Building legends, faith and truth on a Tuesday afternoon

When asked to describe this blog entry, I said to a friend: “Well, it started about Robin Hood and the nature of legend, and then I started to get all lit-crit, and then Jesus hopped in there somewhere, and then I felt like all Hell might break loose!” So, reader beware — this may or may not make a whole lot of sense.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a sucker for anything that involves legends or folk tales — particularly those of the medieval European variety. So, it stands to reason that no one should be very surprised when I say that I am really looking forward to the release of the Russell&Ridley re-imagining of the origins of Robin Hood on the 14th of May (my lord, the Rs in that sentence!). This rather sweeping epic is one of the biggest films to come out of the Hollywood BlockBuster machine this year, and it’s got a cast and production team that’s positively riddled with tinseltown’s most lauded. I’ll admit that I’ve got a weakness for this sort of film; the sort of film that has a trailer that gets the blood flowing with a barrage of giant images laid perfectly down in time with music that’s almost too booming when you’ve got your headphones in for fear you’ll wake your roommate after watching it too many times at some obscene hour. That this one has got Russell Crowe as England’s most cherished weathered archer and Cate Blanchett as a fiery Marion just makes it all the more appetizing.

This morning, over my giant mug of coffee and a rather large bowl of yogurt and raspberries (I am clearly the breakfast queen — more on that at another time), I took in an article on the Times Online that takes a ‘behind the scenes look‘ at the film. As he should, the writer speaks about the nature of the Robin Hood legend and, in his limited space, gives a snapshot listing of places in literature and film where Robin appears. That’s the thing, you see — Robin Hood is never found in history as an actual person that lived and died and whose life was recorded in any literal fashion. Robin is a man of legend much the way King Arthur and many giants of literature and ‘revisionist history’ are. So, when the trailer touts that the film will show you “the untold story of how the man became the legend”, it’s actually working on the earliest mentions of his character within the scope of what I imagine is mainly English folk tales and ballads. 2004’s Bruckheimer epic “King Arthur” attempted to employ a similar method of story-telling, claiming ‘recent evidence’ of some sort that shed light on the identity of the man on whom Arthur was originally based.

The idea that we must search for one man or one truth behind such a universal story does seem silly when you stop to think about it. A legend is a living, breathing story of inspiration that has been formed by, and given as a gift to, generations of real people who derive from it a sense of hope, belonging, strength and wisdom. The fact of the matter is that one man is not capable of such largess without people around him to spread it. In the opening of the second, longer trailer for Robin Hood there is mention of Robin’s father having been a visionary who saw that “kings have a need of their subjects”. One might also say that outlaws have need of their followers, and legends have need of their story-tellers.

Last week, I finally got around to devouring Northrop Frye’s “The Educated Imagination”. One of the things Frye says that I feel is absolutely true is that anyone with a desire to understand and to be educated in literature (and in life, I would argue; certainly in the Western hemisphere) must have the truly solid foundation that can only be provided by having read and been taught the Bible “so early and so thoroughly that it sinks straight to the bottom of the mind, where everything that comes along later can settle on it.” Of course, as he points out, he is speaking from the point of view of a literary critic and not some sort of religious fundamentalist. His words speak to how important a work of literature the Bible is, and how it contains “a survey of the human situation which is so broad and comprehensive that everything else finds its place inside it”. Of course, before the Bible became the work of literature that it is, it was a series of stories. These stories were eventually written down by various authors and put together over the course of quite a lengthy period, making a compendium of tales of life, struggle, triumph, woe, love, and everything in between. To me, it seems the same (I speak in relative terms) as if one were to compile all of the stories of King Arthur’s court and put a name on it. Robin Hood, King Arthur, and Jesus Christ have an enormous amount in common if you stop to think of it — troubles with their origins, a kingdom to save, naysayers to combat, a group of faithful followers, strong (albeit conflicted) women in their lives, a rise to greatness from humble beginnings, and about 50 more things that I’m sure to have left out. And so I ask you: does the fact that a figure like Robin Hood (or indeed, like Arthur or Christ) is not only one man, but rather many men, diminish his importance? It is not the lauding of one man that brings humankind together — it is the belief in what he represents, and how well others identify with him that creates our collective understanding and appreciation for what he has become in our lives, and in legend (as the case may be).

Again, this is why I find it a little bit unusual that we all seem to seek that one truth behind the millions of details that have been added to, taken from, or skewed with a story. Anyone who has studied literature even half-way seriously should be able to confidently tell you that simply because something is fiction doesn’t make it untrue. This newest sweeping epic of Robin Hood’s story is a work of fiction, but the thematic hallmarks of the story are all very true to life — that much the characters will demonstrate in their convictions, struggles and triumphs. Knowing the story of Christ as well as I do (years of Sunday School and a degree in literature and history will do that to you), when I watch the trailers for Robin Hood, all I can think about is the comparisons to Christ. But here’s the thing: Christ is the original and definitive representation of certain life truths for me because I learned about him, first. Perhaps that explains part of the reason why I am so drawn to stories like those of King Arthur and Robin Hood: they are so similar and almost parallel to the first epic story that I was told as a child.

This past Sunday afternoon — Easter Sunday, no less — a friend of mine wrote a blog entry in which he talked a little bit about the nature of having grown up Catholic and what that meant in the scope of his understanding of metaphor, symbolism, myth and the like. He also reminds us that “St. Augustine was the first to really tell us about the levels of meaning in a text, and he scoffed at anyone who read scripture as literal truth. To read the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth, he commented, would give one ‘no end of laughter.’ ” My point here being that stories — representations of life — and those people who are found within them are the very basis for that which we call faith. As an companion point to that, I will point out that literal truth is certainly not all it’s cracked up to be; it does nothing for the imagination, and is much like the conversation-killer that the internet has become in a world where we can simply look up a fact and settle a score instead of having a spirited conversation or debate on the matter (an exercise which is undoubtedly more fruitful and inspires more truth and insight).

All of this thought about the nature of legend and faith and belief aside, I am truly looking forward to watching what I hope will be an excellent epic film. Telling stories such as those of Robin Hood must be a rollicking good time — there are such great characters and such poetry to be found in the struggle. Perhaps I’m over-romanticizing it all, but that’s my job: I’m a poet, which (to close by return, here) is why I must now go and watch the trailer again, and revel in the rhythm of epic trailer music and the staccato beats of its take on the brutality of medieval warfare.

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