By Lori J. Fitzgerald
The Charmings may be growing magic beans to return to the Enchanted Forest, but in Episode 2x19 “Lacey,” Once Upon a Time takes us into the medieval literary setting of Sherwood Forest. Although the famous outlaw of this greenwood, Robin Hood, makes but a short appearance, his presence still gives us a glimpse of the swashbuckling legendary character and holds its weight worth in gold by advancing the symbolism and theme of this episode.
Robin Hood was a character of medieval ballads which were told or sung by wandering minstrels. In a time where only members of the nobility or clergy could read, the ballads were meant as performance literature for both the commoners and the court; therefore, as in many folktales of the oral tradition, the Robin Hood stories were a constant re-creation, continually adapted and changed by the minstrels who performed them, rather than a careful, exact recitation (Bolton 348-349). Thus many of the original stories that have survived about Robin Hood and his band of outlaws are conflicting or fragmented. Medieval stories achieved some consistency once they were scribed by monks or printed, but being written down was usually the last thing that happened to a ballad. The Gest of Robyn Hode, which is a collection of these ballads, was probably first set to type by the famous medieval printer, Wynkyn de Worde (the successor to William Caxton’s printing press) around 1500, although the ballads were popular entertainment for more than a century before this. The Gest as we have it today in Middle English was compiled from a series of Gest manuscripts and printed in the collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child in the late 1800s.
Whether Robin Hood was an actual historical figure is a matter of debate. He was associated with “Robert Earl of Huntingdon” and with the town of Locksley, as well as with Matilda (Marian?) daughter of Lord Fitzwater. However, actual historical records of this time are sketchy, because in 14th century England Robert/Robin Hood/Hode was not an uncommon name. He is mentioned in some pseudo-historical accounts, such as John Major’s Historia Maioris Britanniae (1521):
“About this time (of Richard I) it was, as I conceive, that there flourished those most famous robbers, Robert Hood, an Englishman, and Little John, who lay in wait in the woods, but spoiled of their goods those only who were wealthy. …The feats of this Robert are told in song all over Britain. He would allow no woman to suffer injustice, nor would he spoil the poor, but rather enriched them from the plunder taken from abbots. The robberies of this man I condemn, but of all thieves he was the prince and the most gentle thief” (Sidgwick).
Similarly, the historical personage of King Arthur is mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s pseudo-history Historia Regum Britanniae, as the great war-lord Artorius. So perhaps there is some measure of truth in these accounts that there was a flesh and blood foundation of the literary characters.
“If King Arthur is the ideal knight of Celtic chivalry, Robin is the ideal champion of the popular cause under feudal conditions: his enemies are bishops, fat monks, and the sheriff who would restrain his liberty” (Sidgwick). Most know Robin Hood as the thief who robbed from the rich to give to the poor, possibly from reading Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, the definitive childhood collection of this outlaw’s tales based on the Gest ballads, or watching the various Robin Hood movies. Therefore it’s no surprise that our first glimpse of the outlaw in Once Upon a Time is when he is robbing Rumplestiltskin’s Dark Castle. In the ballads, Robin Hood makes a courteous game out of robbing the rich members of society who wander across his path; he often takes them into the depths of Sherwood Forest and supplies them with a merry feast and entertainment before exacting his fee from them. He becomes fierce and insistent only when his “guests” show their greed by being reluctant to part with their gold. (Rumple: “There is something I love. My things!”) Often Robin takes a sum of the plunder for his band, a sum for charity, and then will perhaps give back a portion to his guest, depending on the guest’s demeanor.
Besides his courteous robbery of the higher classes to redistribute wealth to the poor, several other characteristics made Robin Hood the popular outlaw hero of the medieval greenwood. He showed loyalty to the king, rescued the downtrodden, possessed incredible prowess in archery, and displayed courtly respect to all women. When Belle releases him from the torture chamber, he mostly expresses concern for her well-being, urging her to run away with him because he fears Rumplestiltskin will take out his wrath upon her. When she refuses due to her noble reasons he wishes her luck but still steals the wand as he originally intended to do. As Howard Pyle states: “…an honest man Robin was – in his own way” (263).
In Once Upon a Time, Robin Hood shows bravery and cockiness both in daring to enter the castle to steal from the Dark One as well as his flippant responses to Rumplestiltskin: “Well, then, I’ll stick to what I know works,” and “Shouldn’t be a problem. An arrow fired from this bow always finds its target. Don’t you just love magic?” He exudes the swashbuckling air that is synonymous with his character in both literary and film interpretations. In Howard Pyle’s version, Robin becomes an outlaw when he is taunted by a group of foresters who proclaim he is too young to compete in the Sheriff of Nottingham’s shooting match. They make a wager with him that he cannot hit a deer at the glade’s end, which of course he does. Angered, they renege on the wager, and one of them shoots an arrow towards Robin. “Then (Robin) turned around and quickly drew his own bow, and sent an arrow back in return. ‘Ye said I was no archer,’ cried he aloud, ‘but say so now again!’ The shaft flew straight; the archer fell forward with a cry, and lay on his face upon the ground, his arrows rattling about him from out of his quiver, the gray goose shaft wet with his heart’s blood” (6). He is outlawed for murder and poaching the king’s deer and a reward of two hundred pounds is set on his head for capture; the Sheriff of Nottingham swears to bring him to justice because he wants the reward and because the dead forester was his kin. In the various tales Robin’s hotheadedness and sharp tongue get him into many scrapes, but he always manages to escape with the help of his friends, who are never far away and called to him by three blasts of his horn.
In the ballads the Sheriff of Nottingham is the character foil and enemy of Robin Hood. He is a nobleman and in a position of authority, yet he uses this status to fulfill his own greed. In one tale, Robin poses as a naively spendthrift butcher, and the Sheriff strikes a tricky deal with him to buy cattle at an outrageously low price, which is how Robin lures him into the forest to “feast” with him. Robin Hood does, time and time again, make him the “laughingstock of all of Nottingham” by winning archery contests and outwitting his attempts at capture. However, it is only in later adaptations of the Robin Hood legends that the Sheriff adds drunkenness and lechery to his vices, as portrayed in Once Upon a Time. In The Prince of Thieves by Alexandre Dumas (1872) the Sheriff is a crazed ex-crusader Baron prone to fits of gout and temper, and in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s play The Foresters (1892) the Sheriff chases after Maid Marian. Perhaps the best known Sheriff of contemporary film is portrayed with all these nefarious characteristics (and a dash of wicked humor) by Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
Maid Marian herself is not a character in the original ballads; in fact, she is only mentioned once in passing as Robin Hood’s fair maiden in Howard Pyle’s book. In the late Middle Ages (1400-1500) Robin Hood and Maid Marian became the main figures in the “May Games” folk festivals in which pageant plays were a major part of the entertainment. Marian’s character was brought over from France by the minstrels (much like the character of Lancelot du Lac was), probably from a ballad containing a girl named Marion and her lover Robin, who was then combined with the English Robin Hood in the nature of oral tradition (Sidgwick). A pregnant Maid Marian is a device used by the Once Upon a Time writers to further a theme of the episode as developed in the Fairy Tale Land flashback.
The two settings of the Fairy Tale Land flashback in Episode 2x19, the forest and the castle, form the major symbolic antithesis of medieval literature. The castle represents culture, nobility, and structured groups (such as King Arthur’s Court), and the forest as wilderness represents nature, solitude, refuge, and trial and adventure in the unknown. In the castle we find knights, but in the forest we find hermits and outlaws:
“But Robin Hood lay hidden in Sherwood Forest for one year, and in that time there gathered around him many others like himself, cast out from other folk for this cause and for that. Some had shot deer in hungry winter time, when they could get no other food, and had been seen in the act by the foresters, but had escaped, thus saving their ears; some had been turned out of their inheritance, that their farms might be added to the King’s land in Sherwood Forest; some had been despoiled by a great baron or a rich abbot or a powerful esquire, --all, for one cause or another, had come to Sherwood to escape wrong and oppression” (Pyle 7).
In medieval courtly literature, the forest played an important narrative and symbolic role as the setting of the chivalric adventure story; a knight would venture into the forest on a quest (LeGoff 55). However, in Once Upon a Time, in quite the opposite way it is Robin Hood, the master of the forest, who penetrates the castle and thus begins a chain of events that changes the master of the Dark Castle forever.
Upon capturing Robin Hood, Rumplestiltskin proceeds to torture him in the most physically gruesome of ways. Here we see the callous “inhuman” actions of the Beast, as Belle terms it, which is quite the opposite of the civilized symbolic nature of the castle. By freeing Robin Hood, Belle causes Rumple to undertake a quest out into the forest wilderness in pursuit of the thief for revenge. In the forest, Rumple, like many a knight-errant in medieval literature, discovers a revelation about his true self. Belle has told him, “You can’t tell what’s in a person’s heart until you truly know them.” She goes on to prove herself right that the outlaw had good in him and that he stole for a noble purpose when they see Robin use the wand to heal his lady love. But it’s only when Belle says to him, “You are not the kind of man to leave a child fatherless,” that she touches on the core of Rumple’s being, his true self in the ocean of cursed darkness. It is at this moment, in the forest, that Rumple realizes the humanity that is still inside of him, as it is brought out by Belle’s enlightened sense. He chooses to make the enchanted bow miss its original mark. Rumplestiltskin passes this trial with the right choice, and his reward is the beginning of Belle’s love for him and the glimmer of a possibility of future redemption.
Robin Hood’s archery prowess in the ballads was due to skill and not a magic-infused bow; this is obviously the bow seen in Episode 1x16 “Heart of Darkness.” However, it is significant that Rumple’s quest involves Robin Hood’s bow and arrow. Besides symbolizing the forest hunt and a quest, arrows loosed from a bow represent the consequences of actions that cannot be revoked (Cooper 15). Of course, a bow and arrow is also the symbol of Cupid and love. These two symbolic meanings together show that Rumple’s view of himself will be irrevocably changed by Belle, and this begins his striving, like many a medieval knight-errant, for his best self around Belle, which he wishes to continue in Storybrooke at the beginning of Episode 2x19. It is obvious that the arrow of love has pierced his heart the minute he falters in speaking upon looking into her “beautiful blue eyes,” and through the stunned, hunted look on his face as he follows her out of the forest; in medieval times it was believed that love’s arrow pierced one through the eyes and then travelled down to the heart. Rumplestiltskin brings what he has learned in the forest back to his castle and so he reveals more of the goodness and humanity in his heart by gifting Belle with a tower full of books to “dust.”
The Robin Hood of Once Upon a Time is true to literary character form as a swashbuckling, daring, silver-tongued outlaw, bedecked in forest green leather, cloak, and bow and quiver and leaning against a tree in Sherwood Forest, a thief with a noble heart. However, it is in Robin Hood’s symbolic connection to the forest as a place of refuge and self-revelation and his part in the story of Rumplestiltskin and Belle that his importance lies. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a medieval monk and Doctor of the Church for his great writings, told his students, “the forests will teach you more than books.” In Episode 2x19 “Lacey,” the character of Robin Hood and the adventure that he brings to Rumplestiltskin and Belle in Sherwood Forest conveys the theme that you can only learn what’s in a person’s heart when you truly take the time to know them and find out.
Bolton, W.F. Ed. Sphere History of Literature: The Middle Ages. London: Sphere Books, 1987.
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and
LeGoff, Jacques. The Medieval Imagination. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago: The
University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Pyle, Howard. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. New York: Signet Classic, Penguin
Sidgwick, Frank. Ballads of Robin Hood and Other Outlaws. Nook e-book.
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