Thursday, 6 September 2012

On reading about Robin and another Outlaw

We are currently reading across a number of centuries.

Sheba is following me through the life of Bonhoeffer.   With the kids she has been reading a biography of St. Augustine.  I was amazed to hear her read a blow by blow account of a theological debate that pitted Augustine against his previous tutor Fortunatus among the Manichaeans in city of Hippo in North Africa on August 28th AD 398.

On the way back from Delhi I just polished off a collection of short stories by Graham Greene - some of them deeply moving in his own world-weary way. And I am currently reading "Robin Hood and the Men of the Greenwood" by Henry Gilbert with Enoch and Asha.  What a ripping story it is.

Written by Gilbert in 1912 we picked up a copy a few months ago as a gift for the kids from our dear friend Malti Joshi.   I was surprised at the depth of the tale.

On one hand there is the derring-do of a brave man against the odds - a joker and a tryster who cocks a snook at the wicked princes and prelates of the time.  Any boy (even 43 year old lads) enjoys a good battle tale and when the stakes are as high as they are in the tale of Robert of Locksley (a.k.a. Robin o' the Hood) then all the better.  Gilbert makes the old songs of Robin come to life and fleshes them out.

Its the fleshing out that caught me by surprise.

On one hand you have a lyrical description of the forest - and wildlands of England.  A romantic picture that has the Greenwood show up again and again as a friend of the poor and wanderer - but one which held fear to the people of the day.  Robin and his men are depicted as being at one with their surroundings - able to understand the way of the beasts and to use their woodlore to the maximum effect.

On the other hand there is a surprisingly gritty picture of the deprivations of the poor peasants and the many cruelties of the grasping landlords.  The bad guys inevitably have French-sounding names as Gilbert puts the Norman invasion as the back-drop.  Men like Nigel Le Grim and other Roger De Belame and other 'rascal knights' as the oppressors whose power drives the poor and honest to be outlaws - the weaponsher who had survived a massacre.  But the maximum vitriol is reserved for the Bishops, Abbots and Monks.
 of the weak.  I was particularly taken by a chapter that included these dastards instigating pogroms against the Jews in the tumult of the departing Crusaders - and Robin aiding a Jewish girl and her fat
Robin is presented as true Christian, who is pious, just and true - while the monks and others are shown as rapacious scriveners - and worthy prey for the robber-chieftain that Robin plays.  The conflict is bridged by Father Tuck - a jolly renegade monk who uses force and good humour and offers pastoral care to poor villagers in need.

If anything the Robin in this book is too good to be true.  His aim is perfect.  His morals impeccable. His loyalty without a doubt.  His sagacity, wit and joie-de-vivre put any mortal to shame.  But then again isn't that why he lives in the tales and not next door to us?

Strangely (or not) I found myself looking back to another outlaw - David the son of Jesse.  He too is a warrior who finds himself banished and on the run.  He too finds people gravitating to him so that he ends up with a small army of loyal men.  He too lives out in the open and has to move from place to place because of a rapacious king and treacherous local people.

But the difference between Robin and David is enormous.  For one the Robin tales have him always good.  The David story shows that this is not so.  Robin is shown as a height of chivalry.  Unlike the current set of stories where he would be bedding Marian immediately - Robin waits for most of his outlaw days before courting her - and then has the bans read out by Tuck in the village churches.   David, on the other hand excels while an outlaw - but when he gets to power we see his all too broken human nature spill out.  David  takes for his own sexual pleasure the married daughter of his trusted counsellor - and wife of one of his closest comrades from the wilderness years.   And when the matter leads to a pregnancy David tries to cover up - but foiled by Uriah the Hittite's nobility, David resorts to murder.  He kills one of his best friends.

Robin is a saint.  In the old-fashioned sense of the word.  He seems cut from a different cloth.  David, for all his intimacy with God, is cut from the sin-stained cloth you and I find ourselves woven of.

The greatness of the David story is the desire he has for redemption.  The glory of David is his willingness  to potentially allow himself to be stripped of his kingship - and possibly even lose his life - all to make sure that he is right with God.

So I read Robin Hood for entertainment, for the swash and buckle of a terrific tale well-told.  I find myself transported to a different era - but one where the oppression and cruelty mirrors the many such lives of the 'small people' who are crushed under the large wheels of what some call 'progress.'   But I realize that the picture of Robin as saint is fundamentally flawed.  Give me the gritty and inspiring picture of David any day.  A man who was redeemed - and who fell so steeply (and multiple times too) - but whose life was patched to such an amazing extent that God speaks about David as 'a man after his own heart.'

No comments:

Post a Comment