I've been reading and watching a lot (from silent films to 80s series, documentaries, books) of one of my favorite folk heroes, Robin Hood. I guess I've always been attracted to the rogue, trickster hero who's wit is as sharp as his aim. That he's wily and clever more than he is strong, that his friendships are part of his strength, that he's a communist that steals from the rich and gives to the poor--doing a more immediate good than just trying to sieze power or fight wars. But, sadly, for years there was never a truly perfect incarnation of Robin Hood. Movies or films would either play the fun and wicked wit, or they'd play the tension and drama. Or the Robin would never be quite good enough. Or something would be off.
Ah, but this year, I discovered the BBC television show Robin Hood, which perfectly and seemlessly can do both the roguish wit and the tormented soul of the legend. Not only that, it is completely morally complicated, has a delicious modern application, has a fantastic cast of characters/actors, brilliant writing, and lends itself to analysis. Jonas Armstrong is the best Robin Hood ever, and the over-lying theme of pascifism (in an action show!) appeals greatly to me. If I had one complaint it was that it (except for the one episode concerning the archery contest), it doesn't twist the original legend as much as it should. But otherwise, it's brilliant.
“The war in the Holy Land is 2,000 miles away. It’s not our problem.”
“No, you’re wrong! War is here! It’s right here in the forest.”
It may seem odd that an action show would have a message of pacifism, but Robin Hood manages it, mostly through its main character. Robin refuses, whenever remotely possible, to kill anyone—including the biggest baddie of them all, the Sheriff. His most often stated reason is that killing wouldn’t solve the problem. The Sheriff would be replaced by someone worse, and the people would be punished for it. In fact, when someone—Joe—does try to kill the Sheriff, he ends up killing innocents and strengthening the Sheriff’s position.
But the real reason behind Robin’s actions is a bit more personal than just logical. Robin has returned from the Holy Land where he’s obviously lost his youthful innocence. In a search for glory in what he thought was a noble pursuit (freeing the Holy Land for his God) turned out to be a blood bath. Not only that, but he realized that his enemy was no evil heathen, but a human being much like himself. Robin has learned that violence has not only solved nothing, but it’s caused a great deal of trouble and horrors. His faith in fighting noble wars, in killing, for the glory of the King has been seriously shaken. Worst of all, Robin’s idealized his home while away. Instead of an idyllic pastoral home of peace and plenty, he has come home to find that evil has settled in and tortured his people. The real battle against evil is at home. In many ways, Robin is the Vietnam veteran, the Gulf War veteran. He’s confused, angry, disillusioned, and morally shaken. But he knows for sure that violence is not the way to fight for good.
There are two moments in the series when Robin loses this moral perspective. One is when he learns about Gisbourne’s betrayal of the King. This is Robin’s weakness, his blind loyalty to the King, refusing to see another point. He becomes so enraged that Gisbounre has allowed the war to continue (in trying to assassinate the King) that he is willing to abandon his morals (to resort even to torture) for the greater good. The modern parallels are obvious: good men doing bad things for the sake of a greater good at the sacrifice of others (i.e. Djac). The other moment is when he thinks he’s lost Marian. Robin and his men, cornered by the Sheriff, brutally cut their way through. Because Robin is generally nonviolent and doesn’t kill, when he “loses it”, it becomes much more powerful and poignant.
“The truth is this country is being choked to death and honest people are forced to lie and cheat and steal.”
“Nobody bows down to anybody. Not in this forest.”
Civilization vs. Wilderness
With a story about nobles and outlaws escaping into the woods in order to rebel against society, the theme of the civilization/wilderness must come into play. The irony, of course, is that—as Robin (a civilized creature as the head of Locksley) retreats into the wilderness—civilization is overcome by the wild forces of amorality, violence, and greed. With further irony, the Sheriff constantly professes the need for “authority” and to obey it, as if it is the one important virtue in his people. Robin is an anarchist in comparison, constantly rebelling against the rules and undermining the authority. Because Robin literally goes outside of the law, he loses everything associated with civilization: his title, his house, his servants and people, even his future wife. Guy takes all of these things, while Robin becomes literally Robin of the Wood.
Marian plays both of these dualities, both the wilderness and the civilization. In truth, she is torn between these two forces. Marian—a lady—lives apart from and above the people. She frequents her cottage on the edge of the forest and also works within the castle walls, within the system, in order to effect change and attempt to bend the male-dominated establishment to her will. Although Marian can be herself (without pretence, without playing the noble lady) and free in the woods with Robin and his gang, she chooses to live at her estate. Marian’s true nature is in the woods and as part of the wilderness, but this bothers her conscience. She prefers to work within the system. Her faith still lies with authority.
This theme comes into play also in the form of anarchy vs. authority (anarchy=wilderness, authority=civilization). The Sheriff claims that Robin accepts the authority of the Sheriff, which is partially true. Robin does accept the need for authority (also evident in his loyalty to the King). And yet, Robin is the source of the anarchy in the Kingdom. He rebels against the unjust authority. The law becomes criminal, and thieves become honorable. This reverse of morals is a reverse of the wilderness and the civilization.
The rivalry between Robin and Guy becomes something much deeper than rivalry concerning Marian. While Guy is against the King (“there will be no peace with the Turks”), Robin has fanatical loyalty to the King. Their positions have reversed from their normal wilderness/civilization positions. Guy is the anarchist; Robin has the faith in authority. Robin is following the ideals of nobility, and is willing to even sacrifice his nonviolent ways. Robin regresses to his old ways, and looks down on his men, saying that they are “simple men in the forest and don’t understand politics”. Robin separates himself from them. This again comes up later when Will and Alan believe that their fight is over and Robin will return to his standing in Locksley. At the end of the episode, Robin regains his moral grounding. Even then, though, Robin can never—unlike Marian—understand Guy’s psychological issues (“deprived of love”), which is ironic as this is Robin’s issue as well.
Religion: Enlightenment vs. Superstition.
Religion is also an issue, not only for morality, but also as an essential part of the culture and difference between the English and the Saracen. The English follow their religion deeply (Marian attempts to become a nun to leave home, it is the noble cause that Robin followed to the Holy Land). Robin quotes from the Koran, and it is mistaken for the Bible, showing that the differences are not so great between the Christian and Islamic people. In fact, with Djac’s character and skills, it becomes obvious that the differences are actually a strength. When the “merry men” come across a Saracen acupuncture mask, they immediately think of evil and witchcraft. “Not Christian” equals evil. Much tries to save the Saracen slaves by getting them to renounce their God, but in doing the same, he is filled with horror and fear. Djac is thought of as a witch with magic (something that needs to be destroyed) by others. Ignorance and bigotry not only cause the horrific war in the Holy Land, but it is evident that it is a horrible weakness and the truer evil.
“You are not listening to me because I am a woman.”
In this medieval world, men dominate both the civilization and the wilderness. Besides the weak peasants (mostly mothers and wives) in need of heroism, there are only two female characters: Marian and Djac. Both must hide their true selves in order to survive in this world. One must disguise herself as weak and servile or as the Nightwatchman, and the other must disguise herself as a boy. Both women are incredibly clever and strong, and thoroughly willing to join the male fight for the greater good. Unfortunately, neither is taken seriously by their male counterparts. Marian is constantly ignored in the castle, and she must resort to sex appeal to get what she wants. Djac is also ignored, most notably when she is captured and Robin refuses to save her. This is ironic as Robin frequently tries to protect Marian, to the extent of being condescending and dismissive. Women are meant to be protected and saved and controlled, an excuse for heroics. And without—as Marian says—ever asking their opinion or desires. And yet, it is obvious that they can take care of themselves.
Marian: “Is it all a joke with you?”
Robin: “Is it all so serious for you?”
Robin vs. Marian
“I am only going what you do, but with more intelligence.”
Morally, Robin and Marian face a dilemma that stems from their differing personalities. Robin (the cock of the walk) is interested in glory (according to Marian) and being loved by the people (according to Much). He is vain and has a huge need to be transparent, obvious, and understood. He’s a trickster and a rogue. But for Marian, who has been living in this oppressed world for years, it is not about glory, and it’s certainly not about fun. In many ways, the two are in competition, but it’s actually much deeper. Marian has lost herself in her selfless pursuits. She hides her identity under that of the Night Watchman. She gets little or no credit for her actions. She is seen in both the civilized world of the castle and the world of the woods as an outsider, fitting in nowhere. This is directly opposite Robin—with his large sense of self—who is well known as a hero and fits into the worlds of the nobles, the peasants, and the outlaws. Marian, instead, is a woman that garners the chains of protection from the men around her. Marian is smart enough to know that she can do great good within the system, thinking of the greater good over that of the individual. Robin, meanwhile, sees the people as individuals (not a greater good). This also means that he tends to be more selfish (wanting their love, and Marian’s).
For Robin (and Marian), nobility is not a birthright. It is a virtue. It’s a responsibility to look out for the populace. But nobility is something that concerns Robin much more than it does Marian. He is willing to die an honorable death rather than fight to live another day. Marian, on the other hand, sees the greater good, even at the sacrifice of innocent lives. She is more reason and sense, while Robin is more emotion and heart. (Hence why they need to be together, in order to achieve balance) While this is Robin’s strength, it is also a weakness. He is a bit of a lady’s man, tries to flatter and charm people. He left Marian for greater glory and admiration (love) to fight in the Holy Lands. In doing so, he probably caused Marian to become the way she is: cold and logical. Being loved is not as important for her.
Though Guy is obviously morally bad, he—rather than Robin—offers Marian civilization: title, high society, and security with marriage. These are logical desires over those of the heart. Meanwhile, Robin—though obviously a very good man comparatively—literally steals the wedding ring off Marian’s finger and runs into the forest. He looks down on her. Though he tries to protect her, he’s also disrespecting her and her abilities. Their relationship is one of competition and antagonism.
Robin and Marian perfectly understand each other, and that is the irony of their relationship. Secretly, they wholly understand the good and strengths in the other, and yet they are the biggest critics of each other. In other words, they only ever state the other’s weaknesses and berate each other. It isn’t until Marian’s deathbed that they admit the good in the other. The other irony of their relationship is that Robin—like Guy—does need Marian. When she plans to marry Guy, he rejects his hero quest. When he loses her, it is too much (the proverbial straw on the camel’s back). Robin and Marian are only able to hook up when Robin becomes selfless, gives Marian her autonomy, and allows her to become the hero (be selfless in her marriage). Marian, in turn, is then able to be selfish and chooses herself over England.
“Is it our holy war or Pope Gregory’s?”
“What kind of King deserts his people to fight someone else’s war in a foreign land?”
Guy is almost completely unaware of right and wrong. He has no sense of self (simply does what the Sheriff tells him and tries to become Robin). He tries to kill his own son, yet he becomes enraged when innocent women (the Abbess, the kitchen girl, Marian) are killed or threatened. He tries to regain innocence and redemption through his marriage to Marian, but he lies and murders to obtain it.
Guy’s finest moment is one of his worst. Although he is an ignorant bigot that caused the Holy War to go on by attacking the King, and though he goes against Robin’s more enlightened pacifist beliefs, he makes a good point. The King is not someone to be followed blindly. He abandoned his people to fight a war that had little to do with them, a war that isn’t their war.
“If you can’t be good and popular, be bad.” In fact, Guy reminds me a lot of Severus Snape. The fact that he’s socially inept, greasy, warped and an asshole, but not quite evil. He strives for power. And, of course, the fact that he bases his whole morality upon a woman.
Guy: You’re loyal to a weak king.”
Robin: A king with principals.
Guy: He’s a pawn and you know it… it’s not England’s war, it’s Rome’s… you thought you’d come back covered in glory. No one here cares!
“He has qualities. I believe his feelings for me are genuine… Don’t tell me what I should be doing.”
Robin + Marian + Guy: The Love Triangle
While everyone knows that Marian and Robin were made for each other, Guy certainly adds a complication to their relationship. Marian, in many ways, parallels Lily Potter and Padme Amidala. She’s attracted to the bad boy, the tormented, morally ambiguous Guy of Gisbourne. It’s the whole “if I love him, maybe I can change him” thing. Guy isn’t all bad, and even he says (on their wedding day) that she could change him into being a good person, wipe away his sins. Not only that, but Guy promises power (power over him allows her to change things for the better) and security. Security—though Robin claims is a selfish desire—is something very important for Marian. After being abandoned by Robin, she is easily tempted by Guy’s steady loyalty and affection, not to mention his title and lands. Marian—in her male dominated worlds—is very weak. If she disagrees with those around her, they refuse to give her help, and—worst of all—she is often dependant upon their help. Marian is attracted to Guy because she can bend him to her will, unlike Robin. In fact, Marian very much mirrors the Sheriff, as both try to sway Guy to their desires. The irony is that both Robin, too, is dependant on Marian’s affection for his moral compass (he resorts to killing when he thinks she’s dead; he refuses to help save the King when she’s going to be married). Robin needs to be loved as much as Guy. The difference is that Robin is used to being love and Guy is not.
Alan + Will + Djac: The Other Love Triangle
Will—who lived for many years as one of the faceless innocent peasants abused by the system—is a darker, quieter, and ironically more innocent figure than any of the other characters. Even more so than Robin himself, Will is the voice of conscience. He cuts through everything else to say what has to be done for the greater good. Ironically, Alan (his best friend) is on the other side of the moral spectrum. Alan is a good guy, but he’ll almost always be the first one to speak of self-preservation. He’s a former thief and poacher, a solitary rogue that wandered the forest. Both of these men are attracted to Djac (though this storyline hasn’t yet seen fruition), a cross-dressing, enlightened, science-woman from the land of their enemy. If Will and Alan are opposing sides of Robin’s personality, Djac is cool logic and intellect (like Marian). Djac is associated with the Greek Fire storyline. She is a keeper of this atomic-bomb like power (in the tradition of Pandora’s Box). For Will, this is a power that is too big for human hands, and he tries to destroy it.