Interviews in Sherwood

Gendering Robin Hood

by Professor Stephen Knight


Below this introduction is a piece on the "gay Robin Hood" controversy of 1999 by the professor whose comments were quoted in those newspaper articles.

Stephen Knight was the head of the English Literature section at the University of Wales in Cardiff. His 1994 book Robin Hood: A Complete Study of the English Outlaw is considered one of the best books on the Robin Hood legend, as is its successors, Robin Hood -- A Mythic Biography and Reading Robin Hood. He has also edited or co-edited collections of Robin Hood ballads and Robin Hood criticism.

In July 1999 his comments (and the press coverage of those comments) caused quite a stir, as it was implied that Robin Hood might have been gay.

I asked him to offer some detailed thoughts on Robin Hood's sexuality and the recent press coverage of this story.

His response is the piece below. And it's better than I could have ever hoped for. Not only are his remarks insightful, but they're often very funny too.

Thank you very much for allowing me to put this on my website.

More of Professor Knight's articles are available on his personal blog -

- Introduction by webmaster Allen W. Wright

Gendering Robin Hood

There has from time to time been journalistic interest in papers and publications of mine, but this was the first time I had been in the South China News or on page one of Le Monde. Admittedly it was what the British call the silly season in the press, when editors go on holiday and the media mice come out to play, but combining the hero Robin Hood and the concept of gayness seemed to touch some international nerve of curiosity, amounting at times to astonishment and in a few cases outrage.

It started with a paper I was writing for the second international Robin Hood conference in, naturally, Nottingham. I have become interested in how the Victorians transmitted the outlaw tradition with their characteristic cocktail of sanctity and sado-masochism, and I have been working on some long forgotten Robin Hood novels. I decided to talk about one of the shorter and more interesting ones, Maid Marian : the Forest Queen (1849) by an ex-India theatre writer who doubled in military history, Joachim Stocqueler. In apparent reference to Marian, but also to permit a passing comment to divert my scholarly friends, I called the paper just `The Forest Queen'. This caused the whole business.

My planned passing comment was in just one paragraph. The paragraph heard round the world. I commented that as Maid Marian did almost nothing in the novel, and as Stocqueler was a well-known wit and man of the theatre, perhaps his sub-title was tongue in cheek and made reference to the fact that the Robin Hood legend is certainly homosocial and, through all the male bonding, fighting, feasting and intermasculine emotion, can be taken as a saga of homosexual values.

It's a thought I have long had - and others too; Tom Hahn, of Rochester University New York gave a fine paper at the 1997 Kalamazoo medieval conference on `Homosocial Robin Hood'. I argued in my 1994 book on the outlaw that E.M.Forster's fine and long fugitive novel Maurice makes a reference to the outlaw myth when it ends with a clear statement that only in the greenwood, real or fantasised, can men truly love each other. To suggest that the Robin Hood myth can have a gay meaning seemed an obvious comment to make, and at a time when gender studies, looking at both male and female affective auto-construction, is a substantial item on the conceptual agenda, a comment that was worth making to provoke some thoughts and responses.

Provoke it did, and that through a journalist, Jonathan Leake of the London Sunday Times. These days the publicity-hungry British universities release to the media details of forthcoming conferences, and a few alert people comb through the dull lists for possible stories. Jonathan rang the organiser, Professor Helen Phillips of Glamorgan University, to talk generally about the conference, and asked about my title: he suspected it had something to do with gayness. Helen said she thought it might, but told him to contact me. She rang at once and advised me that he was interested in doing a story on the conference and seemed especially keen on the gay angle. `Well,' I replied, `do you want the publicity ?' She said, hedging her personal bets, that the university would. I was a bit hard to contact, partly because I was on the road examining a PhD at Cambridge and scouting the territory for a Robin Hood tour I was organising for the conference (checking out coffee and toilet stops), but mostly because I am very unskilled at using the mobile phone our daughter had lent me. But eventually Jonathan and I made contact; I was at the time sitting on a pub verandah in Clipstone looking at the ruins of King John's hunting lodge. Perhaps it was an omen.

In a long interview with Jonathan (he courteously rang me back as soon as I got in touch) we covered most of the ground: he had already bothered to get hold of my book and knew the gist of the structure of the tradition - the medieval Robin Hood is a social bandit, a tough guy without a lady; in the renaissance he is gentrified and gains good manners, a title and a lady; from the nineteenth century on Robin is a mixture of Saxon freedom fighter, charitable gentleman, nature-lover and a bit of a trickster, and there is now combat with the villain over Marian's person. We chewed this over, but Jonathan kept circling back to the gender issue, and I gave my opinion that one of the political meanings of the story was to read Robin's resistance to authority as being the resistance of the gay to the straight. This reading is made possible, even credible, because the medieval ballads are entirely male, there is a fair degree of affect between the male characters, and even when, as in the Victorian novels, Marian has appeared as Mrs Robin Hood she plays almost no part in the story. In that period a number of the texts notably celebrate the boyishly handsome hero, from Keats to Alfred Noyes, as well as often relishing his powerful, even passionate, links with his comrades.

The Sunday Times story boiled this down to Was Robin Hood Gay ?  There was a fine colour pic of ultra-handsome Errol Flynn and an astutely selected illustration by Howard Pyle, the very influential American illustrator of 1883, showing Robin and Friar Tuck playing horsey in the water. The text focused on the sharp shock of the gay charge, but also, as suits a serious Sunday paper, had research on show: the distinguished Barrie Dobson, Professor at Cambridge, said that homosexuality in the medieval period was not necessarily as repressed as you might think, and there was a nice round-up from the present Earl of Huntingdon saying goodness gracious me.

As I had expected there was fall-out. My wife trained as a journalist on a Rupert Murdoch paper in Australia, and we have some experience of how a new story can suddenly start a media feeding frenzy, but this was bigger than both of us. I got back from my tour-preparing trip on a Sunday to find that a few wily journalists had got my number from security at my university. I wonder what they think security means. First up were the BBC, awake to the world as ever. One call was from Radio 5, the brainless lightweight morning chat show; the other from Radio 4's Today that voice of managerial Britain. I explained to both about the beat-up element, plus my view that there is a credible gay reading of the tradition, and that this is one of the reasons for its continuing popularity: the politics of the outlaw can be gay as much as socialist, nationalist, internationally liberal, tricksterish whatever. `Sounds great' said chatty Gina from Radio 5; `what about five minutes tomorrow morning ?' It was a brief, slightly breathy, but well-managed interview. Radio 4 Today was different - and not in my view to its credit. The obviously highly intelligent, no doubt Oxbridge-trained producer, was looking for a shock `RH was gay' story. I gave my temperature-reducing spiel. `Oh,' she said, `we'll have to think about that. I wonder how we could focus that.' `Don't worry,' I replied, `never mind,' concealing my dislike of those measured morning tones that monitor and mentor the world. They never called back. Why did schlock radio not mind my diluted, more thoughtful story, and the alleged higher echelons shy away from my lack of vulgar focus ? Robin Hood's sexuality is not the only tender spot in this developing saga.

In the next few days at work the phones were hot, and the secretaries bothered. I did a startling number of radio interviews, probably thirty in the week. Memorable were a couple of debates with the folks from Nottingham, more put out than usual, and feeling very threatened by the whole idea of unnatural forest practices; and even surlier when, perhaps now getting silly, I suggested they should chase the pink dollar like Sydney with its Gay Mardi Gras. The reflex of Nottingham offence was the substantial number of local radio interviews with towns neighbouring on and so hostile to the outlaw Jerusalem: Sheffield, Leicester, Northampton, Birmingham were all delighted to speculate on Robin Hood's high jinks and the resultant glum visages in what the Anglo-Saxons called Snottingham.

But it went further afield than that. As before when I have published new and slightly wacky ideas on topics like crime fiction, outlaws, gender and politics, the big countries with serious nationally interlinking radio came to the party. Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia were on the phone early and I did some lengthy and thoughtful interviews with them, though we got off to a bad start with the guys from Radio Winnipeg who wanted to know if Cardiff University was in London. `It's not even in England' I said, haughtily Welsh, but they were highly cheerful and very amusing so things turned out fine. These were fairly standard interviews, starting with a mock-shock introduction, then responding with some interest and drawing out questions when I ran my spiel about a media beat-up and a genuine gay interpretation of the tradition. But Australia, where I lived for years, and where our children were born, was as usual as different as a kangaroo's pouch. One interview, with Melbourne ABC, was very long and thoughtful - a solid fifteen minutes or more. The other was a hysterical short with an over-hyped Sydney DJ, witty and cheerful to the limit, who seemed to have a roomful of hysterics as an immediate audience.

New territory to me, and a bit unfathomable, were the interviews with English-capable Europe: Germany (three stations), Norway (two), Holland and Sweden all recorded medium length interviews, with some off the wall questions like the remorselessly well-educated Teutonic curve ball `What generically speaking do you think is the crucial focus of the outlaw tradition ?' I was able to gulp `Drama' and gather myself for a more measured response.

I did no television at all, in spite of quite a lot of requests. It wasn't hard to turn down an invitation to appear as the daft prof on the Graham Norton show and The Big Breakfast, but my painful experience is that TV on any topic takes ages, gets nowhere, and both fetishises and disempowers you and your arguments. I don't understand why, but I have always found it a total waste of time, even on Robin Hood. The assistants are always puzzled then hurt and finally rude, but I still say no. Print and radio seem plenty and there the sheriffs are more friendly.

No interviewer in all this was hostile to the idea of Robin Hood being gay, though most suggested that presumably some people would take that negative position. Few of them knew anything much about the myth, though most asked a few leading questions, mostly based on the Robin and Marian interaction through time. A few were in it for a laugh (or as in Sydney a scream) but most were professionally competent, letting the story run, at least for a while. The most serious of the interviews were with people who had a gay orientation. The Chicago Lesbi-Gay line (if I spell that right) were both highly professional about timing and ringing beforehand to remind me, and also in a high-spirited way intelligent about the whole notion of reading a tradition for its sub-texts and potential social meaning; if they were late-night elevated, a Miami line was quiet toned and deeply thoughtful, pursuing an entirely original interest in the ballads as poetry - deep waters, but worth exploring. And perhaps in this category comes the most curious and satisfying of all the interviews, one with the British Forces Network (I had no idea we still had this ancient instrument of military imperialism). Two men called Guy and Brian (or was it Basil, surely not) talked for a long time about my ideas, showing no surprise but considerable scholarly interest in the notion of soldierly people being gay through the ages, and asking, like Miami, some highly technical and academically quite absorbing questions about the historical variety of the outlaw tradition and its gender constructions.

The same sort of intelligent interest came from two sources in continental magazines. Der Spiegel rang up and conducted a lengthy interview in impeccable English, then wrote it up in highly quirky German, full of witticism and neologism - I needed Deutsche friends to read that one. And a cool woman from the French weekly L'Evenement called; we had a long talk, mostly in my fairly limited French, but it's easier than you might think because almost all of the critical theory speak we practise at Cardiff is straight from French. The ideological recuperation situates itself at the site of dialectical interpellation, I would say and she would hum `D'accord.' As a Brit, I am ashamed to say these two were the only serious magazine essays on the topic. Apparently no British magazine or paper does what Der Spiegel or L'Événement and no doubt other journals around the world, do, break down a new issue for the intelligent general reader.

But if that was all varying degrees of positive engagement with the issue, what of the opposition ? I think you'd put in that category the schlock newspapers like the London Sun, that source of all things dark; these mostly reran a condensed version of the Sunday Times story with a joke or two. (`John's not that little.') That kind of treatment went round the world because Reuter's Internet service had a boil-down of the Times story out within a few hours: hence the South China News and other exotic locations - the Darwin Star may be the most recondite. The Nottingham papers were pretty shirty, of course, and through the next ten days carried both stir-them-up pieces, one on page one and a series of outraged letters from members of the Sherwood Forest public.I got a few of these myself, mostly on small cheap ill-addressed envelopes but a few from tooled-up members of the nutter community who tracked my email through the university publicity that had started the whole deal in the first place.

The opposition fell into two camps (if I may use that term). One was standard anti-academic: `What do we pay these people for ? Why doesn't he get on with finding a cure for cancer ?' I should get such a salary. But most, and most interesting, were those which revealed by projection the anxieties of the authors. Most of them referred to children - this really deserves researching, but I think it's Neurosis Studies, not Robin Hood Research. They accused me of spoiling the Robin Hood story for children - who presumably were in their own special and warm care. Or heated care. One guy from Nottingham said that after calling Robin Hood gay, what's next, calling Father Christmas a paedophile ? A view that bears some thinking about. The projection of anxiety about sexuality seemed the dominant cause of outrage, not any explicit form of gay-bashing. The idea of a sexualised Robin Hood itself seemed a perversion. Those who fostered their anxieties on children - or perhaps on themselves as still pre-Oedipal - were the most explicit. Most of the correspondents to the Nottingham Post or to myself were just angry, discommoded, unbalanced, by this gendering of someone who should simply be gender-free, or at most male in an unsexualised way. Robin Hood, the stories tell us, never had a child, never had sexual intercourse with a woman, at most kissed once an impassive actress at the very end of the film - and then scampered off like a boy.

Was it, in fact, not the homosexual gendering of Robin Hood that was the problem for these people, but simply the gendering of Robin Hood. Has he not, like Peter Pan, Adam and Eve before the fall, ghosts, George Bush, Queen Victoria, been someone who you could identify with without having to involve yourself in the bogs and fens of Sexuality ?

Yet at the same time he is beset - or empowered - by symbols. Deep forest, dark caverns, towers to be climbed, tunnels to be penetrated; and all that done with bows, arrows, swords, spears and quarter-staffs, and in tight green tights at that. The tradition is seething with a strongly coded sexuality, that is curiously uncoupled from conventional morality because of its coding and so is in the contemporary American critical  language `queer', resistant to authority like any outlaw - and so if described as `gay' presumably all the more shocking.

That's my conclusion at present; and it's one that feeds back into those very same dull, old, badly printed nineteenth century novels that so much interest me, and where this started. By making Marian into Mrs Robin Hood, they have unlocked the Pandora's Box of sexuality. And the only way of closing it, or at least not opening wide its most volatile apertures, is to constrain Robin within the decency of man-to-man affect, as in a good public school, as when Tennyson went on holiday with his chums, and as when Robin and John clapped each other around the shoulders in a manly, but also womanly, embrace.

In the last few weeks the remarkable international response (almost a nervous knee-jerk, or perhaps higher up than that) to the idea that Robin was gay has been in my view only the pain of recognition of a deep-seated element in the myth that has always been there, but has only worked through its subconscious force. Like a dream. Robin has been represented in film as a conspicuously handsome man, Fairbanks, Flynn, Praed to name the obvious cases - and in each case also a distinctly androgynous beauty. I suspect the reason many people find Kevin Costner uninteresting in Robin Hood : Prince of Thieves is because he has neither the trickster spirit nor the double-gendered beauty of those other heroes. Though we do see him naked from behind: the camera's gaze can act on our behalf.

And one of the amusing things about the Robin Hood myth is that the covert nature of its sexuality was a major reason for its enormous growth in popularity in the early twentieth century. As the education system expanded, seeking texts that could imbue Englishness, decency, masculine values, but were not like the Arthur legend stained with adultery, many school curriculum authorities settled on retellings of the Robin Hood story in plain prose or, equally popular, in simple three act drama - and remarkably this was as popular in America as in Britain, where Howard Pyle was the lightning conductor. So the kiddies play-acted in this hygienised environment the man who fought with arrow and sword and quarter staff, and inter-phallicised endlessly with his masculine coevals, while Maid Marian drooped about waiting for the token final kiss, or perhaps just hand-holding. The combination of powerfully coded sexuality, and overtly asexual text seems central to the dynamic of the Robin Hood story - all happening in the natural depths of the richly green productive forest - and it may be that to suggest that sexuality is in there, and may anyway be of any kind, is to break the taboo on which the coded dynamics of the heroic saga have depended. I've spoiled it for adults, not children.

When Fairbanks, the great star of the hugely profitable 1922 picture, says to King Richard as he points him towards the maidens, `Exempt me sire, I am afeard of women', that is the mark of his heroism, the sign of absent sexuality that, it seems, my semi-innocent thoughts of this summer have through various multiple mediations brought into both disturbing and intriguing sight.

For Robin Hood scholars, there are a few fine points to note. The most simplistic of the media stories have simply replicated the old `quest for the real Robin Hood' historicism, that totem of humanist individualism that we are just beginning to escape, at least in the academy; for some journalists I had suggested that not only was there a real Robin Hood but that he was running around Sherwood Forest in real pink tights.

And another nice point for scholars was to note what I scrupulously concealed from my interrogators, though one of them, in Le Monde, picked some of it up for himself. It is curious,and I think entirely coincidental, that this possibly gay Robin has been involved to a considerable degree with the only two kings in English history thought with some confidence to be homosexual. One is Richard I, with whom the gentrifying writers of the sixteenth century firmly link the hero, in order to make his resistance to authority benign, as he resists bad Prince John in the name of his absent monarch and true lordship. The Le Monde guy picked up this element on his own and wished it on me, having me say that Richard had given land to Robin because of their gay connection. Not so mon brave. Nor did I ever reveal, nor anyone ever have the scholarship to find out (like by reading my book), that the nineteenth century archivist Joseph Hunter discovered archives indicating clearly that a man called Robyn Hood was in fact valet de chambre to king Edward II, certainly a homosexual, some of the time at least, and Hunter thought that this Edward is the `comely king' of the Gest of Robin Hood, the major text of the medieval realisation of the outlaw. I think to speculate about those connections would be an entirely illegitimate way to read Robin Hood as a gay figure; but I still think that his story is available as a way of realising the values of the male gay world, its focus on the dangers, comradeship, festivals and feelings to be found in an exclusively male world. I believe that is one of the possible, indeed rather forceful, readings of the outlaw myth, and one that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has had some significance as one of the reasons for the continuing popularity of the elusive hero, always disappearing into the forest and always eluding the constraining simplicities of authority, identity, sexuality.

Texts can be constructed by their audience; and you can find things out through motion. The responses to my partly playful but increasingly serious comments on the gay Robin Hood have led me to think there is much more in this issue than I originally knew - consciously knew, that is. The book of research essays on Robin Hood I am now preparing will conclude with one entitled `Gendering Robin Hood'.

(C) Stephen Knight, 1999
Photo (C) Copyright -- Allen W. Wright, 2003

This photo of Stephen Knight comes from a production of the Ben Jonson play The Sad Shepherd staged at the 2003 Robin Hood academic conference. Stephen played the evil witch Maudlin magically impersonating Marian. As Maudlin, he had a big nose and as Marian, he had the blonde wig scene here. He was utterly delightful in this part, and it's nice to see professors with a sense of fun.

Order books by Professor Stephen Knight

ROBIN HOOD: A MYTHIC BIOGRAPHY by Stephen Knight. No, this still isn't a look at possible real life Robins.  Instead, it's the biography of a mythic character or rather four characters. It divides Robin's legendary persona into four archetypes. A great introduction to the literary aspects of the legend.
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ROBIN HOOD : THE FORRESTERS MANUSCRIPT : BRITISH LIBRARY ADDITIONAL MS 71158, edited by Stephen Knight. The manuscript of this previously unpublished 17th century ballad collection was discovered in a 1993 booksale -- a major find for Robin Hood scholarship. Stephen Knight adds notes to all the ballads.
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ROBIN HOOD AND OTHER OUTLAW TALES edited by Stephen Knight and Thomas Ohlgren. It's a whopping 700 pages filled with ballads, plays, and historical background. Much of this book is online at  The Robin Hood Project at the University of Rochester.
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READING ROBIN HOOD by Stephen Knight. The latest book covers much of the same ground as Mythic Biography but includes more recent scholarship. For the slightly more advanced reader.
Buy Reading Robin Hood: Content, form and reception in the outlaw myth on
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Stephen Knight and Thomas Hahn's article on Gendering Robin Hood edited by Helen Philips. Also included in this collection is an article by this site's webmaster.
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