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Research Paper

Robin Hood -- Truth or Myth?

         For hundreds of years, people from all over the world have been captivated by the legend of Robin Hood. Every child knows about the famous outlaw and his band of merry men who lived in the Sherwood Forest. Scholars, however, are not sure if Robin Hood was a real person. They believe that if a real Robin did exist, he was only a fraction of what the stories make him out to be. Robin’s legend has evolved drastically throughout the centuries, and the real Robin Hood could have been one of many people.

            Although the story itself has changed much, the original first version of Robin Hood was simple. He was a yeoman, or a forester, who killed the king’s deer and was outlawed. He formed a group of bandits and harassed the Sheriff of Nottingham’s men when they entered the Sherwood Forest. However, some things we acknowledge as truths of the Robin Hood legend could never fit in true history. For instance, it is generally accepted that Robin lived in the time of King Richard the Lionheart, that he used a longbow, and that his chief enemy was the Sheriff of Nottingham. History tells us, however, that the longbow was not commonly used in England until 150 years after the death of King Richard. It is also common knowledge to scholars that the Sheriff of Nottingham never ruled any part of the Sherwood Forest. “The earliest story of Robin Hood, which was actually a ballad called Robin Hood and the Monk, was written about 1450” (Wright). At least ten more ballads were added to the first. As the sixteenth century dawned, however, a large new book emerged that incorporated all the small ballads into one story.  “The Gest of Robin Hood was the first attempt to start to change the story around by adding new characters and the like” (Wright). The three most important of Robins ‘merry men’ – Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much – were introduced and made famous because of the Gest.

            But the fairly new Robin Hood legend had yet to become complex. It was not until the mid sixteenth century that the Robin Hood legend was altered. “The earlier versions of Robin Hood depicted him as a cruel and bloody outlaw, but it was not long before he was given the title ‘Prince of Thieves’ and was known to steal from the rich and give to the poor” (Pyle 391). So around this time, when the Renaissance was in full swing, the legend of Robin Hood was romanticized. “The outlaw became a hero for the people. And as all heroes, Robin needed a girl. One was introduced to the story, Maid Marian, to give the legend a bit of romance” (Hall). The famous bard of the story, Alan a Dale, was also introduced at this time.

            It was only until recently, in the nineteenth century, that the tale of Robin Hood began to change all together. “His status in the new stories went from being a simple peasant to a knight who fought in the crusades. Several stories even depict him as being a wronged nobleman” (Wright). In Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, written in 1819, and the classical movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn in 1938, introduced a fresh idea that has already become a mix to the legend. Robin Hood was portrayed as a Saxon freedom fighter against the Norman conquerors.

            Thousands of stories developed in several different time periods all became part of the Robin Hood legend that we all take for granted. As Pyle explains in his preface, the stories are “all bound by nothing but a few odd strands of certain old ballads (snipped and clipped and tied together again in a score of knots)” (vi).

           The search for the real Robin Hood is very near impossible. Robin, or Robert, was one of the most common names in medieval times, while the last name Hood was common in Yorkshire, the setting for the stories of Robin Hood. As a result, several people named “Robin Hood” have been found in historical records. Many have the legitimate requirements to be called the real Robin Hood, while most others are simply bandits who took on the famous outlaw’s name. “The earliest literary reference to Robin Hood is found in William Langland’s Piers Plowman, written in 1377,” (McKinley 282). This leads scholars to assume that the real Robin Hood must have lived sometime between the 1100’s and 1320’s.

            Taking a look at the scant records kept in that period, there are some 20 Robins or Roberts that were outlaws and lived near Nottingham. “The most promising of the early real Robin Hoods was discovered by L.V.D. Owen in 1936” (Wright). His name in the Yorkshire records was ‘Robert Hod, fugitive’. Although very little is known about this outlaw, the records do give a price for his head – 32 shillings and 6 pence in the old English currency. Another possible Robin Hood in the Yorkshire records is known as ‘Robert of Wetherby, outlaw and evil doer of our land’, who had the price of nearly 100 shillings on his head. “There are too many possibilities. [The outlaw] could have been Robert Hood who was a servant of the Abbot of Cirencester. He could have been a Robin Hood found in the Rockingham jail in 1354, or even the nobleman Robert de Kyme who lived in the late 1200’s. No one will ever really know for sure” (Hall). It’s impossible to decide who the real Robin Hood really was. He could have been none of the men mentioned, or he was “a combination of all these real and legendary outlaws, people who used the alias ‘Robin Hood’, myths, and maybe –just maybe – a real outlaw or two named Robin Hood” (Wright). There are several possibilities as to who the infamous outlaw really was, but no one will really ever know for sure. As Holt concludes, “The answer, then to the question ‘Who was Robin Hood?’, must be ‘There were more than one’” (248).

          In truth, it matters little who the famous Robin Hood really was. Scholars may never know the answer to this tantalizing question, but they do know how his stories have changed throughout the years. Despite the evolution of the legend, the basic story has traveled through the centuries to inspire millions of people. McKinley concludes in her Afterword that “Robin Hood is whoever we need him to be at the time of the telling” (282). Whoever he was, or however his story has changed across the years, Robin Hood is “still in our hearts, sitting on a branch in the Sherwood Forest, arrow drawn and grinning” (Hall).

 

Works Cited

 Hall, William. “The Legend of Robin Hood”. The Robin Hood Forum

        17 April 2005. <http://www.robinhood.info/robinhood/index.html>

 

 Holt, James. Robin Hood. New York: Thanes and Hudson, 1991.

 

 McKinley, Robin. The Outlaws of Sherwood. New York: Greenwillow

        Books, 1988.

 

Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York:  

         Penguin Books, Inc., 1985. 

 

Wright, Allen. “Wolfshead through the Ages”. Robin Hood: Bold

         Outlaw of Barnsdale and Sherwood. 17 April 2005    

         <www.boldoutlaw.com>

 

 

 

Copyright (C). 2005. Maggie Escobedo. All Rights Reserved.