A weekly digest of thoughts on fiction, non-fiction, and all the news I see fit to print.
Oo-De-Lally, Oo-De-Lally, Golly, What A Day
I’ve recently been revisiting the Robin of Sherwood series that was produced for British television (and aired on Showtime) in the mid-80s. The show has been a perennial favorite since I first watched it in reruns as a little girl, and I’ve come back to it over the years—enjoying it in an variety of ever-evolving ways. It’s aged well, for the most part, but—as with so many things—it does have its elements of hokeyness and hilarity. Some of the plots are silly. Some of the writing is clunky. Some of the production values are decidedly low-fi. To wit, it has everything a cult classic needs. On this last rewatch, though, I’ve noticed something else—the show’s total lack of interest in continuity—that has got me intrigued.
The complete and utter lack of continuity first struck me while watching the first episodes of the third series: “Herne’s Son” and “The Power of Albion.” In the first episode, the man who will become Robin Hood undertakes a dangerous mission to rescue Maid Marian. During this mission, a powerful enemy is killed—an incident that, under the circumstances, would undoubtedly have been widely known and would undoubtedly have irrevocably compromised his secret identity. In the second episode, however, the plot depends upon key figures—namely the Sheriff of Nottingham and Sir Guy of Gisbourne—not knowing his true identity (although Sir Guy, it must be said, suspects).
Let me back up a bit.
The Robin of Sherwood series is notable for having two different men play two different incarnations of Robin Hood. In series one and two, Michael Praed portrayed Robin of Loxley, a poor man who was driven from his home and became an outlaw to fight for justice. His character died at the end of the second series, however, after Praed landed a role on the American soap opera, Dynasty. Series three then continued with Jason Connery portraying Robert of Huntingdon, a nobleman who gave up his life of privilege and became an outlaw to fight for justice. The inclusion of both characters enables a very interesting take on the legendary character—one in which the depiction of the legend’s two most prominent contenders for the title (Robin of Loxley and Robert of Huntingdon) functions as a means of exploring how two men of radically different social classes would approach the same problem. (It’s also a creative decision that provides one of the best examples of how to make lemonade when life hands you lemons.)
When Connery took on the role, the Robin Hood character was put in the position of hitting many of the same introductory beats that had been hit when Praed debuted: he had to find Friar Tuck, he had to battle Little John with a quarterstaff, he had to rescue Marian from marriage to an unscrupulous (but wealthy) rogue. Which brings us back, once more, to the issue of continuity.
In the first episode, Maid Marian is captured by the notorious Owen of Clun. In order to save her, Robert of Huntingdon—who had previously rejected the mantel of Robin Hood—assumes that mantel, reassembles the Merry Men, and storms Clun castle, killing Owen in the process. It’s an audacious act, particularly in view of the fact that Owen is a key ally of King John, who needs Owen’s cooperation if his Welsh campaign is to be successful. It should have sent shock waves through the ranks of the nobility and exposed Robert as Robin Hood once and for all. But it didn’t. Indeed, outside of a running narrative about one of Owen’s lackeys seeking revenge for his death, it is never mentioned again.
In fact, many things that occur in the series are never mentioned again. It is almost as if each episode begins at a basic reset point and operates within its own rules. Robin and his Merry Men are faced with a challenge, they defeat their enemies, and they ride off into Sherwood forest in triumph. Each challenge is different, and each solution is varied, but the result is always the same.
And once its achieved it’s never mentioned again.
In other words, each episode is a Robin Hood Ballad. They conform to the narrative format established in the earliest surviving ballad examples, and like those ballads the episodes have very little, beyond the reappearance of beloved characters, in common with one another. In what is probably no surprise to anyone, this approach to narrative continuity reminds me very much of comic books, where characters often appear across multiple titles in stories that—while definitively canonical—are not necessarily in a causal relationship with, or even a correlative relationship, one another. As with comic books, though the basic components of the story are largely established by the brand, many elements—like characterization and circumstance—are entirely determined by the creator of the ballad. In some ballads, for example, Robin Hood is a kind and generous figure. In others, he’s a actually bit of a twat. The stories are violent. Or they are funny. They contain a moral. Or they are strictly for fun. It all depends.
The connection between ballads, and specifically Robin Hood, and comic books, and specifically superhero comics, makes a lot of sense when you consider that Robin Hood is one of the prototypical superhero figures in western literature. He’s surrounded by a team of similarly skilled heroes; he can always be counted on to swoop in and save the day whatever the odds; he is an eternal champion, unchanging, iconic, invaluable. Of course, in the hands of a skilled writer, there is an infinite range of nuances to be found in the individual characters who populate these legends, traditional and contemporary, but—when it comes to the tropes—only the challenges truly change, shifting with every subsequent era to reflect the spirit of the age.
Whom do we fear? By what do we feel threatened? And how do we solve our problems?
The heroes are faced with a challenge, they defeat their enemies, and they ride off into Sherwood Forest, or Gotham City, or the sunset, in triumph. And the hero’s journey goes on.