He’s plastered on movie posters, book covers, bank logos and the sides of buses, but there is a side to Robin Hood that you may not be aware of. Today, Literature Editor LP Mills takes a deep dive into the strange and ancient history of Nottingham’s best-loved outlaw, Robin Hood...
Folklore is a funny old thing. Stories, when left to grow over the course of centuries, often end up as a tangled mass of unknown origins and mysterious conclusions, and no story could be more impenetrable than that of Robin Hood. However, while you may know the stories as they’ve been told on screens little and large over the years, you may not be aware of the figure’s deep connections with the folkloric roots of Britain as a whole.
Nobody is entirely certain where the Robin Hood myth began. Some, such as Maurice Hugh Keen in The Outlaws of Medieval England, posit that Robin is based on a historical figure, most likely the disgraced noble and bandit leader Roger Godberd, whose settlement of Sherwood Forest and ongoing feud with the Sheriff of Nottingham certainly does point to having been a strong influence. Others have argued that the character was a balladic hero akin to King Arthur and the knights of the round table, a complete work of fiction designed to represent the best of human nature. Indeed, due to the oblique references to “Lincolnshire Green”, a type of popular dye mentioned extensively in The Gest of Robyn Hode, one could even argue that Robin was a sort of early advertisement, the ur-example of today’s modern sponsorship deal.
However, I’d like to go a bit deeper than outlaw kings and medieval subliminal branding. Instead, let’s look at the very beginnings of this legend, and how it relates to an idea that may well predate the English language itself. We are going to talk about how the Hooded Man is an echo of one of Britain’s oldest myths: The Green Man.
If you’ve ever visited a medieval church like Southwell Minster, there’s a chance you may have already encountered The Green Man. A hideous visage with snarling teeth, wild eyes, and shoots of unruly vegetation bursting from every available orifice, The Green Man was what is now known as a grotesque: a form of religious art designed to ward away wicked spirits. The term “Green Man” is actually a modern one, first coined by Lady Julia Raglan in 1939, in which she linked the use of “foliate heads” in church architecture to pre-Christian pagan deities and other medieval incarnations of strange, untamed woodland figures. Lady Raglan’s hypothesis is a popular one, and provides us with a thoroughfare of how these unearthly arboreal beings became something approaching Kevin Costner in the 1991 classic Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
For much of the medieval period, few festivals were more important than the May Day Parade. Celebrated on the first of May, the festival recognises the rebirth of the natural world following the onset of spring, and traditionally involves feasting, dancing, and the twirling reveries of a figure commonly known as Jack in the Green. Jack in the Green was often depicted as a man dressed in a conical, bush-like cloak that covers much of his body and, much like the Green Man grotesques of early medieval churches, he was a wild hybrid of human and vegetation. Early references to the Jack in the Green figure are veiled and esoteric, with the majority of content surrounding the being dating back to his revival in the mid-1800s. However, it is particularly telling that a similar figure also makes its appearance in the May Day celebrations: Robin of the Merry Greenwood.
This Robin was not so much the vigilante hero he is thought of today, being more reminiscent of capricious pagan fairies and goblins. Popular until the reign of Elizabeth I, festival-goers would often dress as this embodiment of misrule and mirth, with men riotously tearing about town. One case from 1492, cited by the folklorist J.C. Holt, sees a group of young men dressed as Robin and his entourage, defending their drunken behaviour by claiming that acting in such a manner was a long-standing tradition, turning an intoxicated spree into the preservation of cultural heritage.
In time, this Robin Hood figure ameliorated into the more commonly understood folk hero we know today. The May Day festivities often came to be associated with passion plays featuring Hood and his beloved Maid Marian, in which the dashing Robin would fight off the advances of flirtatious knights who sought Marian’s hand. This defiance is a theme that goes back to the very beginning of the character, much as The Green Man represents our primordial nature and Jack in the Green embodies the untamed, Robin quickly became a figure of rebellion. His vendetta against the Sheriff of Nottingham goes hand in hand with a love of freedom, and he is often at odds with representatives of corruption, like low-level politicians and members of the clergy.
There are, of course, some slightly whackier theories as to Robin’s origins. In his essay Robin Hood, Sir Sidney Lee proposes that the name “Robin Hood” is in fact borrowed from an earlier entity, a “forest-elf” whose occupation of the wooded byways of Britain eventually became the activities of a peasant-hero battling against the establishment. Lee then goes on to posit the link between the name Hood and the Germanic Hödeken, a sort of fairy spirit believed to dwell in the secret nooks and crannies of the home, as well as the medieval figure of Robin Goodfellow, a puckish goblin referenced in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Wherever one wishes to trace his origins, it is apparent that Robin Hood is an enduring force in British folklore. Perhaps he is a pre-Christian deity, called upon to shoo away wicked spirits, or perhaps he is a trickster, tweaking the nose of the law and battling on behalf of the common man. Regardless, as with many beings from myth we have ended up with an implacable figure, one who is at once benevolent, rowdy, dangerous, unknowable, and carefree; a man with many faces and many, many names.