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Robin Hood: A Study of the Evolution of the Legend in Britain 1400-2018

Info: 11365 words (45 pages) Dissertation
Published: 22nd Dec 2021

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Tagged: History


This project explains the evolution and the character of Robin Hood as a vehicle who embodies social, gender, political and narrative developments reflecting different social preoccupations over time. It also shows the variations of the form of the narrative, from the ballad, to the novel, to the film.

My argument follows Stephen Knight’s Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography and augments his account with further researches.


Click to expand Contents



Introduction to the chronology

First traces of Robin Hood

Apparition in the literature

The Origins: The Early Ballads (1st part of the 16th century)

What can we say about the earliest ballads?

End of the sixteenth century

The start of a gentrification process

The birth of a new hero

Seventeenth and eighteenth century

Development of narrative

Marian as a warrior woman

Disappearance of plays and play-games


Nineteenth century

1818-1819: a turning point for the outlaw’s legend

Robin Hood in Children’s literature

A link to the United States

Films and TV

Anti-archetypal Robin Hood

Success on the big screen

Political and Historical Aspects


My Experience



The good, and the bad: it does sound like a very abstract and subjective concept, right? As for black and white, it seems improbable that an idea could have only two close sides, without a little grey in the middle.

Robin Hood is this touch of grey, in the middle of a corrupted system led by a wrongful authority and an oppressed people; he is the good outlaw and the sly gentleman. This concept of a balance between these two opposites captivated and still captivates nowadays; the good outlaw fights the system, divulge its flaws and is the pledge of a new one, granting freedom. Whatever laws he dismisses, whatever punishment he gets for his acts, the good outlaw will always, in one way or another, abscond and embody greater social, personal and political order.

This important and inspiring type of character resisting to any kind of unjust conditions can seem chimerical, and yet you can find them everywhere: people like Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela, for instance, fighting for freedom and against racial repression; or even Gandhi, battling for the independence of India.

After more than six hundred years of existence, the legend of Robin Hood still keeps on influencing people and spreading around the world. From its humble start in the dark English feudal culture and literature up to our days, the tale gradually earned its place in history. Today, it is all around us: that it is in early medieval documents, in text-writers of the modern era’s novels, or even in the top headlines of famous newspapers, Robin’s legend spreads more and more every day.

Robin Hood, that it is in contemporary or more ancient writings, remains this symbol of opposition to immoral authority, represented by different types of persons during the various eras and contexts the outlaw crossed.

This is a study of an incredible figure who has, over centuries, in many places and many genres, had a very versatile but powerful identity; of the numerous changes eras have made; and how time and its various periods have, through this recurrent myth of resistance to authority, portrayed their own insights of what really was a tyrannical leadership and how, in dreams, hope or even reality, might be confronted.


Introduction to the chronology

If today most people know the legend of Robin Hood thanks to one of the other numerous film adaptations or TV shows, the story is, however, far from having taken shape in the twenty first century. This tale indeed made his way across the centuries, from the thirteenth century to our days, its story modifying and adapting itself gradually to its time.

First traces of Robin Hood

The oldest reference date is actually from 1228 onwards: found in the documents of several English Justices, they make a reference to a certain Robert Hod, Robert Hood or even Hobbehod who would have been put in prison for the non-payment of a debt or a fine. From 1261 until 1300, we find no fewer than eight references to another Rabunhod and many other fugitives named Robert Hood – standing for the full form of the diminutive Robin, in archives kept by the Nobility; but, after all, it is just a very common name in England during this period.[1]

There has always been speculation about the reality of that character and many historians failed to prove his identity, due to the enormous amount of Robin Hood. However, inspired by that name and that real – or not – character, a certain amount of popular ballads started to emerge from the beginning of the fourteenth century, telling the adventures of an outlaw named Robin Hood.

Apparition in the literature

Everything begins in 1377, with the alliterative poem Piers Plowman by William Langland, attacking many vices, among which those that “he sees incapacitating the Christian Church of his time”[2]. It is Robin’s earliest clear reference under the name of Robyn Hood and shows a distinctly unfriendly, but still against wrongful and repressive authority, character. At one point, a character named Sloth says:

“I kan noght parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it syngeth

But I kan rymes of Robyn hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre”

Which also could be translated as:

“I do not know my paternoster perfectly as the priest sings it.

But I know the rhymes of Robyn Hood and Randolph Earl of Chester”

Sloth is in reality a priest and the fact that he does not know the things that he should know, like the church, but has a clear knowledge about the rhymes of Robin Hood, shows that they are really popular from the start; they are yet battling, standing against official authority, like the church and the state.

That shows clearly the early apparition of the famous character in the fourteenth century’s literature and the popularity, the authority that the rhymes already have; at that time, few people knew how to read and the rhymes were shared orally – it was an already popular tradition. But even if his name is mentioned earlier, it will be nevertheless in the fifteenth and in the sixteenth century that the legend will slowly broaden, to become more and more like the story we know today.

The Origins: The Early Ballads (1st part of the 16th century)

The former ballads start to emerge in the second half of the fifteenth century, the main being Robin Hood and the Monk, A Gest of Robyn Hode, Robin Hood and the Potter and Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.

Robin Hood and the Monk (the oldest surviving ballad/text) is a bloody thriller implicating force and violence, in which Robin is a cruel bandit stealing the rich for his own account and killing people in cold blood; the story contains many elements still related to the story now, like the Nottingham setting and the enmity between the local sheriff, his minions and Robin. A monk, who had previously been robbed by Robin, recognises him and the latter is captured by the sheriff’s henchmen. Little John and Much the Miller will then go to set him free, helping him to kill the monk and his page[3].

Another written text of that time is Robin Hood and the Potter (c. 1503), approximately written at the same moment as the Gest, which is this time a less aggressive, more humorous story involving trickery and cunning, describing how Robin humiliated the sheriff of Nottingham thanks to the latter’s wife[4].

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, the fourth ballad, was not recorded until about 1650 but obviously composed earlier[5]. The tale, developed in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire) too, tells how John is captured in the village where the sheriff was leading a raid. Meanwhile, a hired killer, Guy of Gisborne, is looking for Robin; when they finally meet, they fight with swords and the combat ends with the outlaw cutting Guy’s head, cutting his face with a knife and swapping his clothes with him. Robin, disguised as Guy, later offers to the sheriff the head, pretending it is Robin’s. After getting rewarded by the sheriff himself, he fools him again, sets John free and the latter kills the sheriff with an arrow through his heart.[6]

A Gest of Robyn Hode is printed by Wynken De Worde around 1495. It is this time a compilation of several poems, united in a single continuous narrative tale of 1824 lines, which seems to have been written following to several other ancient ballads[7]. The text is a great mixture of semi-aristocratic and popular elements and deals with topics like chivalry, education, morality and religion.

Developed again in Barnsdale, it is a childish tale which describes him as a brave outlaw facing a corrupted system with his bow, and which presents a complete version of the history, with yet characters like Little John, Much the Miller, Will Scarlet and, even though the Gest is set near York, the sheriff of Nottingham. In the Gest, John, Much and Scarlet come across a poor knight, who owes money to St. Mary’s Abbey, in York and who will lose his land unless he pays his debts. Where the story become interesting is when Robin and his men feed him, give him an equipment and lend him money, that he won’t have to refund: unlike the other ballads, showing a kind of violent and selfish character, the Gest is the first tale to point him out as a noble big-hearted outlaw helping a person that is not a part of his band.

Later in the story, Robin, John and the other humiliate the sheriff, who then organise an archery tournament that Robin wins (not in disguise). A whole other range of events will then follow, leading to the death of the sheriff and the arrival of the king, “Edward”. Indeed, there is no reference to Richard the Lionheart: the King is only named as “Edward”, without any number. Surprisingly, the tale ends with Robin’s own death, during his stay in Kirklees to cure his illness. He then dies tragically here, killed by one of his relative, a prioress, and her lover[8].

The Gest is the response to a world where oppression is ruling; the forest is the only place where true values and genuine law stand, is a shelter for the marginal and offers an opportunity of freedom in this corrupted world of officials and religion. This safe haven is a place providing food for everyone, where the importance of status distinctions is minor, and where the power of the King is not big enough to compromise your freedom.

What can we say about the earliest ballads?

The earliest ballads are a great mixture of varied narratives: ghoulish and bloody stories, dramatic works, childish tales or even jocular storytelling, in short – even if each ballads’ plot is very different from each other, each story contributes to establish a representation of the famous bandit, with cunning as his principal weapon. Indeed, certain points already correspond to the idea we generally have about Robin Hood.

The main features of the character we know nowadays are already present in the ballads: indeed, he lives in a forest and know how to handle with ease a bow; he leads a group of people who fight the corrupt church, the sheriff and his henchmen, but still stays loyal to the king. The animosity between the sheriff and Robin is already obvious, whether it is by killing him or by fooling him in a wide variety of ways (Robin Hood and the Potter). Finally, Robin saves captives, celebrates at forest feasts, uses disguise to trick his enemies, and survives the dangers of towns and castles.[9] The group he is leading, even though Robin’s changes through time, will always stay loyal and, in a way, equal to each other. Of course, Robin will always be the leader, but we can hardly ever find this feeling of hierarchy between the members of the group. It also appears very clearly that if Robin’s men aren’t always experienced fighters, they notwithstanding seem to give more importance to loyalty and cleverness. They also all know how to use a bow, but the real battles are with swords.

Nevertheless, a modern person reading the earliest ballads could easily be surprised by the picture of that bold and sometimes bloody Robin Hood. First and foremost, Robin is yeoman, so a simple commoner, neither an earl or even a knight nor a peasant, an artisan or a householder but something in between[10]; moreover, his character has nothing to do with the picture of the noble avenger, rather as an outlaw, sometimes cruel and violent; and besides, there is nothing about the redistribution of the robberies to the poor. Indeed, Robin generally leads a group of three or four men, rather than a hundred, which sounds more likely to be true to the picture of the real outlaws of the period, and they were robbing for their own purpose. In other terms, the picture of this violent Robin Hood shows far less support to the king and is instead more looking after himself and acting in his own interests; and, to conclude, he is not wearing green clothing and certainly not tights.

Contrary to common beliefs, not every story is located in Nottingham, as some of the ballads seem to develop the tales in Barnsdale, in the County of York, for instance like in the Orygnynale Chronicle by Andrews of Wyntoun (1420):

“Litil Johun and Robert Hude

Waythmen war commendit gud;

In Ingilwod and Bernysdaile

Thai oyssit al thihs tyme thar travail”[11]

And if nearly all the main characters are there (Little John, Will Stutely and Friar Tuck in Robyn Hod and the shryff off Notyngham – 1475), there is still no Maid Marian.

It is also said in the ballads that Robin Hood never met Richard I: like Stephen Knight explains in his Mythic Biography, “though a king appears several times, he is named only in one early text and only as Edward, without any defining number. The reigns of the first and the fourth Edwards ran from mid-thirteenth century to late fifteenth century; the best candidate is Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377.” But, regardless of what king it really is, the latter will still be revered by the outlaw.

The animosity of Robin is not limited to the sheriff. In every early ballad, we see a clear argument about the established and corrupt roman catholic church, that is denounced in the texts, even if some references to Robin’s worshipping for Mary are made.

Although early ballads bring a clearer idea of the character and give the first key elements for the next centuries, they are far from being the only form in which the early fame of the hero spread, even if the outlaw acquires a social rise in the Gest when he helps the knight. Indeed, they seem to be neither the original nor the dominant genre in the early tale of the hero: plays, village rituals, passing references, and even proverbs all appear to have been more widespread than the ballads.[12]

The various gatherings of Robin Hood also contributed to increase the myth’s popularity. The municipal records of Exeter (1426-27) is the first mention to what would be commonly named “the Robin Hood play-games”, an event celebrating the coming of summer. Records of the celebrations talk about feasts, public processions, dancing and different competitive sports, such as wrestling, archery and swordplay.[13] They are a strong link between Robin and the natural life and take place in May. Nevertheless, they must not be confused with May Day rituals as they occur by mid/late May[14].

Among all those former texts, The Gest is the most loyal to our common version and still remains today one of the major source of inspiration for the later representation of our thief, even through our days: as Stephen Knight says in his mythic biography, “unlike the elusive, damaged, and hard-to-read manuscripts, this is a solid, printed book: The Gest is the encyclopedia of the medieval Robin Hood (…).” A lot of its content indeed still sounds familiar today and it is finally at that period that the famous outlaw gains a higher status, leaving the simple yeoman behind.

Thanks to popular culture, this bold character, battling against every form of authority and standing up for important values – all with cleverness, cunning and thorough sense of righteousness – is already an important part of the English literature at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

End of the sixteenth century

After the popularity the first ballads gained in the fifteenth and the first part of the sixteenth century, the next centuries could only mean the expansion of the soon-to-be legend. It is thus after the first « boom » of the printing industry in England, shortly after the beginning of the sixteenth century with the development of the European movable type printing technology[15], that numerous printed versions from these ballads begin to emerge little by little. A lot of those combine elements and characteristics from the past stories, like Robin’s ability with a bow (Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow[16], or even Robin Hood and Queen Katherine[17]) while introducing new plots and concepts, such as “Prequel ballads”, explaining this time how Robin became an outlaw (Robin Hood’s progress to Nottingham[18]) or how other bandits joined his group (Robin Hood and Little John[19], Robin Hood and Will Scarlet[20], or Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar[21], introducing Friar Tuck).

However, it is important to keep in mind that Robin Hood did not have unanimous support within the sixteenth century community. Indeed, the texts were attacking the corrupt church and devout purist Catholics or Puritans were outraged by them; but they weren’t the only ones to stamp out any Robin Hood activities. For instance, the games and plays were banned in various parts of England (Sussex, Kent) and Scotland (Edinburgh, Aberdeen)[22]. To understand this, it is essential to remember that the Elizabethan era was a brief period of internal peace in England right after the religious and political conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and the Parliament and the monarchy[23]. This make more understandable the government’s need to keep everything under control and to repress any possible future democratic action the fairly egalitarian legend of Robin Hood might inspire.

That being said, it is obvious that the massive curb the authorities put on Robin Hood activities didn’t stifle the craze of the sixteenth century dramatists for this legendary figure and the richness of its culture; however, it forced them to remodel the myth, turning the outlaw into something more… Politically correct.  Something like a noble – and that is how Robin of Locksley, or Robert Fitz Ooth, Earl of Huntington, was born.

The start of a gentrification process

Anthony Munday is the principal actor of this first change – from the mean and cruel yeoman to the true gentleman. Also suspected to be spying the Catholics on behalf of the government[24], Munday is besides that a writer and the author of the Elizabethan play The Downfall and Death of Robert, Earle of Hundington[25](1598). In this play, his image is almost completely remodelled and gentrified, this process kind of concealing his simple, blunt and bygone values; and so the outlaw became a dispossessed noble exile, leader of a hundred men, stealing from the rich to redistribute the money to the poor.

The birth of a new hero

The end of the sixteenth century will also be an important turning point for the legend of Robin Hood, as this one goes further back in time to relocate in the time of King Richard I and Prince John; this particular point will have a significant outcome too on Robin’s political tendencies[26]. So, instead of being the rebellious threat he used to be for the local authorities (mainly the sheriff and the church), Robin become the representation of the law, fighting against the deceitful and bribed people, who are no longer tyrannical officers but people directly betraying Robin – this particular aspect makes the battle Robin’s leading more self-centered than focused on the people’s freedom. Through time there is a change in his social class and the people against whom the hero fights, the major concerns about the traditional anti-authoritarian figure are appeased by this new version of the outlaw, who’s no more a challenge for the oppressive forces. The end of the sixteenth century marked the birth of a new version of the hero, gentrified so as not to be a threat; despite his banishment in some regions, the legend lasted and even found a way to develop

Seventeenth and eighteenth century

The Robin Hood from the earlier texts had no background, no roots; he was just an outlaw having found shelter in the woods. There wasn’t any precision about what had happened, or what could even happen after.

But the seventeenth distraught Robin Hood is another matter. The texts explain how he ended up the disgrace of the aristocratic class and his desire to restore his good name afterwards, goal that he will reach again thanks to his numerous values (like fidelity to the established authority or charitable deeds).

Development of narrative

The narratives are no longer just short stories based on adventure and now explore the past and the personality of the characters; as said earlier, there is a notable difference between the calm temper of Robert, the lord, compared to the boldness of the yeoman. Developing the tale allowed Munday to be the first to give Marian an extended role in Robin’s life, where she will be from now on pictured as his partner. Stephen Knight put forward the view that, as Robin had become a lord, he now needed a lady, “as part of his gracious style of living and to provide the continuation of his landed line”[27] – even if he won’t survive long enough to be husband and father.

The Sad Shepherd [28] (1641), of Ben Johnson, is another important story that, unfortunately, will remain unfinished (because of Johnson’s death or abandonment? Nobody knows). The tale is this time located in Nottingham and re-uses most elements of Munday’s Robin, but Marian is here a serious and outstanding hunter providing food and participating in the forest life, whereas Robin has a more passive role. The fact that the outlaw has such an apathetic attitude could signify that this gentrification-process took away the vibrant soul of the outlaw story and tradition. It seems that his social climbing made him lose the power to control attention through breath-taking adventures and drained him severely (death in the Death of Robert, Earle of Hundigton, passivity in the Sad Shepherd). Thus, the hero will be quite absent from the popular literature for the next century[29].

Marian as a warrior woman

Even if Marian will be a lady in most of the texts from now on, the seventeenth century sometimes welcome a new version of the woman. In some narratives like Robin Hood and Maid Marian [30], she is a proud warrior fighting with a sword and fills an almost masculine role, completing Robin’s group as if she was an outlaw. Gender as a social change is then another matter of the modernization process, as some author give more importance to women.

Disappearance of plays and play-games

While some aspects of the ennobled life of the outlaw were being assembled, the fictional character blossomed and expanded[31], notably after the royal restoration in 1660[32], thanks to the softening of Robin’s rebellious side. What is less certain is how did the plays and play-games evolved during the eighteenth century: we can imagine that, when the Puritans closed the theatres around 1642[33], the custom collapsed and/or became much rarer, even if some ballad operas (such as Robin Hood: An Opera (1730)[34] or Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784)[35]) developed. As for the play-games, most had already been prohibited during the sixteenth century and the rise of the Puritans achieved to eradicate them[36].


The seventeenth and eighteenth Robin Hood is restructured, the origins and the story of his character detailed and gentrified – so as not to be a threat to the authority anymore. Marian is developed as partner and can also be found in the form of warrior woman, which will later lead to another theme of the twentieth century: gender issues.

Robin Hood is notwithstanding weakened by his banishment in various regions and his gentrification, that makes the texts less hectic and passionate.

Nineteenth century

This downturn in the legend led to an entire restructuring of the myth and the hero’s biography. This latter took place at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century[37], with the aim to combine both of Robin’s personalities in order to create the perfect balance between the politically and socially acceptable gentleman and a dynamic plot about an outlaw’s adventures. This reconstruction is probably the reason why the Robin Hood legend transcended the ages.

The tradition continues to be transmitted through collections of ballads (for instance Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative[38]– 1777) that incorporate more popular culture to the noble texts[39]. The early ballads mingle with modern pieces; and this means the reunification of the yeoman and the earl, clearing up the breach that was standing between the hefty, the tough and the noble – but passive – man, thus reaching the previous goal. Nevertheless, the impact of these collections is not immediate, and we had to wait a few years later to really see the change into the so-called “modern Robin Hood” – the character bringing together the ardour of the rebel and the good manners of the gentleman.

1818-1819: a turning point for the outlaw’s legend

The years 1818 and 1819 may be the most important for the outlaw’s story, because this short period is marked by the publication of three major texts: Ivanhoe[40] (Sir Walter Scott), Maid Marian [41] (Thomas Love Peacock) and Robin Hood [42] (John Keats, John Hamilton Reynolds and Leigh Hunt). Although the three authors wrote them in different styles (historical novel, novella, romantic poems) and were not aware of each other’s projects, they all assembled the modern Robin Hood and his code in the same way: “The noble bandit now came to symbolize values central to the nineteenth and even twentieth centuries – especially ideals of national identity, masculine vigour, and natural value.”[43]

For instance, the beauty of the forest and its quality as a haven, some sort of veiled criticism against the present society through Robin and Marian’s characters, and the fact that Robin is not necessarily an earl anymore, has no property and is not restored by the king at the end of the story are emphasized in Keats’ work. The only element of gentrification left is Maid Marian, but something in the way the hero is acting suggest an innate nobility.

Sir Walter Scott, was already at that time an established writer, thanks to his poems (Marmion [44] or The Lady of the Lake [45]) and novels (Waverley [46])[47]. In Ivanhoe, Scott not only shows a vast knowledge of the ancient texts but he also introduces the character of the remarkable Robin of Locksley (here only as a secondary character) and what seems to be what the basic plot would look like[48]: a noble and young man is dispossessed of his title and lands by the repressive ruling forces in the time of Prince John, goes into exile in the forest where he finds companions, fights for his and the people’s rights and is eventually restored by the King Richard himself, returning from the Crusades. It also begins in Barnsdale, like most of the earliest ballads. Actually, the major difference is the fact that the hero’s named Ivanhoe, that there is neither Maid Marian nor Little John (as the role is meant to be played by Robin for Ivanhoe) and that the Saxon citizens – and not Robins men, unlike in most ballads – are staged in the beginning of the novel. In a nutshell, the whole writing is like a displaced Robin Hood story, chronicling the division between Norman and Saxon, which is also a first in the outlaw’s story – though the new Saxon/Norman element is historically incorrect[49].

Scott work introduces a new feature of the character: Robin’s animosity against the Norman French shows that he truly is and feels English and reveals a certain kind of patriotism, if it is not chauvinism. Also, the resistance is not anymore against nobility, because Ivanhoe is himself a Saxon lord; the main problem actually seems to come from the race and thus giving Norman adversaries appear to justify any kind of oppositionist action and to make it tolerable.

Even though Locksley only appears in four scenes in the novel, Scott always manages to make him look like a superhero clothed in green accomplishing incredible feats; for instance, in an archery contest, he wins by splitting the peg of an arrow, which is highly fanciful – yet this is another element that will be taken again and again in the next books and movies[50]. Robin’s military skills and determined, strong and genuine character sometimes almost show him as an equal to the king, even though he appears as a “stout well-set yeoman” at the beginning of the novel, Richard later calls him “brother sovereign”. One might contend that the Richard rules England, but Robin truly is the only king of Sherwood.

The essential impact of Scott’s version is undoubtedly the matter of ethnicity – Saxons versus Normans – and the strong patriotism of Robin that stands out. He also toughens the idea of a story located in the time of “bad Prince John”; but above all, by transposing it into a novel, he takes the whole legend on another level. This move allows the myth to hugely increase its popularity among the audience, as the novel is at that time the dominant literary form.[51] As mentioned earlier, it is interesting to see that the story is not only evolving in terms of content, but also in terms of narrative: after the ballads, the novel develops a third person omniscient narrator, character and add direct speech – which contributes to make Robin more lively.

Peacock also chose to face the challenge of combining the earl with the ventures of a bandit in the form of a short novel full of irony, wit and satyr – just like a few of his previous works, Nightmare Abbey (1818[52])or Melincourt (1817[53])[54]. The ironic factor in Maid Marian is used to blame the contemporary society, tax evasion and resistance to social reform[55].

The next years see the production of novels about Robin Hood increase and Pierce Egan the Younger, with his Robin Hood and Little John, or the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest, contributes hugely to the expansion of the legend. Indeed, instead of Peacock’s version which was a lot more poetic and full of wit – and, which seemed to be reserved for a cultivated public, Egan wrote a massive saga of almost half a million words for a mass audience. The book deals with the new gentrification concept and the Saxon-Norman conflict and being accessible for everyone; and this simplification leads to another literary genre, that started to evolve in the late eighteenth century[56] – literature for children.

Robin Hood in Children’s literature

The market for all children’s literature expanded massively around the late eighteenth century as children’s literacy and education became major social concerns; this can be illustrated with the Forster’s Education Act (1870), showing the interest in education for all as it lays the foundations of the first state schools[57]. The good actions of Robin and his fellows, politically unbiased thanks to his ennoblement, were an example for young English boys and girls.

A link to the United States

The vast accessibility of the legend to everyone, due to its simplicity and its great values, allowed Howard Pyle, an American illustrator and author of books for young people[58], to publish in 1883 the first great illustrated classic of children’s literature, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood [59].Pyle seems to be largely inspired by the early ballads, as we notice the outlaw’s energy and honourable simplicity from its early days. This return to the roots marks the start of more than fifty years of children stories, and then films, comics and television[60]; we can assume that this sudden flowering period is due to the lack of a political aspect and the focus on a nice little moral of the story that everyone could share without any doubts.

It is also interesting to compare the United Kingdom with the United States at this point: if the story is indeed born in England, it is with American authors like Pyle that it expanded internationally, paving Robin Hood’s way to Hollywood.

Films and TV

The new transmission medium of the twentiethcentury was of course the big screen and its little brother, the television. This transition, from the written form to the cinema, remains inspired by the earlier interpretations but creates again a new form for the outlaw: a charismatic commander of a band of hundred men, less violent than the marauder and more dynamic than the noble. Films confer him power, glamour and heroism, but also a certain sensibility in his relationship with the poor, his friends and Marian; it is moreover another example of the evolution of the narrative form, from ballad, to novel, to this now new three dimensional character with a social and psychological realism.

Robin Hood legend had already crossed the Atlantic thanks to novels – I’m thinking about Pyle and his Merry Adventures in particular – and had made a name for itself in America; thus, the production quickly moved from England to Hollywood. The actors were conscientiously chosen to meet the standards of beauty and for their body, which is from now on moulded into form-fitting green outfits (in films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) [61] with Errol Flynn for instance). The movies also add tensions between Robin and his relatives, as in Prince of Thieves, where Will Scarlet is his half-brother and despise him during most of the story; these personal and familial tensions give more sensitivity to the character but also a new sense to his victories, by making them both a personal achievement and a social one. One could argue that his triumphs are no longer sufficient to enable him to blossom and that relationships are an entire new part of the Robin from the twentieth century.

However, the TV series weren’t left behind. The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Richard Greene, is probably still one of the versions that most people remember from the 1950s[62]. Robin comes back home after the crusades in a weakened England under the yoke of Normans, who took his lands. Once again, the Normans are the tyrannical class and crooked tax collectors and other authoritarian figures are abusing of their power, while the ordinary people fights to break free from oppression. The comparison between the plot and the actual post-war period is conceivable; after all, Britain was equally trying to seek social reconstruction, peace and personal liberty, as seen in the General Election of July 1945 where the people voted for the social democratic party Labour.

Anti-archetypal Robin Hood

Until then, Robin Hood from Hollywood was quite stereotypical: the bold and athletic gentleman, fighting for good and national liberty, concerned about his lady and the devoted group of combatants following him. However, this picture was several times contradicted; for example, in the Disney version of 1973[63], in which the characters are played by animal. It is interesting to notice that all the good animals are autochthonous species to England and that all the bad ones, with the exception of the Sheriff, come from Africa. A veiled form of racism?

Robin and Marian (1976)[64], in a very different category, is another of one anti-archetypal Robin Hood. The outlaw (Sean Connery) is back after twenty years on crusade, old, tired, a man of the people. There’s no happy ending either for him, as he dies – just like in the Gest – at the hands of the prioress… Who’s nobody else but Marian herself (Audrey Hepburn).

This more realistic film didn’t get the success of the magnificent Hollywood character, and the negativity emerging from the plot is certainly responsible for this: people want to be distracted with a young, invulnerable and vigorous outlaw and maybe Robin and Marian went too far trying to challenge the Hollywood hero. Thus, even if the film is not commercially successful, it still confronts stereotype and the darker plot is, in a way, a return to the earlier versions.

Success on the big screen

Nonetheless, the global success on the screen of the legend and the prospect of making money by investing in a major outlaw movie allured many other studios; and thus movies like Prince of Thieves saw the light of the day. In these films, the outlaw seems a little older than the 1938 Flynn and is certainly not wearing green tights anymore; the acrobat costume is exchanged with thick and brownish clothing, and the merriness with seriousness.

Cinema popularized the legend across the globe and, despite all his many changes and the fantasies of the various directors, the figure kept the shape of the initial Robin Hood. To summarize an entire century… No matter what happens, “he remains noble but welcoming to all comers, physically powerful but never oppressive, serious but always to some degree smiling”.[65]

Political and Historical Aspects

During more than 600 years of existence, Robin Hood has clearly displayed his versatility by having his identity and character adjusted and reconstructed due to the social and political preoccupations of the various periods he got through. Way more than just an attractive comedian in green forest tights, Robin is first and foremost a symbol of freedom and resistance to authority. His adoption by film in Hollywood however extends his political meaning, surpassing the local and regional level to reach an international significance.

Indeed, we can possibly link Nazism to the 1922 Robin Hood of Douglas Fairbanks, as the Norman are pictured in some ways like the German soldiers operating in their disrupted country during this period. This antifascist interpretation is for instance reflected in the scene in which Norman opponents destroy shops, while the Saxon resistance represent the more democratic part of the conflict.

But Nazism is not the only contemporary concern covered in Robin Hood. A link with the relations with the Arab world is also possible, through some characters like the talented and skilled Moor Azeem (Prince of Thieves), replacing the absent of Little John. Despite the convoluted relationships between the States and the Eastern World, Azeem seems to represent the most appreciated oriental qualities, such as science, medicine, wisdom and his skills as a fighter. Prince of Thieves also addresses another complicated aspect of American history, in a scene depicting the sheriff taking Robin’s father mansion, accompanied by men in clothes disturbingly resembling to Ku Klux Klan robes.

In addition to race, gender concern is also a theme in the nineteenth century novels: quite a challenge for the feminism, as Robin Hood is such a masculine tale and, as until then, Marian was a delicate secondary character that always needed protection and was susceptible to be captured. Not really your typical hero.

Nonetheless, some texts managed to transform her as it, both helping and gaining strength from her lover. This fact is particularly visible in the Outlaw of Sherwood (in which Marian has exceptional warrior skills) or in Lady of the Forest (Jennifer Robertson, 1992). This novel shows a Robin mentally destroyed by the Crusades; Marian had enough strength to support him and bring him back to his natural boldness, so that he can fulfil his duty as an avenger. The plot emphasises the power of the woman and her ability to provide her support and her love to a man weakened by life and its challenges.

Gender and female power, race, ethnicity and racism, Nazism and other politics are only a few themes that the twentieth-century writers introduced at that time; and what better example than this large variety of themes to prove Robin Hood’s remarkable versatility and illustrate his way of reflecting political and social preoccupations of his time?


Robin Hood survived the centuries thanks to his constants rearrangements and its ability to adapt itself to the periods. Who could have known that, turning this oral tradition into a true written form, England’s next greatest myth would emerge? What would have happened if nobody had transcribed the legend? It is hard to tell, but the basis of the story would have probably disappeared.

The legend of Robin Hood is thus made up of steps. The early ballads gave it a plot, an identity; Renaissance writers conferred upon Robin charisma and a social status, cooling the ardour of a fierce character to make it more respectable; Romantic writers knew how to combine the bold outlaw with the gentle lord; Hollywood finally gave a new lease to the story by integrating contemporary elements to a secular legend and transposing it into movies and TV shows. The evolution is also visible in the narrative form: ballads and poems, to novels, novellas and child tales, to television.

Robin Hood is myth connected to reality, reflecting opinions and viewpoints of hundreds of writers, poets and filmmakers from all eras. Beneath the surface of a medieval myth, every work is a combination of reflections on different themes such as race, gender, politics, and, more particularly, oppression. Because Robin Hood is not just a children’s story; it is also a way of self-expression in times of political stress. Besides, just by looking at the major Robin Hood production periods, it is noticeable that they all occurred when the authority was truly and deliberately repressive. High periods of Robin Hood activity took place for instance in the 1980s, the years between the two World Wars or even the 1820s, respectively for the Reagan[66]/Thatcher years, the hard post-war reconstruction and the post-war conservatism restoring old orders after Napoleon’s defeat[67][68].

To be in symbiosis with its time was primordial for Robin Hood’s story and it certainly is what kept it alive. Robin McKinley said one day: “the tales of Robin Hood have always reflected what the teller and the audience needed him to be at the time of the telling[69]”, and I think it is exactly what this project showed me. So, to conclude, I would like to say that, as long as there will be passionate writers to readapt the myth and pass on to the world this great legend… Robin Hood will never die.

My Experience

To investigate the Robin Hood story is to investigate over five hundred years of the evolution of contemporary notions of heroism, history, art and politics. It is an exciting study that can itself become a handbook to the developing models and dynamics of civilization and culture over that enormous period. As an history and literature lover, the idea of this project almost came naturally to me.

I was really not expecting the mass of information linked to this subject. Sometimes, you have to face texts in medieval English or inconsistencies between historians. The abundance of data was essentially my main problem, as well as motivation; the workload can be discouraging sometimes, so I want to thank my family and friends for keeping pushing me even in the hardest moments.

This project was really enriching, and I am grateful for this whole experience.



https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood , 28.12.17

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yeoman , 28.12.17

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabethan_era , 02.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthony_Munday , 02.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Restoration_(England) , 07.03.18

http://www.theatredatabase.com/17th_century/closure_of_the_theaters_001.html , 07.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walter_Scott#Poetry , 11.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_novel , 13.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nightmare_Abbey , 13.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melincourt_(novel) , 13.03.18

https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-origins-of-childrens-literature , 15.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Howard_Pyle , 11.01.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Merry_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood , 15.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Adventures_of_Robin_Hood , 18.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_Hood_(1973_film) , 18.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robin_and_Marian , 18.03.18

http://www.millennialug.com/ronald-reagan-institutional-oppression/ , 21.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservative_Order , 21.03.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_printing#European_movable_type_(1453) , 18.04.18

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_Education_Act_1870 , 23.04.18

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v26/n14/wendy-doniger/female-bandits-what-next , 23.04.18

Links to Online Texts

Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow, unknown date and author. Anthologized by Francis James Child in 1904 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Available here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robin-hood-and-the-golden-arrow , 25.02.18

Robin Hood and Queen Katherine, unknown date and author. Anthologized by Francis James Child in 1904 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Available here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/robin-hood/text/child-ballad-145c-robin-hood-and-queen-katherine , 25.02.18

Robin Hood’s Progress to Nottingham, unknown date and author. Anthologized by Francis James Child in 1904 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Available here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robin-hoods-progress-to-nottingham , 25.02.18

Robin Hood and Will Scarlet, unknown date and author. Anthologized by Francis James Child in 1904 in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Available here: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/robin-hood-and-will-scarlet , 25.02.18

Old Ballads, Historical and Narrative, with some of Modern Date, now first collected and reprinted from Rare Copies and MSS., with Notes (1777), Thomas Evans. Available here: https://archive.org/details/oldballadshisto11evangoog , 10.03.18

Ivanhoe (1820), Sir Walter Scott. Available here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/82/82h/82h.htm, 11.03.18 (not read)

Resume of the play here: https://www.shmoop.com/ivanhoe/summary.html , 11.03.18

Maid Marian (1818), Thomas Love Peacock. Available here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/966/966-h/966-h.htm , 11.03.18 (not read)

Resume of the play here: https://gesteofrobinhood.com/2016/03/08/thomas-love-peacocks-maid-marian-1822/ , 11.03.18

Robin Hood (1820), John Keats. Available here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44483/robin-hood , 11.03.18 (not read)

Marmion (1808), Sir Walter Scott. Available here: http://www.fullbooks.com/Marmion–A-Tale-of-Flodden-Field1.html , 11.03.18 (not read)

Resume of the play here: https://www.enotes.com/topics/marmion/in-depth , 11.03.18

Lady of the Lake (1810), Sir Walter Scott. Available here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3011/3011-h/3011-h.htm , 11.03.18 (not read)

Resume of the play here: http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/poetry/lady.html , 11.03.18

Waverley (1814), Sir Walter Scott. Available here:  https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5998/5998-h/5998-h.htm , 11.03.18 (not read)

Resume of the play here:  http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/works/novels/waverley.html , 11.03.18


Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003)

Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989)


The Adventures of Robin Hood, Michael Curtiz & William Keighley (Warner Bros, 1938)

Robin and Marian, Richard Lester (Columbia Pictures, 1976)

Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Kevin Reynolds (Warner Bros, 1991)

Robin Hood, Ridley Scott (Universal Pictures, 2010)

[2] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 3

[3] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 115

[4] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 15

[5] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 14

[6] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 141-145

[7] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 79-112

[8] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 79-112

[9] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 1

[11] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 4

[12] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 3

[13] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p.9

[14] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p.12

[19] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 166-171

[21] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 158-164

[22] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 52

[25] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 220-230

[26] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 53

[27] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 58

[28] Rymes of Robyn Hood: an introduction to the English Outlaw, R.B. Dobson & J. Taylor (Alan Sutton Publishing, 1989), p. 231-236

[29] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 73

[31] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 89

[34] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 90

[35] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 92

[36] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 89

[37] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 94

[39] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 96

[43] Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 101

[48] See Appendix

[49] Robin Hood : a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 111, see Appendix for more details

[50] For example in Robin Hood : Prince of Thieves (starring Kevin Costner), 1:03:40

[54] Robin Hood : a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 119

[55] Robin Hood : a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 121

[60] Robin Hood : a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 136

[62] Robin Hood : a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 160

[65]Stephen Knight in Robin Hood : a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 174

[68] Stephen Knight in Robin Hood: a mythic biography, Stephen Knight (Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 207

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