“With their country weakened from decades of war, embattled from the ineffective rule of the new king and vulnerable to insurgencies from within and threats from afar, Robin and his men heed a call to ever greater adventure.”
That is the start of the publicity summary of Russell Crowe’s latest Robin Hood movie out this week.
But using a relevant social context to shape the story of Robin Hood is not new – it’s the point of Robin Hood.
Robin Hood, both as historical myth and as part of popular culture, endures because it is capable of expressing popular responses to social change.
It originated as folk stories and songs, as a medieval longing for liberty, and revenge on parasitical lords and priests.
Today, any attempt to tax speculators is inevitably described as a “Robin Hood Tax”.
Most modern Robin Hoods, including the latest one, are wronged British noblemen who teach corrupt officials a lesson before being reconciled with the king.
But for hundreds of years before that, Robin Hood was one of the people.
He was an ordinary decent outlaw who stood up for the poor.
The strength of the myth was such that, by the 17th century, gentrified versions of the story appeared. Hood became a dispossessed noble born to lead the masses to follow their rightful rulers.
The story has always been an ideological battleground.
During the years of the French Revolution, the radical Joseph Ritson wrote of a Robin Hood who was “a man, who, in a barbarous age, and under a complicated tyranny, displayed a spirit of freedom and independence which has endeared him to the common people, whose cause he maintained”.
He added that “all opposition to tyranny is the cause of the people”.
In 1817, the poet John Keats had a more backward looking but still radical Robin reacting with horror at the impact of war and money on human relationships and nature.
But Robin was also useful to those constructing a new British nationalism in the 19th century – who could portray him as a decent Anglo-Saxon, fighting off the Norman invaders.
The story has endured because it represents a desire for a better society – a desire which down the centuries has adapted in form but not in content.
So the great 1938 film version with Errol Flynn is dominated by its portrayal of liberal values facing encroaching fascism.
Flynn swashbuckles athletically, and with plenty of homoeroticism, against a Norman foe whose processions and architecture deliberately call to mind the trappings of fascist regimes.
The TV version in the late 1950s – “Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen” – was conceived, written and produced as a means of employing Communist scriptwriters who had been blacklisted from the Hollywood studios by the McCarthy witchhunts.
One of them, Ring Lardner, later explained that a television show about an outlaw who takes from the rich to give to the poor provided him “with plenty of opportunities to comment on issues and institutions in Eisenhower-era America”.
But as well as an emphasis on redistribution of wealth there is a theme that recurs – the probability that Robin Hood or one of the outlaws will be betrayed.
So as we suffer under the yoke of a new corrupt leader, we are locked into permanent failed crusades and robbed by the corruption of the rich. Robin Hood is as relevant as ever for all those who dream of freedom.