Thursday, May 10, 2018

Legend...or History?

Recently, the trailer for a new Robin Hood retelling was released.  The movie will be directed by Otto Bathurst and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Davisson.  If you haven’t seen it, go check it out.  It’s chock-full of dramatic, hilarious action and adventure.

For the last week, I’ve seen and heard a lot of hate—or at the very least, mild disapproval—for this trailer and upcoming movie.  The main objection from people seems to rest on one fact.

It’s not historically accurate.

Ironically, the favorite Robin Hood retelling for a lot of people is the anthropomorphic Disney Robin Hood, and I haven’t heard many people complaining about the unrealism of THAT one.  Its whimsically memorable representations of King John as a sniveling brat, Robin as a bold fox, and Little John as a lovable bear have enthralled hundreds of thousands since its release.

So, to be honest, I’m not really sure why this new Robin Hood is getting so much hate. 

This new spate of trailer-bashing reminds me of the negative reaction the BBC’s 2006 Robin Hood show received from a lot of people—mostly, I believe, historical purists or historicity snobs.

(Side note: can we bring back the BBC's totally fun medieval-style re-tellings of legends from that decade?)

This cracks me up, for two reasons.

Argue all you want to and cite as much evidence as you like for Robin Hood being a historical figure.  I will heartily endorse anything that supports that.
There’s a reason it’s called a LEGEND.

Currently, (correct me if I’m wrong) I don’t think it can be incontrovertibly proven that Robin Hood was a historical person.  And even if it can, you’ll never find historical documents describing the band we all know so well from the legends: towering, faithful Little John, minstrel Alan-a-Dale, beautiful and feisty Maid Marian, brash Will Scarlett, loyal Much the Miller’s son.

Which begs the question... does historical accuracy matter every time a legend is retold?  Every time Robin Hood or King Arthur is re-adapted for the page or the screen, should writers make an effort to stick to historical accuracy?

I don't personally think so, no.

I think that the most important thing to remember in retelling a legend or fairy tale is that the spirit of the story matters more than the 'letter'—any supposed historical basis or fact.  The theme of the story is what looms larger than life and keeps successive generations coming back for more or giving the story their own interpretations to reflect the changing times while preserving the heart of the story.

Sure, there are some things you probably shouldn't mess with too much—like setting a King Arthur 'resurrection' story in America, since he’s essentially a British hero and the legendary prophecy says he’ll rise ‘when Britain’s need is greatest’ and newsflash: America isn't part of Britain anymore, see: Revolutionary War—but in general, the field for retelling a legend is as wide open as is that for retelling a fairy tale.

The spirit of a story is the core theme underlying it, not the strict facts that comprise it.  With Robin Hood, this is a band of rebels fighting the 'establishment' or government, waging a sort of guerrilla war on the greedy oppressors of the common people.  It’s the idea that good still exists and that there will always be found those who are willing to fight for it and fight for a better way of life.  It also contains the reminder that even in the darkest times, humor can still be found: Robin Hood tales abound in pranks being played on powerful people.

The theme underlying Arthurian legends overlaps this in the realm of hope, illustrating that when a group of people cares deeply about something and are determined, they can not only drive oppressors out, but also create a wonderful society in its place.  (Okay, so, it at least TRIES, though we all know how that turned out.)  It follows with a warning theme: beware greed, ambition, and betrayal because they can tear even the best things apart from the inside out.

And semi-sidetracking into classics, the Three Musketeers is all about brotherhood and loyalty above all else.  They’re maybe not always the most morally admirable guys, but the point of the story is that awesome things happen—including saving the country—when you are incredibly, almost fanatically, devoted to friendship.

The Scarlet Pimpernel showcases the idea that even if something is not your trouble or your problem, you can still help, and there’s little that a loyal band of people can’t do.

(Yes, it has not escaped my notice how similar the themes are in these stories.  There’s a reason they’re classics or classic legends, people.)

Incidentally, when retellings or adaptations of these stories have not been restricted to historical accuracy or the exact structure of the original tale, they've tended to pull in a lot of new fans, broadening the exposure to the original stories.

For example:
Robin Hood = BBC’s 2006 show + the Disney movie
King Arthur = BBC’s Merlin + the musical Camelot
The Three Musketeers = the imaginative, steampunkish, 2011 version + the new TV show
The Scarlet Pimpernel = the 1982 movie, which was mostly correct historically, but which jumbled together details from three different books in the series.
Pride and Prejudice = dislike zombies all you want to, but as far as story structure is concerned, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies did a great job of maintaining the spirit of Austen's classic while giving it a new spin.

I'm not bashing all historical representations of the legends.  I have thoroughly enjoyed some historical or pseudo-historical adaptations of Robin Hood and King Arthur.  I'm also personally writing at least one historical fantasy Arthurian retelling.

I simply suggest that historicity all the time is unnecessary, else we'd never have any new imaginings of the tale.  I think staying true to the underlying theme in a legend, classic, or fairy tale is more important than strict historical accuracy.

I’m planning to give the new Robin Hood a chance.  It might be great.  It might stink.  But I’ll wait to bash it until after it’s had a fair trial.

(+ if I wasn’t already planning to give it a chance, my best friend would make my life miserable.  So, y'know, there’s THAT.)


  1. *Has written a retelling where Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Joan of Arc were all hanging out in the same castle, so how's THAT for historical inaccuracy?*

  2. I love Robin Hood so I am excited about this! And I really do agree about it is more important for the spirit to be there than the accuracy. Great post, Arielle!

  3. "Ironically, the favorite Robin Hood retelling for a lot of people is the anthropomorphic Disney Robin Hood, and I haven’t heard many people complaining about the unrealism of THAT one." <--This made me laugh so hard! XDDD

    AMEN TO THIS POST. I get annoyed at the history snobs who are too blinded by their own prejudices to just enjoy a good STORY. You are so, so, soooo right that it's the SPIRIT of the story that matters. There are a gradrillion Robin Hood and King Arthur legends out there, and I welcome all of them. I do not find that any of them have to be "historically accurate", the fun is in the themes, in the spirit, like you said. That's what matters.

    And I actually quite like our fantasy representation of medieval times and the like. It's fun to romanticize it and put new spins to olden times. And historical fantasy IS a thing people, people. Emphasis on the FANTASY. As in, it does NOT have to be historically accurate to every last item and clothing seam. IT'S FANTASY.

    I adored BBC's Robin Hood despite it often being hilariously inaccurate. But it was still a fun, inspiring story. (I mean, with lots of cop outs and season 3 made me mad BUT STILL.) And Merlin is my favorite show of all time.

    Well-rounded characters and good storytelling is what matters. People get so caught up in the details they forget that.

    I have nooo clue if this new movie will be good or not. But I am excited to see a Robin Hood movie coming out and will definitely go see it. Like you, I'm not going to bash it until I've seen it with my own eyes.

    Anyways, this post was basically EVERYTHING. These were things that needed to be said. So THANK YOU!

    1. 'Well-rounded characters and good storytelling is what matters. People get so caught up in the details they forget that.' YES, GIRL.

      MERLIN. YESSSS. Despite its many flaws, that show was just so much FUN. It also has the distinction of having one of my favorite casts of all time.

      Thank YOU, Christine!

  4. I'm a stickler for accuracy when it comes to things in a genre which demands it. Which means if you're claiming to write historical fiction about Richard Lionheart, don't have him end up surviving his actually fatal wound, or ordering the execution of the archer, or marrying someone other than he did. But legends grew out of a spirit which holds the facts rather less dear; it's more interested in telling a rousing story. Legends tend to be exaggeration in one way or another, anyway. I get more annoyed with a stony-faced Robin Hood than I would with one who happens to be wearing out-of-period clothes. Get the character right or the whole story falls down, especially in this case; as long as he's still wearing Lincoln green what does the cut of his hose matter?

    And I do love the Disney Robin Hood because it's written so very well even for being "just a kids' movie", and a lot of that is it gets the characters right. Not that we think of Robin as being a literal fox (though a story with a Robin shapeshifter would be awesome), but we can easily imagine him giving his bow to a boy in Skippy's situation, or playing pranks on the Sheriff, or going all twitterpated over Marian.

    (Which is one of the reasons I so hated Russell Crowe's Robin Hood, when I was made to watch it for a very bad history class, because they got his character completely wrong.)

    1. Agreeeeeeed. If you're going to change history, you need to call it alternate history, or whatever other genre it might happen to be.

      'But legends grew out of a spirit which holds the facts rather less dear; it's more interested in telling a rousing story.' YES, EXACTLY.

      Robin shapeshifter. Ooh, that would be so much fun.

      (I haven't actually seen the whole movie. I saw some clips and wasn't interested enough to keep going.)

      Thank you for stopping by, Sophia!

  5. AMEN, AMEN, AMEEEENNN!!!! Preach it, sister!! <3

  6. This kind of reminds me of people who crab about the corn and tomatoes in LOTR, citing "historical inaccuracy" and something about those vegetables being from South America, and that they hadn't been introduced to England "back then." Um, excuse me? This is FANTASY--a fictional story about a made-up land. OK, sure, Tolkien originally wrote The Silmarilion and other Middle-earth stories as a mythology for England, but it's still fantasy. He can have corn and tomatoes in Middle-earth if he jolly well pleases. :-P

    Ahh, Disney's Robin Hood. Bro and I grew up on that movie. It was longer than I care to admit before I found out Robin Hood was actually Human, LOL. Then we discovered the Errol Flynn version, and while I'm not particularly fond of Lady Marian sometimes, the movie on the whole is a fun and interesting take on the old legends.

    Admittedly, I can understand the argument for historical accuracy in Robin Hood retellings. The old legends are set in the Middle Ages, around the time of the Crusades, so it'd be a bit jarring for folks to run about in powdered wigs or bustles, wot? But on the other side of the coin, I hear you about getting the characters right. So long as the characters act in a way that is familiar (for those who've read the books), and the heart of the story is preserved, then yeah--so long as their costumes look reasonably Medieval, what does it matter if they're constructed "accurately"? (Although the basic plot could conceivably work in an 18th century or Victorian setting....)

    And I can totally see bold Robin as a shape-shifter! He was a master of disguise, after all...

    Will you be posting a review of teh new movie after you see it? :-D


    1. I will probably be posting a review of the new movie after I see it, yes. :)

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. I took a college class on robin hood, actually. we started with outlaw myths that directly influenced the robin hood legends and then worked our way through knight & ohlgren's collection of historical recordings of the tales. a real figure has never been identified, so it seems silly to me to complain about "lack of historicity" when the whole point of robin hood - and all his attendant variations; and the evolving outlaw myth itself - is to draw attention to flawed justice systems. when the law itself becomes a fiction (written, handed down, but not followed) and an unjust thing (because it's ignored or because its corrupt to start with, see: sheriff of nottingham), the real justice becomes what is *outside* the law. RH is a hero because he executes justice (...well, depending on the tale), but not exactly; because he operates from the wild, the shadows, the literal physical areas of in-between and blurred lines.
    **and there are tons of scholarly articles and even books on the landscapes of RH - roles of borders and swamplands in the myths, the historical/social documentation, and even earlier myths (hereward, beowulf).**

    what I'm saying is, there's a lot more there for people to dig into than "was RH real" and "is this story portrayed the way we think of RH as being" - because there are a lot of different myths with a lot of different robins, for one (marian was actually added in I believe the 17th century: VERY late in the recorded history of the outlaw, to the point of not being legit if you're looking for the bulk of RH-legend-development. marian herself was fanfic! and robin was most frequently presented as a troublemaking loner who relied on little john to save him).

    for two, the THEMES of robin hood are what appeal to people and compel them to come up with the outlaw character: the one who executes justice when the justice system in place refuses to do its job. that's the real story of robin hood, and you'll find that innate human desire for right-serving and redemption throughout all the great literatures of every culture. if this new RH interpretation deals with justice as I suspect it does (and the more lawless a society is perceived to be, the more proliferate outlaw tales grow: look it up), *I* think that really IS being true to the legend.

    but that's just me :)

    1. "what I'm saying is, there's a lot more there for people to dig into than "was RH real" and "is this story portrayed the way we think of RH as being" = YESSSS. EXACTLY.

      "if this new RH interpretation deals with justice as I suspect it does (and the more lawless a society is perceived to be, the more proliferate outlaw tales grow: look it up), *I* think that really IS being true to the legend." = HEAR, HEAR.

      Thank you for reading and commenting. :) It was a delight to read your take on it.

      (And a thousand apologies for leaving it unpublished it for so many weeks.)

  8. Very intriguing!! I just watched the trailer (like you suggested, hehe) and I can see why people might be turned off. Mainly because the trailer gives me a typical action-flick vibe with the character development of a Fast and Furious movie lol. However, I agree that we need to give it a chance and see what it brings to the table. It could be a fun movie! It certainly looks like it had a lot of money in the production value. And Robin Hood is not always made to be a very intense story, anyway, so and I've loved all the different versions of it that I've seen so far.

    So true: Robin Hood *isn't* real so there is no reason that this movie to have to be realistic or accurate! C'mon fanboys!

    Oh, and it's funny that no one sounds British in the movie, albeit not surprising lol.


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