Part 3 of 4.
I used to say that the most important part of any Robin Hood retelling was that it made me laugh. I don’t quite hold to that strictness anymore, but I definitely say that if the retelling is missing laughter, it is not altogether Robin Hood, and that is sad.
There are several different pieces to this, some deeper than others. I’ll start on the outermost layer which can be summed up in one word: cleverness. Robin Hood is a clever story. The dialogue is fast, witty, and funny. There is often at least one “battle of wits” where two people are set against each other and allowed to spar. Then there are the rather more one-sided moments when Robin takes several good jabs at his “guests” in Sherwood. As I mentioned in the last post, his main source of punishment is mockery. And, as with the nature of mockery, his punishments become amusing. We like seeing the Sheriff tied towards the tail of his horse and a fat abbot dancing because Robin says if he does not he’ll have his men prick his ankles with arrows.
Then there are the cleverness of the disguises and escapes. Robin, in all books and sadly only one film I’ve seen, is the master of disguise, and it is delightful when he dresses up and walks into the very mouth of the lion, oftentimes to have a good laugh at the lion afterwards. And, when he’s caught by the lion, or when one of his friends are caught, we get all disguised again and grandly rescue them. As my friends have heard me mention, my favorite of all is when Robin, dressed up as an old woodcutter, drives into the castle of one of his enemies and manages to almost single-handedly rescue his wife and free the entire dungeons...all with a couple of beehives. From such as these comes my advice to any bad guy: don’t ever try to gloat over a captured Robin Hood. Because the minute you gloat, he’s gone. And he won’t let you forget.
The deeper part of all this is something that makes the laughter in Sherwood so healthy. With all of the horrible things he has to fight against and all the horrible things that happen, Robin does not forget how to laugh. Even more so, he does not forget how to laugh at himself. Whether it’s being bashed into a stream by Little John or buffeted by a disguised king, he sees the ridiculousness of himself and laughs. Considering how people in less precarious situations and horrible times than him often don’t know how to laugh at themselves, this is a great character trait on his part.
Sure, he’s stupid and arrogant enough to fight for the right to cross a stream first, which ends with bruises and perhaps a slightly injured ego. (Don’t worry, it always recovers.)
But he’s also wise enough to laugh at it afterwards.
Image by Harry G. Theaker. I was unable to find information about the copyright, but it was published along with Vivian's book in 1927 by Ward, Locke & Company: London. No infringement intended.