Every culture has need for stories about the outlaw hero. Odysseus, in way, was one, as was William Tell, and John Wayne as the Ringo Kid. Jesus's story certainly conforms to the myth of the "good outlaw," and a more contemporary version was Martin Luther King. The figure best known for being a hero and being an outlaw, however, has been with us for over six hundred years: Robin Hood. Now he has an authoritative life story: _Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography_ (Cornell University Press) by Stephen Knight. Knight, a professor of literature at Cardiff University, is an authority on all Robin Hood lore, but does not here restrict himself to the early ballads of Bold Robin. In a witty and universal tour of the legend, he takes in all the Hollywood and television versions, and even the parodies. Most of them stay quite close to the Robin Hood legend as it was formed in its early stages.
The question for any biographer of such a legend always is: "Did he really exist?" There is an eagerness to find a real human being who performed Robin's feats, or at least served as a starting point for the stories. But Knight doubts there was any real figure: "... it seems highly improbable, or at least unprovable, that a Mr. R. Hood ever existed." It is far more likely that the character in the ancient plays and poems "...is the original Robin Hood, real only in the sense that he is the focus of a real myth." The important thing is not the Robin Hood incarnate, but what tellers and audiences made of him. For those who needed monetary relief, he began not only to rob from the rich but to give to the poor. For those who were distressed over corruption, he especially robbed sleazy officials of the state and church. For those needing national or racial identity, he became Saxon against the bad Norman Prince John. In the twentieth century, he raised his bow against (metaphorically) Nazism and McCarthyism.
Robin Hood has been portrayed by Kermit the Frog (whose green made him a natural for the role). In _Time Bandits_ he was John Cleese, stiffly introducing himself: "Hello, I'm Hood," and going on to explain the nature of the poor he is bound to assist: "I'm sure you'll like them. Of course they haven't got two pennies to rub together but that's because they're poor." Robin's outfit received top billing in Mel Brooks's _Robin Hood: Men in Tights_; Knight explains the association of tights to the story thus: they were "originally deployed so that nineteenth-century actresses playing Robin could show their legs." The myth has proved powerful enough to survive much kidding, and not just recently; a 1600 play _Looke About You_, has the unique stage direction "Enter Robin Hood in the Lady Faukenbridge's gowne, night attire on his head." Knight, in a remarkable and witty study of the formation and re-creation of a legend, shows that in times of oppression, Robin Hood has always been there for us as resistance to authority. May he ever fight on.