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May. 17 2010 - 4:37 pm | 687 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

Was Robin Hood an avowed socialist or John Galt?

Some interesting discussion surrounding the Robin Hood film (which I haven’t seen) has surfaced following this A.O. Scott piece in the New York Times, wherein Scott suggests:

You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is no socialist bandit practicing freelance wealth redistribution, but rather a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles. Don’t tread on him!

Some, like Ezra Klein and Jon Chait, seem to think this is terribly silly, and that Robin Hood really robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Conservatives have loudly cheered the movie for its apparently conservative message.

Point one: why do conservatives do this?  Every time a movie has any sort of conservative theme they go all crazy touting it not for its quality, its direction, its acting or story, but for how conservative it is. It’s a damn movie. Please stop bringing politics into everything as the supreme good by which all things – people, art, etc. – should be judged. It’s silly.

Point two: Robin Hood robbed from the rich and from the state. This has always been the case. In the Robin Hood legend we have a very different sort of state than we do today, built upon a feudal system. The state was composed of the rich. The two were one and the same. It’s not as though Robin Hood lived in a capitalist democracy. Back in those days if you were rich you were likely part of government. If you were part of government, you were very likely rich.

Trying to argue whether the Robin Hood story was one of redistribution or of property rights is a little silly. The idea is that the rich cronies of the usurper Prince John were benefiting from his extraordinarily high taxes which he used not to provide any of his citizens with any sort of good, but to enrich himself and his friends. This on top of the high taxes incurred from Richard’s foolish war in the Middle East made the poor even poorer. Robin Hood was not out to topple the state, or to oppose the concept of taxes – he was a loyalist of King Richard, and merely opposed unjust tax rates and their misuse. None of this parallels modern times. It makes a fine case against feudalism for whatever that’s worth.

Point three: Didn’t we already cover this with the Disney animated version of Robin Hood?  I mean, he wasn’t really robbing from “the rich” there either since all the bad guys are government officials. And there’s some very anti-tax stuff in the Disney version, as well as some religious liberty themes, and probably lots of other red meat in there that would rile up the conservative base if it were released today.

Robin Hood is neither a redistributionist’s parable or a right-winger’s wet dream. It’s a cautionary tale about the abuses of power and more importantly a fun myth for all ages that has made lots and lots of filmmakers a great deal of money over the years. We shouldn’t get too carried away drawing parallels that don’t exist.


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    Mr. Kain,

    Robyn Hode did not rob from the rich and give to the poor, he robbed from the rich and not from the poor. In those days bandits robbed from everyone they could and robbing from the poor was actually a lot easier and less dangerous than robbing the rich. The rich tended to be well armed, both themselves and their body guards and when the rich were robbed government authorities would respond quickly and forcefully. On the hand the poor were rarely as well armed as the rich and the government would likely do little to protect them. Thus bandits would most likely attack the poorer and weaker traveler.

    Here is where context speaks more clearly than text. By only robbing the rich and not the poor, a bandit from the lowly yeoman class is clearly proclaiming a stand with the poor against the rich. While certainly more lucrative robbing poor, robbing the rich was infinitely more dangerous. The fact there was never any question of Robyn giving his ill gotten gains to anyone other himself and his three associates (Litell Johnn, Will Scarlok, and Much, the millers son) is completely beside the point.

    At the begining of The Gest of Robyn Hode, Little John asks Robyn if he will eat and Robyn says he will not until he has robbed “som bolde baron, Or som unkouth gest. Here shal come a lord or sire That may pay for the best, Or som knyght or squyer, That dwelleth here bi west.” While Robyn is not trying to overthrow the established government, he is clearly taking a stance of defiance against both the government and the rich (the too being the same thing). It is stance he does not need to take as a bandit but does so as a man of the people.

    This is phenomenon is well established through the world. The historian Eric Hobsbawm in his works “Primitive Rebels” and “Bandits” describes these as “Social Bandits”. He writes:

    “The point about social bandits is that they are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported. …Social banditry of this kind is one of the most universal social phenomena known to history.”

    Robyn Hode was just such a “social bandit”, a “gode yeman” who infuriated the wealthy and powerful and got away with it with verve and nerve. Doing no harm to the ordinary people he won their love, admiration, and support. Was he social revolutionary, of course not, while he could insult and rob the wealthy, his whole existence depended upon their existence. He was a symbol of peasant dreams of freedom from feudal exploitation but not the name to actually make that happen.

    • collapse expand

      David,
      What version of the legend are you quoting? One thing we should not forget is “That Robin is a modern figure whose individual characteristics were added in different stages” – quoted from John Chandler of the Robin Hood project at the University of Rochester. Most likely, both conservatives and liberals have embroidered on the tales.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hello misterb,

        The Chinese philosopher Confucius was active over 2,000 years ago. Over the centuries, the Chinese have re-invented Confucius many times as the needs of Chinese society have changed. So in fact there have been for quite some time many Confucius’ (or I suppose Confucii). Chinese Confuscian scholars recognized this problem centuries ago and summarized the study of his work with the dictum “One Confucius at a Time”.

        People tells stories to meet social and personal needs. Those needs change over time. As a result, stories like Robin Hood, or Confucius, change, or if no longer meet any needs, they disappear. So if one wishes to understand the Robin Hood stories, you have to study “One Robin Hood at a Time”. The oldest written version is “A Gest of Robyn Hode”, which while published around 1400 contains stories much older. It is available on-line..

        http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/gest.htm

        There are versions “translated” into more modern English which are also available. I think the text, in and of itself, is not offensive to either liberal or conservative sensibilities (other than the glorification of a bandit). However, what is not written is what causes controversy.

        First you have to understand that feudal society was private, not the “civil society” we have today. Almost every aspect of society was private in the sense that it was controlled by wealthy powerful feudal lords. Each petty lord could have his own personal court system (“held court”) with his own private bailiffs and jailers. Tax collection and armies were similarly organized. Virtually nothing happened without the approval of some knight, earl, or baron who were unanswerable to anyone, save the king, and not always then. There was no government save the personal governments of the wealthy.

        Within that historical setting, Robyn Hode Story was incendiary. Here was a common man who existed entirely outside of any government, within his own, non-feudal authority. That alone was a seditious act. However, far more dangerously, he only robs from the rich / the government. He leaves the poor alone. In the story “A Gest of Robyn Hode” he openly mocks the pretenses of the feudal nobility. He would first invite his victims to dine with him with all of the outward courtesy of nobility. Only after they had accepted his hospitality did he rob them! He would not rob any company of travelers with women among them. His grand and extravagant personality is a direct mockery of how the nobility is expected to act. Beyond mockery he of course robs them and only them but then gets away with it to boot! He was an affront to every aspect of feudal society.

        Within the historical context of the oldest Robyn Hode stories, his tales were explosive. (Today they are merely colorful romps).

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Wait… so Robin Hood was an anti-government terrorist extremist? No wonder the right loves him!

  3. collapse expand

    Back in the day, conservatives had Robin Hood removed from libraries for having “communist themes”.

  4. collapse expand

    Like it or not, most art is created by liberal, generally leftist leaning people. The nature of expression is that artists often resort to unconventional ways of communicating to be noticed. This unconventional thinking is not restricted to the art alone and it usually finds its way in to other parts of the artists life.

    Thus, saying it’s just a story or it’s just a movie dismisses the fact that such stories often contain leftist themes. This is why so many conservative right wingers get excited when some expression from the arts actually takes their point of view for a change and gets creative with it.

    Like you, I don’t see this tale of Robin Hood as anything more than yet another silly romp of some sort. Those who make more of it than that are wasting their talents. However, given the general leftist tilt of most arts these days, I can understand why some might get excited when a potential “John Galt” character shows up.

  5. collapse expand

    Mr. Kain,

    To answer your first question: “why do conservatives do this?” The answer is simple, they are vying not just for political dominance but complete social hegemony. Many neo-conservatives model themselves after the Bolsheviks who understood that political power by itself was insufficient to maintain control of a country. They believed that they the needed to battle for ideological and cultural hegemony as well as holding state power. Today’s conservatives in the US believe the same thing. It is not enough for them to control legislative or executive branches of the national or state governments, they want to complete social hegemony – from religion, to academia, to the arts. Cinema and television are certainly within their desired realm of control. They want it all and battling for the meaning of Robin Hood is just one skirmish it the broader cultural war.

  6. collapse expand

    Maybe you should see the movie so you know what the hell you’re talking about.

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