Robin Hood and Edward “Ned” Kelly. Changes of National Heroes due to Adaptation to Societies’ Needs over Time

Bachelor Thesis, 2014
48 Pages, Grade: 3.0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Reconstruction of History
2.1. How the Legend of Robin Hood Came to Life
2.2. The Better True History of Ned Kelly

3. Modern Representation of Literature
3.1. The Somewhat True Tale of Robin Hood
3.2. True History of the Kelly Gang

4. Adaptations of Heroes to Modern Needs
4.1. Robin Hood’s Changes and Adaptaions
4.2 Ned Kelly’s Changes and Adaptations
4.3 Further Modern Adaptations

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Heroes had always been there, but changed over time. They adapted to the needs of populations, societies and cultures, becoming sometimes national heroes. The best example of a changing and self-adapting hero would be Robin Hood. He is globally famous and his, probably, two best known attributes are: taking from the rich and giving to the poor, as well as being an outlaw. Not everyone might know that his real life existence is highly controversial. His legend, hence, varied from the location and the famous characters – Lady Marian and Friar Tuck – had to develop over time. Due to the change of the Hood myth in medieval times he could adapt from the society of the poor, working his way up, to the acceptance of high society. Always by adapting and changing the myth to the needs of the societies through the centuries, Hood could become the legend today’s people know. A more detailed historical review of Hood’s emergence will be developed in the first chapter.

Many movies and books about Hood exist and his name has become a label for someone who is noble and giving. Furthermore, just his name has become a metonymy and sign for giving money and making life easier for the poor. He is today one of the globally most famous heroes of the middle ages and became a national hero of Great Britain (Johnston 7) 1.

One successor of Hood’s name would be Edward “Ned” Kelly, because he is known as the Australian Robin Hood and is an Australian national hero. Both share the two main characteristics: the support and fight for the underprivileged – taken the nowadays legend of Hood – and being outlawed. Ned Kelly is interesting in contrast to Hood for becoming a fairly modern national hero. His life and soon to be legend was during the nineteenth century, showing the great impact, as well as global recognition, of the Hood legend. From the medieval time the name ‘Robin Hood’ developed to a trade mark Ned used to show his beliefs. Nevertheless, him being a hero depended on the point of view, for the police saw him as outlaw and murderer of other policemen.

Hood had already changed in medieval times, but through Ned’s legend a national hero can be traced through documents. These different documents allow to see the subjectivity in witnesses reports and how a legend can change already in the time of creating. Ned, therefore, is a good example to show changes and adaptations via different perspectives and the influence of circumstances, for example trying to get a prison sentence lessend (PROV: Williamson re: remission of sentence).

Modern variations of Hood and even Ned, as well as Hollywood, nevertheless, often leave only a skeleton of the truth and history gets lost, because fewer people are interested in real history and rely on modern and Hollywood versions. Parents growing up with the Hollywood versions teach those changed versions on to their children, creating Chinese whispers. Those help to keep the legends in mind, but change it everytime slightly from the real history.

This paper will focus on the thesis-statement that national heroes change over time according to present societies and their needs, adapting the hero story in the most beneficial way. It will start with the historical lives, as far as reconstructible, of Robin Hood and his Australian counterpart Ned Kelly and focus on two novels about their lifes. Based on these novels the modern perception of the two heroes will be developed. Furthermore, it will be illustrated how modern society presents national heroes. In the end a conclusion about history and perception will be displayed and a future prospect about national heroes will be given.

2. Reconstruction of History

2.1. How the Legend of Robin Hood Came to Life

Nowadays probably everyone knows or has at least heard of Robin Hood, the “Anglo- Saxon earl of Huntingdon, Sir Robin of Locksley, […] evicted from his estates by the Normans and outlawed” (Pollard 2), who “lives by highway robbery and poaching” (Pollard 2), while England is under the rule of Prince John, regent while king Richard I is on crusade, accompanied and in league with the Sheriff of Nottingham (Pollard 2). Locksley as Hood fights with his merry men against the oppressions, the Sheriff being his main enemy and after many adventures, an archery contest, and fighting free of arrest Hood triumphs and can proof to the king, who had arrived in disguise, that he is fighting for the right side (Pollard 2). “Prince John and his allies are removed” (Pollard 2), Hood is restored to his land, gets Maid Marian and a good, fair government of freedom is reinstated (Pollard 2). This is the twentieth-century version of the Hood legend, which was not known to people during the fifteenth- and early sixteens century (Pollard 2).

Scholars know that only three pre-Reformation sources, all Scottish, “attempt to set Robin Hood in historical context” (Luxford 70). These authors were Wyntoun, Bower and Mair2 (Luxford 70). Major’s credible biography of Hood is fiction, but was established so well that others repeated the legend as historic fact (Simeone 304)3. Wyntoun and Bower are, nevertheless, considered to be “divergent and imprecise in detail” (Luxford 71), casting further doubt on Wyntoun for being “diffident about locating Robin Hood […] in Inglewood and Barnsdale during the years 1283-85” (Luxford 71). Bower was more certain about Barnsdale, but had the year 1266 (Luxford 71). Hood is dated back to the early 1260s when his name was recorded for the first time (Dodds 467)4.

Wyntoun and Bower “accounts adumbrate a lost tradition or traditions which may had substentially earlier roots” applied “archival evidence” and it “cannot be proven that the dates they give are more than guesswork designed to anchor historically a tradition with no fixed chronology” (Luxford 71). An anonymous writer, nevertheless, agrees with Wyntoun about the reign of Edward I, but placed him during the years 1294-1299 (Luxford 71). Like the Scottish authors this writer, who referenced Hood in Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, was uncertain about the active time of Hood as well, but he placed him, in accordance with “the Middle English verses of c.1425 preserved in Lincoln Cathedral MS 132, and also the oldest surviving Robin Hood ballad, Robin Hood and the Monk” (Luxford 71), in Sherwood (Luxford 71). In Eton 213 a more reliable source can be found, which states: “Around this time, according to popular opinions, a certain outlaw named Robin Hood, with his accomplices, infested Sherwood and other law-abiding areas of England with continuous robberies” (Luxford 72-73)5. Due to the fact that a monk as principle annotator wrote them it gets more reliable, because the clergy had cause for disdain and the work is concerned with historical and chronnological accuracy (Luxford 71-74). The Hood stories “were picked out early for special condemnation” (Pollard 10) to show disapproval of people who would rather hear a tale or song of Hood than go to mass (Pollard 10). In Robin Hood and the Monk (RHMonk)6 a direct reference is made to Nottingham as well as Sherwood and other early ballads, Robin Hood and the Potter (RHPotter) as well as the Gest of Robyn Hode7 (Gest), “contain elements of a Sherwood tradition, specifically in their references to Nottingham and its sheriff” (Luxford 74-75). The oral tradition of Hood and the written text were intermingled, but probably more heard than read (Pollard 11).

None of the early ballads are positive about Hood. In RHMonk he murders a monk and his page, kills twelve others and could be described as “traitorous, unchivalrous, larcenous, thuggish, and violently anti-clerical” (Luxford 75), while his devotion to the Virgin Mary would have been seen as “between folly and mockery” (Luxford 75).

RHPotter tells the story of Hood how he lost a fight against a Potter and later meets the sheriff under the disguise of being a potter (Ritson 81-96). The sheriff lets Hood lead him to Sherwood, where he is surrounded by Hood’s men (Ritson 81-96). Due to the former hospitality of the sheriff’s wife, the sheriff is allowed to leave in the end (Ritson 81-96). In this ballad Little John – Lytyll John (John)– gets mentioned (Ritson 83). Typical Hood related figures, as the Sheriff and John, already exist, but the Sheriff has a wife and does not get killed or banned in the end, as is often the case nowadays, for example in the following play by Dobson. The Sheriff’s wife is the only woman next to the Virgin Mary (Johnston 34). Additionally, the part of disguise is included.

Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne (RHGG) is about Robin Hood who walks with John through the forest; they spot a stranger and Hood objects John’s advice to wait as if accused of cowardice (Ritson 115-125). John marches off and is captured by the Sheriff who ties him to a tree, to be hanged (Ritson 115-125). Hood goes up to the stranger, Guy of Gisborne, who is a hired killer (Ritson 115-125). They have a shooting competition, Hood wins, identifies himself and the two fight (Ritson 115-125). Hood trips and Guy can hit his left side, but after a prayer to the Virgin Mary he kills Guy (Ritson 115-125). Hood then cuts off Guy's head, sticks it on the tip of his bow and slashes the face, making it unrecognizable (Ritson 115-125). He blows Guy's horn to signal the death of Robin Hood to the Sheriff and, disguised as Guy, goes to him (Ritson 115-125). He rescues John by convincing the Sheriff to be allowed to kill John, but instead cutting him loose. John then takes the Guy’s bow from Hood and shoots the Sheriff through the backside (Ritson 115-125). As can be seen, Hood and John are reflected in a friendship, which gets challenged, but Hood does not let one of his men die. The typical archery contest and a disguise, even in a double version, are included again and the importance of the Virgin Mary gets visible. Furthermore, the brutality – when Hood cuts Guy’s head of and makes it unrecognizable – of earlier versions, as RHMonk, shines through. This time, the Sheriff does get killed.

Gest is a lengthy tale of six “fytte” (Ritson 1)8 and a compilation of five separate tales (Pollard 4). One story is about Robin Hood and the Knight (Knight), which functions as the central head (Pollard 4). The next is about Robin Hood and the Sheriff (RHSheriff), where Hood participates in an archery contest, followed by L ittle John and the Sheriff (LJSheriff), in which “John disguises himself as Reynolde Grenelefe and enters the sheriff’s service and leads him into a trap in the forest” (Pollard 4). Robin Hood and the King tells how the king disguised himself and takes Hood into his service, after Hood misses at an archery contest (Pollard 4-5; Ritson 58). The last is The Death of Robin Hood and tells how Hood fled from court life to the forest and gets later killed by a treachery of the prioress of Kirklees, in Yorkshire (Pollard 5).

Hood’s charity personage gets visible, which is coupled with the strong believe in the Virgin Mary. The importance of John’s character are implied, as well as archery. A cook is relevant in the fact that he is disloyal and leaves the service of the Sheriff and becomes a member of Hood’s men, whereas John loyaly returns to Hood (Dodds 474). The Virgin Mary gets again related to justice and money, because she provided money through the ‘evil’ monk and lets Hood be charitable to the ‘good’ knight. Moreover, the positions of good and evil are differenciated again when the knight offers Hood sanctuary in his castle and the Sheriff captures the knight. To be the best in archery and not miss the target is important, as gets obvious when Hood misses and, thus, has to follow the king. The death is also important, as Hood often does not die in modern versions, for example Dobson’s play. Incoherency in the interwoven stories get visible, as the knight at first has no name, but then becomes Sir Richard at the Lee (Pollard 5). LJSheriff is seemingly introduced as comic relief, because the tone changes from a serious minded to a “knockabout farce” (Pollard 6). RHSheriff then changes into an “all-action, swashbuckling yarn” (Pollard 6).

In these early ballads Hood never took money to hand it to the poor, only in the Gest is a hint for this tradition (Johnston 30). Furthermore, Hood’s different characters get visible: “the fount of restorative justice (‘Knight’)” and “a cold-blooded killer (Guy)” (Pollard 12). Hood is sometimes “more courteous (‘Knight’), sometimes more common; sometimes he is high-minded, sometimes he is a trickster (Potter)” (Pollard 12).

Pre-Reformation examples of plays and other events about Hood, manifesting the tradition, are recorded, among others, at Exeter (1427) and Ashburton (1526) (Luxford 75), as early as 1426-7 (Pollard 11). These “plays, revels, gatherings and archery contests” (Pollard 11), in which impersonations of Hood were performed “in parochial May Games almost as early as we know rhymes were being recited” (Pollard 11). The rhymes are assumed to came first, but “by 1500 play and rhyme were interchangable” (Pollard 11). The May Games took place “around Whitsun from 10 May to 13 June” (Pollard 168). Bishop Langland, in one evidence, was assured by parishioners, of St. Margaret’s in the Newarke at Leicester in 1525, who customarily brought Hood, among others, every year in their May Games, that the show was for the profit and wealth of the church (Pollard 168). These traditions show already the development of the legend and the importance of archery, a villain and charitable acts.

Hood can be seen as well as a “Lord of Summer” or “Summer King” (Johnston 21), making him a mythical embodiement of summer and fertility and linking him to the, in celtic sagas prominent, fairy world (Johnston 21). In this the catholic Pentecost got mixed with a mythical, magical, otherworld, which probably did not agree with the clergy, giving them more cause to dislike Hood and his tradition.

After 1500 Maid Marion enters the tradition as mythical ‘summer queen’, but her role had more importance than accompanying Hood (Johnston 68f). Through her, Hood is in a heterosexual relationship, she civilizes the violant men group and makes it possible to integrate Hood into social symbolics (Johnston 69). Furthermore, she opens up the possibility of a more complex story structure with a beginning and a future (Johnston 69). After the Reformation Marian replaced the Virgin Mary and Hood was promoted by Anthony Munday to earl of Huntigdon (Pollard 15). Munday was as well responsible for making Marian the “daughter of Lord FitzWater (sic!)” (Pollard 15) and placing the legend to the reign of Richard I, while he is on crusade, making his brother, Prince John, the regent of the realm (Pollard 15). As can be seen, the modern version, as described by Pollard in the beginning of this chapter, starts to shine through, making Hood as well a freedom fighter (Pollard 15).

The place of Friar Tuck is uncertain in the medieval tradition, nevertheless, the play Robin Hood and the Sheriff (RHSheriff) links him as only source, during the pre-Reformation era, to Hood (Field 13). It does not give much evidence, however, as to how Tuck was portrayed, but he was a part of Hood’s band (Field 13). Hood consistet since then of four persons – Hood, John, Marian, Tuck – representing different parts of society and making the Hood tradition as well a part of society (Johnston 71).

Ritson claims that Hood was born in Locksley, Nottingham, during the reign of King Henry the Second, around 1160, he was of noble birth and his real name was Robert Fitzooth, which was easily mispronounced as Robin Hood (ii). He had been Earl of Huntington, during his youth his inheritance got taken away and he was outlawed, which is why he had to seek asylum in the woods, namley Barnsdale and Nottingham (Ritson iii). In the forests he got accompanied by others and took the role of the leader (Ritson iii). Followers and friends had been Little John, William Scadlock, George a Green, Much, Tuck and Marian (Ritson iii). Ritson then mentiones the name of King Richard, contradicting his own statement of the reign of Henry the Second and mentiones later, during Hoods death, the reign of King Henry III. (Ritson v, xi). Additionally, Ritson claims that Hood took only from the rich and gave to the poor, did not kill unless the person attacked or resisted and that he would not treat women badly (viii). A sickness had made Hood search relieve through a blood letting in the Kirkley nunnery and all happened on the “18th of November 1247, being the 31st year of Henry III. And (if the date assigned to his [Hood’s] birth be correct) about the 87th of his age” (Ritson xi). Hood was then “interred under some trees, at a short distance from the house ; (sic!) a stone being placed over his grave with an inscription to his memory” (Ritson xi). As mentioned, Ritson contradicts himself by naming three different kings and goes against historians who agree to place the legend around “the reigns of the first three Edwards up to c. 1340” (Pollard 187).

From the medieval narratives four complete rhymes – Gest, RHMonk, RHPotter and RHGG – survived, forming the corpus of the early Hood legend (Pollard 7), as well as three Scottish and one English chronicle entries, as mentioned above, all from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (Dodds 467)9. Field additionally lists a fragment of a play and date all existences from between 1440 and 1521 (9). The narrations suggest an audience “which reached beyond the welthiest groups in society” (Dodds 470). Gest and RHMonk “present an ideal of kingship” (Dodds 473), were “developed as a vehicle for complex political agendas by welthier social groups” (Dodds 474) and the Hood tradition was also used by Henry VIII who “himself liked to play Robin Hood” (Field 22). As a young king, in 1510, he bursted with twelve noble men, all dressed “in short coats, hoods, and hose, carrying bows and arrows and swords” (Field 22), into the queen’s chamber (Field 22). In 1515, two hundred men of the king’s guard were dressed as Hood and after an archery exhibition invited the king and his queen to a breakfast (Field 22). Hood was, nevertheless, also used “by poorer social groups to voice their discontent” (Dodds 474). Hobsbawm goes as far as to call Hood a social bandit and not a criminal, because society could be proud of him (193).

Robin Hood consists of a first and a last name, but in the thirteenth century only high ranking social persons had had last names (Johnston 12). Hence, ‘Hood’ should be seen more as a sobriquet, deduced from an ordinary hood, which all classes could wear (Johnston 12). The Norman invation spread the name ‘Robin’ throughout Britain, which is why it became one of the most popular names in medieval time (Johnston 13). Due to an inconsistent grammar in medieval Britain, Robin Hood could be written as ‘Robinhood’, ‘Robbehod’, ‘Hobbehod’, etc (Johnston 16) and “from 1262, at the latest, the aliases ‘Robehod’ […] begin to appear in legal records, indicating the development of a convention whereby certain criminals adopted what had become known names” (Pollard 15). Moreover, the fact that “an outlaw persona, possibly based on a person who had once existed, called Robehod or variations of that name, known fairly widely by the 1260s, is not in doubt” (Pollard 187). It is just not known “when or by whom stories about this persona were first created” (Pollard 187). The Hood stories “were some of the most widely known narratives of late medieval England (and Scotland), and their audience by the late fifteenth century transcended boundaries of class and geography” (Field 8).

During the sixteenth century the games vanished more and more, being nearly completely gone at the beginning of the seventeeth century (Johnston 71). Authorities got, under Elisabeth I, more suspicious and stricter with the preservation of puplic order, which is why Hood appeared in theaters (Johnston 71-72, 75). Protestantism and the supression of the May Games lead, additionally, to the print culture taking over (Pollard 14).

Denigration, folklore, anthropology and “the radical change in the concept of valid historical evidence” (Simeone 305) were as well downfalls for Hood and among others Grimm helped to establish the fact that Hood is a complete fiction (Simeone 305). Dodds, nevertheless, argues that “[o]n the basis of the chronology of subsequent references to the outlaw and scant surviving mentions in a chronicle, legal records and a possible epitaph” it could be true that Hood existed, “was outlawed for the first time in the 1190s, lost his chattels for another failure to appear before justice in 1225, […] finally died in 1247” and when the “legend developed, the deeds of other ‘real’ individuals may have become associated with the stories of Robin Hood” (465). Pollard admits the unlikelyness of ever knowing if a ‘real’ Hood existed (16) and Hobsbawm adds that if there is no relationship between the reality and the myth of a bandit, everyone could be Hood, meaning that a certain truth in the Hood legend must exist (182).

Faithful believers went on finding proof for his existence, going into extremes, and also scholars found possibilities for his heritage, but these persons had nothing in common with Hood and his traditions we know today (Simeone 306f). Simoleone states that “there never has been sufficient bona fide evidence, and there is none now” (306). He claims further that the Hood in the ballads is not one person, but several and they are as well different from the one in the May Games (308). The Robin Hood legend is, according to Simeone, nothing but an imagination, but he admits that “one of the strenghts of the Robin Hood legend is its ability to survive almost any test of truth” (Simeone 308), which might explain why Hood “flourished in nineteenth-century Britain as never before” and “myth developed over centuries […] took on a new role beginning in the later eighteenth century, as rivalry with other states heightened and an empire was recognized to have come into existence” (Barczewski 673). During the nineteenth century the English language “became part of the essence of British” (Barczewski 674) and nationality came through the establishment of national literature, which is why the importance of the Hood myths increased and the ballads became “incorporated in the national canon” (Barczewski 674). Furthermore, Hood became quintessentially English as Anglo-Saxon racialism rose, due to the enormous influence of Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) and provided “an alternative ideal for those who disliked or criticized” (Barczewski 674) the empire (Barczewski 674). The early ballads “thus carried and still carry, a set of political values” (Pollard 189). Hood’s legend “of the Norman Yoke had a long and influential pedigree influencing radical thought in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries” (Pollard 189), which is why the legend changed to “accommodate these ideological transformations” (Pollard 189) and the pre-Reformation tales altered (Pollard 189).


1 Additionally, his Name is known for different forms of social and political resistance and a globally active environmental protection organization is called ‘Robin Wood’ – ‘Robin’ for the rebel and ‘Wood’ for the closeness to nature (Johnston 7). More references, changes and adaptations can be seen in chapter 4.1. and 4.3.

2 Also recorded as ‘Major’ (Simeone 303). Different writings of names in the following are due to different spellings over the times.

3 The Tudor chronicler Richard Grafton repeated Hood’s life as historic fact, too (Simeone 304).

4 Smith accords as first reference the B-text of Piers Plowman, passus v, l. 402 (A.D. 1377), where Sloth says that he cannot pray his paternosters perfectly, but knows rhymes of Hood (Smith 484). He admits, though, that “this allusion may perhaps be considerably antedated by a reference in the Monk Bretton Cartulary (Yorkshire Archæological Society, Record Series, vol. LXVI) to ‘ the stone of Robyn Hood’ in a document of 1322 (Smith 484). Nevertheless, Johnston also mentiones this as first reference (18).

5 Eton College MS 213 is a Polychronicon made around 1420, in which a reference to Hood is made on f. 234r and the original 23 words in old English, as well as a copy of the document can be seen in Luxford page 72 -73.

6 RHMonk was first printed and named by Robert Jamieson in his Popular Ballads and Songs of 1806, reprinted in a better text in C.H. Hartshorne’s Ancient Metrical Tales in 1829 (Knight and Ohlgren). It is “the oldest extant example of the ‘rhymes of Robin Hood’ referred to by Langland in the 1370s, implied by Andrew of Wyntoun in the 1420s, and both described and exemplified by Walter Bower in the 1440s” (Knight and Ohlgren).

7 Also written as A Lytell Geste Of Robyn Hode (Ritson 1).

8 Pollard claims the number of eight ‘fyttes’ (5). The difference is because Ritson leaves the death of Hood out, ending when Hood returned to the forest (58).

9 Field only accounts two chronicle entries and three ballads (9). Pollard claims that eight stories survived (3).

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Robin Hood and Edward “Ned” Kelly. Changes of National Heroes due to Adaptation to Societies’ Needs over Time
University of Trier
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Ned Kelly, Edward Kelly, Robin Hood, Hood, literature, Hero, Heroes, national heroes, adaptation, society change, society, adaptaton studies, literature studies
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Angelika M. Tank (Author), 2014, Robin Hood and Edward “Ned” Kelly. Changes of National Heroes due to Adaptation to Societies’ Needs over Time, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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