My first encounters with the legends of Robin Hood are, in many ways, the memory of my own maturing, realizing things for the first time which have characterized my understanding of the world around me. I suppose that this is the crux of a life-changing story; it crafts some aspect of your inner self, in a way that almost feels predestined.
I first watched the Disney animated feature when I was six, and it left me gripped by the plot. It’s strange, looking back on it now, such a seemingly sugary retelling. But for my young mind, it was actually a heavier drama – or one which I took more seriously – than other Disney films. The character of Robin, a clever fox who was both carefree and continually taking risks, suddenly brought to the fore that first realization – he could be killed.
“You know something, Rob, you’re taking too many chances,” Little John reminds him after a near brush with the sheriff and his posse.
And although Robin tries to deflect – insisting it was a mere “lark” – he must eventually admit, upon seeing the arrow in his hat, “This one almost had my name on it, didn’t it? They’re getting better, you know… you’ve got to admit it, they are getting better.”
Perhaps many kids get their rude awakening with the traumatic shooting of Bambi’s mother, or Mufasa plummeting off a cliff, but for me, it wasn’t seeing it unfold that made it hit home, but rather the fear that it might. Unlike parental figures, who seem doomed to die for the sake of a coming of age tale, Robin was the main character, the rascal, the rogue, the hero who, at the end of the day, was always looking out for the most vulnerable around him.
“I only wish I could do more,” he tells that mother bunny in my very favorite scene of the film, as he hands her a bag of coins. “…and keep your chin up. Someday there’ll be happiness again in Nottingham. You’ll see.”
“Oh, Robin Hood, Robin Hood,” she murmurs as he leaves, tears filling her eyes, “you risk so much to keep our hopes alive. Bless you. Bless you.”
This is the heart and soul of the film and the character – the reason why Robin becomes real. He was real to me as a child and continues in many ways to reflect reality to me as an adult. In my childhood, I wanted to be friends with him, or at least be like him – and yet, he could be killed.
In a way, the entire film is laced through with this ominous realization. We are repeatedly told how much Robin risks, and for all his banter and witty comebacks, we have to believe that he knows this too. Though we are given precious little back-story in the film, which is suitable for a feature aimed mainly at children, we still can easily feel the layers of Robin; that something inside is driving him, even though he has to do without.
Unlike many Disney films, the romance between Robin Hood and Maid Marian has a certain realism about it. When Little John suggests that Rob just “climb the castle walls… sweep her off her feet, carry her off in style,” Robin responds that “it just isn’t done that way.” He recognizes the privations of his life as an outlaw “always on the run,” and that it’s no life for a lady of quality. He also realizes that things might have changed between them because so much time has passed. “Hey, remember me, we were kids together; will you marry me?” he scoffs.
Indeed, we get to see Robin pining over what’s been lost – what he’s had to sacrifice – just as Marian pines over him and wonders if absence makes the heart grow fonder or more forgetful. Both of them need encouragement from friends to keep going. “You’re no outlaw,” Friar Tuck insists. “Someday, you’ll be called a great hero.” Robin, in typical fashion, bounces back with a joke about the friar giving them a pardon, but you can almost feel the mixed emotions underneath.
It’s only when Tuck brings up an archery contest that Robin truly bounces back, because the prize assured to the winner is a kiss from Maid Marian. This I find terribly sweet, in that Robin doesn’t even think he can truly have her, but at that moment he’s over the moon with even the prospect of a single kiss from her and indeed is willing to take ever-higher life-threatening risks. He’s a charming show-off, and he plans on putting on his “greatest performance.”
But the scenes of peril continue to mount as the story builds. At the end of the tournament, we get to see that Robin and his methods of disguise are not invincible. He can be out-foxed. And when the game is up, we get to see the serious center of Robin – his passion, his love. Marian begs for his life before Prince John, and Robin, when pressed if he returns her love, replies, “Marian, my darling, I love you more than life itself.”
This theme is repeated again in one of the most moving, and hauntingly realistic, Disney romantic ballads:
“Love, it seems like only yesterday
You were just a child at play.
Now you’re all grown up and suddenly
Oh, fast, those moments flee!
Once we watched a lazy world go by,
Now the days seem to fly
Life is brief, but when it’s gone
Love goes on and on.”
Perhaps this was also something that gripped me about the film; there was some sense of the transcendent at play. Even if everything fell apart for the characters, even if our worst fears for them came to pass, there was a deeper reality that was worth fighting, living, loving, and even dying for. Yes, it might come down to “off with his head,” but a good man would shout the truth even in the face of death.
“Traitor to the crown? That crown belongs to King Richard! Long Live King Richard!”
Even though Robin survives this near brush with the ax, the sense of his vulnerability does not evaporate; indeed, it brings a certain realism about the whole world in which the story takes place. It is not a magical curse that plunges a kingdom into eternal darkness. Instead, it’s the simple tyranny of a greedy prince and his government cronies that makes the commoners suffer. As they are herded off to debtor’s prison after the taxes skyrocket, the iconic rooster, Alan a Dale, sings a rainy-day lament:
“Every town has its ups and downs
Sometimes ups outnumber the downs
But not in Nottingham.
I’m inclined to believe
If we weren’t so down
We’d up and leave
We’d up and fly if we had wings for flying
Can’t you see the tears we’re crying?
Can there be some happiness for me?
Not in Nottingham.”
There is no magic spell that can lift this; only common endurance – common decency – can help people limp through from day to day. Robin, in many ways, embodies this reality while at the same time being a very particular character. So, he is both archetypal and personal, which makes his simple acts of inverse heroism all the more poignant. But even that, we find, continually comes with a cost.
One of the scenes that left a keen imprint on me as a child was when Friar Tuck was arrested after the sheriff tries to rob the poor box at the church and the friar attempts to fight him off with a stick. Ultimately, and predictably, he’s overpowered, and irons are clapped around his neck. The story takes another dark twist when we learn that Prince John wants to hang Friar Tuck.
We get to see the sheer obsession that Prince John has with capturing Robin Hood – even surpassing his love of counting his gold. It is this desire to squelch all hope, to break the tenacity of the people that leads him to extremes, willing to hang a man of the Church to bring the outlaw into the open. As a child, I remember that scene haunting me, with the rain pattering outside the ornate glass of the prince’s window, like some window into his own stormy soul.
This was a villain who was, again, somehow terribly human in his treachery, and that’s what made it more profound. It is not through magic, but through the mortal coil, that wickedness is realized.
In the final act of the film – the great jailbreak – all the fears we’ve built up over Robin’s chances of surviving to the final credits are nearly confirmed when, in typical Robin fashion, he goes back into the castle courtyard to rescue that one little bunny rabbit (somehow, Robin and bunnies make some of the best scenes of the film). The iron gate comes down, and our hero finds himself trapped.
“Take her, don’t worry about me,” he tells Little John as he slips her through the grating.
Robin proceeds to dodge arrows and scale castle walls in hopes of escape, only to encounter the sheriff with a lit torch. Now he must deal with fire, and the animation again takes a dark and edgy turn as the flames create an almost hellish sequence. Robin struggles to the top of a tower, with the fire licking upwards, and having no choice, leaps into the moat below. Arrows follow him as he tries to swim away.
“Kill him!” Prince John shouts from the tower, obsession marked starkly on his features. “Kill him!”
On a personal level, this was the first time in my life (only six years worth of it at the time) that a movie made me worry that a character I loved might actually die. Indeed, you can feel the sentiments of Little John and the rabbit Skippy as they wait to see if Robin will re-emerge from beneath the surface of the water.
“Come on, Rob, come on,” Little John says, desperately.
“He’s just got to make it,” Skippy says, and all emotions are taut.
Then Robin’s hat surfaces, with an arrow stuck through it.
“This one almost had my name on it, didn’t it?”
Again, we are reminded in the starkest way… he doesn’t have to make it. He never had to make it. He wasn’t charmed. He just kept up that front for us. We were, in a sense, represented by all the townsfolk of Nottingham, and the risks he took for us were all too real. Heroism has a genuine cost – heroism has gravity to it.
Of course, as we know, Robin does, in fact, survive. He is a clever fox, after all. And perhaps he does have a bit of charm to his life, at that. Maybe it’s a blessing, in return for all the blessings he’s bestowed on others, or perhaps we might see shades of the self-sacrificial pattern present to the Christian in the death and resurrection of Christ, with the going down and rising up.
I don’t know if those dots connected the first time I watched it, but probably subconsciously they did, and still do. After all, another favorite film of mine as a child (oddly for someone as sensitive as I was then) was The Redeemer, produced by Fr. Patrick Peyton, chronicling the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus. I still watch it annually on Good Friday.
I am beginning to wonder now if the story of Robin Hood actually helped me make sense of the story of Jesus Christ, or indeed simply brought it more deeply into perspective for me. Because Robin, in a most inverse way, was still living out the Gospel by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty and was laying down his life in the process.
I could look at that and then look back at the cross and never be able to take my eyes off of it because it resonated with something deep inside myself.
Now that I am actually writing a Robin Hood retelling series myself – grounded in the often-brutal historical realities of the Middle Ages – these Christological themes are still vitally important in keeping the story meaningful. In a Catholic England of days gone by, I portray his faith as a grounded force in many of the decisions he makes, even when it costs him dearly. It’s all bound up in the mystery of falling and rising.
Robin Hood, the animated feature, continues to shine brightly in all of its childlike innocence, and yet still manages to capture the paradox of the Christian message – the defiance of it, the inverse reality of the last being first, and the first last. It reminds us of the real heroes who do whatever little things they can just to help others scrape by and give them a sparkle of hope. And it reminds us that a spirit of self-sacrifice is indeed the greatest treasure to be had.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” ~ John 15:13