Sunday, January 29, 2012

Book Review: ROBIN HOOD (Paul Buhle)

A Folk Hero Befitting the OWS Generation

Book Review by JOHN PIETARO
ROBIN HOOD: People’s Outlaw and Forest Hero by Paul Buhle
With Illustrations by Chris Hutchinson, Gary Dumm and Sharon Rudahl
2011, PM Press Oakland CA

Hot on the heels of the latest wave of dissent comes a centuries-old radical from deep within the English wood. Robin Hood may be overlooked as a revolutionary due to simple over-exposure, but historian Paul Buhle, in demonstrating the real story of Robin, let’s all of us in on the best-kept secret of the universal Left. And the legend only begins with taking from the rich to give to the poor.

Amidst his powerful series of graphic histories Buhle offers this socio-biography which, though consisting primarily of text, makes creative use of visuals.  Robin Hood straddles a niche between biography, underground comic and Pythonesque photo manipulations. This seems about right for a hero that is at once of a lost time and of every age. The book opens with a historic overview of the character via quotes from early ballads and the writings of nineteenth century socialist and poet William Morris, whose passion for social justice laid in intriguing conflict with his Romantic yearning for an earlier, “simpler” day. This led Morris to the same conclusion as the author of this biography: that of the inequity found in both the Middle Ages and their own times; both make great use of the past’s symbolism to reflect these injustices. Robin’s 1300s were a period of bloody iron-hand rule by an elite class in towering castles. The forests were then more dense than we can imagine and overflowing with wildlife; the thickets closing out the sky as well as the encroaching Enlightenment. Average citizens tried to rise above the Dark Ages as the king-as-deity enforced poverty and starvation, refusing their desperate plea for the plentiful forest game. Soldiers in the king’s service patrolled the forest lanes with deadly intent as whole families fell into frightening levels of deprivation and nature’s bounty was reserved for only the royal dinner. Something had to give.

Buhle reminds us that the legend of this revolutionary hero grew out of the periods of conquests as the first millennium came to be, as well as the plagues and pestilence over the next two centuries, the brutal wars and the uprising of 1381. Corruption could not simply be found in the ruling class however, but in the church and the manipulation of faith as a means of power was running rampant. The peasants were subject to increased cruelty and laborers experienced new levels of worksite injustice. In the face of the Black Plague and the Crusades, villages deteriorated and the powers that be abandoned those in dire need. The poor were deemed “villains” in 14th century law.  It was left to a handful of men who were pushed to the limit, who’d seen too much and whose families had gone without for far too long. The people’s underground included skilled bowmen who served not only to protect the commoners from harm but to brave the armies and tread on royal hunting ground. Due to brutal reprisal, as we have seen in countless other rebellions, the freedom fighters took on pseudonyms to protect their identity and families. “John the Nameless” must have been a standard revolutionary moniker as it was featured in the poem of the uprising, ‘Piers Plowman’. An amalgam of these freedom fighters, struggling for survival and the land they were born on, developed into the figure of Robin Hood.

Buhle offers the reader not only vivid historical content but, true to form of the progressive historian, a sociological view of Robin’s realization in legend and media. It is with Robin’s adaptation in film that we see the myth grow into the present. From All-American hero Douglas Fairbanks in silent cinema, we move to Errol Flynn, whom Buhle reminds us developed into one of the strongest anti-fascists and, later, a friend of Fidel Castro. Many of Flynn’s films were of course written or directed by Hollywood lefties and he carried the icon so well that he’d continue to be identified with the character. But the Robin Hood figure maintained popular through the Cold War and eventual blacklistees such as Waldo Salt, Robert Rossen and Howard Koch were at the heart of it. By the time of the Robin Hood television series, a wealth of blacklisted writers stepped up. But Buhle’s overview takes us through the ‘50s and ‘60s and into the present day: the green and red struggles, contemporary labor battles and today’s fight for social justice. Welcome to Sherwood! But everywhere is Sherwood. Robin has occupied both the Wisconsin State House and New York’s Zuccotti Park and he’s not vacating the premises. Even the wicked sheriffs of Madison and Manhattan cannot keep his spirit out.

--John Pietaro is a musician, writer and labor organizer from New York City -

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