The fundamental secret of storytelling

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.

Robin Hood, from from Howard Pyle's The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Robin Hood, from from Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

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Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016


7 thoughts on “The fundamental secret of storytelling

  1. Dear Matthew. Here’s a ‘fundamental ‘ laugh for you but prob one which does not allow you to make a write a story request with the usage I am applying. Currently I am trying to complete a paper titled


    Just should that possibly be puzzling you here is one quotation I make:* *

    “8. Richard Mead was endorsing rectal tobacco smoke, 1745, thereby indicating it was a known practice. Next year ‘a Physician’, likely to have been Rowland Jackson, reported a man in Paris saving his wife from death by drowning.’on using a passing sailor’s pipe with the advice to ‘blow hard’ through the pipe-stem end placed through her fundament. ”

    Does that make it obvious to you? Cheers RonT.

  2. Kevin Costner will always be my Robin Hood – I know it’s blasphemy but I don’t care lol. A man with good legs is one universal theme that transcends all time, audience, and literary trend. That’s my ‘story’ and I’m sticking to it 😉

    1. Funnily enough, that’s precisely the reason men wore hose (‘tights’ to Mel Brooks) back then – to have great legs was a sign of manly attractiveness to women, and of course they had to show off and compete… There is a story about Henry VIII, when he was a young man and his royal court was more like a permanent stag party, engaging in ‘calf muscle flexing’ contests just to show off. You can guess who won, Henry being king and all that.

      1. Hehee I love reading about how some men actually used to pad their hose to exaggerate their musculature…and don’t even get me started on codpieces lol ps you’re so right about young Henry and his curvy calves…mmmm I hear some men’s legs can make a girl lose her head 😏

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