Sunday, April 25, 2010
Some Talk Of Robin, And Some Talk Of Hood
Back to Britain’s Wild West – the Robin Hood era
With the release of a big-budget Robin Hood film (directed by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe) due mid-May, the national press has obligingly been running a series of articles on the elusive outlaw. After we get past the usual PR about how this film is different, more authentic, than all the dozens of earlier films, the articles turn as usual to asking who was Robin, actually?
Well, there don’t seem to be any new answers, actually. But given our emphasis here on matters Celtic, the question we need to ask is, is there a neglected Celtic element to the legend? The answer is, there certainly is.
This derives from the development of the longbow in Wales. During the Normans’ Welsh Wars of conquest, it became the most feared weapon the Welsh resistance had, nicknamed the king-slayer after the king had a few close calls while leading his troops. (Earlier, the Conqueror’s son had been slain by an arrow in the New Forest, in a rather suspicious ‘hunting accident’ in 1100.) More importantly, it enabled the development of guerrilla warfare using hit-and-run ambush tactics. With much more of Britain wooded then, it made every blind spot in the path a potential ambush site. A few hundred yards beyond the Norman lord’s huge brand-new castle, it was what we would now call bandit country. And wearing armour wouldn’t save you, as a longbow could put an arrow right through your shield and your chainmail. A six-foot long longbow had a 200lb pull, and could put an arrow through a 2” thick oak door. (Later, angled plate armour was invented to make arrows bounce off it, though this didn’t work very well, and made the knight almost immobile.) The longbow wasn’t just a technology, it enabled a military-political force, a body of men who were capable of turning into an effective guerrilla force, wielding a feared weapon against hated authority. The Robin Hood legend dramatizes this hatred of Normans as an oppressive occupying power, and the man that could use a longbow the symbol of national or popular resistance.
To adapt an American expression about the Colt six-shooter, the longbow was the great equalizer. American writers sometimes quote the western motto that the six-gun made all men equal – at least if you knew how to use it. Their popular literature soon created a whole cult around the freedom-loving westerner who could and would defend himself when threatened by corrupt authoritarianism, and who would invariably help the helpless (homesteaders or townspeople), from Shane to The Magnificent 7. This is the same process of the same mythic attribution that happened earlier with the bowmen of old England. After the defeat of Welsh resistance (which took two centuries), Welsh archers were recruited into the English army as instructors to train others in the use of this deadly weapon.
By the time of the Hundred Years War, longbow practice was required by royal decree in every parish across England. Thus was created the nucleus of a national defence force which would eventually end the supremacy of the heavily armoured knight on the fields of France, at places like Crecy  and Agincourt . In Shakespeare’s Henry V, the king after Agincourt tells his men that he too is Welsh; the later Tudor kings also had a Welsh background (the original Welsh spelling of their dynastic name is Tewdr). Welsh and Wales are from a Saxon word, wealas, referring to people who live in the woods as outcasts. The Welsh bowmen at Agincourt wore red flannel just as the early Robin does (Lincoln green came later).
In time, the bowman-veteran returning from Crecy or Agincourt became the core of a new layer in the class system, the stout yeoman. Yeo- is a term sometimes parsed as young, but it may have been chosen as it also resonates with yew. Yew was the tree planted in churchyards to keep farm animals out (its leaves are poison), and its wood was what longbows were often made of. Of course, medieval injustice was rife, and just as the American freedom-loving westerner who hated rules easily came in conflict with the local sheriff, one can imagine the same with the returning bowman. With the longbow however, there was no face to face duel in main street: some hated local official would simply be found by the forest path with a goose-feather shaft through his throat. It was difficult to identify the killer, as the entire population was armed. Bows were used for killing game like deer over a distance of a hundred yards or more, even where this was declared illegal poaching, with savage penalties under Forest laws. (A Forest was not just a woodland but a legal entity, a royal hunting preserve, like the New Forest, claimed by William the Conqueror.)
A returning veteran unable to readjust to ordinary life is a phenomenon we are now familiar with. American historians have suggested the very violent ‘Wild West’ period was the result of the madness and displacement of the Civil War, when many young men were unable to return home and drifted westward. More recently, after the Vietnam War there was the phenomenon of the so-called Bush Vets, who lived as hermits in the forest as they felt unable or unwilling to return to a workaday existence. It’s easy to imagine a yeoman-archer returning home to find his home, his livelihood, perhaps his family gone or turned against him, and made outlaw after some drunken brush with the law. There were also regular popular rebellions or uprisings, not only in Wales and Scotland, but in England itself, and after their inevitable crushing by the king, the known surviving participants would be outlawed. (Occasionally there would be pardons for military service, a motif that also creeps into the legend.)
Our yeoman would now be wanted, and he would need a nom de guerre, which would disguise his identity (protecting any friends or family) and intimidate anyone thinking of going after the reward on his head. What could be better than Robyn Hode? The first syllable was a pun nobody could miss. Robyn was a character in mediaeval pastoral plays (dating back to at least pre-1288) performed at May Day, where he was paired with a maid called Marian. (These plays were later banned by the church.)
The hood part needs no explanation, and as well as being symbolic of outlaw disguise, it is listed as a surname in the old tax records known as Pipe Rolls. At that time, surnames were often taken from occupations, so John Smith meant John the blacksmith, and so on. Thus, modern Robin Hood could have begun as an entry for a “Robert of the hood” or “Robin the hood” - which sounds more modern, the word hood still being in use for a criminal thug. (Robin is an old familiar version of Robert, like later Rob, Bob etc. Robert was itself used in a term for robbers – a 1331 reference has such robbers classed as “Robert’s men,” as if he was their symbolic leader.) The earliest instance seems to have been the ‘Robertus Hood fugitivis’ in Yorkshire court records of 1225-6. (There are persons named in the ‘classic’ form of the name, Robin Hood, in records of 1304 and 1316, though these are not necessarily outlaws.) The root also rhymed with Hob, the familiar name for a mischievous woodsprite. The interplay between history and myth has certainly been a motif in recent novels, but is not anachronistic. Some of the early records conflate the 1225 outlaw called Robert Hod with ‘Hobbehod’ [in a 1227 record], and other variants of the European root Hob, the folk name for the devil and his minions. It may be church sermons thus contributed to the mythicisation of such outlaws, who no doubt threatened church officials.
The second name also offers rhymes on hood, wood, and good. Hood was and is an emotive word, its latest incarnation, hoodie, being applied to the last screen version, the BBC’s recently-finished series Robin Hood. It was used by itself, without the Robin being necessary. Elizabethan poet Michael Drayton wrote in 1613, "In this our spacious isle, I think there is not one but he hath heard some talk of Hood and Little John.” A 2006 novel based on the legend by prolific American historical-fantasy author Stephen Lawhead is titled simply Hood. The start of the author’s “King Raven” trilogy, this portrays the original Robin prototype as entirely Welsh, an 11C aristocratic freedom fighter named Bran ap Brychan, who operates in the woods of the Welsh Marches. The associated 2006 press stories had a Nottingham Council rep asking if the author was being paid by the Welsh tourist board - tourism interests keep Robin linked to Sherwood, though Lawhead argued, as others have before him, that Sherwood Forest was already too tiny for outlaws to hide in. The latest modern adult novel on RH uses this standalone surname, to indicate its anti-romantic approach: Hodd by Adam Thorpe. This purports to be an English translation of a monkish codex manuscript in Latin (it comes complete with footnotes) of a 13C captivity narrative by a monastically-educated youth who is forced to witness the filth and degradation of the outlaw life, then has to romanticise his account when he finds people already sentimentalising his late captor, the megalomaniac Robert ‘Robbynge’ Hodd, as a folk hero. In a similar vein is the start of a series by British novelist Angus Donald, which began with Outlaw (2009) and continues this year with the Crusades-set Holy Warrior. The Reuters headline for the author's interview piece was "Novelist reinvents Robin Hood as medieval gangster."
A criminal thug is certainly how both church and state would have viewed such a figure, no doubt deploring his being turned into folk hero or myth. Evidence of this showed up not long ago. Last March, a scholar noticed a scrawled marginal note about Robin, previously overlooked, in a monkish manuscript from Witham monastery in Somerset. A lecturer in art history at St Andrews University in Scotland noticed the marginal note, dating from c1460, in a codex called the Polychronicon, dating to c1420. The 23 words of Latin were deciphered and translated as: 'Around this time, according to popular opinion, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies.' I suspect RH got a mention because he was remembered in 1460, and the reference may have been a critical reaction to minstrel-ballads turning him into a folk hero now taken by “popular opinion” as real - rather than taken from any official account, which would have described him purely in legal terms as a wanted criminal. This is the only English pre-Reformation chronicle entry referring to RH, and does mention that he and his “accomplices” (read ‘band of Merry Men’ in the romantic version) “infested” not just Sherwood but other parts of England. This could have started a certain confusion, and we can also envisage others elsewhere following his example, taking the same nom de guerre and becoming the new local Robin-of-the-Hood. Guerrilla fighters, whatever the reality, do seem to see themselves as freedom fighters, where the authorities class them as criminals or terrorists. From what I’ve read of guerrilla forces, they also don’t rob the local poor as this would yield little and only invite disaster. To live as an outcast in the woods was to live as Robin (Goodfellow?), and if you had a gang, as the Merry Men. (‘Merry’ is such an odd word for what must have been a fraught lifestyle that it’s suspected there is a lost meaning here, perhaps to do with Mariolatry, or worship of Our Lady alias the Virgin Mary. A version of this cult is known as ‘Marian devotions’, a term which would give Maid Marian an original role in the band as a figurehead.)
Today, nonfiction authors often plump for someone with the “Hode” surname in their quest for the one-and-only, original, historical, true Robin Hood. With different candidates in different eras, it’s led to a great deal of research, contributing to our understanding of the era. There’s usually enough circumstantial detail that after reading such a book, you think, yes, that’s it, they’ve identified him – until you read the next such book, which argues for a completely different candidate! (The latest is one which makes him a fugitive Knight Templar - Robin Hood, The Unknown Templar by John Paul Davis.)
It seems unlikely there was one single person whose life provided the inspiration for the familiar story. Some of the now-familiar elements don’t even appear in early versions, the so-called ‘rymes’ (38 of which survive) such as Robin being a displaced aristocrat. (Making him Earl of Huntingdon, “Robin of Locksley” etc is a post-medieval motif, making him more respectable to the establishment of the time when there were no more such outlaws, the bow having given way to the gun. Robin would continue to be claimed as a colourful ancestor by more than one English aristocratic family.) Multiple sources of inspiration would help explain the difficulty scholars have in pinning the legend down to a single location or era, never mind a single recorded individual. Robin living in Sherwood Forest c1200 in the reign of Richard Lion-Heart, King John and the Third Crusade may now be the standard setting but it is a later [c1600] take on the legend.
The earliest surviving reference we have, to people knowing their ‘rymes’ of Robin, is in Piers Plowman, from 1377. This is taken as a reference to the start of the long-running cycle of ballads known as the Gests (“deeds”). There, the only reference to a named king is to ‘comely’ Edward (who meets and pardons Robin). This doesn’t narrow it down much as there are four candidates, from Edward I, the Hammer of the Scots who defeated William Wallace (and seems an unlikely candidate), to Edward II, who lost to the Scots at Bannockburn and was deposed and murdered by his queen, through Edward III, who had the longest of reigns. (Any handwritten versions of the ‘Gests’ ballads are long gone, these surviving only in early printed forms not collected until the late 18C. For discussion of the textual difficulties of the Gests, see here.)
The longbow was also a weapon in the Scots Wars [c1300 AD ± 15 years] conducted by Wallace and then Robert the Bruce, playing a decisive role against Edward I and II’s armoured knights. (Wallace, who early on had to seek refuge in woodlands, was described c1500 as ‘a Scottish Robin Hood.’) Fear of invasion from the north could also have helped prompted the assimilation of longbows and the men who could use them into the English hegemony. (The longbow was used in Scotland up till Flodden in 1513.) Scots antiquarians speak well of Robin and take him as historical, e.g. John Mair’s comment in his 1521 History Of Great Britain, “he was the prince of robbers, and the most humane.” The only overt Scots element that seems to survive in the legend is in the pronunciation of the texts of the early versions. That is, if you read from these aloud phonetically, you will sound vaguely Scots (“stood” is spelt “stude” with the long Scots vowel sound etc.) This was authentically adopted in the 1975 film Robin And Marian, a revisionist version scripted by The Lion In Winter playwright James Goldman and directed by Richard Lester, with English actors like Nicol Williamson (as Little John) and Ronnie Barker (as Friar Tuck) sounding like Sean Connery (as Robin).
The new Ridley Scott/ Russell Crowe film is set in 1199, beginning like Robin And Marian with the death of Richard in France, and Robin returning home and starting to come to terms with injustices all around him as he woos a rather spiky Marian. (I’m relying here on the advance press coverage, including interviews with the principals.) The script was originally green-lit in 2007 after a bidding war in Hollywood for it, as a completely new take on the legend. This was that the Sheriff of Nottingham, to be played by Crowe, would be the hero - a decent man trying to do a difficult job. (Again, this echoes the 1975 film, where the Sheriff, played by Robert Shaw, is sympathetic.) Robin would be the villain, and another wrinkle would be that Crowe would also play Robin! (Were they meant to be twins, separated at birth?) In July 2008, filming was all set to start in Sherwood Forest when somebody realised the leaves would change colour in the autumn, spoiling the continuity. When filming resumed the following year in the modern Forestry Commission evergreen-conifers plantation in Surrey where Scott and Crowe shot the Germania-set opening of Gladiator, the script’s raison d’être, its role-reversal concept had been dumped. (The original title, “Nottingham” had also been dumped as uncommercial – perhaps somebody had told them the town’s name was then spelt Snotingham.) Now the concept for the title-less project was “Robin begins” (à la Batman Begins), i.e. a prequel to the familiar story. Crowe will not play the Sheriff, who is back to being the villain, but a yeoman Robin, who for some reason has the Tolkienesque name of Longstride….
… Anyway, returning to the original legend, this latest film will not likely make any difference to its perception, but it should bring more interest to the subject matter, and ultimately to its remaining mystery. There is certainly more to this story, for the yeoman longbow on which Robin’s reputation is based is a weapon that was invented in the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age. Archery with bows long or short was used in warfare in early times. Oetzi the Iceman, found with a Bronze-Age arrowhead in his back, was not an isolated case. But the deadly longbow fell out of use, perhaps as fighting was regarded as subject to a warrior code requiring face to face fighting. This is something the Iron Age Kelts were famous for. They would line up and challenge the enemy to single combat with spear and short sword – a disastrous notion of warfare which led to the Romans easily defeating them. Thus, the mystery remains: how did the longbow make its comeback after at least a thousand years of neglect?
There’s still a story to be told here, and it may be there were much earlier Robin Hood types living on in the depths of the greenwood and keeping the ancient technology and lifestyle alive. (A longbow can be disguised as a stave by unstringing it.) This is a figure kept alive in pre-Keltic European myth and legend, like the woodland trickster of English lore, Robin Goodfellow, Herne the Hunter, or the equally elusive Swiss national hero, William Tell. Some have suggested he survives as a collective dream-memory of a king-of-the-wood huntsman figure, of the sort the late Robert Holdstock invoked in his Mythago Wood. Celtic sources do have both shamanistic figures and lordly ethereal huntsman figures, of whom Arthur may be one, who was later historicised – claimed as a historical figure. (For an analysis of this, see Concepts Of Arthur by Thomas Green, 2008.) Nonfiction books on the Robin legend have also meditated on the idea of the ancient mythic folk hero who can be killed over and over, but never really dies, being reborn whenever he is needed, dreamt up in a new incarnation. In other words, he is an idea, and you can never kill an idea. As Alfred Noyes’s poem ‘Sherwood’ puts it: “Dreaming of a shadowy man that winds a shadowy horn / Robin Hood is here again.”