Friday, December 7, 2012

Robbing From the Rich to Give to the Poor


The classic English legend of Robin Hood certainly offers sufficient fodder for a spirited debate. From the 14th century onwards, scraps of legend and poetry gave rise to one of England's best loved stories: that of a handsome young archer robbing the rich to feed the poor. From the earliest surviving Robin Hood and the Monk, to Howard Pyle's classic children's adaptation, tales of the forest of Sherwood are rife among classic offerings. Not only that, but the film industry embraces him as their own, with over 63 adaptations featuring him, and 32 more in which he makes an honorary appearance. One of these, by the by, is Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, in which I was much pleased to find him.

My own introduction to Robin Hood has been very limited, compared to the vast offerings available. The Disney animation, a brief foray into an audiobook of Pyle's version, which was promptly cut short when I found it had an elderly female narrator (she just didn't fit the overall tone of the story), and the book which we're going to be discussing today: Robin Hood, by Paul Creswick. This edition, published in 1917 sported the glorious N.C. Wyeth illustrations and a whole new look into Robin's childhood. I don't recall how many years ago it was when I first read it, but  I do recall falling in love with it on first read. Back then, I didn't think much about the moral implications of the character's actions, but just a few weeks ago I revisited this book, and I thought it would be most interesting to explore it further.

Because, as hard as it is to say, if he's robbing the rich to feed the poor, then we're excusing sin in the name of adventure.

The Story
Everyone knows Robin Hood, but there are differing accounts of how he came to the Greenwood. In Paul Creswick's Robin Hood he leaves for the greenwood at around age 18, and the story spans into his twenties, I would think. But it begins when he's sixteen years old, young Robin Fitzooth, living with his parents in the forest of Locksley. King Richard is abroad fighting in the crusade, and Robin's life bids fair to be a happy one--at least, as happy as a life in medieval England can be. His father was cheated out of his rightful lands, so he has to content himself with being the Ranger of Locksley and caring for the king's dear. When an invitation comes from Robin's uncle, Geoffrey of Montfitchet, to see the fair, and a further opportunity for Robin to become the Montfitchet heir, Hugh allows his son to go. On his way Robin receives his first hint of the greenwood, when Will O' the Green demands money for his safe passage to town. Robin, bold of heart and brave of tongue offers the best of three shots for the freedom of the forest, and Will accepts the wager, but a group of sheriff's men riding by cuts their competition short. Once at Geoffrey of Montfitchet's, Robin meets his cousin Will Scarlet, who has been disinherited as Geoffrey's son for his allegiance to Prince John. After these hints of the future Robin's world changes when he slights the Sheriff of Nottingham's daughter in favor of Maid Marion on the bestowal of a prize at archery, invoking the enmity of the Sheriff's household. Then Robin's father dies, killed by a wild stag, and Robin determines to become Ranger of Locksley in his stead. He sends his request to the sheriff, but the sheriff is determined to slight him, and twists an unfortunate incident with Will O' the Green's men to make Robin look like an outlaw. After a mean trick to make Robin shoot one of the king's deer, and a failed hanging, Robin takes refuge with Will O' the Green's men.

And thus, Robin Locksley dies, and Robin Hood takes his place.

My Thoughts:

I'll get to the issue of thievery in a moment, but before I do, I'll give my customary general thoughts regarding the book. It is worth it to have the edition for the illustrations, but coupled with the classic retelling that Creswick gives, this Robin Hood sets the standard high. Each edition has its merits; I finally caved in and looked up the Howard Pyle edition on the internet this morning. Within minutes I was roaring with laughter (albeit inwardly) and I shall add him to my list, for though I think Creswick will be my favorite of all time, I never mind another view of a good hero, especially a humorous one.
The Paul Creswick edition contains a very few mild instances of language, but is for the most part a clean tale. Little gore indeed, though a lot of archery and arrows. Also, Robin Hood is far from the invincible fellow he likes to think he is, and there are plenty of bloody noses and cracked crowns for all concerned, including him.
Paul Creswick's edition is not nearly as laugh-inducing as Pyle's, though he has his moments, especially in Robin's meeting with Little John. But all in all, his story is one of true love, both the love of a man for a maid, and the love of a man for a fellow man. All are willing to risk their necks in rescuing their comrades, and they care for one another in a truly endearing manner. Oh, yes, they all have their spats. But only enough to add a spice of variety, and keep the reader from viewing them as an angelic band.
The only scene I skipped altogether was the scene in which young Robin gets his fortune told at the fair. Fortune telling is one plot that I disapprove of entirely, and though I won't dump the whole book if it contains it, and even in some instances I will read a scene containing a fortune-teller (for instance, The Triumph of the Scarlet Pimpernel) or someone making a jest of fortune-telling (such as Pancks in Little Dorrit) when it's the real crystal ball stuff I flip a few pages.
My applause to Creswick for refraining from turning Marian into a feminist wood-dweller. Though she joins Robin, and in several instances takes on the dress of a page, she keeps her feminine dignity and poise, whether she's her own sweet self or going under the guise of--well, I won't say. Their love story is a true and clean and honest one, a fitting illustration of how a woman complements a man no matter what his work.

Situational Ethics or Biblical Interposition?
And now we come to Robin's merry escapades in the greenwood. In Howard Pyle's edition Robin is outlawed for killing a man and a deer, but in Creswick's Robin Hood he has to flee because of the Sheriff of Nottingham's false claims. With Prince John on the throne there is very little justice in the land, and he finds more in the greenwood than in the court. Oh, yes, he has his unfortunate escapades--Little John stealing the sheriff's plate is the only blatant theft, which unfortunately Robin sanctions. But in the rest of the instances, Robin merely brings a man in to share a dinner with the band, and charges him according to his wealth. Thus, you'll find several instances of situational ethics, that of doing wrong that good might result.
The idea of biblical interposition is an interesting one. I went to a weekend conference on this topic, at which Paul Jehle is the speaker, and it was quite enlightening. I highly encourage you to purchase the recordings here. It is not necessarily wrong to disobey the authorities who violating their God-given responsibility to dispense justice. In biblical interposition, first you appeal to the authorities. If that fails, you flee. And if that fails, then you fight. For instance, take the Scottish covenanters who emigrated to America. The Covenanters did just that; first they appealed to the king; when that failed, they fled to mountain strongholds and hidden valleys, and when the king's dragoons followed them, they turned to and fought with a vengeance. The question regarding Robin Hood remains, was his band an excuse for blatant sin and outlawry, or was it a just biblical interposition against unjust tyrants. Perhaps the words of King Richard answer it best: "I love the man who is brave and who dealeth fairly as he may with his fellow men. You have kept the spirit of liberty alive in this my land, and I hold no anger against you because you have been impatient under wrong." The ultimate mark of biblical interposition, is that once a wrong government is abolished, the people set up a new government in its place, not relying any longer than necessary on the ruling of the common will. And this, in Creswick's edition, Robin does. His king is King Richard, and he swears fealty to him.  Robin Hood has his occasional faults, but altogether "Robbing the Rich to Feed the Poor" has become much more of a Hollywood hype than the original tales contained. And though his outlaw band may not be perfect, in Creswick's edition they are fighting for truth and justice, and the good law of the land of England. I know not how other editions portray him, but in my favorite edition, though not without its flaws, I find no need to excuse my enjoyment of the bulk of his adventures, for the bulk of them are honest ones. In fact, if you like Stevenson's The Black Arrow, then I think you'll like Creswick's Robin Hood very much indeed.

Such a pity that it had to end as it did. But the legend lives on, and I think it bids fair to last for centuries to come.

Lady Bibliophile.


  1. Dear Lady B,
    Ahhhh...You did the robber today! :P Just joking... :D :D :D Although I don't know much about him, Robin Hood has always held a fascination for me. Do you know who first created the legend?
    You did an excellent post!
    Love, Sister
    ~ <3 ~ <3 ~ <3 ~

  2. Oh! I loved Robin Hood stories when I was little, but I never heard of this one!

    One of my favourite tellings is Roger Lancelyn Green's--he takes the same Greatest Hits approach he did in his wonderful King Arthur, which means that Robin Hood's adventures in Ivanhoe get mentioned! Another I really liked was Thomas Love Peacock's Maid Marian, which (IIRC) was sappily melodramatic and also very funny. Though I got the feeling that he was so enthusiastic about Marian and her power of womanhood that it seemed a little feministic. (But not blatantly so).

    As for the ethics of Robin Hood, of course this depends on the teller of the story. However, I leave you with this quote from my pet theologian (which makes even better sense in context):

    "By the way, and I simply make this point in passing, it will do no good to get off this charge by appealing to our cultural memories of Robin Hood. He was not robbing the rich to give to the poor. He was robbing the tax collectors in order to get the money back to the people who had earned it in the first place."

    1. Very interesting article! I liked this quote:

      "Because we have larceny in our hearts, we call it greed when someone wants to keep the money he made, and we don't call it greed when we want to take it away from him."

      We live in a society where people resent riches. And while the love of money is the root of all evil, and we cannot serve both God and money, God doesn't have to give everyone the same income.

      Have you ever seen any decent movie adaptations of Robin Hood? I'm curious to get a recommendation. :)

    2. Oh, yes, I've seen a number. Robin Hood has, of course, been done to death. Here are some of the ones I've seen:

      --Errol Flynn's The Adventures of Robin Hood, which is the one I recommend--a classic, fun swashbuckler ("You talk treason!" "Fluently") though not my favourite swashbuckler.
      --Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves...I...Well, let's just say the only person in the movie aware that he's in a comedy is Alan Rickman as the Sherriff. Only see if you're a truly dedicated Rickman fan. It's terrible. So politically correct. So ham-handed. So wrong (shouldn't Robin Hood at least speak with an English accent?).
      --The BBC TV series, which is one notch above the former. All I want to say about that--I saw just the first few episodes--is that it's tooth-edgingly feminist, and it goes even more politically correct than the Costner version by having the token Saracen be a token Saracen girl.

      There's also the Russel Crowe version, but I heard bad things about that too, and couldn't be bothered. Definitely try Errol Flynn.

    3. "Ham-handed". That gave me a thrill. :) I use it often in my mind, but hesitated to include it in conversation as it's not an American word, and I didn't know how it was used. Yay!

      Thanks for the info. I suspected as much about the newer series, but would be interested in looking into the Errol Flynn version.


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