I come from English stock; my family on both sides are English, and both my parents were born in England (although my mum was raised in Canada). Perhaps as a result, I learned early about English folk heroes, particularly King Arthur and Robin Hood. We had these two big books, one purple and one green, that included retellings of the major stories, and which my dad used to read to us as children.
My favourite was always Robin Hood and his Merry Men. Oh, I enjoyed hearing about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (particularly the knights), but they never spoke to my imagination in quite the same way as Robin Hood did. Perhaps this is because we lived in forested lands, perhaps it’s just because my dad likes Robin Hood better too (I believe; I’ve never actually asked him), perhaps it’s just because there’s something in those stories that speak to me. King Arthur is about the restoration of legitimate order — so too is Robin Hood — but King Arthur does it by being the chosen king, and Robin Hood by running off to the Greenwood to rob from the rich and give to the poor. He’s noble in a different way.
I spent a lot of time as a child learning about how to live in the woods. I loved books like Julie of the Wolves and My Side of the Mountain (both by Jean Craighead George), and scavenged information about edible wild plants and how to make a sling from books and classes on Cree culture. (The Jean Auel Clan of the Cave Bear books were good for details on living in Ice Age Europe, which isn’t too dissimilar from northern Canada; the sex in The Valley of Horses (which I read first) was my first introduction to the subject, much to my parents’ surprise when I asked them what the characters were doing.) Although I haven’t been keeping up with foraging, I expect that if you dropped me off in the boreal forest somewhere I’d have a reasonable chance of keeping myself alive, depending on the season and the mosquitos and whether I had a hatchett and a handy source of flint or not.
Robin Hood, though, is about more than living in the woods. He’s about fighting injustice on all levels — when he commits it himself (as happens occasionally; he’s certainly not perfect) the stories usually have him being trumped by the tinker or monk he thought to trick. And those stories usually end with Robin laughing merrily and accepting his defeat, and sometimes joining forces with the one who bested him. Little John, Friar Tuck, Maid Marian — depending on the tales, each of them get the better of him at one point or another. But this isn’t tragedy, it’s not like Mordred defeating Arthur and destroying the dream of Camelot. It’s Robin Hood failing, realising his failure, and making up with laughter and a feast and the restoration of good humour. The story of King Arthur is a tragedy. Robin Hood is a comedy, in all senses.
I was thinking at one point of writing a story about Robin Hood (which I shall do at some point), and it seemed logical to connect it to the figure of Robin Goodfellow, who in my story is the Prince of Fairyland with some issues involving arrogance, lacking a soul (or maybe a heart), that kind of thing. I haven’t actually written this part of the story yet, though I do have a short story about Robin that will be coming out soon, and he’s an important character in my forthcoming novel. This is all to say that I did some research a while back into both Robin Hood and Robin Goodfellow, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that there is a longstanding connection between the two of them already.
The folklore around Robin Hood — the association with green and the greenwood, with May celebrations and Maid Marian, with topsy-turvy social order and occasional cross-dressing and a lot of drinking and laughing — well, is it really a surprise to discover that in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the May celebrations involved all these things, too, in ballad and play-acting forms? The English pantomime seems to descend from this tradition too, along with the Maypole and the like. Maid Marian was often a man dressed as a woman, and, well, you can guess what sort of innuendos were involved in spring time celebrations. These weren’t things I was thinking of when I read Robin Hood stories (or my dad told them to my sisters and I) when I was little!
The old ballads on Robin Hood are available at the Robin Hood Project, just in case you wanted to see where some of the stories come from.