5 JUNE 1982, Page 26

Red red Robin?

Eric Christiansen

Afew years ago, Robin Hood appeared to have settled down into a comfort- able and well-earned retirement as a found-

ing father of British Socialism. Like other old rascals nodding away over their brandy in the House of Lords, he had little reason to repent the acts of violence, treachery and plunder in which he had exercised his youth. As Labour governments make Labour peers, so Socialist thinkers create their own Socialist ancestors; it is all part of the game.

A trawl through the Middle Ages will net any number of potential English prow- socialists, but the only ones with the com- mon touch are Wat Tyler, John Ball and Robin Hood. The first two encouraged and led an actual rebellion of the peasantry. Robin, so they tell us, was created by the common people as the embodiment of their hopes and dreams. His legend is what the plain toilers of the vill made for themselves, after they had rejected Sir Gawain and The Ancren Riwle as the cultural propaganda of the feudalistic power-elite and its clerical running-dogs. With the legend came the socialist creed in bottled essence: he robbed the rich to give to the poor.

Moreover, Robin enjoyed personal ad- vantages denied to other great mediaeval levellers, such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame: he was lithe, cheerful, well-dressed and courteous. 'All true men love Robin, your majesty.' And all true women?' `None is truer than the Lady Marion, Sire.' Yes indeed, and like other eminent friends of the people, he was said to have been con- nected with the nobility: rightful heir of the Earls of Huntingdon. What a great day for the people it was when the present Earl of Huntingdon became parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Agriculture in Mr Attlee's government — the rightful heirs of Robin Hood!

The dignified repose of this pensioned pillager (Hood, I mean, not Lord Hunting- don or Mr Attlee) seemed secure until a posse of hard-faced mediaevalists rightful heirs of the sheriff of Nottingham — began asking and answering questions about how the legend had started and what it had originally meant. Among them rode Maurice Keen, J. R. Maddicott, and J. C. Holt; and now the latter has summed up his researches in the fascinating book under review.

`This book is about a legend rather than a man' says the prologue, but a surprising amount of it is devoted to the old question of was there a real Robin Hood? This is bound to be a starting point for an in- vestigation into the legend, because anti- quarians have always been inventing or discovering supposedly historical Robins who flourished from Leicester to the Borders over a period of time extending from about 1150 to 1350. There were a number of recorded Roberts and Robins surnamed Hood, Hude and Hod; there was a whole family of Hoods at Wakefield, and several men and women who bore the nickname Robinhood. The odd thing is that the minutest research has not yet revealed a single famous outlaw of that name, although there were numerous outlaws with other names, and some used Hood as an alias. It had become a household word by the 15th century, and probably long before; but there was no one historical Robin Hood.

Having established that, Professor Holt devotes a chapter to investigating places ad- jacent to the Great North road which the legendary Robin and some of the real non- Robins would have frequented; mostly round Barnsdale rather than Nottingham, with an excursion over to Wyresdale in Lancs. However, the interesting question is not the whereabouts, but who made up the first ballads and why? What was their original context? And this is where Pro- fessor Holt comes into his own.

He is a fairly big gun in the history world, as those undergraduates who have felt the impact of his Magna Carta on their tender sensibilities will testify. If Hood means heroic outlawry, Holt means strenuous and purposeful research. He eats pipe-rolls for breakfast and still makes very good sense for the rest of the morning. Moreover, like other reformed communists, he has little respect for the sentimental caricature of mediaeval life which still passes for a true likeness among some Marxists. And it so happens that the ballads of Robin Hood are a prominent feature of that caricature, where they appear as a vision of social justice triumphant in green tights over the oppressive hierarchy of church and law and wealth.

There is not much left of this vision after Holt has done with it. He first defines the material: only five ballads and one play- fragment, none composed before 1400. He then defines subject matter and action: crime, treachery, sword-play, marksman- ship, humour, piety, loyalty, and the

Spectator 5 June 1982 discomfiture of an abbot and a sheriff by men of yeoman status. There is nothin8 whatever about helping the poor, condemn' ing the rich, resisting taxation, defying the landlord, sympathising with the peasantrY! nor is there any allusion to Richard Coeur de Lion or Maid Marion: all that came later. Then he identified the makers of the, ballads: not 'folk-singers' but professional minstrels, bound by money and service 1° the households of the rich. Then the au- dience: not rustics, or yeomen farmers, but `yeomen-servants' the hangers-on, leg-me°, and liveried roughs who also clustered round the rich and powerful. It was they who admired Robin, for displaying on his own account the lawlessness and violence which they practised on behalf of their lords. So it's farewell to the people's friend. farewell to the counter-culture of the Nil! proletariat. The 'primitive rebellion' °1 Sherwood Forest is unmasked as a /9th. century fiction, no more historical than the small white smile of Errol Flynn. It is 3 grand piece of demolition-work, and Must be admired as a constructive attempt r°,1 place and elucidate the Robin 1400" ballads. But it is not the last word.

There is much pleasure to be gained frol° the remorseless confrontation of fiction by fact; there is also a more specialised form °f delight which is afforded by the spectacle °( a powerful mind going slightly off the rails! If both are likely to be found in this book, it is because the author is not content t° demonstrate that the ballads of R(31° Hood do not fit into the social contexts to which some romantics and ideologues have assigned them; he also feels obliged to fur- nish them with the same sort of strait' jacket, albeit of much superior workman- ship. Does he then subscribe to the Mickey Mouse theory of literature? I mean the view, that it is a sort of sound-track synchronise ° with the cartoon film of historical develop; ment. Many do. Others will wonder why is so important to establish the precise social standing of the Merrie Men and ti'' minstrels who immortalised them. APP,_IY the same method to Frank Richards and tne Bunter cycle and you will conclude that the Greyfriars stories were written exclusively for minor public schoolboys as propagallc for private education. But W1131 distinguishes Robin Hood and the Fat Ow! is their almost universal appeal. Even the . five mediaeval ballads of Robin differ markedly from each other in tone and stihe- ject matter, although the status of the characters may be similar; why are similarities more important than the (III ferences? This is a question which may still amuse Professor Holt's readers, however much they agree that 'Robin Hood's poulart,tY,, does not justify pretence. There should no room for pseudo-history expressing lt)cc; patriotism or commercial interest.' The fa„ is that the legend was there before the stu viving ballads, and we shall never kn°vi ,,, how it began. This is an impressive hock' but you cannot kill a ghost.