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The Evolution of Robin Hood 1262-2010

12 April 10 words: James Walker
illustrations: Rikki Marr

The full run-down on the evolution of England's greatest folk legend in books, films and television

Robin Hood has taken on many shapes and forms over the years, in all mediums – and his means, motives and appearances have changed to suit the times. And when you attempt to track the story of how he went from narked freeman to the living embodiment of humanity's inate desire to kick against the pricks, you quickly realise that you're also uncovering the evolution of storytelling itself. So, to the best of our abilities, here’s the full development of that rugged, foppish, New Age salt-of-the-earth thieving aristocratic socialist fox-human hero-traitor with the serious personality disorder… 

The term ‘Robehod’ is applied in court to a troublesome youth in Berkshire, and becomes forever synonymous with outlaws.
14th century
The poem Piers Plowman is seen as the first clear reference to the ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’ - but as far as hard evidence is concerned, you’re looking at the late 15th century/early 16th century for surviving copies. In these, Robin has a high regard for women (due to the influence of Marianism -the theological study of Jesus’ Mam), he loves his arrows and is a top archer, doesn’t like the church poking its nose into political affairs and the ode Sheriff is clearly getting on his wick. Little John and Will ‘Scathelocke’ are already best buddies.  
Early 15th century
The first recorded rhyme begins ‘Robyn hode in scherewode stod’ – the first clear link to Robin Hood and Nottinghamshire.
The first mentions of Maid Marian and Friar Tuck.

A Gest of Robyn Hode is the first attempt to publish a collection of Hood stories into a continuous narrative, commonly known as a ‘good outlaw tale’. In a nutshell, he gets into a few scrapes and commits crimes because he’s been shafted by a corrupt system. These ‘moral’ crimes maketh the man and often involve him outwitting an opponent. In these rawer versions he’s got a quick temper and is prone to bouts of violence. But he’s not yet the philanthropist we know and love; the closest he gets is writing off a loan to a knight - more a case of courtesy than equality. 

16th century
Ballads of the time effectively recast Robin as a ‘new man’, more interested in romance and promoting the hereditary ruling class than overthrowing the establishment. He’s a virtuous gent in the mould of the King Arthur legend. 

Thomas Millington writes the ballad Babes In The Wood. In the original version, said kids get left to die in the said wood. Somewhere along the way, Robin Hood and his massive get involved, turning the story into a part of the pantomime canon. 

Shakespeare collaborator Anthony Munday tries to elevate our peasant freeholder to the nobility in the play The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington. A lass named Matilda likes the vibe of the forest, and to show her commitment to the cause she changes her name by deed pool to Marian. Meanwhile, an anonymous scribe jumps on the name-changing bandwagon and pens George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield.

Guy Fawkes gets banged up for a failed terrorist attempt on the Houses of Parliament and is branded a ‘Robin Hood’ by the first Earl of Salisbury. The name becomes synonymous with sedition and treachery.
18th century
The ballads become more farcical. In one, Robin takes a good kicking from a tanner, tinker and ranger but, ever gracious in defeat, he’s more than happy to stand them a pint down the local. Perhaps as a consequence of all his bashings, he develops a penchant for other people’s clothing - such as a Monk’s habit to aid him in a robbery.

19th century
The more familiar Hood finally emerges; a strong, principled Saxon fending off cruel usurping Norman lords, he likes nothing better than a good time with his mates and makes various appearances, such as in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). The Victorian era sees Robin as the philanthropist we all hold dear to our hearts, robbing from the rich to give to the poor.

Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood is published, in which our eighteen year-old hero flees to the woods after killing one of the King’s foresters in self-defence. The merry men are guaranteed three suits of Lincoln green each year, a decent wage, venison, and ‘sweet oaten cakes, and curds and honey’ for services rendered. When a rare winter hits the page, they fend off the cold with a few pints in the Blue Boar Inn.

The Americans begin their stranglehold on the tale of Robin Hood, with an eponymous comic opera performed in Chicago before moving to Broadway. It’s pretty much the usual tale, with the main twist being that Maid Marian has three blokes on the go – Robbo, Guy of Gisbourne, and someone called Colin.

1912 and 1922
Two silent films, both called Robin Hood, are released. The first features the cast wearing enormous hats and having the faces of animals superimposed over their own to denote who’s a baddie and who’s a goodie, while the latter – starring Douglas Fairbank -  was one of the most expensive films of the Twenties and the first to ever have a Hollywood premiere.

Geoffrey Trease firmly nails Robin as a socialist philanthropist in the childrens’ book Bows Against The Barons.

The Adventures of Robin Hood, possibly the greatest Robbo film ever, solidifies the image of Robin Hood as a swashbuckling, slightly foppish sort - thanks to Erroll Flynn, who wasn’t even the first choice; it was supposed to be Jimmy Cagney. 

The television boom sees both the BBC and ITV making Robin Hood shows: the former features the first Dr Who, Patrick Troughton, but the latter wins hands down with its superior budget, a team of historians who winkle out the most obscure facets of medieval minutiae, and an iconic theme tune. 

Robin’s weirdest transformation; that of a wily fox with an extremely toffish accent in the Disney classic.

By now, the legend of Robin Hood has been done to death, so a new take is introduced; Robbo as old man. Robin and Marion, starring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn, sees our hero reunited with his knock-off (who has joined a nunnery) and has one more go at the equally elderly Sheriff of Nottingham.

The ITV series Robin of Sherwood sets the tone from here on in, factoring in not only a pagan vibe (with a shamanic figure watching over the Merry Men) but also introducing a Middle-East influence in the shape of Nasir, a Saracen who joins the gang.

The attention switches away from Robin with the BBC’s wildly popular Maid Marian and her Merry Men, which depicts the previously winsome love object as the brains behind the operation, whilst Robbo is demoted to thick-as-a-whale-omlette yuppie.

Early 1990s
Hollywood returns for another go at the Hooded Man, with two films in 1991 (Prince of Thieves and Robin Hood), and Mel Brooks’ Men In Tights, set in Rottingham.

Monica Furlong's coming-of-age novel Robin's Country sees an unnamed boy with memory loss welcomed into the green clan. After saving Robin’s life twice, he slowly regains his faculties and discovers he’s King Richard’s long-lost godson.

It’s the BBC’s turn to have another go at the legend, with Robin Hood. It runs for a mere three series, with an early killing-off of Maid Marian and a dying Robbo blowing up Nottingham Castle.

Late 2000s
Robin returns to the printed page. Girls in the Greenwood: The Forestwife, Child of the May, and Rowan Hood are just a few of the recent female centered narratives. In Forestwife, Marian lives a solitary New-Age hippie-like existence, offering bodily and spiritual sustenance to her boys as well as a moral yardstick to the less cultured Robert. And it’s not just Marian who’s hijacked the starring role; Michael Cadnum's In a Dark Wood places a solitary, introspective sheriff as the main protagonist whilst in The Forbidden Forest, Little John is given narrative precedence after - yes you’ve guessed it - fleeing to the Forest.

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe promise a grittier, earthier, almost Ramboesque Robin. And the story continues…

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