Andrew E. Larsen is an historian who specializes in Medieval England and blogs about pop culture and history at An Historian Goes to the Movies. In "Disney's Robin Hood: A Bit More Medieval Than You Might Think," Larsen explores the film's true inspiration, which wasn't Robin Hood but a different medieval tale.
A couple weeks ago, I decided that I wanted to tackle a Robin Hood movie, in honor of my friend Liz Shipe's new play, A Lady in Waiting, and went to Netflix, where I ran across the Disney version (1973, dir. Wolfgang Reitherman), which I loved as a child; I have vivid memories of seeing it in the theater more than once. So I decided to re-watch it, because I haven't seen it since. I didn't have high hopes that I would give me much to talk about on this blog, but as it turns out, there is something worth remarking on here.
Robin Hood is a medieval character, dating to at least the 14th century and possibly earlier. There's a lot to say about the whole question of whether he's a historical figure or not, but I'm not going to say it here, since I'm pretty sure that anyone watching this film knows that neither Robin Hood nor Maid Marion were foxes. It's pretty clear that the film isn't historically accurate.
What's probably less clear is that the inspiration for this version of Robin Hood isn't actually Robin Hood at all. Since the 1930s, Walt Disney had been interested in telling a version of the 12th century Alsatian story of Reynard (or Renart) the Fox. In the Roman de Renart, Reynard the Fox is summoned to the court of a cruel lion, King Leo, to answer charges brought against him by Isengrim the Wolf. Leo sends out various agents, including a bear, an ass, and a cat, to get him to court, but Reynard overcomes all three of them (incidentally, the Cat is named Tibert or Tybalt, which is why in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio calls Tybalt a 'rat-catcher' and 'king of cats'), defeats Isengrim, and becomes Leo's new advisor. This was just the start of a quite complex body of stories about Reynard, many of which were satires directed at aristocratic society.
Medieval illuminators loved scenes like this.
The problem with all this material is that it was extremely violent (the bear gets attacked by bees, Tybalt loses an eye, and Reynard decapitates a rabbit and substitutes its head for a secret treasure). Reynard is a crook, and a deeply anti-authoritarian one at that. Walt Disney concluded that the material simply wasn't appropriate for children. But Ken Anderson, one of the key members of Disney's creative team, held onto the idea an periodically played around with it. In 1968, when the studio was looking for follow-up to The Aristocrats, Anderson suggested doing a Robin Hood story. But Robin Hood is a problematic story for children, since like Reynard, he is anti-authoritarian. However, by merging the two figures and making an animated fox the hero fighting against a cowardly lion who is not the legitimate ruler, Anderson was able to kill two bird with one stone by taming the violence and reducing the anti-authoritarianism of both stories. Additionally, making the story animated rather than live-action helped create distance between the characters and the young audience, reducing the likelihood that they would absorb the anti-authoritarianism of the story.
The choice to model Robin Hood loosely off the story of Reynard was an inspired one. While Reynard is not a familiar figure to English-speaking audiences, foxes are still considered clever and sly, which fits well for Robin Hood. Modeling Prince John after Leo but making him a coward is a brilliant contradiction (as well as echoing the Cowardly Lion of The Wizard of Oz). Isengrim the wolf becomes the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham. Making Allan-a-Dale a rooster riffs nicely on the character of Chaunticleer the Rooster, who is perhaps the most famous (to English-speakers at least) of all the Reynard cycle characters, because Chaucer wrote a version of his conflict with Reynard in "The Second Nun's Tale" in The Canterbury Tales. The addition of two poor church mice as supporting characters is also a clever little joke.
Sadly, Anderson was disappointed in the film, because the studio made substantial changes to his work to make it conform to a style Disney audiences would recognize; reportedly he cried when he saw how much had been changed. There's a nice page that shows the original designs and compares them to sketches of the characters as they finally appeared. Friar Tuck is a particular loss.
The first portion of the film details how Robin tricks Prince John out of his treasure, which is clearly inspired by Reynard's escapades against Leo in the Roman de Renart. The central plot, however, involving the tournament of the Golden Arrow, is drawn from a classic Robin Hood story, but it is probably not medieval. Its source is Child Ballad 152. In the mid-19th century, an American scholar named Francis Child collected a massive body of traditional English, Scottish, and American folk ballads, and this collection, which was first published in 1857, seems to contain the earliest version of that story (at least, I can't find any earlier reference to it, but see the Update below). Child was not the author of the ballads, merely the man who collected them, so Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow is certainly older than the mid-19th century, but how much older is unknown. My guess would be that it's mid-18th century. It might be older than that, but it's unlikely to have originated in the Middle Ages.
Not everything in the film works brilliantly, however. Maid Marion has virtually no role in the film at all, other than to be romanced by Robin. A lot of the animation was re-used from the Jungle Book, and the church mice are lifted from The Aristocats. A few plot points are jarring (why don't John's guards see Little John drilling a hole into the treasure chest they're carrying?). And the film perpetuates false clichés about medieval rulers being able to do anything, like raise taxes at will and throw people in jail for no reason at all.
The choice to cast both American and British voice actors is also problematic, because the accents simply don't work well together. Roger Miller's Allan-a-Dale is particularly discordant, because he's clearly singing in the American country and western tradition rather than anything medieval, and Pat Buttram, who voices the Sheriff, was most famous as Gene Autrey's sidekick (and from Green Acres). While the idea of Western cowboys could have served as a creative kick to the medieval Robin Hood, in my opinion it's unsuccessful (although my younger self didn't have a problem with it, and he was the audience for this film).
Also, as a Wisconsinite, I was rather amused to notice that during the Tournament of the Golden Arrow, when Lady Cluck suddenly turns into a football player while fighting John's guards, the score shifts to a version of "On Wisconsin". It's definitely not medieval and most of the audience is likely to miss the joke, but it's still a nice touch.
So if you're in the mood to see Robin Hood if it were staged by furries, Disney's Robin Hood is the film for you. If you're in the mood for something more modern and you're in the Milwaukee area, check out A Lady in Waiting;you've still got a week to catch it!
Update: A friend of mine pointed out to me that Child Ballad 152 is partly based on the Gest of Robyn Hode, a mid-15th century poem that does feature an archery tournament. So while Child 152 is probably late 18th century, its source material is genuinely medieval. Thanks, Mark!
This essay was originally published at An Historian Goes to the Movies. Republished with permission.