Robin Hood, Where Are You?
A personal essay
By Daniel Vollaro
On the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, Robin Hood appeared to me as if in a dream. There was no obvious reason I should have been thinking of him, no banners in his name from that awful day in 2021; no t-shirts proclaiming that “Robin Hood was Right,” or wrong; no clever Robin Hood memes, pro or anti insurrection. Nevertheless, he was suddenly there, as present in my imagination as he had been when I was a child. I had not seen him in a very long time.
I immediately understood why he had come. In my desire to escape from the one-year-anniversary news stories and think pieces and retrospectives, all forcing me to relive that terrible day, I had inadvertently summoned a being who is the antithesis of the MAGA-QAnon-Oath Keeper swamp that oozed into the Capitol Complex that day. That mob was the walking embodiment of cowardice and dishonorable conduct, from its leader promising ”I’ll be there with you” and then promptly retreating to the White House to the chorus of participants who now want to faux apologize or plead ignorance or blame others for deceiving them or deny that they were even there. Robin Hood, on the other hand, is a paragon of courage and chivalry, a righter of wrongs and solver of problems who always looks out for his fellow yeomen. An outlaw, yes, but an honorable one. Robin takes credit for his law breaking and looks his friends and enemies in the eye. Liars are especially likely to feel his wrath.
Robin would have been mystified by the insurrectionists. There was no one to champion or rescue and nothing of value to steal. No archery contest to win or good sport to be had. You tased a police officer in the neck, he would ask? What did he do to you? You broke into the Capitol building to hunt down and possibly kill an elderly woman named Nancy Pelosi? Where is your chivalry? You rifled through some papers and took a shit in someone’s office. What does that accomplish? You built a gallows to hang a man because he refuses to say what you want him to say about an election? Really? Robin would not be opposed in principle to the idea of mischief or property destruction or even a little violence, but he would wonder, who actually benefits from this? What is the point? What injustice was crying out to be righted on that day? Was it really nothing more than the fact that one of the most pampered, silver spoon-fed men in America was thwarted from realizing his political ambitions?
When I read Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood as a boy, I wanted to be the bandit from Sherwood Forest. I made my friends play Robin Hood in the woods behind my neighborhood. There was a tree that had fallen across a creek, and we would stage cudgel fights on that rotting log, two boys with sticks battling it out until one fell into the muddy creek below, like Little John besting Robin on the bridge in the prologue. I bought a longbow, then a recurve bow. I learned how to make my own bowstrings from linen thread and bee’s wax. Pretending to be Robin Hood or his men or even his enemies is an immensely satisfying game. Ask any child who has experienced this. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, after playing Robin Hood, both Tom and Huck agree that “they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood Forest than President of the United States forever.”
My relationship with Robin Hood was much like any child who becomes enamored with a comic book hero. I was attracted to his character because he was brave, ready for action, decent, and incorruptible. But as we grow up, most of us realize that the black-and-white moral universes inhabited by our heroes are fictions. We learn that there is no stark Gotham City with colorful villains and a batman who fights them. Faced with such ambiguity, some children grow up to become cynical adults, disavowing heroes and heroism altogether to embrace a bleak, realpolitik view of the world. A much larger group simply gives in to the popular notion that heroism is everywhere, like some kind of big franchise restaurant chain where anyone who wears a uniform or appears to live an upright life gets to be called a hero.
I am more judicious with that word, but I still believe in it, which puts me in a third category of idealists. For us, our childhood heroes become permanently embedded in our psyches, and though they seem to have disappeared altogether at times, they will reappear when we need them most, in times of moral uncertainty or social turmoil. This is what happened on the first anniversary of January 6. Robin Hood appeared to me as if from nowhere to reassure me that decency, chivalry, and honorable conduct still matter.
Of all the gut-wrenching things that transpired on January 6, 2021, the desecration of the Capitol Complex would have most outraged Robin, I think. Though many modern interpreters of Robin Hood have tried to present him as a radical, the earliest written ballads that form the basis of the legend show him to be a traditionalist at heart. He does rob clerics and monks, but only because many of them are extremely corrupt. In his personal life, he is a devout Catholic who attends mass daily and has a special devotion to the Virgin Mary. He is also loyal to the crown. At the end of ”The Gest of Robyn Hode,” the king outfoxes him by disguising himself and a group of his men as monks in order to be captured by Robin. When the king reveals his true identity after an archery contest, Robin and his men immediately kneel before him. Everything they have done up until that point is trumped by the powerful symbolism of the crown. Robin Hood would probably have a gut-level reaction to the sight of American citizens trashing such a visible symbol of their society’s core values.
That said, the Robin Hood of the earliest ballads would likely have been nowhere near the capital that day, unless he was there to rob someone. Robin is not a creature of the capital or its politics. He is a localist at heart, bound to his forest domain and the surrounding towns. National politics bore him. At the end of “The Gest,” the King recruits Robin and takes him to London to serve in his court, but he lasts only about a year in royal service. He returns home on a seven-day leave and never goes back.
What does the forest have to offer Robin that the capital lacks? Shouldn’t a talented person such as he be automatically and magnetically drawn to the chance to acquire and exercise power on a large scale? As a child, I enjoyed Robin Hood precisely because he was the opposite of these things. The aspect of Robin that most attracted me was his seemingly boundless appetite for play and sport. Robin enjoyed nothing more than practicing at his various arts, archery most prominent among them. He was a master of disguise, of play acting and weaving little narratives and deceits. He was sly and creative and brimming with joie de vivre.
In his book, The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber writes that people “are prone to two completely contradictory tendencies: on the one hand, a tendency to be playfully creative just for the sake of it; on the other, a tendency to agree with anyone who tells them that they really shouldn’t act that way.” For all his traditionalism, Robin seems to follow the former impulse most often. He is the guy who switches places with the potter so that he can go into town and pretend to be someone else for a day. He is the grand master of free play.
This is exactly the kind of arbitrary creativity that conservatives tut tut about and fascists want to crush underfoot—the activity that, however satisfying it might be, doesn’t have an economic aim or purpose. But in all fairness, the bureaucracy-obsessed Left is no fan of it either. The institutional power they have allied themselves to also stamps out creativity and play, relegating it to safe, well-regulated spaces that destroy its spontaneity and fun. The more civilized the society, the more its Robin Hood is pushed into the margins.
It is certainly folly to impose 21st-century American political ideology on a medieval Saxon outlaw—liberal redistributionist, libertarian hater of taxation, socialist looter of the productive class—none of these labels quite fit him. But the persistence and malleability of the legend suggests that Robin touches something deep in the human psyche, a familiar archetype. The noble bandit. The pirate who lives by a code of conduct. The trickster who exposes evil and corruption. He seems to be cut from the same basic archetypal mold that superheroes are made from. Robin Hood scholar JC Holt writes that Robin ”foreshadows the world of superman and the comic strip. He has no practical scheme for improving the human condition. There is no sense at any stage of the legend’s history that man’s lot might be improved by the sweat of his brow. Robin simply intervenes.“ For the ideologue, the powerful individual who intervenes because he or she feels it is the right thing to do is the most dangerous type of human. The entire ideological project, whatever form it takes, is threatened by such people.
There is a clarifying logic to the actions of superheroes, and this is why we love them so much. We cannot reasonably guess how Bruce Wayne would vote in a modern American election, but we can easily imagine how Batman might respond to the fact that unarmed women and children are cowering in a building while men wearing body armor and carrying zip ties are prowling the hallways threatening violence.
It is reasonable to apply the same logic to Robin Hood, I think. Like most comic book heroes, he responds to situations as they arise. He doesn’t have a grand plan to change the direction of the country or win a war of ideas. He is not a man of abstractions. He prefers to solve problems on his own, with his wits and his combat skills. I imagine that Robin would be repulsed by the fascist impulse that drove the attack on the Capitol Complex, the willingness to use terror and sacrilege to advance the power of a single political leader, especially one as dishonorable, unchivalrous, and cowardly as Donald Trump. If there is an alternate universe in which Robin Hood‘s name is associated with January 6, 2021, it is the one where the fascists lie and say ‘Robin and his men attacked the Capitol dressed as our supporters.’ That is the only use they would have for him.
About the Author: Daniel Vollaro is a writer who lives in the Atlanta Metro area. His essays have also been published in Adbusters, As It Ought to Be Magazine, Boomer Cafe, Litro, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missouri Review, Rise Up Review, and The Smart Set. His fiction has been published in Blue Moon Review, Crania, Creo, Fairfield Review, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Mobius: The Journal of Social Change, Thrice Fiction, and Timber Creek Review. Last year, he published a memoir about growing up in Northwestern New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s called Reservoir: Tales from the Other Jersey. He is an associate professor of English at Georgia Gwinnett College.
Image Credit: “Picture with figures for a paper theater, play by J. Planche, 1821. Lithography with stencil coloring. Cover of the series: “Webb’s Scenes & Characters in Robin Hood”, London (W. Webb), circa 1850.” Public Domain.