The mother of a friend of mine once said that he had raised himself to be a knight. She didn’t take any credit for the fact – she simply observed it, which it made it the best compliment of a child by a parent that I have ever heard. I knew instantly what she meant, because I had done much the same with Robin Hood, or at least Roger Lancelyn Greene’s version of him.
To this day, I happily devour any retelling of the stories. Robin McKinley’s The Outlaws of Sherwood, Parke Godwin’s Sherwood and Robin and the King, the Child Ballads, the Robin of Sherwood series that made him a mystical figure associated with Herne the Hunter, Robin and Marian featuring Sean Connery as the aging hero, the recent BBC series, the Errol Flynn version with Claude Raines as the Sheriff – all are part of my mental baggage, with what for me is an unusual lack of concern for quality. I’ll even watch Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, an admission that shows just how indiscriminate my obsession really is.
You see, for better or worse, a good part of my ethical standards was consciously modeled on Robin Hood, to say nothing of my politics as well. Only King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came anywhere close to be as influential, and Robin Hood – despite being the Earl of Huntington – had the same ethics without the sense of class and privilege. He wasn’t even much of a sexist, loving a woman who shared his dangers, rather than languishing at home like Queen Guinevre.
So what did I learn as a child from Robin Hood? Far more than the manly virtue of courage. I learned that I was supposed to be polite to everyone. That I was supposed to be a good sport, even if I had just been thwacked on the head by Little John or dumped into the stream by Friar Tuck. That I was to value honesty and abhor hypocrisy. That I was supposed to help people, even at inconvenience to myself. That I was supposed to face danger cheerfully – and this, and a hundred other things besides.
However, none of this would have impressed me by itself. I could learn the same values from Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys – never mind that I later learned that Baden-Powell was a traitor to his own standards, having starved the local Africans to keep his British troops alive during the siege of Mafeking during the Boer Wars.
What really impressed me was that, unlike the propaganda of the Scouts, or even the followers of King Arthur, Robin Hood decided for himself. Rather than acquiesce to things that were legal but immoral, he became an outlaw, and he enforced his own sense of right and wrong while he was in Sherwood no matter how anyone else condemned him. Greene never used the phrase, but his Robin Hood lived by a higher morality, deciding for himself where right and wrong lay.
Of course, the anarchy of Sherwood cannot last, and Robin Hood ends by being pardoned by King Richard. But even as a boy I understood that end as more symbolic than anything else: King Richard is the source of the law, and his approval amounts to a public acknowledgment that Robin Hood’s code of behavior was correct, no matter how eccentric it happened to be. The idea that he was substantially changed by his reintegration into society is quashed by his last moments, when he forgives the Prioress for poisoning her and tells his followers not to avenge themselves upon her.
Part of me wants to laugh at this set of ethics, but I can never manage to be quite so flippant. Robin Hood’s example helped me through the worst stage of my life, when only a handful of people believed in me.
At other times, his example is difficult. For example, while I believe in acknowledging when an opponent has done something ethical, I often suspect that belief only serves as a handicap. Certainly few of my enemies have ever reciprocated in kind.
However, at his best, Greene’s Robin Hood embodies a generosity of spirit that I can’t help but admire. I have often fallen short of imitating this generosity, but the idea that I should try to is lodged too firmly into me to ever root out. No matter how cynical or disillusioned I might become, the lessons I learned from reading Greene’s book into oblivion are likely to remain with me for the rest of my life, even if spend my last few years senile.