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RICHARD III and ROBIN HOOD – A STARK COMPARISON!

As both the public and the media continue to critically compare Leicester’s Richard III success with Nottingham’s current lack of a major Robin Hood visitor attraction – Bob White, Chairman of the World Wide Robin Hood Society, looks at the various differences, advantages, disadvantages and other issues involved in marketing a “legend” as opposed to an historical reality.

The City of Leicester’s success of turning the car park discovery of Richard III’s skeleton into the creation of an up-and-running visitor centre in just over 2 years has inevitably drawn comparisons with Nottingham’s Robin Hood focus still being reliant on a 63 year old statue! So just why has Nottingham failed to reap the benefits from its legendary Robin Hood connections? Well, as you might imagine, it is inevitably a long-running saga of myth, reality; complexity, lost opportunities, funding issues and a wavering lack of commitment – all wrapped up in endless consultants reports and hours of hollow rhetoric! Much too heady a mix for this short article, so here is my brief outline of the key issues that actually make a difference when comparing Nottingham’s Robin Hood shortcomings with Leicester’s Richard III success.

First and foremost is the fact that Richard III can be traced specifically to having existed as a “real” person with a proven place in British history whereas Robin Hood’s precise origins remain a mystery and the subject of much debate by historians, who all put forward various theories and contenders as to who’s exploits the Sherwood outlaw might be based on. This question of “man or myth?” has always been at the heart of the Robin Hood issue and although, across the centuries, fiction has long outgrown any true historic facts linked to the legend, when it comes down to seeking funding from the various organisations who administer that crucial grant aid, it appears that the “mythical” factor does not apparently meet their criteria. At least this was the conclusion drawn by Focus Consultants, following initial discussions with the Heritage Lottery Fund regarding the extent to which the £24 million restoration project at Nottingham Castle might feature Robin Hood aspects!

However, although Robin Hood may not have an authentic, historical pedigree to match Richard III, he does have an un-disputed and enviable status as a defining icon in the history of Popular Culture - a history that is far richer in diversity and public interest than Richard III can ever claim and also one that stretches from the early medieval tales of the mystical Green Man of the Forest to the very latest Hollywood movies currently being filmed. This rich, bountiful tapestry of popular heritage has seen aspects of the Robin Hood legend embrace and influence a vast range of art and cultural genres and has also seen the principles embodied in the traditional tales have an impact on contemporary, social and moral issues.

It is the sheer scale, scope and complexity of the legendary Robin Hood enigma that makes it so difficult to get to grips with the enormous magnitude of the subject and stimulate the creative vision necessary to fully appreciate the “the big picture”. The Society frequently receives “cries of help” from students and researchers who, having chosen Robin Hood as the topic for their dissertation or documentary film, suddenly find themselves totally “lost” in a network of connections to the legend that send them spinning-off, out of control in a myriad of different directions! It was this wide spectrum of associations that prompted the World Wide Robin Hood Society to completely re-format their website into 22 separate categories under the umbrella title of “The Many Faces of Robin Hood” which, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, include references to Robin Hood in ecology, business, the community, science fiction, education, sport and spirit and religion, as well as the more obvious links to history, literature, art, stage and screen, music etc.

Robin Hood also has the power to become frequently “re-invented”- giving him the ability to remain topical with the public and the media. By comparison, the reality of Richard III’s existence finds Leicester’s monarch somewhat shackled to his historic roots. For while Richard’s story is pretty much limited to the historical facts, characterisation by Shakespeare and the occasional play, film or book, Robin Hood gets his story constantly re-interpreted and up-dated in numerous ways and genres, ranging from contemporary social comment on the principles he is known and loved for, to teaming up with Friar Tuck as a duo of vampire killers in a poetic, Chaucer-style parody!

His popularity seems timeless - a fact reflected by Hollywood’s current interest in four Robin Hood – related films; a new novella and several recent international media interviews. Robin’s continuing global appeal was also reflected in the comments made in the Robin Hood Business Survey that the Society carried out earlier this year and the fact that we are never short of stories from around the world to flag-up on the rolling, Robin Hood News-Line on our website that features a selection of the latest breaking news about the world’s favourite outlaw!

So, in conclusion, on balance Robin Hood would appear to have far more promotional advantages and potential economic benefits as a legend than as a “real” person like Richard III - but the actual reality is that in the space of just over 2 years, the City of Leicester have swiftly taken the discovery of their “real” king to a high profile re-interment resulting in the opening of a new visitor centre to reap the benefits of its links with the last Plantagenet monarch!

Meanwhile, back at Nottingham Castle and Sherwood Forest we are STILL awaiting details of to what extent the City and County authorities propose to do justice to the Robin Hood legend and deliver the world class attraction that it deserves and that visitors expect! Over the centuries, that expectation has subsequently reached enormous proportions because the Robin Hood legend has become a “self-promoting” marketing phenomenon, reaching unprecedented levels of exposure. Yet, in his own home city the potential to capitalise on the global public interest in its famous outlaw son is vastly under-provided for and often critically described as “practically non-existent”!!      

Unlike Richard III, no skeleton has ever been discovered that can be proven, undisputedly to be that of Robin Hood, so in its own unique way, the un-solved mystery surrounding Robin Hood’s roots has only added to his world wide appeal and is one of the key elements that helps sustain the phenomenal, on-going interest in the legend. Whereas Richard III’ s story is clearly mapped out in the pages of English History, Robin Hood’s unknown, mythical origins still baffle and intrigue historians, allowing his tale to be re-told and re-invented in thousands of different adaptations and interpretations that have inspired numerous books, plays, films, operas, musicals, songs, games, locations and place names etc.

The power of mythical folklore lies in the fact that when tales are repeatedly told and passed down through the ages, over time, they become first a legend and then almost a reality. None more so than the timeless appeal of the Sherwood Forest hero Robin Hood, the People’s Champion whose story has passionately captured hearts and minds all around the world and given the City and County “free-gratis” - a priceless legacy yet to be fully exploited!