by Albert Ruben
Monthly Review 64, no. 1
In his estimable Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero, it is Paul Buhle’s contention that in the almost eight centuries of his legendary existence, Robin has had his time come periodically but seldom more than now. With barbarians, foreign and domestic, at the gates whenever they are not in the palaces, the need for heroes to rise from the ranks of the masses is at least as urgent as it was in Robin Hood’s day.
According to Buhle, Robin Hood has two defining identities. The foremost is the bandit who robs from the rich and gives to the poor; close behind is the denizen of the forest. How, then, does a venerable literary figure defined in these ways meet current social needs? On the one hand, it is because of the maldistribution of wealth that is an increasingly glaring feature of late capitalism. On the other hand, it is because of the global assault on the environment.
To his credit, Buhle acknowledges the difficulty of fitting the ballads out of which have sprung the many tales of Robin and his merry men into the neat construct he would prefer. “The saga of Robin Hood is not a metaphor easily adaptable to Marxist (or anarchist) formulation,” Buhle concedes. “Rather, it opens up badly needed areas of discussion after the collapse of Russian-style Communism and the near-collapse of capitalism’s self-confidence, amid crises in the global economy and worse crises in the planet’s ecosystems.” It is difficult not to wonder what the areas are that Buhle alludes to here, areas that not only have not been thoroughly discussed since the fall of the Soviet Union but that await the benefit of further examination through the prism of the Robin Hood legend.
Awaited or not, Buhle embarks on his investigation with a will and makes a fine job of it. He traces the salient elements of the narrative to fourteenth-century England (the first literary mention of the name Robin Hood appeared in 1377 in the poem Piers Plowman). For common people in the countryside, Buhle relates, conditions were hard. The king’s deer, for example, were plentiful in the forests, but the penalty for killing one could be death. And so local balladeers sang of heroes who gave slain deer to villagers and provided aid and protection in other ways. The Childe Ballads ring with the name Robin Hood. He was a hit. Songs and stories about him spread. He was given a supporting cast, and Buhle thoroughly examines and embraces wherever possible the deeper significance of Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and Little John. The question for Buhle becomes why this legend took such firm root and has had such lasting appeal.
He locates both in two places. The first is in the class conflict that over the centuries has never been far beneath the surface of the tranquil countenances societies put forward to conform to their existential myths. “Capitalism,” he holds, “was unimpeded, relatively speaking, but never unresisted.” As for the ways this resistance propelled our hero, he traces the beginning to an English rebellion in 1381 that “foreshadowed the uprising against Church and ruling classes of the next three or four centuries across the continents but also prepared the ground for the popularity of the Robin Hood saga.” Buhle elects to ignore the problem of locating Robin among an early 99 percent in most popular tellings of his tale. In them, Robin has hardly been forged by the hardships of a downtrodden class. He is Sir Robin of Loxley, a devoted subject of “good” King Richard, who in turn is off crusading in the Holy Land—which is to say plundering while putting infidels to the sword.
Buhle’s second explanation for the continued popularity of the Robin Hood narrative is on the firm ground of how readily the band of merry outlaws lends itself to media exploitation. His account of the many renderings in literature, in motion pictures, and in television is thorough and admirable. Plainly, his favorite was the 1950s British made TV series, The Adventures of Robin Hood. Buhle gives me generous credit for my role as story editor during the first two seasons of that series. I was living in London and was hired by the American producer Hannah Weinstein (not a “former theatrical lawyer”) for the, in that agonized period, good and sufficient reason that I was politically trustworthy.
Hannah had a singular idea: many first-rate Hollywood screenwriters were at the time blacklisted as leftists and so were unable to work. She would hire some of them under assumed names. They would be able to pay the rent; she would get, for television, unusually well-written scripts. My job was to communicate with them by airmail, an awkward process made necessary because the writers were, in a sense, political prisoners: the State Department refused to issue them the passports they needed to travel to work with us in London. I knew the identity of each writer, but Hannah insisted that was a secret between her and me; they must not know I knew. They signed their letters to me with pen names. For instance the team of Ian Hunter and Ring Lardner, Jr. signed “WS/FT,” for Will Scarlet and Friar Tuck. Strange, absurd times.
A singularity of the period is that TV shows were sponsored, that is to say an entire season of weekly episodes was purchased in order to pitch the sponsoring company’s products during commercial breaks. Through publicity executives and its advertising agency, the company kept close watch on every aspect of any show it sponsored. As a result, we on the production team of The Adventures of Robin Hood took care to avoid alerting agency, corporate, or network executives to the hotbed of subversives they were employing. Buhle is certain that episodes of our series were often slanted leftward and liberally salted with “socially conscious” dialogue. If he is right, it is sobering to think that the nation’s security was entrusted to such incompetent guardians.
The final arrow in Buhle’s quiver hits the bull’s eye. Linking the legend to the current environmental movement, he proposes, is Robin’s residence among the greenery and the creatures of the forest. A possible association of Robin with an English folk figure, the Green Man, is explored, and ultimately the case Buhle makes for an environmentalist’s embrace of Robin Hood is persuasive.
Finally Buhle argues that the world needs Robin Hood now more than ever. “We need Robin because rebellion against deteriorating conditions is inevitable.” Plainly, he issued the prediction before the advent of the Occupy movement. The reader, nonetheless, takes away from Buhle’s book a strong sense that the author must surely discern in that movement fertile soil for the many Robins he is convinced we are all desperately waiting for. It makes for a thought-provoking conclusion to an exhaustive study of tales that, whatever their radical credentials may or may not be, is an informative and entertaining examination of an enduring folk hero.
Robin Hood is subtitled not only People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero but A Graphic Guide as well. The Guide comprises four brief sections, each made up of graphic pages, three in comic book style. The artists are Chris Hutchinson, Gary Dumm, and Sharon Rudahl.