For centuries, readers have enjoyed the tales of Robin Hood and his band of outlaws. These classic stories tell of the characters’ struggles against and triumphs over injustice, tyranny, and inequality. They have been recounted in countless book versions, such as Howard Pyle’s 1883 novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, and adapted for a variety of films and television series, including the 1938 film starring Errol Flynn; a Disney cartoon from 1973; and Mel Brooks’s 1993 parody, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. Generally set around in the late twelfth century, when King Richard the Lionheart went to fight in the Crusades, this body of British folktales describes how Richard’s brother John and the Sheriff of Nottingham began taxing the people unjustly and seizing others’ properties and titles in the true king’s absence.
Known as Robin of Locksley in some early iterations of the tales, Robin’s story begins when his family suffers one of Prince John’s injustices. After Prince John seizes their estate, Robin kills one of the sheriff’s men and is forced to seek shelter in the nearby Sherwood Forest. There, he takes on the name Robin Hood and meets other outlaws who band together with him to form the “Merry Men,” a group which comes to include the large but lovable Little John, the minstrel Alan-a-Dale, the hotheaded Will Scarlet, the jovial Friar Tuck, and Robin’s lover, Maid Marian. Robin leads the Merry Men in a series of adventures, many of which involve outsmarting the Sheriff of Nottingham and robbing from the rich to give money back to the poor. In one of the most iconic adventures, Robin disguises himself, competes in an archery tournament hosted by the Sheriff, and wins by shooting a perfect bullseye.
In most versions, King Richard eventually returns from the Crusades, brings King John to justice, pardons Robin Hood, and restores Robin’s father’s estate. Later, after marrying Maid Marian and serving as an earl for a number of years, Robin Hood yearns for a life of adventure again and returns to his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest. However, his new adventures are short-lived: he is betrayed and dies in the arms of his best friend, Little John.
There is no concrete historical evidence that there was a man named Robin Hood, indicating that he is more of a legendary folk hero than anything. It’s also important to note that the folklore of Robin Hood consists of a diverse mythology that spans centuries and contains many different tellings and adaptations. Therefore, there are a number of discrepancies between versions and no clear consensus on which version is definitive. In some versions, Prince John is the primary antagonist and the Sheriff merely a henchman, whereas in others, the Sheriff is the main villain. Some versions go into depth about Robin Hood’s background as a former lord; in others, he actually fights in the Crusades with King Richard. In any case, Robin Hood is depicted as a benevolent and admirable figure. Through his victories and clever antics, he consistently outwits his enemies and becomes both a champion of the people and a symbol of economic justice.