How do myths and legends begin? Is there a kernel of truth at the heart of these stories? Or over time do we fall in love with ideas and romances, and that as a result, we create other worlds to distract ourselves?
For over seven hundred years, books, tv shows, songs, and movies bring the tale of Robin Hood to life again and again. There were many medieval ballads featuring Robin Hood; Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare wrote of him; Errol Flynn, Russell Crowe and Kevin Costner played the character, Cary Elwes parodied him… even Once Upon a Time has their own spin on the mysterious outlaw. The term the “Robin Hood effect” comes from the tale, in which he takes wealth from the rich and redistributes it to the poor.
Did such a man exist, or is Robin Hood a product of literary evolution?
The earliest reference to “Robin Hood” is from the 13th century. The name Robert was a common name in that era, and Robin seemed to be a derivative. The name “Hood” may have been more of a description than a surname (not everyone had a surname in the medieval era). Some historians suspect that “Hood” is a corruption of “Wood.” That perhaps if such a man existed, his name was Robert/Robin of Wood… he lived nearby a wooded area. Others believe that Robin Hood could have been a nickname used for many outlaws. Not that these outlaws took from the rich and gave to the poor; that idea came much later.
Another theory, one that seems plausible was that Roger Godberd of Sherwood Forest, shared many parallels with the legendary outlaw. A farmer turned highwayman, he robbed from churchmen and battled the Sheriff of Nottingham. He was later captured and imprisoned until he received a pardon from Edward I… who had recently come back from the Crusades. Roger Godberd returned to his farm where he lived out his last days.
Medieval ballads cemented the character of Robin Hood as we know him today. These folk tales seemed to have originated in Yorkshire and evolved from there. The earliest ballad only references Little John as his companion. Robin Hood wishes to attend a Mass at St. Mary’s and a monk he formerly stole from recognizes him. He battles with a sheriff, is captured and later Little John rescues him. There is no specific mention of the Sheriff of Nottingham or King John, but in this ballad we have the roots from where the legend flourished. Characters such as Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, and Will Scarlet came in later ballads.
Storytellers could have borrowed Maid Marian from the May Games, which featured characters called “Marian” and “Robin.” Inspired by French tradition and then a play, it told the tale of shepherdess Marian and how she resisted the advances of a certain knight, to be with her one true love, Robin. In the 16th century, Maid Marian was accepted as Robin Hood’s lover and elevated to the position of a noblewoman.
The newer tellings of Robin Hood’s story give him a happy ending with Maid Marian, but the older ones record his death. In the care of a Prioress, she murders him by bleeding him. Before he succumbed to death, Robin Hood shot an arrow out of a window and they buried him where it landed.
By now we have a fully fleshed out tale. Robin Hood, a man of the people and a noble who fights in the Crusades alongside King Richard. He returns home to find a corrupt king and sheriff in power, he bands together with others to steal from the rich and give to the poor. Robin and his band of Merry Men fight on the behalf of the people. He falls in love and fights to win the hand and heart of the fair Maid Marian. He thwarts the evil powers that be and restores peace to the land.
Whether Robin Hood was real or not, he has become an inspiration. His story lives on and encourages us to not allow injustice in society.