Sean McGlynn reviews Lesley Coote’s Storyworlds of Robin Hood: The Origins of a Medieval Outlaw (2020) in the Spectator:
Not such a hero: the tarnished legend of Robin Hood
Far from being a selfless righter of wrongs, the outlaw was a brutal killer, according to the original ballads
Britain’s two most famous legendary figures, King Arthur and Robin Hood, remain enduringly and endearingly elusive, and thus ever-fascinating: Arthur slumbering in the mists of nebulous Avalon, Robin as a hardy perennial somewhere deep in Sherwood Forest. Historians, folklorists, Eng Lit academics and cranks — the list is not mutually exclusive — enter these realms at their peril. When I did so a few years back, a headline in the Sun alarmingly proclaimed: ‘ROBIN HOOD FROM TUNBRIDGE WELLS, SAYS HISTORIAN.’ To put it mildly, that was a rather reductive and misleading summary of my research; but it certainly raised my awareness of being ambushed while ambling along the edenic Greenwood pathways. In her engrossing book on Robin Hood, Lesley Coote also considers a geography beyond Sherwood Forest for the legend: ‘It may have differed according to the area in which the stories were being told.’ It almost certainly did, as I have long argued.
Coote rightly recognises that the folklore originates from at least eight centuries ago. Thus, even this primary source is probably more fictitious than historical. And that befits Robin perfectly, a character who, as Coote explains, undergoes constant cultural reinvention: ‘In relatively recent times, Robin Hood has been depicted as a superhero, a rebel, a war-weary outsider with “issues”, and a hoodie-wearing “lad”.’ Indeed so: in the 2018 film, he is a steampunk environmentalist for the woke generation.
Coote convincingly shows how Robin was adapted to the culture of the late Middle Ages as a variation of the fabliaux, pastourelles and tales that were popular across Europe and which were widely known in England, in which ‘the character of the outlaw and that of the minstrel are blended together in the greenwood storyworld of Robin Hood, and together they become the hero’. The constants remain in our cultural referencing of the hero: the Merry Men, the Sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest and Robin as the selfless righter of wrongs.
Read the whole thing.