A People’s History of Robin Hood

Source: Yes Magazine

For hundreds of years, he’s fought tax injustice, tyranny, and the seizure of the commons. Why we still need him today.

In the late 1950s, a handful of peaceniks protested mandatory ROTC on a major U.S. university campus by carrying signs and wearing green buttons. Back when The Adventures of Robin Hood was a giant hit on television, most everybody knew that green was Robin Hood’s color and that Robin could not side with the king’s soldiers or future soldiers of any empire. Five decades later, the lead protagonist of a cult favorite American cable show, Leverage, announces at the beginning of each episode: “The rich and the powerful take what they want; we steal it back for you.”

It’s a fitting motto for heroes of the 21st century. Admittedly, resistance to injustice has not as yet returned to the level of the apprentices and craftsmen in Edinburgh, Scotland, who in 1561 chose to come together “efter the auld wikid maner of Robene Hude”: they elected a leader as “Lord of Inobedience” and stormed past the magistrates, through the city gates, up to Castle Hill where they displayed their unwillingness to accept current work-and-wage conditions. But as a global society, we are clearly still thinking about the need for Robin Hood.

After all, we live in something rapidly approaching a Robin Hood era. The rich and powerful now command almost every corner of the planet and, in order to maintain their control, threaten to despoil every natural resource to the point of exhaustion. Meanwhile, billions of people are impoverished below levels of decency maintained during centuries of subsistence living. In this historical moment, the organized forces of egalitarian resistance and even their ideologies seem to be reduced to near nonexistence, or turned against themselves in the name of supreme individualism. Robin’s Greenwood, the global forest, is disappearing chunks at a time. Yet resistance to authority, of one kind or another, continues, and, given worsening conditions, is likely to increase.

Robin Hood lives on as a figure of tomorrow, rather than just yesterday, in the streets of Cairo, Egypt, and Occupied sites worldwide. Today’s Occupy Movement, in the U.S. and abroad, lifts up Robin’s banner intuitively, reclaiming common space; but also literally, as folks dress in Robin Hood outfits and caps to demonstrate their sense of continuity for a better life.

No other medieval European saga has had the staying power of Robin Hood; no other is wrapped up simultaneously in class conflict (or something very much like class conflict), the rights of citizenship, and defense of ecological systems against devastation.

No wonder, then, that theater and poetry seized the subject early on, and that modern communications, from 19th-century penny newspapers and “yellow back” cheap novels, to modern-day comic books and assorted media have all had their Robin Hood characters. No wonder that the early Robin films set records for lavish production and box-office records for audience response. No wonder that television productions of Robin have pressed issues of civil liberties and that many of the later films, if distinctly mediocre, nevertheless seem to refresh the subject, offering a source of summer holiday distraction that never quite disguises darker themes within.

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