Robin Hood and Christianity: Corrupting Christ’s Return

An episode of Robin of Sherwood, a delightfully dated 1980s Robin Hood television adaption, begins with a broad-bodied fellow laid in the dust, fending off the blows of a vicious little knot of robbers. Before we have time to worry about his fate, the Merry Men enter with swinging fists and shooting arrows, and the ugly little band darts off to the shadows. As Robin oversees it all like a hardened watchdog, the hearty heroes take the fellow back to their Merry Mancave to eat and drink and, of course, wrestle.  Before we know what’s going on, the chap lifts Little John above his head (?!?) and throwing him to the ground.

That’s when he reveals that he, himself, is King Richard the Lion-Hearted, come back from the East to restore England to right crown and rule and order. He shakes Robin’s hand, inviting him and the Merry Men to Nottingham, where there is feasting and song. That day, he issues the Sherwood gang a pardon and many praises.

Yet, something is rotten in the state of Nottingham. The universe of this particular Robin Hood is not the universe of the Robin Hood of the old myths. In all those tales, Robin Hood is just a man who does what he ought to do. His King being absent, the throne being usurped, Robin acts with a loyalty to the crown which makes him an outcast and a hero. However, in the universe of this show, it is Robin who has the Destiny.

From the first episode, it is clear: Robin is the hero. So, we shouldn’t be surprised when Little John begins to doubt the King’s sincerity. The other Merry Men follow, and even Maid Marian shakes her head. Their doubts are well-founded. When Robin is off screen, the King goes about angling for power, selling off titles and rights, and showing himself to be the equal to his evil brother. Loyal Robin realizes the truth last. He wants to remain faithful to his king, but his king fails him.

By the episode’s end, the King is just another bad man in authority.

The strangest part, perhaps, is how casually the screenwriters undo King Richard. This episode is not a series finale or a season finale or even a Christmas special. It is just another episode. It has no great consequence to the series.

How can Robin go on as though nothing has changed? What happens when you take a deeply Christian tale and pull Christ out of it? Absurdity. After all, King Richard presents a type of Christ, the king of a usurped throne, to which he is returning.

The tale of Robin Hood and Christianity have a common heart, and the long wait for Richard is not unlike half a dozen of Christ’s parables about stewardship and expectation for a returning master. And Robin, well, Robin is the faithful Christian who bears exile for the sake of remaining true to Christ. He continues to act virtuously and stand up against injustice, despite how closely it threatens his life. We, along with Robin, expect the return of Richard to be the coming of heaven to Earth. That moment will set everything right, because that is the effect of the return of Christ.

But long before the series exposed Richard, the writers created a different Sherwood than the one of the parables. By turning Robin into the man with the Destiny, rather than leaving Richard as the Destiny of all, they elevated the Christian above the Christ. When Robin got a destiny, he stopped being part of the greater story of King Richard. Without King Richard, who is Robin Hood? Without Christ, who is the Christian? At best, a nice guy trying to do nice things for the people around him. At worst, a law unto himself.

Moreover, the 1980s show unwittingly paints a dark picture of what Robin Hood becomes when he is the center of his own story. Rather than the joyful, often silly, Robin of the Howard Pyle stories or even the Disney movie, this show offers a broody, dark Robin pursued by a tiny rain-cloud visible only to his soul. This Robin is rightly depressed: the show has created a world where he can believe only in himself, which means that his greatest hero is not a King fighting for God and country, but a robber living in the woods. So it is that, despite the catastrophic implications of an evil King Richard, the show allows Robin to go on with his life in the next episode without reference to the royal disappointment.

The writers’ gesture suggests that the Christian can go on despite displacing the Christ, who does not have to be returning, does not have to possess the throne, does not have to be real; it poses no problem to Robin. Indeed, the underdeveloped spiritual philosophy of the show places deer-headed shaman beside God-fearing nuns with no sense of one being right and the other wrong. In this world, everyone can just believe what they like without it working itself into any of their actions or dispositions. So it is that the writers reveal that they lack an understanding of what it means to believe in anything. This is why they can’t imagine a Robin who needs to believe in a Richard.

Irish Impressions: An Old Book Dealing with Racism, Politics, and Ireland

In 1919, G. K. Chesterton published the book Irish Impressions, a book examining the conflict between England and Ireland. That same year marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and Ireland’s rise to dominion status within the British Empire. Chesterton’s book gives keen insight into what caused bitter contention between England and Ireland.

In Irish Impressions, Chesterton lays out the cultural misunderstandings, historical abuses, and other errors that caused so much bad blood between England and Ireland. Sympathetic to Ireland’s plight, he gives a very human treatment to the problems between the two countries and systematically condemns England’s treatment of Ireland. The foremost quality of the book is the human examination of the problems at hand.

Chesterton dispenses with isms and sociological models. He examines the Irish people in the context of European peasantry and explains their anger as a response to slights against their dignity and honor, not a response to political programs and agendas. He gives the example of and English tourist bargaining with a peasant in Europe to illustrate:

When a peasant asks tenpence for something that is worth fourpence, the tourist misunderstands the whole problem. He commonly solves it by calling the man a thief and paying the tenpence. There are ten thousand errors in this, beginning with the primary error of an oligarchy, of treating a man as a servant when he feels more like a small squire. The peasant does not choose to receive insults; but he never expected to receive tenpence. A man who understood him would simply suggest twopence, in a calm and courteous manner; and the two would eventually meet in the middle at a perfectly just price. There would not be what we call a fixed price at the beginning, but there would be a firmly fixed price at the end: that is, the bargain once made would be a sacredly sealed contract. The peasant, so far from cheating, has his own horror of cheating; and certainly his own horror at being cheated.

He goes on to say that the English had cheated the Irish out of a political compromise they had negotiated, so the Irish were smarting from that reversal. In another place, he gives an example of the difference between the industrial and the peasant mindsets. He was driving down an Irish road, and to the left the harvest was not gathered because the workers were on strike; on the right, peasant farmers had brought in the harvest and their grain was not rotting in the fields. Whatever the cause of the strike, “the big machine had stopped, because it was a big machine. The men were still working, because they were not machines.”

While Chesterton exposes the plain injustices wrought against Ireland, he also tackles the delicate matter of how the Irish went wrong in their thinking. Normally someone condemning his own country’s sins would hardly dare to address the victim’s sin, but Chesterton goes for it. For one thing, he upholds nationalism as the antidote to imperialism: “Nationalism is a nobler thing even than patriotism; for nationalism appeals to a law of nations; it implies that a nation is a normal thing, and therefore one of a number of normal things.” The Irish went wrong when they tried to turn their Irish-ness into something special beyond the honorable national identity that it is. He also criticizes the notion that he would speak for Ireland because he is somehow Irish: if he had to be Irish to speak in favor of the Irish, he could offer nothing objective against England.

Chesterton is clearly an Englishman in writing this book, and he describes when he went on tour in Ireland to recruit the Irish to fight in the First World War. He appealed to the Irish to see the war as something that indeed concerned them, that fighting with England against Germany was in Ireland’s best interests as a nation among nations. Although Chesterton criticizes the folly of the 1916 Easter Rising against conscription in Ireland, he also affirms the nobility of those who revolted. He concedes that it would have been difficult for any people to join their oppressors to fight against evil, and England’s attempts to raise volunteers were damnably clumsy.

As far as Irish Impressions may serve as a lesson for modern racial reconciliation, it primarily teaches two things: we have to treat people as people, and we have to legitimately give them good things to work with. Chesterton notes that the Irish did not trust English promises, and says that whatever the English decide to give, they really have to give it. He even speculates that the Irish would be satisfied with the autonomy granted by dominion status rather than full independence, if only the English would grant that. The Irish political leaders fighting for independence ultimately accepted dominion status under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and only left the British Commonwealth in 1949, although they ceased to act like a Commonwealth member some years before. What resolved the long conflict between England and Ireland was a negotiated agreement that both sides ultimately kept. Although the full history is much more complicated and includes the Irish Civil War, a modicum of reconciliation occurred with the signing of the treaty.

Image courtesy of Flickr.