Thursday, February 16, 2012

A Tale of Two Robins

Robin Hood, M.L. Peters
Like all good folk legends, Robin Hood exists in a world semi-parallel to ours, where things are recognizable but not quite real. His King Richard is English (rather than French) and dedicated to the welfare of England (rather than carelessly stripping it of wealth while never bothering to speak the language). His Prince John is a straightforward villain, not the complicated and intriguing character of history. His Merrie England bears little resemblance to twelfth-century serfdom. It's a truly legendary world: broad enough to serve as backdrop for a hero of Robin's caliber, but spiced with familiar details that make it easy to believe in. It even comes equipped with two different villains, depending on which Robin you want to believe in. For all the simplicity of Robin's right-versus-wrong fight, his story alters drastically in scope and ambition, depending on who his primary antagonist is.

Robin himself never changes: he's always the lone good man in a sea of deception, standing up for the downtrodden no matter the personal cost. The power of a Robin Hood is his rarity. Despite the fact that he quickly gathers supporters just as willing as he to risk life and limb for the sake of the right, he's the true hero for one simple reason: he did it first. When everyone else hemmed and hawed and considered their options, Robin saw a wrong and moved to right it. The Merry Men are admirable in their courage and camaraderie, but they wouldn't have come together and proven their worth without Robin to show the way. He's an elemental force for good; he represents the need for goodness that we want to believe is innate in humanity. No wonder he's one of the world's most popular folk heroes.

But once you have a hero as universal as Robin, you have a choice about how you tell his story. You can give him a canvas as big as the ideals he stands for and pit him against the highest power in his world. Or you can bring him down to earth like the rest of us and show us what reality does to ideals.

If the main villain of a Robin Hood story is Prince John, it's an Option One story.

Robin Hood, Disney
This Robin will strive not only for the sake of his fellow men, but to ensure that everyone in his world is protected and treated justly. Option One Robin's crusade goes all the way to the top. He wants to change the world, not just save a few farms. He will be deeply idealistic without ever seeming childish or dreamy. He will face off against Prince John in person, utterly trouncing him whether they're fighting with words or with weapons. And he will be personally thanked and rewarded by King Richard for singlehandedly saving England, which under the circumstances will be a completely fair assessment.

Michael Praed as Robin of Loxley, ITV
But if the Sheriff of Nottingham is your central villain, it's a whole new story. There will be no glorious trappings here. Very little will change for the better by the end; Robin in the real world can stave off disaster, but not effect the sweeping reforms of Option One. It's a far more local story, with Robin's efforts contained to one area rather than spread over all England. It will be darker, pettier, and more despairing; when your enemy is a parochial bureaucracy rather than a crowned head, even your victories are smaller. And Option Two Robin, while retaining the essential idealistic notion that things can be better, will doubt himself. He'll wonder if it's all for nothing, if he really is making a difference or just deluding himself and leading his friends into danger. Sometimes the story will introduce Richard or John, offering the missing glory only to subvert it and remind us how small one man's fight can be.

For obvious reasons, most Robin Hood stories are Option One. Who needs fear and self-doubt when you can have Errol Flynn's iconic hands-on-hips laughter? The stories that - like Robin -
Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, Warner Bros.
dream big are the reason why Robin is a legend. His lasting power comes directly from the stories that let him confront and defeat the men who can't be defeated. As with the Merry Men who gather around him, seeing him win convinces us that we too can win.

But Option Two Robin provides some much-needed perspective. It can get boring after a while, knowing that somehow Robin will prevail against impossible odds. Seeing him lose, or seeing him escape without accomplishing his task, or even (at worst) seeing him die, reminds us of where his heroism originates. He's a single man against the world, armed with wits, a bow, and his ideals. If he's truly at risk, his victories mean more. He's far more human when he fails; Option Two Robins are generally more rounded characters than Option One Robins, who never have to grapple with doubt. And Option Two even makes Option One fresh and fun again. After confronting an all-too-human hero like Option Two Robin, the whimsy and chivalry of Option One can feel like water in the desert.

Either way, Robin's still us. At his best and worst, at his most heroic or his most despairing, Robin Hood lives the essential human struggle to make real what you believe in. That's why he's stuck around in so many incarnations; that's why his story can resonate on a small level or a huge stage; that's why he's quite possibly the most beloved hero of the English language. No matter who he is, we get him. We get why he fights. And whichever option he presents, whatever he thinks of himself, we know the truth: that he's a hero, and a human, and that the two can go together.


  1. your post made me think i should have drawn parallels between Katniss & Robin as soon as I met her. The bow, the happy hunting in forbidden forests, the resolve to rebel against an impossibly high power... oh, why didn't i see this before??

  2. You're so right. Katniss is a dystopian Robin. (Clearly an Option Two, though.) Is it bad that I now want to write crossover fic where they meet and just can't deal with each other?

    1. lol they'd have some differences. but i'm sure they'd agree to settle arguments in the most epic arrow contest of all time.