ways: essentially, he was a man of the people expressing the value of natural law. In the 16th century, a variant appeared in which he became a distressed nobleman, the victim of wrongful authority (notably bad Prince John), but supporting true nobility now of birth as well as of behavior, and loyal to the true king, Richard I, who usually restored Robin, or Earl Robert, to noble status. This inherently conservative version persisted, and it often (notably in novels and films) interwove with the resistant man of the people. Early in the 19th century, Scott, Peacock, Keats, and others reshaped the figure as distinctly masculine and essentially English. This model became generalized to America and France and beyond, so that Robin Hood became the international version of what Eric Hobsbawm called “the social bandit” and developed an extra-textual life, appearing frequently in newspaper headlines. Opposed to this mythic volatility is the reductive idea that he really existed and so the myth should be called a legend. Then again, some people feel he is a nature-hero, a figure of greenwood folklore. However, the dominant verity is that Robin Hood is at the center of a hugely popular myth which expresses a sense of resistance to authority that is in keeping with nature and true law but never becomes violent revolution, and that respects true agents of valid authority. A utopian figure, Robin Hood is everywhere—but he is also highly localized in both place and time. His story is so variable that it can embody the shapes, meanings, and anxieties of many varying contexts and cultures, and from that variety comes its enduring vitality.

Article.  9608 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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