Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Meeting Robin Hood Again for the First Time

As a youngster weaned on the The Adventures of Robin Hood (the television series staring Richard Green and the Errol Flynn movie) the hooded outlaw and his merry men were persistent companions growing up.  Like many my age, I read  The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood by Harold Pyle, and had to see the 1973 Disney movie, (although I still don’t know what was gained by Disney turning the whole cast into animals?)

But Robin goes back way beyond my childhood several hundred years, and one of the interesting things about him is that you can trace the development of his character over the centuries.  From early on, the outlaw was considered a devout Christian, and I think his stories give us a glimpse into what being a Christian meant in medieval times, and may help us think about what it means for us today. 

The very earliest surviving Robin Hood ballad is called Robin Hood and the Monk (from around 1450).  Here’s my retelling of that medieval tale (which can be found in the original Old English at

One day in early May, Robin Hood (“Robyn Hode” in the Ballad) and his companion Little John (“Litull John”) are talking about what a great day it is.  Robin is feeling pretty feisty and wants to celebrate by going to church.  "Hit is a fourtnet and more," seid he, "Syn I my Savyour see;” or “It’s been over two weeks since I’ve seen my Savior”.  Being a big fan of the Virgin Mary, Robin decides to visit the Chapel of St. Mary’s in Nottingham.  He is warned that he better take 12 men with him, since he’s a wanted man.  But he disregards this advice, traveling only with Little John.  On the way Robin loses an arrow shooting bet with Little John and refuses to pay up, so they quarrel and part.  Robin goes on alone.  At the Church he is recognized by a monk whom Robin recently robbed.  The monk runs to the Sheriff and informs on Robin.  The Sheriff arrives with his men, Robin fights them, and is taken captive.

Little John hears of this, and organizes the Merry Men into a rescue party.  On the way they encounter the treacherous monk, and when they find out what he did, Little John kills him, and Much the Millers Son kills the monk’s “little page” to keep him from talking.

John smote of the munkis hed,
No longer wolde he dwell;
So did Moch the litull page,
For ferd lest he wolde tell.

Or, if I understand this correctly:

John cut off the monks head
And he died,
And Much killed the little page
To keep him quiet.

Then, taking the monk’s papers, Little John goes before the king pretending to be a helpful citizen who just happened upon the dead monk.  The king sends him to fetch Robin Hood from the Nottingham jail.  Little John kills the guard, frees Robin, and they escape.  Robin’s grateful, and Little John affirms his allegiance to Robin, and the story ends with Robin and his merry men good buddies.

What does it mean to be a Christian in this 500 year old story?  Robin loves to go to church!  He’s also a big fan of the Virgin Mary.  There doesn’t seem to be much of a conflict, however, between his faith and not honoring his bets with his best friend, or robbing people—even monks.  His band of merry men also don’t seem to have a problem with killing the monk in cold blood and his page as well.  But they are loyal to each other, forgive each other, and risk their lives for their loyal band.

Over the years one can see Robin’s character grow.  He stops reneging on his bets.  He quickly becomes famous for “robbing from the rich and giving to the poor.”  He and his friends stop killing people for revenge, or to silence them.  And every generation tells new stories about him, making the bandit of Sherwood Forest their own, redesigning his character to fit the values of their time. 

I’m not sure what the appeal is.  Maybe it’s our tendency to root for the underdog?  Maybe there’s a bit of an outlaw in each of us?  But whatever the reason, the adventure continues to this day, and I’m pleased that Maple Avenue is hosting the world premiere performance of The Ballad of Robin Hood, by Dr. Tom Johnson! The story and music are totally original, and we’re excited about this addition to the Robin Hood cannon.

I’m looking forward to meeting Robin Hood again for the first time, and checking out his most recent incarnation.  I hope you are as well.  Be sure and get your tickets for our March 4, 5 and 6th showings, and let’s see what this iconic figure has to say to us in this totally new take on a very old friend. 

In God’s Peace;