Let’s take a journey back to medieval England, a thousand years ago. It’s a land ruled by mighty kings who command vast armies, knights in shining armor, and maidens who wander the woods at night, trying to find unicorns to tame and present to the king as gifts.
But let’s leave all that behind. Not everyone in the middle ages was a king, knight, or royal maiden. Most people– and by that I mean almost everyone– were very, very poor. And it’s a legend passed around by these poor peasants that we’re interested in today.
So instead of imagining a grand castle with battlements and a drawbridge, let’s venture into the depths of Sherwood forest, where Robin Hood and his companions, the Merry Men, live and plan their raids. But, as you probably know, these are no ordinary criminals. The legendary Robin Hood was an outlaw, but he wasn’t in it to make himself rich. Instead, he stole from the rich and gave to the poor. His run-ins with the sheriff of Nottingham, his arch-nemesis, bring excitement and danger to the many tales of daring and bravery, while his relationship with the Merry Men and Maid Marion showcases teamwork, friendship, and generosity.
But was there a real Robin Hood? And why have the legends of this green-clad crusader against injustice stayed so popular for over 700 years? Let’s go a little deeper into Sherwood Forest and see if we can find some answers!
It turns out, the real Robin Hood is hard to find in those shadowy woods. Historians in the 14th and 15th centuries wrote about him as though he was real, describing a man who lived sometime in the 12th or 13th century. Later stories say he was a loyal supporter of the noble King Richard the Lionheart, and defended the king against Prince John, who seized the throne. But this alliance with King Richard was suggested by a much later writer, who lived in the 18th century, rather than anyone alive closer to the 1190s when he ruled. Also, Richard probably wasn’t as noble as these later Robin Hood legends suggest, and John probably wasn’t as evil.
But in addition to history books, there were also plenty of songs and plays based on the legendary outlaw by the time the historians began to take notice. May Day festivals often included plays about Robin Hood. But it’s the songs, called ballads, where we find most of the Robin Hood legends we’re so familiar with today. A ballad was a folk song that told a simple story. They were performed by and for common people in many different settings in medieval England: At taverns, public markets, and fairs and festivals.
Ballads were part of an oral tradition – stories passed around among friends, or from grandparents to grandchildren, generation to generation, over a long time. Ballads just happened to be set to music. Different performers might change things around or add new elements, so they weren’t really “written” by any one person. Most people didn’t know how to read or write in the Middle Ages anyways, so ballads were an important way to keep treasured stories alive. Over time, people forgot which parts were real and which weren’t, and the stories became legends.
At the time, people loved the idea of a hero who stood up against injustice and challenged authorities. Most people in medieval England were, after all. Most of them worked as farmers on land owned by royalty or the church. These people were called serfs, and they weren’t free to just get up and leave to seek a better life elsewhere. They had to farm the same land their parents and grandparents had farmed, for a wealthy baron or the church. But these peasants saw the grand castles and manors that the landowners lived in, the decadent foods they indulged in, and the fine clothes, and compared it to their own meager houses and rough clothes.
So it’s no wonder Robin Hood became the hero of many a folk ballad, sung by these unfree peasants who worked the land. He strived to even things out, taking from the wealthy and giving the spoils to those who had almost nothing. In some medieval legends, Robin Hood is himself a commoner, a peasant, who goes against the system. In others, he started as one of those noblemen, but after seeing how the poor farmers on his estate lived, decided to devote himself to the cause of making their lives better.
Whatever Robin Hood’s personal history, wealthy, powerful people don’t always want to give up their wealth so that the poor can have a better life. Plus, what hero is complete without a villain? Robin Hood’s most persistent foe in the legends was the Sheriff of Nottingham. A greedy, cunning official, the sheriff had it out for Robin Hood, always devising schemes to capture him and his band of Merry Men. But Robin Hood always outwitted the sheriff, often besting him at his games. In one of the most famous ballads, the sheriff puts on an archery contest, with a silver arrow as the prize. The contest is designed to lure Robin Hood, who has a reputation as a skilled archer, into a trap so the sheriff can arrest him. But Robin disguises himself and wins the contest anyway. In some versions, he even splits another contestant’s arrow right down the middle! Later, he shoots a note–attached to an arrow–into town, boasting to the sheriff about how he had tricked him.
Another thing every hero needs when he goes up against the bad guys is allies – a band of friends to help him through tough situations and keep his spirits up when things seem hopeless. Robin Hood’s Merry Men filled this role perfectly. Friar Tuck, Little John (said to be seven feet tall!), and Will Scarlett, to name a few, helped Robin with his schemes and disguises. Like Robin himself, we’re not sure whether most of these people were real, but many of them seem to be inspired by real people – mostly outlaws, though not always as charitably inclined as the Merry Men of the ballads!
But the love of Robin’s life was the Maid Marion. Though she’s always in modern movies and books about Robin Hood, she wasn’t in the earliest ballads and legends. But when she shows up in a 17th-century ballad, she makes a strong impression – on Robin as well as audiences! In this story, Marion disguises herself as a boy to search for Robin in the forest. But when she finds Robin, he’s also wearing a disguise, and instead of a happy reunion they get into a fight:
They drew out their swords, and to
cutting they went,
At least an hour or more,
That the blood ran apace from bold
And Marian was wounded sore.
“O hold thy hand, hold thy hand,” said
“And thou shalt be one of my string,
To range in the wood with bold Robin
And hear the sweet nightingall sing.”
Fortunately, in the end Robin Hood is so impressed by his opponent’s swordsmanship, that he asks to stop the fight (“Hold thy hand”) and offers “him” a spot in his band of Merry Men, saying “be one of my string.” In other stories, Marion has very different roles: sometimes, she’s a noblewoman, sent off to marry the evil Prince John, rival of Robin Hood’s ally King Richard, and Robin must rescue her. In other accounts, she’s equal to any of the Merry Men–fighting alongside the rest of the crew, helping with Robin Hood’s mission to steal from the rich and give to the poor.
In modern times, Robin Hood hasn’t lost any of his popularity. There have been countless novels, comic books, TV shows and movies about him since the middle ages. Movies range from the swashbuckling 1938 film “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” to the animated Disney version where Robin Hood and Maid Marion are portrayed as adorable foxes. Countless novels have been written over the years focussing not just on Robin Hood himself, but members of his outlaw band and especially Maid Marion.
Whichever version of Robin Hood you prefer, the legendary outlaw stands for many of our most deeply held values. He’s loyal to his friends, brave in the face of injustice, and kind to those in need. I definitely don’t recommend stealing from anyone, but you can follow Robin’s example in any one of these areas. Even without breaking the law, doing the right thing can be uncomfortable, and doesn’t always make you popular. The world will always need people who are loyal, brave, generous, and kind – people who will do the right thing even if it means getting in trouble now and then.