Contemporaries John Keats and Leigh Hunt both wrote poems in 1820 examining the Robin Hood legend, an almost-compulsory exercise for Romantic British poets. For contemporaries and members of the same literary circles, their takes on the legend ring as radically different. While Hunt’s is celebratory of an idealized time-that-never-was, Keats’ is more introspective. Keats also longs for that idealized past, but suggests it as a time-that-is-not-now.
Pieces like Hunt’s pre-figured 20th century views of the legend. In Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), starring Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, and Basil Rathbone, we are treated to a vision of Hunt’s idealized time, which would inform retellings of the tale for more than half a century. For certain, the plucky hero must overcome the evil of the Sherriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper), his flunky Guy of Gisbourne (Rathbone), and the usurping Prince John (Claude Rains), but the film’s tenor is constantly upbeat. The evil-doers are simply the obstacles for the heroes to overcome. Consider the demeanor of the principles in the film’s poster:
The serious moments of the film are reduced to afterthoughts in diminished size, dominated by the rakish smile of Flynn and de Havilland’s luminescence. The lighting is bright and uplifting. We know from the start that the forces of good will triumph in this tale.
Compare to the poster for Kevin Reynold’s 1991 Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, starring Kevin Costner, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Morgan Freeman, and the unforgettable Alan Rickman.
Costner’s Robin Hood is brooding, intense, and serious. A dramatic moment is brought to the fore as Robin aims a flaming arrow. We find Robin and Marian silhouetted at the bottom of the frame, framed by the only light, still shadowy, in the engulfing darkness. It is a Hollywood film, so we can easily predict that the heroes will triumph (and do, thanks in part to an uncredited Sean Connery appearance), but the poster’s mood and the ensuing film capture that darkness. Compare also the actors in the lead female role. De Havilland’s radiant and soft Marian contrasts with the dark, somewhat dangerous, nearly-othered version played by Mastrantonio. The costs of the struggle are not as easily paid as in the 1938 version. Even the film’s comedic moments, like Rickman’s famous “spoon” scene, are tinged with danger. Like Keats’ piece, the film laments the loss of the halcyon days spent in the greenwood, but acknowledges that the life the outlaws live is brutal and anything but idealistic. Moreover, they must eventually return to the “real” world and its difficulties. As Keats writes, his resurrected Marian would cry at the idea that “honey can’t be got without hard money” (47-48). The de Havilland Marian might; the Mastrantonio Marian will hike up her skirts and get that money.
Yet there is still hope in Keats’ piece, included in a letter he wrote to friend John Reynolds. “Though their days have hurried by / Let us two a burden try” (61-62), he writes, encouraging Reynolds to perhaps attempt to recapture such a time. As Thomas Mitchell has written, the piece “came to represent for Keats both a condemnation of the invidiously seductive powers of ‘hard cash’ and a defiant determination to create a poetry that would resist that world by remaining faithful to the poetic and political spirit” that the Robin Hood legend symbolized (766). Keats bridges idealism and practicality. He can mourn for the world that never was while still endeavoring to build the one he wishes to see.
Mitchell, Thomas R. Keats’s “Outlawry” in “Robin Hood.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 34, no. 4, 1994, pp. 753-769. JSTOR, Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/450869. Accessed 15 September 2018.