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1839 painting by Daniel Maclise: "Robin Hood Entertaining Richard the Lionheart in Sherwood Forest"

By Kathy Quinn Thomas

irty Harry, good cop, bad cop. Thelma and Louise, ultrafeminist wild women.

Butch Cassidy, cuddly cowboy/con man.

We 20th-century humans love the story of the sympathetic outlaw, judging by our popular film icons.

The renegade-with-a-heart-of-gold, in fact, shows up throughout history, in poems, songs, and stories that date back at least six centuries. Appearing sometimes as bloodthirsty bandit, sometimes as righteous nobleman, the romantic outlaw is always a resister of unjust authority. Ultimately, scholars say, these outlaw stories can all be traced back to their origin, the legend of Robin Hood, the quintessential free spirit of the western world.

That quintessential free spirit was very much alive on the River Campus last fall during what its organizers have dubbed the Robin Hood Semester:

Why does this centuries-old tale of the noble bandit continue to intrigue writers, actors, poets, filmmakers, and scholars? And, popularity aside, what makes it a scholarly pursuit worthy of its own academic conference?

Ask those questions, and Peck, the University's Deane Professor of Rhetoric and English Literature, smiles a quiet smile as he drops his pencil on the pile of exams he's grading and sits back in the chair in his Morey Hall office. "The tale has a persistence as an underdog story, weaving in and out of history," he says. "It appears in virtually all European societies during times of stress.

obin Hood provides a voice for that stress, whether in the reigns of Edward III, Henry VII, and Henry VIII, or at the end of the reign of Elizabeth I--all periods where anxiety and Robin Hood flourished together in England. Then the tales expressed great concern for the throne. In our own time, stories like Thelma and Louise and Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: The Prince of Thieves, which added the character of the Muslim Azeem, voice the concerns of women and minorities."

The Robin Hood legend has survived, too, as an adventure tale and as a "storybook for training adolescent boys," Peck says. "Young people see themselves as outsiders and identify with him. They also pick up some moral messages along the way.

"Robin Hood is a male Cinderella," he notes. "The two have a lot in common. Both are outside the mainstream; both have strong moral positions; both are underdogs." (Peck would be the one to pick up on the similarities to Cinderella. He has also taught courses on the evolution of that equally persistent, rags-to-riches tale.)

"Studying Robin Hood offers us the opportunity to examine history and culture, a chance to look through a window at ourselves and others in different times and places," he concludes.

The legend's resilience in all its forms says something about how stories are passed from one generation to the next, notes Alan Lupack, curator of the Robbins Library, the University's medieval archive.

"When you look at how the various themes are pursued in the movies, for instance, you can talk about the growth of the legend, the way these stories develop, and specific issues that crop up in the retelling."

s creator and curator of the University's much-visited Robin Hood Web site (nearly 10,000 visits in 1997), Lupack is perhaps as well situated as anyone to speak of the richness and variety of the Robin Hood legacy.

The most comprehensive such Web site in the world, The Robin Hood Project: Texts, Images, Bibliographies, and Basic Information contains everything that Lupack and his colleagues saw fit to include. A visit or two to the site ( is a fairly thorough education in the legend.

Many, if not most, of the Robin Hood tales are attributed to Anonymous, Lupack says. A scroll down the authors menu page proves him right.

The prolific Anonymous is responsible for the grisly "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne," the first printed version of which appeared in the mid-17th century (although a similar plot is told in a manuscript written about 1475). A sample:

The early bloodthirsty Robin Hood bears little resemblance to the Robin of Alfred Noyes's "A Song of Sherwood," written in 1911. This Robin Hood is "green," a romantic man of the forest:

These two texts make it clear how much Robin Hood has "culturally morphed," as English professor Thomas Hahn puts it. The 15th-century stories, he says, appealed primarily to men: colorful and often gory, as in the Guy of Gisborne story with Robin lopping off his opponent's head and disfiguring it beyond recognition. (Another early tale has him embarking on the outlaw life because he has just bloodily done away with 15 foresters who were harassing him.) Originally of sturdy yeoman stock, it was only later that he became the noble "Robert, Earle of Huntingdon."

And, Hahn adds, the early Robin didn't really steal from the rich to give to the poor. "In the earliest tales, the nearest we come to the traditional proverb is that he steals from the filthy rich to give to the deserving rich." It was closer to our own time when one popular strain of these stories became gentrified, with Robin giving to the poor to make him more moral, more family-friendly, he says.

"We wouldn't want to hold up a lawbreaker as a model for children," agrees librarian Alan Lupack, "but if we can say he's robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, that makes him more acceptable.

"There are always additions to the story, but the core of it, with Robin as the resister of unjust authority, remains central throughout the ages."

o broad is the appeal of this central theme that the October Robin Hood conference attracted a distinguished international contingent of aficionados, some from as far afield as Japan and ranging in academic specialties from film studies to legal history, children's literature, and popular culture.

The four conference coordinators--Peck, Lupack, and Hahn, along with history professor Richard Kaeuper--started planning the gathering over two years ago, looking ahead to the simultaneous publication of a book of Robin Hood tales, the newest addition to a highly praised series of rarely seen Middle English stories. Peck, general editor of the series, says the book's publication was a perfect excuse--if one was needed--to stage the conference.

The three-day conference program combined academic discussion (relating our hero to such varied topics as American jurisprudence, anti-Nazi propaganda, and the emergence of longbow archery) with a variety of Robin-related entertainments, from a screening of a 1923 takeoff on Douglas Fairbanks' great silent film to an Eastman School concert of rarely recorded, seldom-performed madrigals, ayres, and operatic sound bites.

The live-action highlight, perhaps, came on Friday night with a spirited production of the 16th-century "Robin Hood and the Friar" performed by Drama House residents, the fencing team, and a group of freshman students from Professor Hahn's "Outlaw Heroes" course. "There was a lot of stage combat, from sword fighting to quarterstaffs, but it was all choreographed so there was no actual physical contact," freshman Karen Hibbert reported, perhaps with some relief. (She was the play's Little John.)

The gathering raised some media hoopla, too, with the Robin Hood mavens turning up on the BBC and Australian radio, as well as on CNN and CBS Radio's Osgood File, and, in print, in a good half hundred newspapers. Among them was the London Daily Mirror, which huffed, Hahn reports, that in his BBC interview he'd made out their national hero "to be a drunk, a thug, and a womanizer, and suggested that the U.S. was recreating Robin Hood in its own image."

pinions of the Daily Mirror notwithstanding, so well did the conference go down in academe that the proceedings of the sessions are being prepared for publication later this year, and a follow-up gathering--in, fittingly, Nottingham, England--has been scheduled for 1999. Meanwhile, although the so-called Robin Hood Semester is now over, related studies are still being vigorously pursued on campus--from undergraduates helping to prepare early texts for publication, to graduate students doing dissertation work, to faculty scholars engaged in a variety of research projects.

Among the latter is Hahn, editor of the conference proceedings, who is also finishing up a prose collection of the earliest lives of Robin Hood. Another of his forthcoming publications is a book based on the teaching and research associated with his Robin Hood courses. Tentatively titled Popular Justice in Disguise: Outlaw Heroes from Robin Hood to Eastwood, the volume looks at these outlaw stories over the last six centuries--examining, as he says, "their status as popular culture for a spectrum of audiences, the varieties of masculinity (and femininity) that occur in them, and their connections to violence, economics, and political change."

"There is a half-satirical axiom in literary study," Hahn observes, "that says, 'The more popular the object of study, the more intense or elaborate the method of study.' Robin Hood fits this model, I think: In our readings, classes, and research, our aim is not to appreciate or enjoy Robin Hood and outlawry as such. We want instead to understand the sources of the pleasure these bring as powerful cultural icons and narratives."

"Reaching that understanding, in fact, is the focus of Hahn's semester-long Quest course on popular culture and the Robin Hood tale. Such Quest courses, as regular readers of this magazine may be aware, are seminar-style classes for first-year students that--rather than relying on textbook information--encourage development of intellectual tools through the study of primary sources.

Accordingly, about a dozen and a half freshman Questers gathered weekly throughout the fall to watch movies and read poems and stories about the famous outlaw in all his many guises, from early Robin Hood ballads to contemporary real-life bandits and fictional movie heroes. As a plus, the students got to study rare early materials while also digging into, as Hahn puts it, "a vast amount of reading in film criticism, social history, folklore, and gender studies.

"As I tell the students on the first day of class, we understand Robin Hood only by murdering the simple pleasures the ballads and films seem to offer, and replacing them with the more complicated pleasures of historical and critical analysis," he explains.

obin Hood is part of the indispensable cultural baggage every English-speaking person has carried for the last 600 years," Hahn remarks to the class one day shortly after the close of the conference.

To prepare for this day's session, the group has watched Disney's animated Robin Hood and had earlier viewed nine other filmed versions of the tale, including Mel Brooks's send-up and both the Fairbanks and Costner portrayals.

Disney's cartoon fox was "so cute" as Robin, says one freshman, who adds in a teasing tone, "and we enjoyed it despite your attempts to make us not enjoy it."

Hahn laughs and says, "I'm just trying to get you to enjoy it in another way," referring to his earlier remark about "murdering simple pleasures" in favor of more complex intellectual rewards.

A few days later, in a literal hands-on venture, the Quest class tried out its skills with the bow and arrow. (How often do you ever see Robin without his trusty bow?) An expert archer since his camp counselor days, Provost Charles Phelps, the University's chief academic officer, had invited the students for a lesson in his back yard, followed up with a medieval feast of roasted chicken, beef stew, and apples. "This is really getting close to Robin Hood, in a physical sense, and that's important," observed freshman Sarah Siracuse, one of those who did Robin proud by squarely hitting the target.

While the others were out shooting, in Richard Kaeuper's History 211 class, "History from Myth: King Arthur and Robin Hood," about a dozen upperclass students pursuing majors ranging from chemistry to psychology, biochemistry, and religion were sitting around some pushed-together oak tables in the tiny attic-style conference room on the fourth floor of Rush Rhees Library. Kaeuper uses medieval tales to illustrate such things as the historical concepts of kingship, chivalry, socioeconomic oppression and resistance, and the growth and functioning of early legal systems.

"So is Robin Hood a historical fact?" he asks the class.

History involves analytical judgments as well as facts, he explains. Historians never have all the evidence they want, but they can use works of literature such as the Robin Hood tales to reconstruct the fears and values of people in the past. "This isn't science," he reminds them. "You can't run experiments. You can't just say, 'Let's run the 14th century without Robin Hood and see what happens.' "

"At the conference," a student offers, "the Cambridge scholar R. B. Dobson said that bands of outlaws did exist, and that people told stories about them. Apparently, some of them also wore hoods, which is probably how Robin got his last name."

eah, he's sort of an amalgamation," a classmate adds.

Kaeuper says that the stories were probably told orally for many years before the earliest surviving written reference (in the 1377 Piers Ploughman). "What's intriguing about those earliest references is that they are so casual--everyone assumes everyone else knows about Robin Hood, so they don't explain anything. It is pretty clear that the stories were already well known."

"Robin Hood is the voice of the people," suggests a student. "He tells us what the social issues were at the time. Robin Hood is the voice of peasant discontent."

The beloved brigand may be the voice of the discontented 16th-century peasant, but he is also--judging by an exhibition on view in Rush Rhees Library throughout the fall--the voice of, among others, the 20th-century adman, toy manufacturer, comic-book artist, and coffee-mug designer.

Displayed, along with books, broadsides, and literary garlands from centuries past, were all the minutiae of our modern cultural passion for the merry outlaw: "Robin Hood Cycles--Easy on the Road, Light on the Purse," declares a smiling Robin, serenely unconscious of anachronism as he prepares to mount his wheel. In other ads, our hero is seen hawking breakfast cereals, beer, soup, and, in a clash of cultures, pizza crust mix ("Just add water," Robin instructs).

Jostling for space in the lobby exhibit cases were Robin-imprinted pens, pencils, postcards, cookie cutters, action figures, jigsaw puzzles, board and card games, toffee tins and teapots, movie posters and magazines (Alfred E. Neuman as Robin, and farther on, an issue of Maid Marian and Her Merry Men featuring "Robert the Incredible Chicken").

The exhibition, which originated at the University of Oldenburg, Germany, and made Rochester its only North American stop, did of course encompass more weighty material. Upstairs, in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, a freestanding, life-sized cardboard Robin Hood (looking rather like Errol Flynn) invited viewers to savor the most valuable pieces in the exhibit: vintage printed material, some of it centuries old, with stories, poems, and ballads of the outlaw Robin Hood, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and their adventures in Sherwood Forest. The stuff from which legends are made.

t's that magical setting in the woods and "the component of merriness, a capacity for spontaneous behavior, the presumption that everyone naturally values everyone else," Hahn suggests, that is yet another key to the persistence of the legend.

"I think even medieval people thought Robin Hood lived in a simpler time than their own," he adds. "It has a lot to do not with social or political change but with nostalgia, the sense that 'Wouldn't it be nice if we could all go back to that untroubled world?'"

Kathy Quinn Thomas is associate editor of Rochester Review.

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Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 3--Spring-Summer 1998
Copyright 1998, University of Rochester
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