Revolutionary times call for revolutionary measures, but what is to be done? Paul Buhle’s latest book, Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero [PM Press, 2011], certainly gives the reader a sense of radical tradition, of what has been done over the centuries—at least in a European context. Part medieval history, part cultural criticism, Buhle’s book manages to bring together in a coherent and entertaining manner an archeology of the old myths, folktales, and histories of Robin Hood, Maid Marion, and the whole merry bunch. Buhle’s mission is not simply to recast the story, but to discover “why Robin Hood was needed, why ordinary people grasped at the myths around him.”
“In a world where indigenous populations are pushed to the edge of nonexistence, along with the flora and fauna around them confronting malign ‘development’ and resource exhaustion,” Buhle explains, “the defense of the Greenwood gains a desperate relevance.” A compelling and fun journey through the making and usage of the folk hero of the woods, Robin Hood is light reading, interspersed with humorous illustrations by Gary Dumm, Christopher Hutchinson, and Sharon Rudahl.
The book begins in history, discussing the origins of the Protestant Reformation, and the rebel priests who resisted the Catholic Church by translating the bible and creating small, horizontal networks based on spirituality rather than legal or moral codes. The bands of spiritual renegades roaming the countryside, muttering sacred phrases under their breath, actualized a popular demand for self-governance that materialized also in broad peasant movements. In the widespread tumult of the era, which is illustrated in the cartoonish style of a graphic history, the myth of Robin Hood, defender of the forest and protector of the people, was born.
Soon, Buhle is tracking Robin through the archive of British literature—Keates, William Morris, and the subversion of war and injustice through poetic resistance. Buhle is at his best when launching into the 20th Century, rummaging through the chronologies and secret backstories behind the films and television shows based on the outlaws of Greenwood. As harrowing stories unravel of anti-fascist Robins, outright Commie Robins, Private Property Robins, and blacklisted screenwriters sending subversive scripts through covert channels to have their material produced in of England for US audiences, Buhle reviews the works, appoints the heroes of the screen, and exposes the frauds who falsified the story of Greenwood. This is the kind of research and writing that sets Buhle’s Robin Hood aside as a generous work of scholarship, as well as an entertaining experience and a showcase of truth-telling.
But why now? Why Robin? It becomes apparent that Buhle has created Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero as a call out to organize. “We need Robin because rebellion against deteriorating conditions is inevitable;” Buhle explains, “without clear-headed Robins, however, without hundreds of thousands or millions of them seeing clearly, the impulse to revel will surely be lost in internecine struggle and crime, organized and unorganized, the mirror of class society at its destructive extreme. We need them more now than ever before and in this writer’s view, they also need Robin. No existing political model, Marxist, Social Democratic, Lenninist, anarchist, or other is suitable for what lies ahead.” In the final montage of illustrations, we find Judi Bari amidst pictures of Malcolm X, Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, and Rosa Luxemburg, among others.
Robin Hood: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero is a book practically written for the radical ecology movement. Within its pages, the reader does not simply find another discourse on strategy and tactics, but a feeling, a spirit of resistance and rebellion dating back for 7 centuries. Reading through the text of Robin Hood invites one into the company of great thinkers, sharing in a story-telling comradery of a radical nature.