Does anybody remember ‘Robin of Sherwood’- an eighties TV show by Richard Carpenter that re-invented the Robin Hood story around older mythology and pagan belief. In this version, Robin had the protection of the forest god Herne. The whole was played out to an ethereal soundtrack by Irish band Clannad.
I haven’t seen it for a while, and no doubt it would be rather dated and cheesy if I dug it out today. But the point is that this particular legend has been part of western literary tradition since the late fourteenth century at least, and has been reinvented time and again ever since.
The reason for that longevity has a good deal to do with the essence of storytelling – which, irrespective of the surface narrative – is always about the fundamentals of the human condition.
The Robin Hood legend is well suited because of its theme of injustice at the hands of absolute power. History never repeats in details – but the human condition beneath it always does. And so the basic appeal of the legend – the little good guy striking back at the evil oppressor – retains a relentless appeal.
The exact same theme was fundamental to the late 70’s BBC sci-fi Blake’s Seven. It was cheesy even then, it was cheap – but it embraced the Robin Hood legend in spades, and I think that’s a good part of what gave it such enduring appeal despite the spaceships on obvious strings, sometimes emitting upward-floating smoke from their exhausts.
What all of the reinventions of Robin Hood have in common, of course, is the way they engage with current sentiment of their own time. This is a higher level aspect of story-telling and, in many ways, the more complex aspect. A well-established theme or idea is one thing: making it work in ways that draw in current readership is quite another.
If we take Robin Hood as an example, the mid-twentieth century version was all-action cartoon swashbuckling, basically defined by Errol Flynn’s 1938 movie. This ‘Hollywoodisation’ also set up a lot of what we regard as ‘true’ about Robin Hood today – a national hero who supported the Saxons against the evil Normans. It suited an audience of the day: lots of spectacle, not too much blood (they’d been through the First World War after all). But the ‘Robin of Sherwood’ version was very different: ethereal, engaging to an audience who’d been brought up in the 1960s and 1970s and were looking for other dimensions in an early 1980s when Britain was in throes of substantial socio-economic change.
These are the sorts of questions that have to be answered if a well-established theme is to be made relevant. And it’s not an easy task.
But it’s possibly the first challenge writers have to face when figuring out their story.
If you want to know more about ways to write – methods and techniques for getting up to speed and writing that book fast – check out my short quick-start manual How to get writing… fast. Available on Kindle.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016