A Libertarian Rebel

What Ridley Scott's new film gets right about the legend of Robin Hood


The new Ridley Scott film Robin Hood, which has opened to mixed reviews on its merits as entertainment, is also drawing some critics' political ire. In New York's leftist weekly, The Village Voice, Karina Longworth laments that "instead of robbing from the rich to give to the poor, this Robin Hood preaches about 'liberty' and the rights of the individual" and battles against "government greed"; the film, she scoffs, is "a rousing love letter to the tea party movement." On a similar note, the New York Times' A.O. Scott mocks Robin Hood as "one big medieval tea party":

You may have heard that Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor, but that was just liberal media propaganda. This Robin is … a manly libertarian rebel striking out against high taxes and a big government scheme to trample the ancient liberties of property owners and provincial nobles.

Whatever one may think of Scott's newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speak of liberty and individual rights in a tone of sarcastic dismissal. This is especially ironic since the Robin Hood of myth and folklore probably has much more in common with the "libertarian rebel" played by Russell Crowe than with the medieval socialist of the "rob from the rich, give to the poor" cliché. At heart, the noble-outlaw legend that has captured the human imagination for centuries is about freedom, not wealth redistribution—and this is reflected in many previous screen versions of the Robin Hood story.

As scholars have noted, the earliest Robin Hood ballads, which date back to the 13th or 14th century, contain no mention of robbing the rich to give to the poor. The one person Robin assists financially is a knight who is about to lose his lands to the machinations of greedy and unscrupulous monks at an abbey. (Corrupt clerics using the political power of the Church are among Robin Hood's frequent targets in the ballads.) The Sheriff of Nottingham is Robin's chief opponent; at the time, it was the sheriffs' role as tax collectors in particular that made them objects of loathing by peasants and commoners. Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit permitted to nobles and strictly forbidden to the lower classes in medieval England; in other words, he is opposing privilege bestowed by political power, not earned wealth.

Later, the legend evolved and was adapted to more aristocratic tastes; by the 17th century, Robin Hood turned from an outlawed farmer into a dispossessed aristocrat and, eventually, a patron of the poor. Yet the fight for liberty and against tyrannical authority remained central to the story, particularly since Robin is often portrayed as a man fighting to reclaim his unjustly confiscated lands—and against high taxes. Indeed, even the hilarious Mel Brooks parody Men in Tights (1993), a send-up of Robin Hood movie conventions, has the hero (Cary Elwes) telling Prince John, "If you don't stop levying these evil taxes, I will lead the people of England in a revolt against you!" Tea, anyone?

Perhaps the most libertarian version of the Robin Hood story comes from an unlikely source for libertarianism—the BBC, in its 2006-2009 Robin Hood series, starring Jonas Armstrong. (This smartly written, excellently acted show that gave the medieval legend a quirky modern edge, unfortunately failed to find a large audience in the United States, where it aired on the obscure BBC America cable channel.) The series took thinly veiled digs at the idea that freedom should be abridged in the name of national security: the villainous Sheriff cited King Richard's war in the Holy Land as a justification for unusually harsh punishments to enforce law and order in wartime, and sometimes referred to the outlaws as "terrorists."

However, this Robin Hood's libertarian streak was not limited to civil liberties. Robin, a local noble back from the Crusades, first runs afoul of the Sheriff by suggesting that all taxes in Nottinghamshire be temporarily abolished so that the region's faltering industry and trade can be revived. His peasant followers are on the wrong side of the law because exorbitant taxes prevent them from making an honest living: "Taxes, we do not like," declares Little John. This Robin's robberies are directed primarily at tax collections and other ill-gotten gains; he also strives to stop a conspiracy by the Sheriff and Prince John to seize power in the King's absence and establish a tyranny that would trample "the rights of the free man." The Sheriff, meanwhile, is a miniature Stalin who revels in brute power: when a confederate says that England should be purged of "the weak and the dirty and the parasites," the Sheriff replies, "My dear boy, those are the ones who do exactly what I tell them to. We need those."

Of course, the idea of Robin Hood as an early socialist has had a lot of currency as well. Ayn Rand declared the fabled outlaw a symbol of evil—taking from the productive and giving to the parasites—in her novel Atlas Shrugged; on the other side of the political spectrum, a coalition of international aid groups in England recently made him their mascot when they proposed a "Robin Hood tax" on high-profit industries to help the poor in developing nations. But the original Robin Hood, while he has many different faces, is above all a fighter for freedom from tyranny—and that's what made him a legend.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.