But first thanks to everyone who commentated on my review of Robin Hood. Somehow I got more reaction than any other blog post that I have ever put up. More than all the other blog posts combined!
Special thanks to Kevin Marshall who linked to my review and to Mary Murphy who did the same. Thanks to Jo who suggested my review to Mary Murphy. Jo's site is well worth checking out. It is simultaneously terrifying and impressive especially the Nano-Corp Saga, an attempt to create a fan-fic universe including all of the characters played by Russell Crowe. A unified theory of Russell Crowe!
Ridley Scott's Robin Hood is the Magna Carta
The argument that I was most nervous of in my original review of Robin Hood was this one, "Ridley Scott makes the case that Robin Hood is the living charter." Perhaps I undersold the argument. My point was that you can see Robin Hood as literally being the narrative that will be transformed into the Magna Carta.
The biggest difference between the two narratives is that Robin Hood is a trickster who shows no respect for unjust laws, while the Magna Carta is the more staid law of the land.
The slightly safer way of describing this is that Robin Hood represents England before the Magna Carta - yearning for justice and freedom.
The following are my poor attempts to do my lousy Jess Nevins imitation and give my notes on things in the film that caught my attention. Most in line with my obsession about the connections between Robin Hood and the Magna Carta.
1. Robin Hood and the Magna Carta fill the same narrative role.
Robin Hood exists to humble the unjust English laws and the English King. The Magna Carta curbs the power of English law and the English King. They are also both equal to the powers of the King. The Magna Carta because that is its legal and constitutional purpose; Robin Hood in his capacity as a trickster points out that when the King is above the law or in French hors-la-loi, like Robin he is an outlaw making the two equal.
2. King Richard and Robert Loxley.
One way of looking at Robert Loxley is as a variant version of Robin Hood. He is the version who rescued Richard from captivity and became Richard's friend.
3. King Richard meets Robin Longstride and calls him England.
King Richard takes Robert Loxley with him as he searches for a real Englishman, "honest and loyal." They find Robin Longstride brawling with Little John. Richard asks Robin if they can all be proud of their efforts during the Crusade. Robin says No, explaining that any good that they did during the Crusade was wiped out by the war atrocities that they all committed following Richard's orders, especially killing women and children. Richard turns to Robert Loxley and says, "That's England. Honest, loyal and naive."
This can be seen as part of the debate between those advocating for the Magna Carta and the English Crown. Later in the film, King John eloquently makes the argument for his side. The King draws his authority to govern from God, his "divine right". To curb his power is to try and curb the power and authority of God, which is blasphemy.
There are two arguments from the other side. The first which is more radical is that rulers derive their moral and legal authority from the consent of the governed. This is the argument that leads inevitably to the Declaration of Independence.
The more conservative argument is that no system of government is perfect, but those that are most Good or Godly are those that are most just. Any system of government which is built on the whims and caprices of one man will be only as just as that man. And the death of that man will invariable upset the balance and change the nature of justice.
Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
-Sir Winston Churchill, Hansard, November 11, 1947
4. Robin in the stocks.
Going out a bit on a limb, you can also see Robin's "Three Stooges": Little John, Will Scarlet and Allan A'Dayle as representing Scotland (The Scottish Giant), Wales (The Red Dragon) and Ireland (The Lyre). The three kingdoms added to England that would form the United Kingdom. All bound in one way or another by the whims of the English King, all provided personal freedom by the terms of the Magna Carta.
Going out even further on a limb and perhaps sawing the rhetorical branch behind me, the actors who play the four characters: Russell Crowe (New Zealand and Australia), Kevin Durand (Canada - actually Thunder Bay, Ontario considered the center of the country), Scott Grimes (U.S.A.) and Alan Doyle (Newfoundland) essentially come from the largest British colonies that helped spread the influence of the Magna Carta to every corner of the globe. I recognize that there is an element of coincidence to that distribution, but even accidents have meaning.
I list Newfoundland separate from Canada, because it did not join Canada until 1949. More important, it was the first major British exploration, discovered by John Cabot in 1497, hence New-Found-Land. Also of weird symbolic significance is that Alan Doyle is the lead singer of the Great Big Sea... that Britain had to cross to establish their colonies of free men protected by the terms of the Magna Carta.
5. John with Isabella of Angoulême.
John also hoped that his marriage to Isabella would create a better relationship with King Philip II. In fact, in both the film and real life the opposite happens. Philip seized on the fact that Isabella was promised to one of Philip's sworn knights to declare war on John and seize as much of John's land as he could. (One of John's many nick-names was "John Lack-Land") This fiasco is one of many examples of John having good intentions, but failing miserably in the execution of his plans.
One of the reasons why Philip reacted negatively to John marrying Isabella may have been that he saw it as John trying to improve his claim to the French crown for both John and his sons. Just as John has a claim on the French throne, Philip has a claim on the English throne. In the film, Philip conspires to steal the English Crown from John.
6 . Godfrey, King Philip II and the bloody oyster.
Godfrey tells Philip that he and Prince John are milk-brothers. (Either they shared the same wet-nurse or Godfrey's Mother was John's wet-nurse.) The bonds between milk-brothers is usually very strong and we will see that John is loyal to Godfrey, but Godfrey renounces that bond in favour of Philip.
Philip may also be making the point to Godfrey that bonds of blood (and blood spilled) are stronger than bonds of milk. There may even be an implicit promise in the gesture that if Godfrey succeeds in sabotaging John's Kingdom after Richard's death, that Philip will make Godfrey blood/family, presumably by arranging a marriage with a member of the French Royal family.
7. Robin is freed from the stocks when King Richard dies.
8. Robert Loxley is ambushed.
With Richard's death, his crown must be returned to England for John. Robert Loxley is acting as an agent of the (unwritten) British constitution. While Godfrey can't murder the already-dead Richard, he is unwittedly still attacking the British Crown.
This also points to the weakness of the (unwritten) British constitution - that it can be put in jeopardy by a trumped-up highwayman.
9. Richard's horse and crown flee from Godfrey to Robin Longstride.
All of which makes the symbolism of Richard's horse fleeing Godfrey and choosing Robin that much more powerful. Richard's horse is a white horse, a symbol of England which Ridley Scott hammers home by placing the climactic battle near the actual White Horse. One symbol of England, the white horse, bringing another symbol of England, Robin, the crown and essentially choosing him to bring it to John.
10. Robert Loxley gives Robin Longstride his Father's sword.
One way of looking at Robert Loxley is as the other version of Robin Hood - the trickster brigand who ransoms Richard and becomes his friend. This scene then is a passing of the torch in multiple ways: from one version of Robin to another; passing the crown from one agent of the unwritten constitution to another and passing the sword from a dying man to the man who will assume his identity.
11. Robin Longstride becomes Robert Loxley.
The peasant archer becomes a knight.
12. Robin Longstride cuts himself on the Loxley sword.
It is also significant that Robin has given himself a stigmata wound. matching one of the wounds inflicted on Christ. This implies that the words while dangerous are also Good or Godly, but it equally suggests that the words will lead to Robin's martyrdom.
13. Robin brings John Richard's Crown.
Robin successfully fulfills his constitutional duties.
John, in taking back the ring for back taxes, is not just disrespecting the Loxley family - since Robin is acting as an agent of the unwritten constitution, John is disrespecting the constitution itself, choosing taxes or wealth over the constitution.
It is also significant that taxes will begin the rebellion that leads to the Magna Carta in the same way that "taxation without representation" leads to the Declaration of Independence.
14, Robin meets William Marshall
In his time, William Marshall was as much of a real-life legend as Robin Hood is as a tall tale. He served four English Kings, beat more than 500 knights in tournament combat and famously won a battle by leading a charge on horseback at the age of 70!
In the film, Marshall is a member of the conspiracy of nobles in favour of the Charter. In much the same way that Robin in the film is linked to the Free-Masons, Marshall in real life was linked to the Knights-Templar, publicly joining them on his death-bed and buried in the Temple Church in London.
15. Robin leaves London on Richard's white horse.
Richard had both horse and crown. Now John has Richard's crown representing the legal authority to govern England, while Robin has Richard's horse representing the moral authority to lead. This will result in John's resentment of Robin's ability and moral authority to lead during the climactic battle
16. John fires Marshall and puts Godfrey in charge of collecting his taxes.
John proves his loyalty to his milk-brother, but in the process fires a man famous for his loyalty and ability. John also puts taxation and the collection of money that he needs above the long-term interests of his kingdom. Another example of John having good intentions, but miserable execution.
17. The Sheriff of Nottingham harasses Marion Loxley.
A symbol of John's law abusing his power and showing the lack of justice and balance in John's legal system.
18. Walter Loxley asks Robin to pose as his son.
Walter is trying to protect his daughter-in-law Marion who can not inherit the Loxley estate. This is a good example of the unfairness of the law under both Richard and John. It is also significant that a member of the English nobility is willing to subvert or ignore the law in search of a justice that is not available under the current system.
It also confirms Robin's dual identity as both peasant archer and knight.
19. Walter Loxley reveals that Robin's Father was a mason.
First, Robin is simultaneously a member of the lower class (peasant archer), the middle class (mason) and the upper class (knight). By the end of the film, he will be an outlaw. In other words, like the Magna Carta, Robin represents all classes of English society and their various relationships to the King.
Masons are responsible for the foundation of buildings. The Magna Carta is the foundation of British common law.
Masons join together in a secret society called the Freemasons. So masons believe (and represent) freedom, secrecy and conspiracy.
20. Robin's father wrote the Charter.
In other words, Robin's father created both Robin and the Charter - that will eventually become the Magna Carta.
21. The Lost Boys in the woods.
They foreshadow Robin's eventual escape into Sherwood Forest. They are also a powerful indication of the anarchy caused by Richard's wars and Richard's system of justice. Anarchy inherited by John, a problem that he has no interest in correcting.
22. Eleanor of Aquitaine conspires with Isabella.
The Lion in Winter is a great film that eloquently explores the dysfunctional dynamics of her family.
Richard inherited her appetite for strife, her courage and her generosity. John inherited her cold-blooded scheming and her bad luck - as many of Eleanor's plots ended in disaster.
Eleanor is essentially training Isabella to manipulate John's court the same way that Eleanor has for most of her life.
23. Robin sleeps with the dogs.
24. John confronts the barons.
This sequence is all about the tragedy of John. That he could have had everything that he wanted and more: the love and respect given to Richard; the land stolen by Philip; the moral authority wielded by Robin and the full treasury of a strong, prosperous Kingdom, by giving of his own free will what was eventually forced on him.
The proof in this is that he is able to temporarily unite his Kingdom and defeat the threat to it by pretending to agree to the Charter.
This is also the moment when John recognizes the moral authority of Robin and hates him for it.
25. Marion is rescued by the Lost Boys.
The Lost Boys have been a thorn in Marion's side since the start of the film, but the French "tax collectors" working for Godfrey are a threat that brings unity to Nottingham leading to the unity that will save England from invasion at the White Horse.
26. Robin rescues the women and children from burning.
Robin finds redemption from the murder of civilians during the Crusade by saving the civilians of Nottingham from a war atrocity.
27. Walter Loxley's funeral pyre.
This scene has been criticized because Catholics of the time did not practice this custom.
Like many things in this film, I look at this scene more symbolically.
With the death of Walter, the house of Loxley is finished. Walter's attempt at creating the legal fiction that Robin is his son Robert will not survive his death. Walter than is the last of his time and the fire is an appropriate way to mark that ending.
There is also the sense of the old unjust England being burned away with Walter's body, ushering in a new England. Even though John will repudiate the Charter once his Kingdom is saved, the Charter once promised cannot be forever denied.
UPDATE Luke adds, "The cremation scene might also be a reference to Walter's Saxon roots (roots which Robin shares, as Walter points out on hearing his name). The Saxon traditions are sometimes cited as partial inspiration for the Magna Carta-- interestingly Runnymede had been the sight of the Witenagemot, an open-air gathering of Saxon nobles which could elect and depose kings."
This is a very good point. Richard the Lion-Heart (as an example) spoke very little English. One way to think of England of this time period is as an English country ruled by French (Norman) Kings. Having Richard and John speak French would be historically accurate, but probably confusing to modern (and allergic to History) audiences.
28. The Battle of White Horse.
Notice the way that Robin casually assumes control and plans the battle.
Notice also how John goes from excitement to fear to self-loathing to charging at the head of his knights, overcoming his fear in profound and total self-disgust.
UPDATE Luke adds, "'The White Horse' is near what is thought to be Ethandun, where the Saxon king Alfred the Great defeated another set of invaders, the Danes."
29. Marion leads the Lost Boys into battle.
There have been some complaints about the practicalities of leading this ragged group of orphans into battle. Symbolically however they demonstrate that in the face of this crisis and the promise by John to sign the Charter, all of English society - even those that have plunged into lawless anarchy - are combining to save England.
30. John reneges on his promise and makes Robin an outlaw.
This sets up the (purely hypothetical) following films with Robin as an outlaw in conflict with King John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. Again this is the tragedy of John. In trying to destroy a man that he is jealous of, John makes him an even bigger hero and legend, elevating Robin to his equal. By breaking his promise and declaring Robin an outlaw, John takes both himself and Robin outside the law - hors-la-loi - making them both outlaws and both equals.
One final bonus thought.
The legal foundation left by John and preserved by William Marshall as Regent and John's son Henry III when he came of age, helped fuel an empire that spanned the globe.
On her dominions the sun never sets; before his evening rays leave the spires of Quebec, his morning beams have shone three hours on Port Jackson, and while sinking from the waters of Lake Superior, his eye opens upon the Mouth of the Ganges.
-Caledonian Mercury, 1821
And as the tide of the British Empire receded after the Second World War, everywhere it left behind the legal principles of British Common Law built on the foundation of the Magna Carta. In some places the foundation is stronger than others, but the foundation is always there.
The Empire that filled the void left by the waning of the British Empire, the American Empire was built even more strongly on the principles of the Magna Carta. And while currently its support of some of the principles fundamental in that document like habeas corpus seems somewhat thin, the Magna Carta is still the inspirational foundation of the American Constitution.
In a way, John Lack-Land conquered the world, through a document that he was forced to sign and receives little to no credit for. And the spirit of that document is the personal freedom against tyranny and capricious justice found in Sherwood Forest and defended by the legend of Robin Hood.
(All images are copyright to their appropriate owners.)