Monday, November 3, 2014

The Legend of Robin Hood

Howard Pyle illustration of Robin Hood

The man of the greenwood stands like a sentinel with bow in hand, a quiver of goosefeather arrows slung across his shoulder. On his belt hangs a short broadsword. Atop his head a feathered cap marks him as a woodsman and a hunter. His clear eyes and stoic features bespeak of strength and determination. He is eternal, the champion who, like Arthur the once and future king, stands forever against tyranny.
In the many folktales about Robin Hood he is an outlaw intent on robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. His home is Sherwood Forest, a hilly stretch of land in Nottinghamshire. With him are his Merry Men – Friar Tuck, Little John, Allan a Dale, Will Scarlet and others. His true love is Maid Marian (often spelled as Marion). His arch enemy is guy of Gisbourne. For most of us these names conjure images from the 1938 Warner Brothers adaptation, The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn. The Adventures of Robin Hood is my all-time favorite film because it represents what a motion picture should be. It is a fantasy with a little bit of everything – heroes, villains, action, a splendid musical score, and a happy ending. Volumes have been written about this film, which I noted in my biography on Errol Flynn owes much to the 1922 silent film by Douglas Fairbanks. The Fairbanks film is equally magnificent, but it was Errol Flynn that introduced me to the legend of Robin Hood.
Naturally, the bookhound that is my one true self has sought the books and dusty tomes relating to the bandit of the greenwood. My first choice is Howard Pyle’s 1883 The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, written and illustrated by Pyle. The writing is colorful, the characters exactly as you want them, with a bittersweet but appropriate ending with Robin unleashing an arrow and instructing that he shall be buried where the arrow falls. How grand if all heroes might fade with such nobility.
Of interest to Errol Flynn collectors are Robin Hood and His Merry Men by Sara Hawks Sterling, published in 1921 but re-issued in 1938 by Grosset & Dunlap as The Adventures of Robin Hood on the dust jacket and sporting the now famous image of Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. Of note are the endpapers reproducing a scene from the film of Little John and Robin battling with quarterstaves over a stream. But take another look, that’s not Alan Hale and Errol Flynn but rather two stunt doubles. As for the text, it’s credited as “Retold by” and is essentially a florid rewrite of the Howard Pyle classic. The dust jacket specifically promotes the film as “Presented by Warner Bros. in Technicolor starring Errol Flynn with an All-Star cast.” A variant edition exists with the same dust jacket but minus the Warner Bros. and Flynn blurb.
Endpapers to the Sara Hawks Sterling book featuring stunt doubles
Only recently I acquired the 1965 Airmont paperback of E. Charles Vivian’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, a modern retelling that owes as much to Pyle as it does to Fairbanks and Flynn. A tremendously enjoyable re-imagining, Vivian’s prose is straightforward and perhaps lacking flourishes where flourishes might have made it better, but still a ripping yarn.
This brings us to I. A. Watson’s Robin Hood quartet, each volume as lively as an orchestra in the heat of a rhapsody. Published by Airship 27, Robin Hood: King of Sherwood (2010) begins by re-imagining the meeting of Robin and Marion. Written, by Watson’s own admission, as “Robin Hood as if he appeared in Argosy or The Strand Magazine.” Being a fan of the pulps, Watson is true to his vision. His talent is undeniable, the book captivating, the tale told with zest. Add to the mix a strong historical backdrop (with footnotes) and Robin Hood: King of Sherwood is the best fictional account on Robin Hood published in the last fifty years. Many, many authors have set their sights on the bandit of Sherwood Forest, but Watson takes the prize. Watson followed with Robin Hood: Arrow of Justice (2011) and imagines a nefarious plot by the Sheriff of Nottingham to lure Robin Hood into a trap by staging an archery contest; and Robin Hood: Freedom’s Outlaw (2013) concludes the trilogy with Robin and his Merry Men intervening in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s assault on Sir Richard at the Lee’s castle. The historical background, strong characterizations and obvious love for his material are evidence enough that Ian Watson’s Robin Hood books are a must-have for fans. A fourth supplemental volume, Robin Hood: Forbidden Legend (2014) featuring short stories, essays and comic strips, has just been released.
Stills from The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) starring Cornel Wilde (left), and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950)
As for the additional films, I am fond of The Bandit of Sherwood Forest (1946) starring Cornel Wilde, and Rogues of Sherwood Forest (1950) starring John Derek. Unlike most extremists in the Errol Flynn fan community, I don’t get upset when Hollywood makes another Robin Hood film. Robin Hood is appealing. I enjoyed Kevin Costner’s take on Robin Hood, and I enjoyed Russell Crowe’s take on Robin Hood. And at the end of the day we still have Errol Flynn on DVD or Blue-Ray or as a digital download, and his performance will live forever. I agree that remakes are often a waste of time, as with the recent The Lone Ranger film, but the legend of Robin Hood is choice material. Incidentally, the novelization of the Ridley Scott directed Robin Hood starring Russell Crowe was written by David B. Coe. 
Robin Hood is eternal; a champion of justice whose exploits will live forever, the hero all men wish to become. No matter if he appears again in a comic book or a television show, this is a legend that will continue to entertain us all.

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