Robin Hood was no socialist

So apparently there's this new Robin Hood movie that proves Russell Crowe's accent is as bad as his temper. The critics seem to feel it couldn't split an arrow at one pace, and I'd sooner fight Little John with a quarterstaff on a narrow bridge than go see it. But first let me cudgel the film for trying to steal from our heritage to give to political correctness.

The problem is the old canard that Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor. The New York Times once called Fidel Castro "The Robin Hood of the Caribbean", but in his lawless use of state power to reward those he liked, Castro was, and remains, a Prince John. Robin Hood did the opposite. He took back from the rich and powerful what they had stolen from the poor and meek. His standard was justice, not envy. He did not practise class war and he never stole.

Quibblers may object that he did nothing, period. In university I took a fascinating "Legend, Myth and History" course in which the professor demonstrated to my satisfaction that King Arthur did exist a bit but Robin Hood did not.

I mean intellectual satisfaction, not emotional. I like Robin Hood.

I also like Arthur. I'm glad he existed and I like the core of the legend, if not the dreadful purple prose of Parsival or subsequent literary and cinematic manglings. The historical Arthur seems to have been a Celtic leader whose valiant resistance halted the tide of Saxon barbarism for half a century. In that sense he's the last hero of Roman Britain rather than a forerunner of the Albion we know and love.

Since the Saxons laid the foundations for the only functioning system of self-government the world has ever seen (after they settled down a bit and became Christian), Arthur's defeat was not as bad as it seemed at the time. But he remains a magnificent emblem of a cause so lost that history has even misplaced Mount Badon where he won his great victory. And lost causes have a special romance because those who go down in such a manner defy the maxim that "might makes right." Arthur tells us an important truth we all know anyway, and it's a conservative one.

So does Robin Hood. This makes him an icon, irresistible to today's imaginatively bankrupt filmmakers to appropriate an aura they can no longer create. See "Bond, James: endless sequels" for more on this theme. But note also that Robin's romance has more to do with Bond than Arthur. For despite his technical non-existence, he is not the emblem of a lost cause. He is the emblem of Magna Carta triumphant.

In the classic stories he personally fades away or perishes through treachery to preserve the adolescent atmosphere of the Merry Men. But no, it doesn't mean they were all gay. Not even the Sheriff of Nottingham tried to transvalue Robin Hood and we shouldn't either. Sometimes an arrow is just an arrow. And Robin is a straight arrow who would never steal, because theft is wrong.

Robin Hood stood for legitimate authority. Unlawfully deprived of his own inheritance as an act of bigoted injustice, he fought the tyrannical regent Prince John while waiting for the rightful King Richard Coeur de Lion to return and set all right.

Here we must admit history has been split by a willow shaft.

Richard was a wretched wilful king entirely miscast as just and noble. John on the other hand is a villain straight out of central casting. Despite occasional rehabilitation efforts, and brief Protestant enthusiasm for a king who defied the Pope, the last word on my wretched royal namesake goes to historian Christopher Brooke: Given John's generally odious family "some have wondered whether John was really any worse than his father or brothers. To this it can only be answered that contemporaries clearly thought that he was... Precisely what was wrong with John is very hard to say. But men did not trust him; they refused to fight in his company; they sought to exact unusual promises from him."

Maybe it was that bit where he murdered his nephew in a drunken rage, attacked ancient liberties, lost the crown jewels in a river and was generally vile, brutal, liquored up and incompetent.

In short, a classic tyrant, the eternal enemy of British liberty.

Against him, eternally, Robin Hood is a conservative hero in every way. Dedicated to the rule of law, brave, resourceful, cheerful in adversity, loyal to his friends and his sweetheart, chaste before marriage, a true Catholic, and faithful to the spirit of the Second Amendment in taking up arms against tyranny. He's even a die-hard constitutional monarchist.

In short, he's ours and you can't have him for your nasty left-wing causes, no matter how bad your accent or your temper.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson