Dr. Alex Kaufman joined Ball State in 2018 as the Reed D. Voran Distinguished Professor of Humanities and teaches in the Honors College and the Department of English. He is co-editor of a book series on outlaws in literature, history, and culture and co-founder of a scholarly journal on Robin Hood studies.
Below, he answers questions about the enduring saga of Robin Hood and what today’s students gain by learning about the legendary outlaw.
There’s debate whether Robin Hood is based on a real person. What do you think?
I think debate in some ways is healthy in that it’s one reason people are still interested in the English outlaw. There may have been one person from which the legend originated, but so far no such artifact has been unearthed that proves that there was at one time a Robin Hood. But at some point the debate becomes a real distraction to the works of Robin Hood that do exist and which really do not address whether he was real or not. I think it’s best to read and appreciate Robin Hood texts (poems, plays, novels, films) for what they are: works of artistic merit.
Although you could obviously write several volumes on how the Robin Hood myth has evolved over time, what to you are some of the most notable highlights?
Perhaps the most notable change in Robin as a character was his change from a bold yeoman in the late Middle Ages to that of a distressed lord in the English Renaissance. So in a number of the post-medieval poems and especially the films, we have Robin who, on the one hand, is of noble descent, and on the other hand is firmly attached to life and ethos of a yeoman. It was a remarkable moment in Robin Hood literature when playwright Anthony Munday introduced this alteration in his genealogy in his drama The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington in 1601. And since Munday’s play, so many works of Robin Hood ignore his literary origins as a yeoman and instead depict him as an aristocrat who has fallen on hard times or who has been wronged (usually by unscrupulous men or the church or lower-level bureaucrats).
What do you think it is about the legend of Robin Hood that has made him endure?
The enduring legacy of the Robin Hood myth and legend is really connected to the mutability and adaptability of his character and of the whole greenwood, that physical and thematic landscape that is central in Robin Hood (and other outlaw) stories. The greenwood world contains the forest, archery, hunting, the merry men and women, all the baddies, and outlaw tricks and subterfuge. Robin is not a static character, for he is able to adapt to new political, social, religious, and literary contexts. He was “born” in the English later Middle Ages, but he (and his authors) revise and reinterpret his world in such a way to make those versions contemporary to the present moment.
Is there a recent film adaptation of Robin Hood that particularly appeals to you, or that you thought was especially bad?
I think the most recent film, Robin Hood (2018), directed by Otto Bathurst and starring Taron Egerton and Jamie Foxx was quite good, although the critics hated it. The film, through the character of Friar Tuck, explicitly asks at the outset of the film for the audience to “Forget what you’ve seen before. Forget what you think you know.” It’s a powerful request, one that asks viewers to forget about some of the “safe” Robin Hood tales, and I’m thinking here of such films as Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood (1921) or even the masterpiece that is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) starring Errol Flynn.
By forgetting these and other films (and stories), it allows this movie to stand on its own and address some very real current problems that someone like Robin Hood, if he were here today, would fight against: income inequality, the hypocrisy of religious officials and politicians, xenophobia, racial and religious prejudice, and damage to the environment. There are a number of clunkers in the history of Robin Hood film, just as there are bad entries in any genre of film that adapts past works. Indeed, I think there are many more terrible Arthurian films than there are bad Robin Hood ones. But if anyone wants to take in a really dumb Robin Hood movie, then look no further than Virgins of Sherwood Forest (2000). The title says it all.
How did you become drawn to Robin Hood?
I was very fortunate to study with Thomas H. Ohlgren at Purdue University during my graduate studies. Tom was, and remains, one of the leading scholars of the early Robin Hood poems, and his enthusiasm for the subject was contagious. With Robin Hood — and other outlaws in literature and history, from the medieval period to the present day — I am drawn to those individuals and groups who are marginalized by the society in which they live, and I seek to understand why and how society creates these outsiders, and how these marginals attempt to survive within their literary or real worlds. The outlaw will always be relevant and a presence in most contemporary contexts.
How do you get 21st-century students interested in an era so distant from our own?
I think we’re still living through the Middle Ages — it has never really left us. The systems of medieval law are still very much present in our lives, whether we realize it or not. On Ball State’s campus, North Quad looks like a castle — why that is so is certainly worthy of study. But the literature really endures, and I believe it is the best conduit between then and now.
With Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, we encounter some of the same human experiences that are relevant today: love; how we relate (or not) to one another as individuals and groups; the importance of family; the role of religion in one’s life; how we celebrate and criticize difference; the importance of labor; and above all, how we as individuals have the unlimited potential to do good as well as evil in this world.
What led you to Ball State?
I was drawn to Ball State’s commitment to the liberal arts and the humanities, especially in the undergraduate curriculum. Both the Honors College and the Department of English underscore the intellectual and professional value of an education focused on immersive learning, critical thinking, diversity, and an engagement with social concerns.