Stand and deliver!Sometimes, the most important revolutionary activity takes place in the imagination. Revolutions are made when what Cornelius Castoriadis termed the "Social Imaginary" creates a new image of itself and the world. Surrealists such as Andre Breton have explored the issue of myth, in the sense of a story which connects individuals and communities with a wider reality, and its role in revolutionary change. Without an appeal to the mythic imagination, evidence and rational argument remain impotent to effect actual change. Where then are the authentic revolutionary myths to be found? In his new book Robin Hood; People's Outlaw and Forest Hero; A Graphic Guide Paul Buhle shows us at least one such myth that has been hiding in plain sight, unrecognized.
Buhle places the origin of the Robin Hood legend in an historical context of religious heretics, peasant uprisings and ancient pagan symbolism. That history goes on to popular expression through song, storytelling, and finally movies and television series, such as the recent BBC incarnation which ran between 2006-2009. At the heart of this is the story of a hero and his band of comrades who fight unjust authority and redistribute the wealth. Long before Che Guervara, Robin Hood was the archetypal revolutionary guerrilla.
The first known written mention of Robin Hood is in the poem Piers Plowman, which appeared in the 14th century. Buhle does not focus on the historical basis of the Robin Hood legend but examines the themes that have become interwoven with the legend. He presents the Robin Hood stories as embodying the urge to revolt of the oppressed classes in medieval England. Like Robert Graves Buhle seems to think that Robin is an archaic survival of the Green Man, the Celtic Lord of the Forest, who appears in medieval cathedrals in the form of a face peering out from amidst foliage. The social imagination, it seems, retains forms from earlier, now suppressed episodes of history. This material becomes reworked in order to suit the needs of the time, in which themes which aim at the overthrow of oppressive social orders grow in silence, away from "official" culture.
One of the more enlightening aspects of Buhle's book is the way in which he demonstrates that variations on the Robin Hood legend that appear in recent depictions actually repeat earlier developments in the legend's growth. In both the 1996 movie starring Kevin Costner, as well as the 2006-2009 BBC version, the characters include a "Saracen," or more properly Muslim, friend as a member of Robin's Merry Men. This it turns out is not a postmodern concession to "multiculturalism," but actually reflects earlier versions of the Robin legend! The "return of the repressed," as Marcuse might say?
In the recent BBC TV series the Muslim friend is actually a woman, Nazim. This brings us to the feminist aspects of the Robin story, as reflected in the character of Maid Marian. Like Robin, Marian is the thinly veiled reincarnation of yet another archetype. Buhle quotes from Robert Graves' The White Goddess that Marian was a goddess figure worshipped in place of the Virgin Mary by Gnostic heretics, the knowledge of whom was brought back from the crusades by knights returning from the Holy Land. In later 17th century retellings of the story, Marian herself becomes a warrior who takes her place among the Merry Men.
One famous version has Marian, longing to be with Robin permanently, disguising herself as a man and setting out to Sherwood Forest. There she meets Robin, similarly disguised. Not recognizing each other, they of course start fighting. Robin receives a wound on the cheek, and impressed with his opponent, reveals himself, asking the disguised Marian to join his band of Merry Men. Then she reveals herself and the lovers reunite.
Buhle thinks that the Robin Hood image is one that is sorely needed at this time, in the wake of the collapse of Russian style communism, the current economic crisis, and the looming ecological crisis. "Robin Hood stands for something that holds out against the powers-that-be, especially when social stresses bend and break existing bonds of consent from the weaker to the more powerful." He finds great significance in the fact that a proposed tax on financial speculation is termed a "Robin Hood tax." Robin Hood remains a powerful and appealing political symbol. In addition, the association of the color green with Robin Hood, as well as his forest abode, bring an element of environmental concern into the legend.
The theme of the socialist revolutionary as outlaw and brigand is certainly not restricted to Buhle alone. In Man and Superman George Bernard Shaw portrays a band of Spanish bandits as a group of socialists, who in between waylaying passing cars on a mountain road have long debates in which various shades of opinion, from Social-Democrat to Anarchist, are present. What Buhle does here is to show how a genuine figure of popular folklore incarnates a number of themes germane to radical politics.
What is more the legend brings things down to the bottom line--the transfer of wealth from those who have too much to those who have too little. That such a person can actually be considered a hero is rank heresy in an age dominated by neoliberalism. This is why the Robin Hood legend has such value as a political symbol; it serves to undermine the official discourse. The bandit is actually the good guy.
At the end of the BBC Robin Hood show, his remaining companions stand over his forest grave and affirm that now, they too, are Robin Hood. Towards the end of Robin Hood; Peoples Outlaw and Forest Hero, Buhle quotes from another American socialist, Mark Twain. In a passage from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Tom and a friend play at roles from the stories of Robin Hood.
The boys dressed themselves, hid their accoutrements, and went off grieving that there were no outlaws any more, and wondering what modern civilization could claim to have done to compensate for their loss. They said they would rather be outlaws a year in Sherwood forest than President of the United States forever.
The message that Buhle imparts to us in this book is that we must ourselves become Robin Hoods, cultivate the values attributed to him and come together as a community to steal back a world that has been stolen from us.
Richard Burke is an activist, artist, writer, and teacher living in St. Louis
Robin Hood; Peoples Outlaw and Forest Hero; A Graphic Guide, by Paul Buhle, with illustrations by Chris Hutchinson, Gary Dumm & Sharon Rudahl, PM Press, 2011, 106 pages, $15.00.
review by R. Burke