Robin Hood and the Problem of Domestic Fantasy

So I’ve been thinking, off and on, about why it is that we see a lot of novels about King Arthur and not a lot of novels about Robin Hood. You get Robin Hood movies, sure, but books, not so many, only a handful. I was rewatching Disney’s animated version not that long ago, and a particular image got my attention.

Robin Hood and Little John were doing their laundry.

While Disney’s Robin Hood is really great on gender stuff–Robin Hood clearly can’t cook because he’s a lovesick fool, not because he’s a guy and Little John, who can, fixes the ruined stew for him; they do laundry; when Lady Cluck says “this is no place for a lady!”, she clearly means “for a gently reared person,” because she charges immediately into the fray herself, to the tune of On Wisconsin*–this is not the only Robin Hood that features laundry in Sherwood Forest. In fact Sherwood Forest is strikingly domestic, for a mythic setting.

I think this is perhaps the problem with getting it into novels.

Jo Walton, when talking about writing Lifelode, has discussed the problems of domestic fantasy, how conflict and war tend to creep into books that are otherwise trying to focus on the daily and the smaller-focus, just structurally–that we have an addiction to the grand and the dramatic, as a genre, even when we are trying not to. And I think that the Robin Hood myth actually runs into this problem. Sure, there is swashbuckling. There is the dramatic. But it is the dramatic image. It is the arrow going into the target; it is the Merry Man swinging into a tree. It is not the dramatic tension, because we all know the precursors for the ending are historical, not personal.

Because of Robin Hood’s near-unique place in western legend, straddling myth and history so neatly, the story’s ending can’t be refitted without upending actual history. The end of the Robin Hood story is that actual, historical Good King Richard returns from the Crusades and ends the usurped reign of his brother, actual, historical Prince John. So…what, exactly, are Our Band of Merry Men doing? They can’t actually resolve their own problems in any lasting way. And fighting the Sheriff of Nottingham starts to look an awfully lot like doing the laundry if you’re never allowed to either beat him (slay/depose him) or have him beat you on any permanent basis. Oh, it’s Monday: time to wash out our green jerkins and hassle the Sheriff’s men. Oh, it’s Tuesday: time to go to market for turnips and shoot some arrows into Prince John’s tax collectors’ hats. But not into the tax collectors themselves! Because resolution is not in our purview. We resist. Others resolve.

The jerkins will get dirty again, the turnips will go again into the stew, the taxes will get collected again. The camera can fool the eye with pageantry into feeling that there has been progress from arrow shot to arrow shot. But on the page of a novel, it’s very hard to make a holding action against entropy feel like heroism. Even though it’s the main heroism any of us achieve on a daily basis. Even though it is a heroism worth having.

Try again, someone; I would have another domestic fantasy, or a Robin Hood novel that grapples with this, or both. But for the moment at least, I am not the one to write it.

*Multiple associations with north of one place or another. Willingness to throw shoulders in a brawl and clown for children. Bosom capacious enough for storage. Can we say “Marissa’s identification character?” CLUCKY I LOVE YOU.

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