Robin Hood, Nottinghamshire
The legend of Robin Hood vies for primacy with that of King Arthur in British folklore, constantly retold and re-invented, each generation adding to the tales, the characters, the deeds associated with this most enduring of folk figures.
The origins of the story are much debated. One thoroughly unromantic version has Robin as a much altered version of the outlaws who in early medieval times made travelling through the forests of England a very dangerous business – in times of famine these outlaws were even known to resort to cannibalism. Another has him coming out of the legends of real figures such as Hereward the Wake , or rather further afield William Wallace .
Indeed Robin is often thought of as a folk survival of the Saxon resistance to the Norman oppression following the disaster of Hastings : he is anti-clerical, attacking rich bishops in a church gone bad; he is a protector of the poor, as the Saxon peasants needed protection from the demands of their new masters (not that they had it too easy under their old ones); he ignores the laws about hunting deer that William imposed on his new people, where disobedience of the new ways meant death.
In our own times Robin has come to be something of a multi-culturalist, accompanied often by some Saracen friend or companion from his days in the Crusades.
Whatever the origins, and however the story changes with time, the core elements are now set. Robin is an outlaw, often a displaced minor noble, Robin of Locksley, forced to flee injustice and live in the great forest. He has a loyal band of followers, with the giant Little John as his closest lieutenant, and Alan a-Dale as his minstrel. For spiritual comfort there is Friar Tuck, a symbol of the old, native church, though he is also a symbol of the pleasure of food and drink, his girth expanded by the ale and pies he is constantly consuming. And most importantly, he has Maid Marian (in fact rather a late addition to the legends), the noble maiden who provides love interest, and an element of intrigue if her father or guardian is made to be one of Robin’s enemies.
As with Robin himself, Marian changes with the years – today she is likely to be a proto-feminist, anachronously independent and feisty, concerned with the poor more than her dresses, and a gifted sword-fighter.
But of course a hero needs a villain: Robin has the Sherriff of Nottingham , star of stage, screen and in particular panto; he is the epitome of grasping government, taxing anything that moves or stands still, revelling in a life of luxury while the peasants have no bread, loathed by all. He is the merchant banker of his day.
More ambivalent is the figure of King Richard in the tales: Prince John is the Sherriff’s superior, as evil as can be; Richard is all that is noble and loyal (a huge distortion for a man who admitted that to fund his fighting he would have sold London had he found a buyer), in some tales knighting Robin for protecting his kingdom in his absence.
Children will always love the tales: the thin disguises; the inability to resist a challenge and a trap but the skill to escape it once sprung; the almost supernatural ability with the long bow, splitting his opponent’s arrow in half in the silver arrow competition; getting drenched by Little John knocking him in the river. All these and more are recycled by the movies, TV, and of course parents telling stories at bath- and bed-time, able to rely on their fascination and timelessness.
And just as the movies love Robin, so does our tourist industry: Nottingham of course claims him, and Sherwood Forest to this day has visitors looking for his home every weekend, the Major Oak the centre of their searches. The Barnsdale area of South Yorkshire possibly has a better historical claim, and even Leicestershire pitches in with a story that he originated in Swannington there. In a swathe of country from Yorkshire to Lincolnshire , via Derbyshire and Notts, pubs called The Robin Hood are to be found in almost every town and village, and each place will have those who are sure theirs is the rightful home of this most welcome of heroes.
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