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Robin Hood, the Myth, the Legend

Stealing from the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood and his Merry Men are a permanent part of popular culture. Set in England during the reign of King Richard the Lionheart, the adventures of Robin Hood follow the noble thief as he woos the beautiful Maid Marian and thwarts the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
The story has been around for centuries, but its most familiar elements are also the most recent additions. Like the roots of Sherwood Forest, the origins of the Robin Hood story extend deep into English history. His name can be found all over the English map: Robin Hood’s Cave and Robin Hood’s Stoop in Derbyshire; Robin Hood’s Well in Barnsdale Forest, Yorkshire; and Robin Hood’s Bay, also in Yorkshire.

When the story is traced back to its 14th-century beginnings, the figure of Robin Hood changes with time. The earliest versions would be almost unrecognisable when compared to the green-clad, bow-wielding Robin Hood of today. As the centuries passed, the tale of Robin Hood evolved as England evolved. With each new iteration, the Robin Hood legend would absorb new characters, settings, and traits—evolving into the familiar legend of today. In 19th-century England, numerous scholars embarked on a search for Robin Hood after the publication of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe in 1820. Set in 1194, Scott’s novel takes place in England during the Crusades. One of the featured characters is Locksley, who is revealed to be Robin Hood, the “King of Outlaws, and Prince of good fellows.”

Scott portrayed Robin as an honourable Englishman loyal to the absent King Richard; this popular characterisation renewed modern interest in the figure of Robin Hood and the question of whether or not this “King of Outlaws” was based on a real person. When historical records failed to yield a definitive personage behind the noble outlaw, scholars then turned to the popular culture of medieval England: folklore, poetry, and ballads.

These three formats all grew out of an oral tradition. Some theorise that they originally derived from troubadours’ songs that reported news and events. The first known reference in English verse to Robin Hood is found in The Vision of Piers Plowman, written by William Langland in the second part of the 14th century (shortly before Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales). In the 16th century Robin Hood lost some of his dangerous edge as he and his men were absorbed into celebrations of May Day. In the Elizabethan era, Robin Hood became a popular presence in plays staged for the upper classes. Drawing on the medieval foundations, authors would continue to reinvent Robin Hood for their own times over the centuries.

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