I won’t be seeing the new Robin Hood until I can get it on Netflix, but people are talking about it now and I do want to get my three cents worth in. I will refrain from comment on the quality of this new Robin Hood, except to note that for my money, the Errol Flynn version is the greatest adventure film of all time. But I do want to comment on its historical place, and I mean beyond movies but in the history of myths.
Before anything else, Robin Hood is a myth.
Generations and societies reanimate specific myths when the myth reflects its current ideology and concerns. Some myths are so powerful that all societies expropriate them, sometimes changing them completely. The longer a myth is around the more likely it will mutate beyond recognition.
But every myth will have a classic retelling. For example, the classic retelling of the Trojan War is Homer. In the variation by Stesichorus of Sicily, the gods secretly transfer Helen to Egypt and send a dream version to Paris at Troy. But in every version, a woman causes a war.
Let’s enumerate the central elements of the Robin Hood myth:
- Steals from the rich and gives to the poor
- Revolt against oppression
- Loyal to the King, but not to the King’s ministers
- Involves an interesting group of fighters, each of whom represents a different class in society, and in most retellings, different archetypal caricatures, e.g., the strong man or the man of the cloth who takes to action
Before moving on, I want to note that in one way or another, this enumeration of themes reveals how myths borrow from each other. These four elements are central to the Chinese classic novel—and my nominee as the greatest novel of all time—Outlaws of the Marsh (also known as The Water Margin, Marsh Chronicles and All Men are Brothers. In it, there are 108 finely etched Robin, Little John and Friar Tuck type characters. Under their charismatic leader, Song Jiang, this ragtag gang remains loyal always to the Emperor while waging ruthless (and brilliant) war against his armies, which are controlled by corrupt and oppressing ministers. Remember that Robin Hood and his men never waiver in their loyalty to King Richard the Lion Hearted. The myths of Song Jiang and his bandits and of Robin Hood and his merry men emerged roughly around the same time, 1,000-1,400 of the common era.
Now some might say that another element of the Robin Hood myth (again shared with the myth of the Chinese outlaws of the marsh) are the episodes that define its episodic quality—it is told as a series of “set pieces,” each one elaborating a different lesson or personality: Robin meets the Friar; Robin meets Little John; Robin wins the archery competition in disguise; Robin feeds the poor; Robin demonstrates allegiance to the King. Another aside: demonstration of allegiance to the King is what makes the story palatable to the ruling elites: it’s not the system that’s corrupt, just a couple of bad apples.
I’m not sure if these set pieces are inherent to the myth or not. What after all do we remember about Oedipus except that he killed his father and slept with his mother? What do we remember about Prometheus or Sisyphus other than their punishments? Over time, most myths lose the messy details of the first or classic tellings and reduce, like a fine sauce, to one or a few symbolic themes. The fact that any given retelling of Robin Hood does not hew to the episodes of the classic Errol Flynn version doesn’t mean that the creators are not being true to the myth.
But it does do a great violence to the original myth by turning Robin Hood from proto-socialist to libertarian as the current Russell Crowe version does according to virtually every review (New York Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reviews). It makes you wonder why they bother to deface the Robin Hood myth instead of selecting another myth more in keeping with the ideology of the creators and financial backers? Or why not create a brand new story of a rag-tag group of citizens rebelling against steep taxation?
I think the answer is in the commercial need to keep cranking out new narrative art that can serve as a platform for selling a multitude of ancillary products. The economics of the entertainment system return more to investors through creating a new Robin Hood—even one in which the character does not resemble the myth—than in rereleasing the Errol Flynn version.
The myth machine in our post-Industrial leisure society is voracious and takes everything, but remakes it into its own image. The myth is sent through the Hollywood homogenization machine which involves:
- Updating the ideology, which in this case Reaganizing it—the demons are not corrupt officials of the King who steal from the poor but an unfair taxation system
- Expanding the market by using techniques of other genres, e.g., adding a strong woman warrior
- Showing more explicit violence
- Creating sequences that resemble video games.
The reviews tell us that the new version of Robin Hood has gone through this homogenization process. The result of course is that the details of all these contemporary sci fi and adventure movies tend to resemble each other, just as the menus at Outback, Damon’s, Chili’s and other casual upscale dining chains tend to look alike despite the fact that one is vaguely Australian in its visual presentation, one Mexican, one “classic ribs,” etc. The brand is nothing more than a name that conjures weak associations with myths that people associate with one sentence or one theme, or in the case of the restaurants, an ethnic cuisine.