Viewers unhappy about the liberties recent Robin Hood films from Robin and Marian (1976) to Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) have taken with the familiar story might be heartened to know that as far back as 1922 Allan Dwan's Robin Hood, apparently produced without a screenplay, treated it just as freely. Fairbanks's Robert of Huntingdon-not Robin of Locksley, as he should have been called-began the story, as he confessed, "afeard of women." Although he conquered that fear soon enough with the help of Lady Marian Fitzwalter, he spent the entire first half of the film as King Richard's loyal and valued retainer, so that the film might as well have been called Robin Hood: The Prequel. There were no scenes showing him robbing the rich and giving to the poor. Instead, he spent most of the time even once he had come out as Robin Hood prancing through the greensward or leaping around the gigantic Nottingham Castle set Dwan had constructed for him as if he were a circus acrobat rather than the defender of England's downtrodden. How could such a successful and highly regarded film break faith so openly with its great subject?
The history of my own very limited exposure to the Robin Hood story helps explain both why viewers are so ready to dismiss adaptations of the outlaw's story as unfaithful and why fidelity to an original text is impossible. Before I watched Dwan's monumental silent, the only time since my childhood that I had encountered the rogue of Sherwood Forest and his merry men was in the 1938 Wamer Bros, film directed by William Keighley and Michael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn. And all the Robin Hoods of my youth-the Classics Illustrated comic book from 1944, the British television series Sidney Cole had produced for ITV from 1955 to 1960, even the stamped-tin Robin Hood castle manufactured by Louis Marx around the same time-took the Wamer Bros, film as their models. At length I realized that the comic book, which closely followed the story, the visual design, and even the look of particular characters in the Keighley/Curtiz film, had lodged itself in my mind as the authoritative Robin Hood from which other versions departed at their peril, even if they had been produced twenty-two years earlier.
I recount this story in order to suggest that although my choice of an authoritative Robin Hood may have been unfortunate, my principles of selection were thoroughly logical because there is no single definitive account of Robin Hood and almost certainly never was. When he first appears in a surviving text, in William Langland's passing reference to the popularity of "rymes of Robyn Hode" (BV.402, Langland 49) around 1377, he is already a well-known figure, an established fact in the landscape whose origin is beyond conjecture. Many of the features we associate most closely with Robin Hood-his characterization as a nobleman outlawed by the king who lives in the forest with a like-minded band who avenge injustice through disguise, trickery, and force of arms, who rescue their hero when he is captured, and who eventually see the king pardon him and restore his estate-date back to earlier tales of historical outlaws like the late-eleventh-century Hereward, Eustache the Monk (c. 1170-1217), and the early-thirteenthcentury Fouke le Fitz Waryn. It is impossible to define a clean break between Robin Hood and these real-life ancestors or contemporaries.
Nor can we find a single version of Robin Hood that includes all the best-known features of his story. From his earliest surviving starring roles in ballads written down some time after 1450, Robin Hood is an anti-authoritarian trickster who robs from the rich, usually corrupt bishops and abbots. But he does not start giving to the poor until his sixteenth-century incarnations, which also make him more respectable by giving him an aristocratic pedigree as the former Robin of Locksley or, yes, Robert of Huntingdon. Although his earliest mates include Little John, Will Scarlet, and Much the miller's son, it is not until the end ofthat century, in Anthony Munday's 1595 ne Downfall of Robert, Earle ofHuntington and The Death of Robert, Earle ofHuntington, that he is allowed to woo Maid Marian, establishing beyond cavil his heterosexual virility. …