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Robin Hood

Robin Hood is the archetypal English folk hero, an outlaw who, in modern versions of the legend, stole from the rich to give to the poor.

This redistributionalist form of philosophy in action anticipates the work of writers such as Proudhon and Karl Marx by many hundreds of years. Although most noted for this material egalitarianism, in his stories he also pursues other types of equality and justice. But as mentioned below, Robin Hood originally was not so generous.

The stories relating to Robin Hood are apocryphal, verging on the mythological. His first appearance in a manuscript is in William Langland's Piers Plowman (1377) in which Sloth, the lazy priest boasts "I can (i.e. 'ken') 'rimes of Robin Hood.' Three years later the Scottish chronicler John Fordun writes that, in ballads, "Robin Hood delights above all others."

Printed versions of Robin Hood ballads appear in the early 16th century -- shortly after the advent of printing in England. In these ballads, Robin Hood is a yeoman which, by that time, means an independent tradesman or farmer. It is only in the late 16th century that he becomes a nobleman, the Earl of Huntington, Robert of Locksley, or later still, Robert Fitz Ooth.

His romantic attachment to Maid Marian (or "Marion") (originally known as Mathilda) is also a product of this later period and probably has something to do with the French pastoral play of about 1280, the Jeu de Robin et Marion. Aside from the names there is no recognizable Robin Hood connection to the play.

The late 16th century is also the period when the Robin Hood story is moved back in time to the 1190s, when King Richard is away at the crusadess. One of the original Robin Hood ballads refers to King Edward (Edward I, II, and III ruled England from 1272 to 1377). The idea of Robin Hood as a high-minded Saxon fighting Norman Lords originates in the 19th century, most notably in the part Robin Hood plays in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe.

The folkloric Robin Hood was deprived of his lands by the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham and became an outlaw. The Sheriff does, indeed, appear in the early ballads (Robin kills and beheads him), but there is nothing as specific as this allegation. Robin's other enemies include the rich abbots of the Catholic Church and a bounty hunter named Guy of Gisbourne. Robin kills and beheads him as well. In the early ballads there is nothing about giving to the poor although Robin does make a large loan to an unfortunate knight.

He is said to have taken up residence in the verdant Sherwood Forest. This is a matter of some considerable contention. The original ballads speak of his being in Barnsdale, some fifty miles north of Sherwood. Others argue that if this were true he would have nothing to do with the Sheriff of Nottingham who operated two days ride to the south.

In the ballads, original "Merry Men" (though not called that) included: Friar Tuck, Will Scarlet or Scathlock, Much the Miller's Son, and Little John who was called "little" because he wasn't. Alan-a-Dale is a later invention in Robin Hood plays.

Songs, plays, games, and, later, novels, musicals, films, and tv series have developed Robin Hood and company according to the needs of their times, and the mythos has been subject to extensive ideological manipulation. Maid Marian, for instance, something of a warrior maiden in early Victorian novels was reduced in demeanour to passivity during the period of the women's suffrage movement. As the media power of the modern feminist movement gathered momentum, Marian reacquired an altogether more active role. Robin Hood himself has been transformed from a bandit with an occasional element of generosity in the original tales, to the contemporary reading, where he is depicted more as a medieval Che Guevara leading a small rebel force fighting a guerrilla war against Prince John and the Sheriff on behalf of the oppressed and King Richard I.

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