Conversation: Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves…and Screen

BY Quinn Bowman  May 14, 2010 at 1:33 PM EDT

'Robin Hood'The legend of Robin Hood can trace its origins at least as far back as Chaucer — “haselwode where joly Robyn played” — and comes from an oral tradition that dates to the early 13th century.

On Friday, the latest version of one of history’s favorite vigilantes arrives in theaters with director Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood,” starring Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett.

The movie is a sort of prequel, chronicling Robin Longstride (Crowe) as an archer in Richard the Lionheart’s English army, before his infamous career in Sherwood Forest. Maid Marian Loxley (Blanchett) is portrayed not as a fair young lady, but as a sword-wielding widow, not afraid to join the battle.

“On the prequel issue, I think that all Robin Hood movies have to do this little trick in which they need to explain to us how it is we can idealize an outlaw, make him into a noble hero,” says Thomas Hahn, professor of English at the University of Rochester and Robin Hood scholar. “There is always a kind of explanatory story not to think poorly of Robin Hood, but in fact to understand that while he seems transgressive, in fact he is operating on a higher law and therefore restoring a kind of natural justice.”

Listen to an interview with Thomas Hahn about Robin Hood:

“Robin Hood is probably the single best known and most recognizable medieval character to survive in the last 600 years,” says Hahn. “And for that reason we can use him as a barometer for what peoples’ interests and pleasures are, not just in the middle ages but the 18th, 20th and now 21st century.”

Watch the trailer to Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood”:

The story of Robin Hood, who, along with his band of men, robs from the rich to give to the poor — feared by the bad, loved by the good — has been made into several television shows as well as feature films. Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and stage actor Brian Bedford (a la Disney’s animated fox) have all taken on the role.

Below are clips of Robin Hood over the years: