Robin Hood -- A Personal Journey

Robin Hood in my childhood
(and beyond)

I don't remember a time when I didn't know who Robin Hood was. Just like the earliest surviving literary reference in Piers Plowman or the character himself in the earliest surviving ballads, it feels like Robin Hood was always there, fully formed.

A cake with the Robin Hood Flour logo, the company had sponsored a 2001 academic conference. And looking back on my childhood, it seems like Robin Hood was everywhere. He was being peddled at the school book sales where I bought two Robin Hood children's books, which I review here and here. Robin appeared on my TV set, in a movie that had me quoting one-liners for the rest of the day. It was probably The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn but I can't swear to it. My hazy memories don't quite match the 1938 classic, a film which inspired quite a few low-rent knock-offs. Robin was in my school music class too, where we would occasionally sing ballads like Robin Hood and Little John. (As an adult I was encouraged to join in a sing-along of the Child Ballads. And as I choked out the words in my mercifully inaudible voice I was suddenly struck by long-buried memories and the thought "I have done this before.") Robin Hood was even lurking in my mom's kitchen as Robin Hood Flour is a popular brand in Canada. (Back in the day their jingle used the theme from the 1950s TV series.)

But for virtually every Canuck of my generation, there was one overriding exposure to Robin Hood -- Rocket Robin Hood.

Let me explain for those of you who didn't grow up in 1970s Canada. Rocket Robin Hood is a cartoon show from the late 1960s that features the sci-fi, 30th century direct descendants of Robin Hood and the Merry Men zooming around space as they fight Prince John, the Sheriff of NOTT (National Outer-space Terrestrial Territories) and all manner of interstellar nutjobs. It gave futuristic updates to classic elements of the legend -- such as when Rocket Robin won an archery contest using a boomerang arrow or when he fought an electro-quarterstaff duel or when he saved Maid Marian from marriage to the sheriff's snivelling nephew by substituting an ape-like creature in her place.

And with that last detail, you might glimpse the bizarre charm of the show. Despite what the informational vignettes (which played every episode, in order to cut down on the animation needed for new stories) Rocket Robin didn't so much "rob from the cosmic rich to give to the astral-poor". More often he fought aliens with crab-heads, living shadows that transformed into cats, and mountains that turned into giant robotic beetles. Pretty much anyone I know who grew up with the show assumes the animators "must have been on something".

Will, Little John and Rocket Robin Hood In America, the show vanished after its initial three-year run, only to live on in the animation recycled into two 1960s Spider-Man episodes and much later as the reigning champion of "Worst Cartoon Ever" festivals.

But Rocket Robin Hood had a different fate up north. You see, the show was voiced and mostly animated in Canada. And we have "CanCon" regulations which require television stations to play so much Canadian content in a day. The theory is that the regulations will preserve our cultural heritage. Sometimes I think it just allows bad Canadian television to survive zombie-like for decades past its natural span. And so it was with Rocket Robin Hood. As a kid, I thought the show was on every channel -- several times a day.

The thing is, as much as I mock it now (and mocked it even as a child), nobody forced me to watch Rocket Robin Hood. There was something in the psychedelic backgrounds and madcap adventures that I genuinely liked more than other TV shows consigned to CanCon purgatory.

There was another Robin Hood tale that affected me as a child. I was probably only six or seven at the time when my class went to see a Robin Hood play at Hamilton Place. I can't remember much about it. It's now just a memory of me remembering that I once had a memory. But I know at the time I loved it. As did the rest of my class as we played Robin Hood for days afterwards. I was assigned the part of Allen-a-Dale in our schoolyard Robin Hood Games (The coincidence of my having the first name of Robin's minstrel trumped my sheer lack of musical ability.)

The one detail I recall (or at least, recall that I once recalled it) was Friar Tuck introducing himself to the audience. Some bad guy was sneaking up behind Tuck, preparing to club him or shoot him. We were prompted to yell "Duck!" "No, it's Tuck. Friar Tuck!" The friar corrected us several times. "Duck, Tuck!"

Robin Hood and Friar Tuck's men square off at the University of Rochester bringing a 16th c. play to life.This play, probably remembered by no one but me in the whole world, fit within the tradition of the English panto, and even has traces of the May Games from the 1500s. While this particular production is lost to the ages, ones like it are being performed each year at theatres and festivals all around the world

(I looked up the play in 2014 and found some of the details above were slightly off, but not by much. You can read my Spotlight review of the 1978 play The Adventures of Robin Hood by Clive Endersby here.).

It's interesting that the versions of Robin Hood that affected me the most as a kid weren't the major ones that everybody remembers. I didn't read the Howard Pyle children's novel until I was approaching my teens. The Richard Greene TV series was just a television ad jingle to me until I was in my late teens and increased cable channels meant that reruns became more than just CanCon. I can't even be sure it was the Errol Flynn film I first saw on TV.

Instead I was most moved by a daft cartoon about Robin Hood in space and a long-forgotten children's play that probably ran for no more than two weeks. And yet, I think there's something important in that.

These neglected little versions of the tale are special in one sense. I don't mean "special" in the way a mother consoles a child who didn't make the baseball team when she says "everyone's special in their own way." The throwaway versions often aren't special based on their own merits. What's special is that they exist at all. There are hundreds of thousands versions of the legend that nobody ever talks about, and yet they play some role in the shape of the legend.

Society is often more honestly reflected in its disposable "junk culture" than in its high art. And even the better known versions of the Robin Hood legend look positively scruffy next to their literary and cinematic peers. I'd tell you more about how the versions above reflected Canadian society in the 1970s and early 1980s ... if only I remembered more.

At the time, I didn't think much about it. I just knew I liked Robin Hood. More than most, probably. But not so much it crowded out my other interests.

It wasn't until the final years of high school I gave any more thought to the Robin Hood legend. But when I started to think about a large independent study project for English class, I wondered ... was there anything interesting to know about my childhood hero? That's when I learned the origins of the legend and read the original ballads for the first time. I studied the works of Holt, Bellamy, Dobson & Taylor and several others.

It was studying for this paper -- half-remembered by me and no one else -- that I thought about how myths and legends change over time. In school, things like the Greek myths are often taught as unvarying statistics. This god is married to that god. Things happen in a certain way. There's no variation. And yet studying the Robin Hood legend, I found that stories do change over time. I learned that there isn't one true version of a story. I also started to think about why stories change and how they relate to the world around us. Yes, this isn't just true of the Robin Hood legend. But it's where I first began to think about it in earnest. I began to think about why stories matter.

A lot of the books I read for that project made mention of another English outlaw, Adam Bell, whose exploits have mostly been forgotten in this day in age. But not by everyone it seems.

When I was working on the essay, I caught a few minutes of a British Robin Hood series and threw in a passing and somewhat dismissive reference to it. But the week after I handed in my essay, I tuned in to catch my first full episode of Robin of Sherwood (re-named Robin Hood here in North America). What a surprise to find that an older, cynical Adam Bell was the guest star. He had returned to Sherwood, his career overshadowed by Robin Hood's. Using Adam Bell caught my attention. I was hooked. Hooked on the legend, hooked on the show and because I was a teenage boy, somewhat hooked on a classmate who watched Robin of Sherwood too.

My interest in the Robin Hood legend never really went away after that. And over the years, I read Robin Hood novels and saw films (including the Errol Flynn film - properly this time - although I didn't truly appreciate it until I had left adolescence well behind.)

Also, I've tried my hand at some Robin Hood fiction, including an abortive attempt at a novel, which I still might get back to someday. And when I first went to England after university, Nottingham and Sherwood Forest were among my destinations. You can read about that in the section that follows.

And then I created this website. Back in the long ago days of late 1996 and early 1997 when the Internet was still being called the Information Superhighway, I decided to create a webpage. It was, like many websites of the day, going to be not that different than a Facebook or MySpace page today. It would have been a self-indulgent ego-driven thing (naturally, completely unlike the page you're reading now) with a few pictures and links to various things I liked. A link to a Robin Hood site was just going to be one link out of many. But at the time, there didn't seem to be any websites on the whole legend. The only one I had seen (Ben Turner's) was down at the time, although it soon returned. There were websites on every topic you could think of, including websites for specific Robin Hood TV shows and movies. But for that very brief moment in time, there was nothing on the whole legend which I, and countless others for generations, had loved. That felt deeply wrong.

And so, I created this site. Originally it was going to be just a few sections all on one page. It had the most garish background imaginable. But I read and researched and, for the first time, really collected things about the legend. It took years for it to become what it is today.

An assortment of my Robin Hood comics, on display at the University of Western Ontario's D.B. Weldon LibraryI started to get feedback from people who had loved the legend as much as I did. I got the thanks of students and teachers for the information I provided. And that spurred me to learn more, read more and start picking up odd bits of Robin Hood trivia. While the legend was a childhood favourite, a lot of what I know comes as a direct result of trying to make this website bigger and better.

In an earlier version of this page, I went on in great detail about my later life in Robin Hood studies. Honestly, it's not that important. I think my childhood experiences are the universal ones. But I'll include a few details for the sake of completeness.

Briefly, I attended the first Robin Hood academic conference in Rochester, NY in 1997 and met a lot of nice like-minded people (including Barrie Dobson, whose book I read for that then-decade-old high school project). And the scholars meet up every couple of years sometimes in the UK and sometimes in North America. I'd even present a few academic papers at these conferences, mine largely focused on the modern legend.

I've also assisted both on-air and behind the scenes with various television and radio documentaries including the award-winning radio documentary Hunting for Robin Hood on CBC's Ideas, History Television's Robin Hood: The First Outlaw Hero and Jonathan Ross's World of Robin Hood, the last being a BBC Docu-commercial to promote the 2006 Robin Hood TV series.

Cover of Bandit Territories, edited by Helen PhillipsIn 2008, my article from the 1999 Robin Hood conference in Nottingham was finally published in the scholarly collection Bandit Territories edited by Helen Phillips. I examine how the criminal legend of Robin Hood had been adapted to fit the rigid code governing the comic books of the 1950s. It fits with my interest in forgotten versions of the legend and how the legend grows and changes. (Mind you, I was a little disappointed they misspelled my name.) And around the same time, I contributed the historical afterword "Who is Robin Hood?" to Tony Lee and Sam Hart's graphic novel Outlaw - The Legend of Robin Hood which was published in 2009. And there might be something else that I'm leaving out for the time being.

So, that's account of one person's interest in Robin Hood.

But for those who are interested in journeys a little less metaphorical than this "personal journey" has been so far, the following sections cover the details of my trips to Robin Hood sites in England in 1993, 1999, 2003 and 2006.

Next: My Trip to Robin Hood Country (1993)


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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2013.

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