King Arthur and Robin Hood are two of the most enduring mythic figures from Britain’s past.
Both have remained a part of high and low culture for centuries and are still being reinterpreted and reimagined to this day - even if some versions leave a little to be desired.
While the historical truth surrounding them is uncertain at best, it doesn't really matter. Indeed, trying to discover whether these men really existed, where and when, is missing the point. Like most heroes, particularly national heroes, what matters is not historical truth but the meaning those heroes carry, the truths or ideals they represent. Heroes are supposed to teach us lessons in what it means to belong: to a nation, to a society, or to the human race.
I’ll put my cards on the table right now. This won’t come as a surprise to anyone lucky enough to have read one of the Will stories, but I’m a Robin Hood man through and through, not just because I like forests and Robin of Sherwood. Ages ago I wrote a blog about how that TV show was pretty much the only decent thing going for fans of fantasy-type action back in the 1980s and it still influences the way I see fantasy today.
But that's not the main reason Robin is my man. For that we have to go back to what his myth represents, particularly in contrast to Arthur. In short, the tales of Robin Hood are socially radical, while Arthurian myth is almost wholly conservative.
Arthurian myths are all about how tough it is to be born into power. They’re focussed on a fixed, feudal society, run by a gang of kings and knights, advised or thwarted by a few suspect wizards. It is, in essence, a soap opera about the rich and powerful, Dynasty in plate-mail armour. Arthur may have spent his childhood as a lowly servant, but thanks to the sword in the stone, he is recognised as the rightful heir to the throne of England and becomes king. What’s most important here is that Arthur’s coronation restores the natural order because the correct individual is in charge. As long as the ordained king is in his castle, and he is wise and fair, all is well. Trouble happens when this system is corrupted, whether by love or by the ambition of greedy people who want to upset the divinely-defined apple cart. So one of the big lessons of Arthurian myth is know your place. If you're not one of the elite, then shut your mouth and keep gathering that filth, Dennis.
The myth of Robin Hood is quite the reverse: while Arthur is one of them, Robin is one of us, not just the champion of the oppressed, but someone who turns the established order on its head. Of course, he has a code of honour, but it’s one derived from social and economic justice, not from a chivalric code that only applies to the 1%. He uses the tactics of the lowest sort - hiding, ambushes, trickery - to relieve the rich of their wealth and redistribute it to those who need it, no matter if the wealth comes from aristocrats, merchants or the clergy. For Robin, all power corrupts. That's why he has no army, just a band of merry men, consciously keeping a lid on his own power, minimising its corrupting influence, both feet very much on the ground. In essence, the Robin Hood myth tells us that the system is broken but, rather than needing fixed, restored to its natural hierarchy, it needs turned on its head.
Of course, if you're the sort who benefits from everyone knowing their place, you can't let a myth as radical as this stand unchallenged. So, poor old Robin is worked into the conservative power narrative by casting him as the champion of King Richard, just the fellow to keep nasty Prince John busy until the wise, just, rightful king - the Arthur - returns. Robin’s not there to upset things but to set them straight, to teach the high-born a lesson in responsibility. Indeed, some versions can't even handle the idea that Robin could be a simple commoner with a sense of social fairness and a keen eye with a bow and arrow. Why not make Robin a nobleman who rejected his position and went off to live in the forest? It stands to reason, does it not, that anyone so clever and capable of such leadership, of inspiring so many slack-jawed peasant folk, has to be of high birth? But even if you accept this, I’d still argue that Robin of Locksley rejecting the comforts of a nice castle to be the Green Man, living in the woods and consorting with thieves while he liberates the toffs of their ill-gotten riches, only emphasises how the Robin Hood myth turns the natural order upside down. Arthurian myth is all about how the lowest of the low becomes king because, wouldn't you know it, he's the chosen one, while Robin throws away privilege, becomes the lowest of the low out of choice.
The tropes that come with both heroes tell a similar tale. You can't have Arthur without Camelot, the Round Table and all those shiny knights, just as you can't have Robin without Sherwood and his Merry Men. Arthur's power lies within the defined world of a huge fortress. There may be no hierarchy at the Round Table, but just you try taking a seat there if you're not a knight of the realm, and everyone better recognise that only one of those present is wearing the crown. Meanwhile, Robin's world is vague and fluid, a woodland that is ever changing, mysterious and chaotic. His Merry Men are made up of a huge brute with a paradoxical name, a thief, a minstrel, a monk who has rejected the church, and a fellow with learning difficulties. Given any contest between Guinevere and Marian, my money's on Marian.
This pattern even extends to the writing on both heroes. Arthurian myth is full of definitive readings, whether it's Thomas Malory or Lord Tennyson. Students of Arthurian myth can be pointed towards key texts such as these but not so Robin Hood. Most of his origins are in folk tale and song, the yarns of the commoner, not the high-flown poetry of the court or elite society. It's not difficult to enter the gates of Arthurian legend and find your way about while the textual history of Robin Hood is as difficult to navigate as Sherwood itself.
(Of course, the place where you find these characters most is in cinema and, occasionally, on television. There they’ve been given life, if not necessarily decent definition. That’s a blog for another day - though see the link below.)
So, hooray for Robin Hood riding through the glen and building a fairer society, one theft at a time, and boo to Arthur sitting in his big castle feeling sorry for himself.