02 October 2004

Green-Clad Babies

The Better Half and I infuriatingly wound up at cross-purposes this evening after watching an episode of Robin of Sherwood. I'd borrowed the first series on DVD from Gareth yesterday, keen to revisit a cherished part of my childhood and see if it had stood the test of time.

I needn't have feared. Despite the involvement of a Muslim sidekick for Robin and the omnipresence of the Dark Arts, this was no Hollywood farce. Admittedly, it lacked the technicolour exhuberance of the Errol Flynn version, the grim authenthicity of the Patrick Bergen rendering, the tenderness of Robin and Marian, and the sheer delight of the Disney version, replete with an exceedingly foxy Maid Marian... but it somehow settles nicely between all these well-known tellings of the tale.

In fact, I'd go as far to say that this is pretty much the definitive Robin Hood. Michael Praed may not be quite as swashbuckling as Errol Flynn, but at least his deeds stay just about on the line of plausibility.

In fact, this Sherwood is as a whole more plausible than any with the exception of the Connery and Bergin versions - and yet it manages to be a richer world than those. Partly this is through there being a constant atmosphere of oppression, of how the Normans have come to England under a pretext of civilising it but really with no aim other than to milk Albion dry; Robin's band are an inspiring bunch of guerrillas, fighting for English freedom against England's armoured conquerors.

But it's not just this; through the introduction of mystical elements that had hitherto been avoided in modern retellings, this version gives a new depth to the story, weaving extra strands into the tapestry of the Greenwood, strands that have been eagerly if clumsily taken up in more recent retellings.

The Sheriff is magnificently cynical, a Machiavellian pragmatist with a great line in dry wit. His Abbot brother is exquisitely amoral, a Chaucerian nightmare. Gisborne is nasty, self-righteous, hotheaded, none-too bright, and somehow genuinely dangerous. And the rogue's gallery doesn't end there... there are plenty of chilling minor villains.

Do Liberators Always Come In Sevens?
And as for the 'Merry Men'? Ray Winstone's Will Scarlet is cynical, bitter, and somehow charming, a deeper and more interesting character than in any other version. Judi Trott may not be quite the luminous beauty that Olivia De Havilland was, but her Marian manages to combine an elvish beauty, a fiery temperament, a sharp mind, and a better eye than any of the merry men to make her almost certainly the sexiest Marian to have lit up any screen - yes, even the great Uma must bow before her.

The silent Saracen Nazir is a mesmerising character, a Muslim answer to Kurosawa's Kyuzo in Seven Samurai. He's a wonderful addition to the Sherwood mythos, and a far more convincing figure than the deus ex machina that is Morgan Freeman's Moor in Prince of Thieves. Much is endearingly dim, and while this version adds little to the characters of Little John and Friar Tuck, there's not a fault to be seen in either their roles or their performances.

Anyway, I've digressed in spectacular fashion.

What Exactly Does 'Happily Ever After' Mean Anyway?
As the second part of the series ended we got to talking about the characters and I mentioned to Herself that in some version of the legends I'd read as a child - probably the Roger Lancelyn Green version - it mentions Friar Tuck and Little John moving to Ireland and eventually dying in Dublin after Robin's death.

I wasn't quite prepared for the reaction.

'Robin Hood dies?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?'

It turns out that if you know Robin Hood mainly from cinema, and if you haven't seen Robin and Marian, you tend to think that the story ends in 1194 with Richard I returning from his imprisonment in Austria, Prince John being driven from office, Robin's nobility reinstated, and Robin and Marian getting married and presumably having lots of green-clad babies, living happily ever after...

The problem with this is that it leaves out the fact that of his ten-year reign, Richard spent only ten months in total in England. And once he was dead, sans an heir, his conniving brother took the throne once more. John ruled from 1199 to 1216, memorably signing the Magna Carta on the way. You can imagine how he might have borne a grudge against such a notorious old enemy as Robin.

I won't babble about how the legendary lord of the Greenwood supposedly met his end. You can read about it yourself, or at the very least go and watch Robin and Marian.

But anyway, this got us arguing about whether Robin's death should be part of the tale or not. Me, I'm in no doubt of the matter, and completely take the view of the great Alan Moore in his fine introduction to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns:
'All of our best and oldest legends recognize that time passes and that people grow old and die. The legend of Robin Hood would not be complete without the final blind arrow shot to determine the site of his grave. The Norse Legends would lose much of their power were it not for the knowledge of an eventual Ragnarok, as would the story of Davy Crockett without the existence of an Alamo.'
There's obviously no right and wrong way to approach these things; it's obviously just a matter of temperament. For me, I suppose, a life isn't complete until it's over - nobody can be judged until they're in the grave. After all, there's a reason why King Oedipus has traditionally been taken to end with the injunction to call no man happy until he's dead.

I'm not sure what it says about my worldview, but all too often it seems to me that a story's not over till the hero's dead. I need Cuchallain to strap himself to the pillar, and the armies of Ireland to shrink back from him until the raven lands on his cold shoulder. I need with Bedivere to watch the hand take Excalibur back into the lake, and then to see Arthur being taken away to Avalon. Herakles has to put on the poisoned robe. Jason needs to be betrayed by Medea and die beneath the rotten hull of the Argo.

The Iliad, perhaps more than anything else I've ever read or seen, glorifies this tragic view of life, presenting it as something genuinely epic. In the Iliad, the Gods live forever, and as such their lives are meaningless, trivial, inconsequential things. But the mortals on the plains before Troy? They'll die, every single one of them, sooner or later. And knowing that they'll die, it falls to them to make their lives count for something. Mortality gives their lives meaning. Death makes Life matter.

I think.

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