Robin Hood is a well-known figure in American culture, and Western culture in general. Robin Hood is presented in films, theater, and cartoons where he is often portrayed as a noble character. An average man that cares for the poor. He befriends other good people, no matter their status. He fights anyone who is portrayed as bad people no matter their status. Many on the American political right—conservatives, conservatarians, and libertarians—love sharing memes of Robin Hood being a definitive liberty-loving hero for the common person.
Some of the most memorable representations of Robin Hood have been Disney’s 1973 classic Robin Hood; 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman; and, the comedy hit Robin Hood: Men in Tights, starring Cary Elwes and Dave Chappelle, among many other talented performers.
The first book of a single coherent story of Robin Hood was not published until 1883 by American illustrator and writer, Howard Pyle. That book was The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire. He created the story and characters by sampling parts from various folk tales and ballads of Robin Hood.
When we look back at even the evolution of Robin Hood since the 1973 version by Disney, we can clearly see differences in the stories told. This is because Robin Hood is more important as a figure than as an actual person to have existed. Because of this, his stories have changed throughout the ages.
It is in only more modern stories of Robin Hood that the idea of him stealing from the rich to give to the poor became a thing. It is also a newer idea that Robin Hood steals tax money from corrupt government to redistribute to the populace. After reading Pyle’s book, although technically a work of revisionism, it seems the focus was not so much on the “redistribution” of any particular type. Pyle’s book was neither socialistic nor anarchistic, per se.
Instead, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood was focused on the results of England and the Norman Conquest of 1066, and the growing disdain the Saxons had for the Normans. The character of Robin Hood was said to have been born around 1160. Throughout the book Robin Hood stole from people who were wealthy, stole from church and state officials, beat people up in an aggressive sport, and he despised Normans.
As he and his merry men and women stole more and won more fights, the church and state began to loathe him even more. The sheriff was initially after Robin Hood for personal reasons, because Robin killed the sheriff’s relative out of self-defense in a way. Of course, as Robin caused more mischief and continued robbing and fighting, they had to do away with him. Robin Hood was eventually killed by his cousin, who was a nurse in the church. She killed him through bloodletting, draining him of his life, after he went to her for help.
Whereas the Disney film may have the ideas of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, or taking back the stolen money, i.e. taxes, and giving it to the citizens, this is not definitive as to who Robin Hood was. Of course, neither is Pyle’s.
So, the many memes we enjoy and share about Robin Hood being a libertarian champion for the commoner, is not entirely true. It certainly cannot be definitive if it is an ever-evolving character. Perhaps there are versions of Robin Hood that we’d like to champion for our respective causes. But the single story of exactly who Robin Hood was, and what his thoughts on liberty were, is nowhere to be found.