Monday, May 17, 2010

Reviewing the Robin Hood Canon.

Written by winners or the survivors, history is at worst, dry and barren, and tenuous at best. However, on May 14, 2010, Ridley Scott presents his take on the legend of Robin Hood. Promised as the "story that has not been told before," Scott will add to the canon that is Robin Hood.  Unlike Latin, a dead language, storytelling is an art that evolves and changes, unbound by the truth, but limited to the imagination, the story of Robin Hood, evolves and changes to fit mans desire to seek a hero that only exists in our hearts and minds.

The Legend

Throughout the centuries, like King Arthur, a person whom may or may not exist, we struggle to find answers the question of who is Robin Hood, and did he exist.  Historically, no one can say for sure, however, from a storytelling point of view, Robin Hood is a character that flourishes each century in new tales with additions of new characters.  For some of us, Robin Hood is the man in green tights and looks a lot like Errol Flynn from the 1938 film, "The Adventures of Robin Hood”  Perhaps it is Sean Connery from 1976's "Robin and Marian," or Kevin Costner's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," co-staring Morgan Freeman as Azim the Moor.  Maybe you prefer a parody, such as Mel Brooks's 1993 offering "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," starring Cary Elwes of "The Princess Bride" fame. In fact, IMDB lists 51 Robin Hood feature films, since 1912, starting with a silent version starring Robert Frazer and on television alone, there are 54 versions.[1

Medieval Tales

However, before the cinematic, or dramatic arts came into being, there was the spoken word, and as all oral traditions and histories that the bards tell by the light of a fire,  to amuse each other, these stories, when written down, take on a life of their own.  Here is a selection of the most prominent of them.

Probably the first reference to Robin Hood is by Andrew of Wyntoun circa, 1350.  In the Sevynde Buke (Rook 7), of The Cronykil of Scotland Andrew mentions, on page 263 references, "and Robyne Hude Wayth-men ware commendyd gud: In Ingel-wode and Barnysdale Thai oysyd all this tyme thare trawale.”[2]  This passage describes Robyne Hude as wayth-men or a man who lays in waits, and the author expressing that it is fitting that he does.  However, Andrew places Robyne in Barnysdale southeast of the traditional Nottingham region.[3]

William Langland's William's "Vision of Piers Ploughman," written between 1360 and 1387, describes the dreams or visions of a man seeking to attain the Christian life.  On page 56, line 5,396, Langland writes, "But I kan rymes of Robyn Hood and Randolf Erl of Chestre.”[4]  For many, this brief mention constitutes corroborating evidence, of Robin's existence beyond legend.

Renaissance Tales

In a series of 10 volumes of child ballads from England and Scotland, and collected between 1898, some of which date back to the 15th century, include 119A: "Robin Hood and the Monk," from 1450.  Also in the collection is, "A Gest of Robyn Hode," from circa 1491.  The tale tells us of, "I shall you tel of a gode yeman, His name was Robyn Hode." [5] In the ballad, the writers describe Robyn as a yeoman, or some one of middle-class heritage, less than a knight but not a peasant.

Elizabethan Tales

In "The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington," playwright Anthony Munday in 1601, written in thick Elizabethan English, sets Robin as The Earl of Huntington and places him sometime in the court or Richard I of England (Richard the Lionhearted).[6]  The play mentions Little John, Maid Marion, Friar Tuck and the antagonist, Prince John, Richard’s younger brother.  As for Richard, who spent about only six months of his life in England after his coronation on Sept 13 1189?  Richard spent the next six months preparing for his departure for the Third Crusade in the summer of 1190.  The play sets the stage for John's desire for Marion, who goes off with Robert, Earl of Huntington.

Shakespeare's "As You Like It," (1601) the part of Charles, in speaking to Oliver mentions, "...and there they live like the old Robin Hood of England: they say many young gentlemen flock[s] to him every day, and fleet the time carelessly, as they did in the golden world."[7]

Georgian Era Tales

Thomas Percy in 1764 published his "Reliques Of Ancient English Poetry," which includes the poem, "Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne."  Percy describes Robin, "In this time [about the year 1190, in the reign of Richard I.] were many robbers, and outlawes, among the which Robin Hood, and Little John, renowned theeves, continued in woods, despoyling and robbing the goods of the rich.  They killed none but such as would invade them, or by resistance for their own defence."[8]

In 1819 Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott, recounts in the romantic story, "Ivanhoe," the story of how King Richard I and Robin Hood, reclaim the throne from his younger brother John.[9]

Sir Ridley Scott’s Cinematic Form

From yeoman to knight, from outlaw to hero fighting the injustice of King John, the story of Robin Hood molds itself to fit the audience. A master of retelling history in an a way that is captivating, bending the truth as needed to tell his story dramatically, Sir Ridley Scott,  tells epic stories that entertain first, without apology.  In "Gladiator" (2000), Scott creates the character, Maximus Decimus Meridius and alters the facts about Emperors Marcus Aurelius and Commodus to create a memorable, but historically less than factual, action-adventure period piece.  In "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), Ridley Scott alters the historical facts of Balian of Ibelin, combining rumors of his brother's possible affair with the Sibylla, Queen of Jerusalem, to create a romantic tale of chivalry and war.  Perhaps Scott learned a lesson from his film "1492: Conquest of Paradise," mostly accurate historically, the film received poor reviews grossing only $7,191,399 domestically.[10]

A Welcome to the Canon

Therefore, the question remains, which re-telling of Robin Hood is your favorite.  Is it a selection from the Middle Ages or the modern Robin Hood of 20th and 21st century?  Will it be the 2010 version, starring Russell Crowe? My take on remakes and re-imaginings of an art form is that as long as Sir Ridley Scott adds to the canon, develops the character, and entertains me.  If Scott’s story and character development deliver on the promise of a couple of hours of escape from the day-to-day worries of economic decline, of global warming, and of international politics. Then I cannot wait until May 14.

[1] IMDB Robin Hood Movie List
[2] The orygynale cronykil of Scotland.
[3] Map Barnsdale
[4] William's Vision of Piers Ploughman
[5] A Gest of Robyn Hode
[6] Anthony Munday - Earl of Huntington
[7] As You Like it
[8] Reliques
[9] Ivanhoe text & Ivanhoe- Sparknotes
[10] 1492: Conquest of Paradise - boxoffice