A companion piece to Episode 94A: Locksley (on Robin Hood), written by Laurel Hostak
This week on the Midnight Myth Podcast, Derek and I brought you part one of a two-episode series on the legendary outlaw of Sherwood Forest, Robin Hood. We found, while recording, that the thousand-year history of the character was far too much to stuff into a single episode—and after recording two parts, I still feel like there’s much to say. This blog post will address some fun and fascinating elements of the legend and its modern adaptations that didn’t quite fit in our arguments. Enjoy.
I. On Disney’s Robin Hood
This week, you’ll hear an in-depth analysis of the 1991 Kevin Reynolds movie, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner. We chose it as our modern adaptation focal point because it demonstrates a dedication to the progressive spirit of the legend while existing as a snapshot of a particular moment in time that demands our scrutiny. But to focus on this adaptation, we had to skip over the immensely popular Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn movies, as well as the 1973 Walt Disney animated version.
The Walt Disney film (1973) famously depicts the beloved legendary characters as anthropomorphic animals. Robin Hood is a fox, because Walt Disney himself had an interest in the medieval fables about Reynard the Fox.
Reynard is an interesting character who appears in Dutch, English, and French allegory as a trickster figure, dating back to the 12th century. The works are typically thought of as parodies of popular medieval literature, like those of courtly love and chivalry (like the works of Chretien de Troyes, whom we discussed at length in our Jorah Mormont podcast!), while also satirizing religious and political institutions. While we wouldn’t necessarily call the Robin Hood ballads satire, he shares with Reynard a disdain for corrupt religious or political authority as well as an early role as a pseudo-trickster of the forest. (For more thoughts on the trickster role, read on to the section on Lincoln green!)
Coincidentally enough, the 12th century also becomes relevant to the Robin Hood legend when Joseph Ritson publishes a new edition of the medieval ballads Robin Hood: A collection of all the Ancient Poems Songs and Ballads now extant, relative to that celebrated Outlaw. In the 18th century compilation, Ritson argues for for Robin Hood's historical placement in the 12th century and therefore during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Ritson’s work lays the foundation for Robin Hood’s association with the crusades.
So it’s conceivable (and likely, as Robin Hood almost certainly found popularity in an oral tradition prior to his literary debut in the 14th century), that the two legends may have encountered or influenced one another as they evolved. In the 12th century, Britain and the European continent are still culturally and linguistically linked in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, and while Robin’s narrative remains localized, the Reynard allegory hops across the pond and back, accumulating adaptations in numerous European countries throughout the millennium. There's another loose connection between the two: the Roman de Renart (the French version of Reynard's cycle) contains an early recording of "Robin" being used as a diminutive of the name "Robert."
Fast-forwarding to the 20th century, during the production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Walt Disney begins developing a concept for an animated version of the Reynard fables. The concept got stuck in the development pipeline, however, because Disney was concerned that the Reynard story would be too violent and morally problematic for younger audiences. But Reynard kept coming back. At one point, the studio considered featuring Reynard’s fables as stories told by the pirate Long John Silver in a version of Treasure Island. Later, there were talks of a Chanticleer and Reynard film, featuring Edmond Rostand’s rooster character. They even went so far as to draft character concepts for Reynard, Chanticleer, and several of the key characters from Reynard’s story cycles. This idea was scrapped in favor of an animated adaptation of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King titled The Sword in the Stone.
In the 70’s (after Walt Disney’s death), when the studio was searching for a classic tale to base its next animated feature on, animator Ken Anderson’s suggestion of taking on the Robin Hood legend was met with enthusiasm. The concept went through a few iterations (including the possibility of setting it in the Deep South as a means of recapturing the spirit of Song of the South in 1946… weird flex but okay). The final decision was to maintain the “merry old England” of the legend as a landscape, but to include a cast of anthropomorphic characters.
The title character, as we know, took the shape of a fox, a la Reynard. And here’s where the parallels get interesting. In the Roman de Renart, the fox travels to the court of the cruel King Leo—a lion—to answer on charges brought against him by his archrival Ysengrim the wolf. There’s also a cat named Tybalt, whom Shakespeare used as inspiration for the hotheaded Capulet in Romeo & Juliet, sometimes called “Prince of Cats” (see our recent episode on Romeo & Juliet, gotta love how everything comes together on the Midnight Myth.) In the assigning of roles to characters of the Robin Hood legend, subsequently, we have the cowardly Prince John realized as a lion and Robin’s recurring nemesis the Sheriff of Nottingham take the form of a wolf. Though I can’t find a conscious acknowledgement by Anderson and his team of animators to mirror the Reynard cycle, and instead find descriptions of “stereotypes” as the basis for the final character concepts—the sly fox, the villainous wolf, the cowardly lion—we must admit that the resemblance is notable. And given Disney’s history with Reynard and the widespread influence of the tales, the stereotypes they’re referring to are ones the fables helped to create.
II. On Robin Hood’s favorite color: Lincoln Green
Let’s pivot slightly to another aspect of Robin Hood we didn’t quite have time for on this week’s episode. As we stated on the podcast, Derek and I didn’t feel especially compelled to debate the historicity of a Robin Hood figure—whether or not he is a real historical outlaw doesn’t significantly affect our analysis of the legend’s legacy, and there’s a whole cottage industry around declaring to have the definitive answer in a published work. The legend certainly has earlier origins than the ballads, and whether those origins are purely folklore or an amalgamated view of a real person is far from a closed case, and we are not the people to solve that query. However, there’s one theory about the origins that I think is worth bringing up here, and that’s the idea that the Robin Hood figure evolved from fairy stories.
I’m not here to claim that this theory is the answer, but let’s walk down the forest path a little bit. The two compelling arguments for this theory are 1) that Robin Hood ‘haunts’ Sherwood Forest like a kind of genius loci or trickster-protector, and 2) that Robin wears green.
So let’s break this down one section at a time, starting with Robin’s primary forest locale. It’s no secret that forests have played a mysterious and enchanting role in our mythology and folklore since the ancient world. In ancient mythology, they’re inhabited by gods and nature spirits. In medieval Romance, they’re the backdrop for grand quests, with comely maidesns or enigmatic hermits hiding behind every bush. In fairy tales, they’e the location of witches, big bad wolves, ghosts, and goblins. One such goblin-type is the ever-popular Puck, or Robin Goodfellow.
The most famous depiction of Puck is, of course, the character in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play, he’s the mostly-benevolent but mischievous emissary of Oberon who takes intense pleasure in bringing chaos upon the humans who stumble into his forest domain. In folklore, he’s probably derived from the Welsh pwca, and is sometimes called hobgoblin. Puck is at times depicted as a frightening, devilish creature. The “Robin Goodfellow” character is first named in the 16th century, by turns as a kind of brownie or domestic sprite who will do household tasks in exchange for milk or cream, and as a less savory spirit who misleads travelers and gets them lost. And wouldn’t you know, it’s good old Bill Shakespeare who brings Robin Goodfellow and Puck together definitively in a tricksy, yet ultimately good-natured fairy.
The connection between Goodfellow and Hood isn’t ironclad, but the two Robins have similarities. For one, they aren’t kind to travelers. Just as Goodfellow will spin the weary traveler around, Robin Hood will shake down anyone who dares cross his forest path. Puck has shapeshifting ability in some lore, and Robin Hood is a master of disguise. Of course, we have to note the similarities in their names, but since the Robin Hood ballads predate Shakespeare and later Robin Goodfellow stories, it’s Goodfellow whose name would have to be influenced by Hood.
The second tic in the Robin-Hood-is-a-fairy column is his trademark color. In the folklore of the British isles, especially, green is a color most associated with fairies and spirits. It makes sense, as green would be the color of choice for sprites to blend in with the dense forests and lush natural landscapes of England and the “Emerald Isle.” The fact that Robin wears green has led some scholars to believe he evolves from the tradition of these fairy stories.
But Robin Hood doesn’t just wear green. He wears Lincoln green. It’s a very specific shade (#195905 to be exact). And its name comes from Lincoln, an English cloth town that boomed with production during the high Middle Ages—at the same time as the early Robin Hood ballads are published. Lincoln was known for producing high quality cloth in two colors: scarlet and green. And while we have that very specific hex code for the shade today, the name “Lincoln green” referred more to the quality of cloth than a consistent color. According to English poet Michael Drayton, "Lincoln anciently dyed the best green in England." In 16th century literature, we have numerous references to Lincoln green as a high-quality cloth worn by foresters. There’s our man Robin Hood, who dons it, a woodsman in Edmund Spenser’s high Romance The Faery Queene, and even Chaucer notes its quality in The Friar’s Tale.
By my measure, this understanding of Robin Hood’s fashion choices does less to confirm the fairy theory and more to affirm the political and class implications of the legend. Robin, who will later be identified as a banished aristocrat, wears only the highest quality fabric in a shade that helps him blend in with the surroundings. Surely the trickster figures of Puck and Reynard are alive in his anti-authority tendencies, but the journey to link them is winding, and tends to get us turned around a few times—led astray by Robin Goodfellow.
What’s endlessly exciting to me in the search for the “perfect” story is the way in which we as humans—consciously or unconsciously—repeat ourselves. How we come back to theme and variation. How the precise color of a hero’s tunic fires off signals that reach into our oldest fairy stories. How a 20th century animator might unwittingly reunite two medieval figures who weren’t too far from one another in the first place. How we return to one character again and again for a thousand years, iterating and embellishing along the way, because he speaks to something universal. Even as we change, even as he changes, something in his story remains constant and ever-alluring. None of our stories are told in a vacuum, and as we trace the myriad threads that connect them, we learn so much about what connects humanity.
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