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from The Textbook Letter, September-October 1998

Hollywood "History"

Editor's Introduction -- The writers of the McDougal Littell high-school text World History: Patterns of Interaction evidently have judged that the history of England in the days of Coeur de Lion, King John and Magna Carta is just too dull, for they have jazzed it up by adding a sidebar about Hollywood movies. The sidebar is headlined "Connect to Today." It shows a photo of Errol Flynn in the role of Robin Hood, followed by these two paragraphs:

During the time of King Richard and King John, Robin Hood was said to live in Sherwood Forest with his band of merry men. According to the stories about him, he was an outlaw who robbed from [sic] the rich and gave to the poor. He attempted to remedy some of the injustices committed under King John.

There have been many film versions of the story of Robin Hood. Douglas Fairbanks starred in a silent Robin Hood (1922). Errol Flynn (above right) starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), a version celebrated for its rousing action. Disney released an animated Robin Hood in 1973. Kevin Costner starred in the popular Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).

This reaffirms a rule that has no exceptions: The phony "history" invented by schoolbook-writers is never as interesting as the real history that the writers haven't bothered to learn.

For teachers who would like to provide their students with some legitimate information about Robin Hood, here is a short report by The Textbook League's manager of research.

Robin Who?

Earl Hautala

McDougal Littell's statement that "During the time of King Richard and King John, Robin Hood was said to live in Sherwood Forest" has no basis in fact. McDougal Littell's writers have simply made it up. There is no reason to believe that anything was ever "said" about Robin Hood during the days of King Richard and King John, because there is no mention of any Robin Hood in any contemporary document.

King Richard died in 1199, King John in 1216. But as far as we know, the earliest English reference to Robin Hood appeared in 1377, in William Langland's The Vision of William Concerning Piers the Plowman. "I can [i.e., know] rimes of Robin Hood," said Langland's lazy priest, Sloth.

Three years later the Scottish chronicler John Fordun wrote that, in ballads, "Robin Hood delights above all others."

But where had this Robin Hood come from? Strange to tell, he might have emerged from May Day celebrations in France.

Well before Englishmen were enjoying rimes of Robin Hood, Frenchmen were celebrating May Day -- perhaps as a vestige of the ancient Roman festival Floralia, which honored the goddess of spring and flowers. By the 1200s, French commemorations of May Day had become associated with a character named Robin des Bois (Robin of the Wood). This has led some historians to speculate that Robin Hood originated when the practice of celebrating May Day spread to England, and the name Robin des Bois was translated to Middle English. The Middle English word for wood was whode -- which perhaps, through some sort of mistaken homophony, was transformed into "hood."

By the 15th century, May Day celebrations in England had become Robin Hood Festivals, in which Robin Hood presided as king and was accompanied by a queen called Marian. This Marian, too, might have been imported from France. A French drama titled Le Jeu de Robin et Marion had appeared around 1280, and French folklore told of a shepherd named Robin and a shepherdess named Marion. The English Robin and Marian, however, had nothing in common with the French shepherd and his Marion, other than a similarity of names. (See the article "Robin Hood" in the 1995 version of Compton's Interactive Encyclopedia.) In any case, it is clear that the English Marian was attached to Robin Hood secondarily. The earliest stories of Robin Hood do not mention her.

Authentic Robin Hood tales, from the 15th and 16th centuries, are available at the "Robin Hood Text Archive" site on the Web: http://davinci.sla.purdue.edu/medieval-studies/robinhood/. The site is sponsored by Purdue University's School of Liberal Arts. Its introductory statement says, in part:

The main purpose in releasing these texts now is to encourage the study and teaching of the legends of Robin Hood and other medieval outlaw tales. Another purpose is to dispel modern misconceptions about Robin Hood. In the early texts reproduced here, Robin is a yeoman, not a nobleman; he is English by birth, not Saxon; he is from Barnsdale, Yorkshire, not Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire; he does not have a girlfriend named Marian; he does not live in the time of King Richard; and he does not "rob the rich to give to the poor." At times Robin is, in fact, impetuous, hot tempered, a poor loser, a highway robber, and a murderer. . . . To paraphrase the old proverb Many men speak of Robin Hood who never drew his bow: many people (film makers and novelists included) talk about Robin Hood without having read the texts.

McDougal Littell's textbook-writers belong to that group too.

When the writers say that Robin Hood "attempted to remedy some of the injustices committed under King John," they are just reciting a Hollywood fantasy and pretending that it is history. Although there is no historical connection between Robin Hood and King John or between Robin Hood and King Richard, Hollywood has repeatedly linked those three figures in various ways. In the Errol Flynn film, for example, King John is a major character and is depicted as a swinish tyrant; King Richard makes a brief appearance near the end of the story, elevates Robin Hood to the rank of baron, and commands him to marry Marian. In the Kevin Costner film, King Richard shows up at Marian and Robin Hood's wedding -- just in time to give the bride away before everyone lives happily ever after.


Earl Hautala is a chemist, now retired. As a research scientist with the United States Department of Agriculture, he specialized in the chemistry of plants and in the development of analytical methods. He is interested in library information systems, and he serves as The Textbook League's manager of research.

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