The legend of Robin Hood may actually be a myth, so far as verifiable history can tell. Even if the story is real, it still lives more as a legend in the modern mind. The only real difference between a myth and a legend is that the origin story has some truth to it; otherwise, both are mostly if not entirely made up. So is the case with Robin Hood. You probably already know that he wasn’t a fox, and that he didn’t speak with an American accent; but did you know that pretty much every other element of the story is made up as well?
Nobody called him ‘Robin of Locksley’ until centuries after the man himself had died. That’s because he most likely wasn’t nobility at all. Friar Tuck and Maid Marion are later additions to the original story as well, although nobody tells the tale without including them these days. All we really know about Robin Hood is that he was a skilled archer and swordsman, and that he had quite a beef with the Sheriff of Nottingham.
The rest is pretty much made up.
Nonetheless, this story has been a popular one generation after generation. Each telling may stray further from the truth or lean into it a little more, but they’re all remarkably off the mark if you believe what history has to say on the matter. The funny thing about this whole thing is that it has resulted in a popular phrase that has nothing to do with any version of the story. That saying has pervaded the American consciousness as much as the legend itself; maybe more. I mean, the two don’t even really go together at all.
What’s the popular legend of Robin Hood? He saw that the Sheriff of Nottingham was taxing the commoners beyond their ability to pay, so he took the money back and redistributed it among the people it had been taken from. That may be an oversimplified version, but that’s pretty much how it goes. But what about the saying? How does that go?
‘Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor!’
Uh…no, he didn’t.
When government corruption and taxation got out of hand, due to an extended war, Robin Hood fought for the rights of the taxpayer. He didn’t hand out jewels to beggars; he gave crops and coins back to the people who had it taken from them by the local crooked politician. The rich people never entered into it, unless they got rich by robbing taxpayers through laws enforced at spearpoint. Those people that made good due to their own efforts had nothing to fear from Robin Hood, and many of them entered the legend just to show their support of him.
Rich people were not Robin Hood’s enemy; the Sheriff of Nottingham was. He represented what remained of the local government after most of the guys like Robin Hood had gone to war. As legend tells it, Robin Hood went to fight in the Crusades; when he returned, he found that the king’s less than noble brother had put a bunch of his cronies into political positions that gave them the power to increase taxation at their whim. It’s entirely likely that the king himself had approved the tax increase, since a nation at war always needs funding; but it was the other guy carrying it out, and he’s the one who actually gets blamed for the whole mess in every story. To suppose it might have gone otherwise is just making up yet another version of the tale.
Or is it?
Myths and legends exist for a reason. Differences for those reasons may vary, but they all have one. Most mythology is there to teach a lesson by telling a story. Legends often become the same thing: although based in truth, the tale gets molded around the lesson the storyteller is trying to impart. Events change within the story so the moral can hit you right in the face at the end. Before the internet, there was television; before that, there were books; and before that, there were campfire storytellers. Since time immemorial, people have known that life lessons were best absorbed when they came imbedded in a great story.
Something else got discovered a long time ago, and has been used by all kinds of people for all kinds of reasons. Humans learn through repetition. We all know that, but not all of us spend a lot of time considering that it’s just as easy to learn the wrong things through repetition as it is to learn the right things. Government propaganda has been around since governments first formed, and the society that claims to have no propaganda historically has had the most. That’s because if you tell a human mind something enough times and in enough ways, it forms a belief around that repetition. No matter how ridiculous your claims, many people will start to believe them if they hear them repeated enough times. They see the propaganda as facts, which means they don’t see it at all.
It seems as though the Robin Hood story was thus subverted somewhere along the way. Maybe the saying started out as something entirely different. Perhaps for the first few hundred years, people said something like this:
‘Robin Hood appropriated unfair taxes the government had levied on the people and returned it to the labor force.’
Nah, not very catchy. How about this:
‘Robin Hood returned monies and goods to their rightful owners.’
Still doesn’t have the right ring to it. Let’s go with:
‘Robin Hood stole from the government and gave to the people.’
That’s a little better, even if you argue that you can’t really steal something from someone if they extracted it at spearpoint. Can you imagine a politician hearing that phrase start to get popular? They would surely work on putting some other spin on it, and start propagandizing it like crazy. Maybe hire a well-known playwright to punch the story up a little and come up with some misleading copy. Or give a bunch of little kids each a copper coin to run through the streets yelling a less distressing catchphrase. You know, like…
‘Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor!’
Who doesn’t like that? Well, I’ll tell you who. Anyone who has made it anywhere due to their own efforts. People who thought they should get something for nothing began to cling to the saying, never questioning how little sense it made to punish those who worked hard, scrimped and saved and invested and made it up that ladder a rung or two. Poor people now often see rich people as the enemy without realizing that even they are beholden to the politicians.
This was a brilliant move, if it was deliberate. Nowadays you’re way more likely to find people who say the rich are evil than folks who point out that politicians are the problem. They don’t care that the government is responsible for the laws that make rich people richer, or that its members are also getting rich taking money from taxpayers and lobbyists and people who pay fines and…well, you get the point.
If a modern day Robin Hood were to show up, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet would not be his targets. Beggars would not be the beneficiaries of his efforts. The working classes would see a better way of life, while the politicians would have to either clean up their collective act or find productive work to do. Robin Hood would not punish hard workers or reward lazy people; he would extract the money the government has taken from people and give it back to them. The point was never to make poor people rich and rich people poor, for Robin Hood. He just wanted to give those willing to work for their livelihood the opportunity to do so. He saw that the ruling class was causing the problem, just like anyone who looks at pretty much any government closely always can.
Well, I’m glad I got that off my chest.
I honestly didn’t plan these last few posts to fall right around our country’s birthday, or to come one right after the other. It all kind of flowed that way, and I’m not going to change it just because I can see it in retrospect as I schedule the posts. Instead I’m going to wrap up the political stuff next week, on what is hopefully seen as a positive note.
If you thought the last few posts were already pretty positive, I appreciate the depth of your insight. That’s the perspective I wrote them from, although I know it can be easy to miss the tone of a writer’s voice. I personally think the best way to keep moving forward in any endeavor is to look at what is working and what isn’t, then keep one and discard the other. The only way to solve any problem is a prolonged discussion, and the best way to make sure it never gets solved is by preventing that discussion or putting it off. Some things are fluid, and they puddle up in the lowest holes when they are not creatively diverted.
So it is with words, oftentimes. Many words have definitions that are fixed, while others change over time. Much like popular phrases, words can take on different meanings for each generation. I promise next week will be the last political post for awhile, but I think it sums up the spirit of the whole batch pretty well. See, being a patriot meant something different to Americans a hundred years ago than it did to the same population fifty years ago. Since then, it has changed even more. In fact, you might say…
‘Patriotism is a fluid term!’
We’ll talk about that, next week.
Then it’s on to something else. I promise.
Thanks for reading!
All the best,