The Ridley Scott film Robin Hood has drawn some critics' political ire. In 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." New York Times critic A.O. Scott strikes a similar note, mocking the movie as a "medieval tea party" and declaring: "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 you may think of Scott's newest incarnation of the Robin Hood legend, it is more than a little troubling to see alleged liberals speaking 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 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 redistribution, a fact that is reflected in many previous screen versions of the Robin Hood story.
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 popular loathing. Robin Hood is also frequently shown helping men who face barbaric punishments for hunting in the royal forests, a pursuit that was permitted to English nobles but strictly forbidden to the lower classes. In other words, he opposes privilege bestowed by political power rather than 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 was often portrayed as a man fighting to reclaim his unjustly confiscated lands—and against high taxes. Even the 1993 Mel Brooks parody Men in Tights has Robin tell Prince John, "If you don't stop levying these evil taxes, I will lead the people of England in a revolt against you!"
Perhaps the most libertarian version of the Robin Hood story comes from an unlikely source—the BBC, in its 2006–09 Robin Hood series starring Jonas Armstrong. This smartly written, excellently acted show 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 he sometimes referred to the outlaws as "terrorists."
And the BBC's Robin Hood's libertarian streak is 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. (In the words of Little John, "Taxes, we do not like.") 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 and understands that keeping people impoverished makes them easier to control. 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."
The idea of Robin Hood as an early socialist has been influential as well. Ayn Rand in her novel Atlas Shrugged declared the fabled outlaw a symbol of evil—taking from the productive and giving to the parasites. On the other side of the political spectrum, a coalition of international aid groups in England recently made the bandit 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 was, above all, a fighter for freedom from tyranny. And that's what made him a legend.
Contributing Editor Cathy Young (email@example.com) writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics, where a version of this article originally appeared. She blogs at cathyyoung.wordpress.com.