It’s much easier to write book reviews for bad books—it’s easier to find the problem and diagnose it than it is to tell you, “Go read this book.” But I’m not going to do that today. Instead, because The Adventures of Robin Hood, by Roger Lancelyn Green, is such a great, fun little book, I’m going to tell you that you should go read it.
Roger Lancelyn Green was a pupil of C.S. Lewis who later became a friend and sometime member of the Inklings. He was among the first to read the Narnia books, and was an important encouragement to Lewis in continuing to write the books. In his own work, he produced a series of accessible renditions of famous myths and stories—Myths of the Norsemen, Tales of the Greek Heroes, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and, of course, Robin Hood. His books are readable, entertaining, researched, and each worth your time.
But right now I want to tell you why I thought Robin Hood was so good, and fun, and worthwhile. Perhaps above all else there was a certain wholesomeness to reading it. “Oh, yeah,” I thought as I read, “this is what great young adult books used to be like.” It’s not violent, or scary, or disturbing, or distorted. Instead, it’s a rollicking adventure, full of fighting, and friendship, and oaths, and loyalty, and duty—all the stuff a growing boy needs. You’re probably familiar with the story—Robin of Locksley becomes an outlaw on account of the nefarious policies of King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham, opposing them by stealing from the rich and giving to the poor until King Richard should return from the Crusades. You might feel that the familiarity would make the story not worth reading—not so! The familiarity is part of the fun, and I expect I’ll read and re-read it again. After all, it is the classic good-guys bad-guys story.
And yet it is also is so much more. Often, it seems to me, older stories like this one get accused of being simplistic (as if simplicity were innately bad, and as if somehow moral complexity were innately good—this is a dubious claim!). But it’s not simple, it’s simply clear. When Maid Marian swears an oath to remain a Maid until King Richard returns, she keeps her promise (and so do all those in the forest with her, to keep her from Sir Guy!). When a new recruit joins the Merry Men in Sherwood, he swears an oath, and he means it. When various personages attempt to lie to Robin about the money they carry, Robin takes from them—when they tell the truth, he does not. When Robin bests Little John at staves, they become friends—in fact, whenever Robin bests someone (or is bested, on occasion!) the result is mutual respect and friendship. Throughout it all there is a deeply refreshing honesty about the characters in the story—an honesty you will probably want to emulate yourself. In fact, we can frame the poles of characterization as follows: in the story of Robin Hood honesty is praised, while dishonesty is ridiculed; loyalty is virtue, and disloyalty is unthinkable; friendship is natural, while enmity is irrational; and goodness is, well, good, and wickedness is petty and smallminded.
Here I want to stay for a moment, because Green captures something of the nature of good and evil that I find to be compelling, tragic, and important. (Note: if you’ve not read the book and you don’t know about Robin Hood’s death, and if you don’t want to know until you’ve read it, stop reading now!) Throughout the book goodness is conceived as desirable, and important, and worth fighting for. Goodness is also conceived in ordinary terms—the keeping of a promise, the rescuing of a friend, a meal and wine with your peers. Fundamentally, goodness is so good that sometimes good people must become outlaws in order to preserve the good. By contrast, evil—no matter how grand in scope—is fundamentally petty. King John wants more power, and to get it he robs the people. But what will he do with the power if all the people hate him? What kind of fellowship can he enjoy if his compatriots are dishonest swindlers? He may put out the eyes of a child for killing one of the king’s deer, but the truth is that he can never truly enjoy it himself—not in the way that they do in Sherwood. And so, Robin and his Merry Men fight for goodness, by means of goodness, against the petty and persistent evils of John, the Sheriff, and Sir Guy.
But here’s the sting—in the end they lose. Richard returns, sets things aright, and Robin marries Marian. All well and good. But then Richard dies, and no sooner is he gone than King John, now lawfully king, takes up his vengeance. He locks Robin in a tower and runs off to capture Marian once and for all. Robin escapes, but falls and wounds himself. He is able to take Marian to a nunnery and entrust her there, but he must run off. On the run for a long time, he returns to the nunnery to find Marian. In the meantime, King John has promised that if Marian ever leaves, he will destroy the entire nunnery. The Prioress, knowing who Marian is, and knowing that if Marian is a widow she will inherit Locksley estate, has convinced her that Robin is dead so that she will take her vows and so that her property will be added to that of the nunnery. When Robin finally shows up, weak and ill, the Prioress performs a bloodletting, but in the process, knowing who Robin is, intentionally lets too much blood. She murders him, in fact, so that she can take his estate.
Pause to think about the tragic irony of this. Robin, who loves the church, loves his wife, loves his King, and who has tirelessly served the poor, is in the end destroyed by the petty evil of an acquisitive nun. This is the pettiness of evil in action. It is stupid. Its fruits are vapid. It is self-destructive. It destroys good things. And in view of this, we are reminded that, indeed, the fight for good is very often boring, and pedantic, and fundamentally draining because it is a constant war with the petty proclivities of average people. Evil only seems nice because it cheats its way to some other good; the reality is that evil inevitably corrupts the goods it achieves. And therefore, to fight for the good is the most important, and yet most mundane, activity that the average human will ever perform.
To my mind, this is precisely why we need heroes like Robin Hood. We need reminders that goodness is good and that evil is stupid, and we need to be jolted, sometimes painfully, with the knowledge that even though we might lose, goodness was worth fighting for.