Once upon a time, and in some periodical publication somewhere, I wrote a piece on Robin Hood. It was a review of some semi-scholarly book about this semilegendary figure, as I recall. Partly, I was interested in the “literary” aspect—the actual English ballad and folklore tradition going back to the Middle Ages, which has its parallels in other folklore traditions, from Persia to Peru. But mostly it was the political aspect that detained me.
Let us cut to the chase. Robin Hood was an outlaw, as medieval commentators were aware, and to be condemned as such. He was, unambiguously, a highwayman, and his Merry Men, using the camouflage of Sherwood Forest to mount their ambuscades, were an outlaw band. To put this in the plainest English, we are dealing with gangsters.
It is interesting that in the earlier versions of the tales, Robin Hood is a commoner, but in the later, he is cleaned up and re-dressed as an aristocrat, wrongly deprived of his estates. In other words, we have materials to trace the imaginative evolution of an unappealing common thug into a glittering romantic hero. And conversely, the more reason to believe that the tales began with some real, historical “Robin Hood.”
This is anyway plausible, for there were outlaws aplenty on the open roads, around the 14th century. And they would, by preference, afflict the wealthier travellers, more than the penurious ones. They imposed, in effect, a “graduated tax,” that fell a little more lightly on the minstrels, jugglers, charlatans, and herbalists; the messengers, itinerant merchants, and pedlars; the free workmen, and peasants out of bond; the mendicant preachers, hermits, and friars; the pardoners and the pilgrims—wandering the roads of medieval England. (See J.J. Jusserand, La vie nomade et les routes d’Angleterre au XIVe siecle. …. Or see Chaucer, for that matter.) The attraction of Robin Hood, perhaps then as now, to youthful and disordered minds, is that he himself “cuts to the chase,” or cuts the corner, discovering an effective method for redistributing wealth, centuries before the imposition of the Nanny State. He becomes, thus, a “romantic hero,” or to my mind, a wonderful illustration of the close connection between the “do-gooder” impulse, and the criminal one; or as Ann Coulter might put it, between a “liberal” and a “psycho.”
To the ordered, medieval mind, this would not do. Had Robin Hood given his ill-gotten gains to the poor, as a penance for his crimes, he might have passed within reach of absolution. But as he continued, in his proud self-regard, to rob the rich on the public highways, he put himself “progressively” further and further from any possibility of redemption. And as he was evidently determined to persist, and mount crime upon crime without ceasing, the charitable thing would have been to arrest his career as a highwayman, and hang him high. That is: save the poor wretch from accumulating the burden of any more damnable crimes, while focusing his need for repentance on the gallows.
The modern “folklore,” semilegendary equivalent to Robin Hood is perhaps Che Guevara—the Argentine Marxist and Castro agent, cleaned up in an iconic photo, and attractively coloured through a forged Andy Warhol. Yes, there was a real man by that name, operating in the Bolivian bush; in reality, a true human monster with much blood on his hands. But he acquired his legendary status—became “chic”—thanks to a revolutionary posture.
Robin is Che in a more antiquated costume, dyed in woad, but the same olive green; the pointed, triangular cap in place of the coffee-shop beret. (Though let me mention, before a reader corrects me, that Robin dressed for court in revolutionary scarlet.)
We enter a new year in which, despite the usual setbacks from reality, Robin Hoodlumism is alive and well, both as esthetic flourish and bureaucratic policy. Vast government departments continue to do what the outlaws did on medieval highways—though on a fiscal scale and with a crushing efficiency unimaginable in former times, upon travellers denied any of the traditional defences. Attempts to romanticize this operation, in which human generosity itself is obviated by arbitrary power, will continue for as long as the criminal impulse can be sublimated in moral pride, which is to say, probably forever.
Example, U.S. President Barack Obama is reported to be attending church again, and shows a “fresh start,” by persistently misquoting from the Book of Genesis, chapter four. “I am my brother’s keeper; I am my sister’s keeper,” he suggests it says. Check out the original. It is a scene in which no sisters appear, and the brothers in question are Cain and Abel. In particular, the intellectual leap from “you must not murder your brother,” to “you must create and sustain a vast and ponderous welfare system, that is funded by taxing him and borrowing the rest from China,” is not Biblical.
Nor, for that matter, is Robin Hood, though he and all history’s Merry Men will continue to have their pernicious influence on all youthful and disordered minds.