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Citadel News Service
7 Feb 2012

Robin Hood the malleable character that changes with time

He’s been called a thug, a marauder and a thief. Is he a bandit, woodsman or a hero soldier out of work?

For Citadel professors Kelly DeVries and Michael Livingston, the question should be ‘What is Robin Hood?”

DeVries and Livingston, medieval scholars in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, will explore this question Tuesday, Feb. 21, during a free lecture entitled “Robin Hood in Reality and Representation.” The lecture begins at 7 p.m. in Bond Hall Room 165 and will examine how Robin Hood has been depicted over time, from historical sources to modern Hollywood portrayals. The lecture is free and open to the public.

“There are two aspects to this story—was he real and, more importantly, how has he been represented over time?” said DeVries, the current Mark Clark Distinguished Visiting Professor. “It’s not just the legend, but the audience, the patrons who create the legend.”

The legend of Robin Hood first appeared in13th century English folklore and has evolved ever since, from hero to villain in folklore, movies and literature.

According to both professors, the legend has evolved to also satisfy current tastes of the audiences of yore.

Livingston points to the evolution of Maid Marian as a result of women’s growing place in the audience. The earliest ballads of Robin Hood, which have no reference to Maid Marian, are in stark contrast to the 2010 representation in Hollywood director Ridley Scott’s version of “Robin Hood,” which stars Cate Blanchett as Robin’s assertive and sometimes bloodthirsty romantic partner.

“Everyone knows the basic Robin Hood, but we’re constantly tweaking the character to fit our culture,” Livingston said. “It is malleable. It’s a lens, a window to a cultural movement.”

DeVries sees this same transformation in the hero’s changing social class.

“By the 20th century, he’s not only the man who robs from the rich and gives to the poor, but he’s also the man who now is fighting against King John on behalf of Richard, which is nowhere in the original legend,” DeVries said. “Presumably, the story is being told to a noble audience.”

But, as Robin Hood has changed from yeoman to noble and from Errol Flynn’s 1938 acrobatic and boyish version to the unkempt and rugged Russell Crowe version of 2010, one theme has always remained.

“He’s an anti-establishment character that the establishment likes,” said Livingston.

Both scholars see Robin Hood as out in the forest, removed from society. Although he may be fighting against the law, he’s fighting for a higher principle.

“Is he promoting this kind of new world order, or is he actually calling for the orthodoxy of the old days?” Livingston said.

The notion of an evolving Robin Hood isn’t far-fetched. DeVries sees Robin Hoods in today’s culture as well.

“To a certain extent, you could almost say that John Stewart and Stephen Colbert are Robin Hoods. They’re anti-establishment and living out there in that forest,” he said. “I think the anti-establishment notion is always going to be popular. It’s the idea that somehow you can get at the rich, just like in the original legends where you rob from the rich and give to yourself or where he gives to the poor.”


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