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The Spirit of Sherwood

Robin Hood - Outside the Law

Over 800 years ago the collective imagination of the suppressed Saxons gave birth to a popular folklore hero. Initially, the hooded man was a creation of the storytellers and ballad singers who told stories of escapades of the real outlaws of the day. These were woven together with folk beliefs, born of superstitious minds, of the nameless and shapeless things that lurked in the great forest of giant oaks. As fact was embellished with fiction, Robin Hood of legend was born and became a symbol of the common man standing up for himself in the face of unjust authority. He was a manifestation of the community spirit of the down trodden peasants who needed a symbol of hope.

Through ballads in the medieval period, Robin Hood became part of the popular consciousness as an outlawed Saxon yeoman. By the fifteenth century he had entered the May Games and as indigenous folklore embellished legend, became recognised as the King of the May, Lord of the Greenwood. It is also here that he met other characters who became absorbed into the legend – the Jolly Friar of the Games became Friar Tuck and Maid Marian who, as his consort, became the Queen of the May.

With royal interest from Henry VIII, playwrights elevated Robin Hood up through the social ranks to become the displaced Saxon Earl of Loxley or Huntingdon, take your pick. With the invention of the printing press in the sixteenth century the legend grew as broadsides, plays and books proliferated and Robin Hood, once a foolhardy young Saxon buck became a semi-mythical being who, over the next few centuries would go on to achieve immortality.

Harnessing the Spirit

Over the centuries fact was woven with fiction and boundaries blurred. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley added a fanciful lineage. Sir Walter Scott and other romantic writers in the nineteenth century, depressed by the loss countryside, conjured up a magical greenwood of sylvan deities, feeding the public imagination’s demand for something colourful to believe in.

They influenced others and theories abounded that rural customs, the strange figures carved in churches and Robin Hood were all manifestations of our pagan past. All relied on similarities and parallels to maintain the popular theories that Robin Hood was one guise of the 'Green Man'. After all, both were to be found hiding in the forest, peering at you between the leaves.

With the legend brought to life on film, Robin Hood now holds world wide fame as a popular symbol of truth, justice and freedom which are things everybody wants.

Each age interprets its folklore to express its pre-occupations and it is happening around us now. In the medieval period, Robin Hood was seen as the common man standing up for himself against unjust laws. By Victorian times, as the countryside was being lost to the encroachment of industry, he was also seen as a guise of the Green Man. Today, in our environmentally conscious times, Robin Hood is being re-invented as the first eco-warrior, who would have lived in harmony with the forest that gave him shelter, food, protection and ultimately, life.

Once again the clarion call can be heard. The community spirit of England that conjured him up over 800 years ago is being rallied to the cause to help save the birth place of Sherwood’s local legend, the world’s greatest folklore hero.

Extract taken from the Sherwood Forest Trust’s book "The Spirit of Sherwood" written by Ade Andrews, due for publication November 2008.

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