'Robin Hood' Is Vulgar and Subversive and Always Was


June 26, 1991|By GARRY WILLS

Apparently nobody likes the new Robin Hood movie except the people. Critics have given it a thorough drubbing, but attendance seems to be holding up.

That is appropriate. The Robin Hood story has been considered disreputable ever since reference to it first started showing up in the 14th century.

The very earliest reference to ''rhymes of Robin Hood'' is in William Langland's poem, ''The Vision of Piers the Plowman," where a dying priest is condemned for not knowing the Our Father though he could recite the adventures of Robin Hood.

For over a century after that, learned people kept lamenting that the lower orders were paying more attention to trash like Robin Hood than to high-minded and uplifting matters. Robin Hood was the television of his day.

JTC In 1528, the English reformer William Tyndale said people were neglecting the Bible in order ''to read Robin Hood . . . to corrupt the minds of youth withal.''

It is a bit surprising that a Protestant like Tyndale could not find some redeeming features in the Robin Hood tales, since corrupt churchmen are regularly the villains of those tales.

In fact, they come first in Robin's instructions to his men when describing the enemy. In the 15th-century poem ''The Gest of Robin Hood,'' we read:

''These bishops and these archbishops,

''Ye shall them beat and bind.

''The high sheriff of Nottingham,

''Him hold ye in your mind.''

The new movie has a loathsome bishop who is perfectly in this spirit.

But Tyndale, like other reformers, would not have liked the kind of piety Robin retained. Like a chivalrous man, Robin was especially devoted to the Virgin Mary. And he liked the image of the crucified criminal at Golgotha.

A knight whose land has been stolen gets a loan from Robin when the only collateral he can offer is this:

'' 'Hast thou any friend,' said Robin,

'' 'Thy warrant that would be?'

'' 'I have none,' then said the knight,

'' 'But God that died on tree.' ''

Still, Robin is always the enemy of the established church. He is killed in the legend by an evil prioress, one of the rich mother superiors of that day's convents. When Little John wants to burn down the convent, the dying Robin says:

''I ne'er hurt fair maid in all my time,

''Nor at my end shall it be.''

But he will not be buried like an orthodox Christian in the consecrated churchyard. He asks Little John for his bow, and shoots an arrow out of the convent window, with these words:

''And where this arrow is taken up,

''There shall my grave digg'd be,

''With verdant sods most neatly put,

0$ ''Sweet as the greenwood tree.''

''And lay my bent bow by my side,

''Which was my music sweet,

''And make my grave of gravel and green,

''Which is most right and meet.''

These last verses are from the early 18th century, when the legend was beginning to get sentimental, but even then Robin was a century ahead of his time. It was not until the 1800s that such burials in natural settings became customary for ordinary Christians.

The earliest scholarly work on Robin appeared in 1795, written by Joseph Ritson, an English sympathizer with the French Revolution.

Modern social historians, writing the history of underclasses, have become interested in Robin Hood's appeal (even though the early rhymes were written by educated men).

There has always been something subversive, vulgar and offensive to good taste in this legend. The new movie fits that mold.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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