You can keep your 31 Days of Horror Films (er, steady on, Ed.) – this TV addict is sticking to her box set of Robin of Sherwood, thank you very much!
This Hallowe’en why not join me in watching episodes 1 and 2 of this epic series for an unforgettable fight between the forces of light and darkness which is surely at the heart of this spooky season?
Here be spoilers…
If you’ve never seen Robin of Sherwood you might be surprised at all this talk of forces of light and darkness. What does the popular hero and proto-communist, Robin Hood, who famously robbed the rich and gave to the poor, have to do with the supernatural? Well, for that we must thank writer Richard Carpenter, (creator of Robin of Sherwood) who introduced fantasy elements into the well-known story. When first broadcast in 1984 these supernatural elements, combined with Clannad’s haunting music and the film-quality cinematography, caught my imagination as securely as Michael Praed captured my teenage heart. The very title of episode 1 hinted at what was to come: “Robin Hood and the Sorcerer.” Not “Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham” as we might expect from the traditional myths, but an opponent with black magic on his side. Colour me intrigued…
At the start of episode 1, Carpenter plunges us straight into the action as Robin’s childhood home of Loxley is burnt to the ground and its people slaughtered by Norman knights, intent on crushing an Anglo-Saxon rebellion led by Robin’s father. The latter is also shown to be the guardian of a supernatural item called Herne’s arrow, which the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robert de Rainault, takes for himself. Right from the start, the battle between light and dark is being fought on two planes at the same time – the human domain as well as the spiritual realm.
Fifteen years on from the trauma of the opening, the action moves to the Castle de Belleme, where a bewitched prisoner (who later is revealed to be Little John) warns an onlooker dressed in black that he should ‘beware the hooded man…’ The music is so ominous at this point that it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the man in black is probably the sorcerer of the title, which indeed he is – the sinister Baron de Belleme, superbly played by Anthony Valentine.
Cut to Sherwood Forest where we see the adult Robin of Loxley chastising his adopted brother, Much the Miller’s son, for breaking forest law by killing a deer. Sir Guy of Gisburne, the Sheriff’s deputy, catches them red-handed and slings them into Nottingham Castle prison. (The way Carpenter weaves historical elements, such as the forest laws, into the fiction gives a solid foundation for the fantastic elements which somehow makes them easier to digest.) Much the Miller’s son is a somewhat simple soul who is scared of the dark, which he fears will harbour the devil. Will Scarlet, played by the inimitable Ray Winstone, speaks for a modern, sceptical audience when he states: “The only devil is the one that put you here.” Will explains how he earned his surname, killing some of the soldiers who raped and murdered his wife.
Meanwhile, in the main hall of the Castle the Sheriff and his brother, Abbot Hugo, bicker over pieces of land while the poor starve. Evil doesn’t only wear black and carry a pentangle, Carpenter reminds us. Talking of the overt evil, at this point the Baron de Belleme arrives at the Castle and is introduced to the Sheriff’s ward, the ravishingly beautiful Marion of Leaford, the yin to his yang. For some reason, Marion prefers the thought of becoming a nun to becoming the second Lady de Belleme, even after he woos her by telling her his first wife killed herself. Talk about fussy… The Baron warns the Sheriff that he will hand over Marion “when the hooded man comes to the forest.” Abbot Hugo thinks that de Belleme is possessed and deserves to be excommunicated – his cynical brother, de Rainault, sees through his pious talk and skewers it as greed for Marion’s lands.
In the dungeons, Robin and most of the prisoners join together to escape – Carpenter making the point that collaboration is more effective and powerful than selfishness. Robin meets Marion fortuitously when he hides in her room. “You are like a May morning…” he greets her – and if she didn’t love him forever from that moment onwards her heart would have to have been made of stone! Marion is the first person to recognise Robin is the “hooded man” of the Baron’s warning.
Having escaped into Sherwood the scene is set for Robin to meet one of the key characters who will influence his destiny – pagan deity, Herne the Hunter, who explains his future as the saviour of the poor and dispossessed and gives him a vision of his forthcoming battle with de Belleme. Talk of the devil… De Belleme uses magic to deduce that Robin is back in Sherwood, and sends the bewitched Little John to fight him with the peasant’s weapon of choice – a quarterstaff. A good dunking under a waterfall and that pesky pentangle is history, setting John free to join Robin and the rest of the outlaws. Herne again summons Robin to discuss his destiny and Robin, at last, believes he is the chosen one, with “the powers of light and darkness” within him. In true Anglo-Saxon warrior tradition, he is given a supernatural sword, called Albion, which is one of the seven swords of Wayland, smith to the Anglo-Saxon gods. By mixing the traditional Robin Hood myth with spirituality and Anglo-Saxon mythology, Carpenter makes it more powerful and significant. Robin goes from being human to a messiah figure. It makes the stakes much higher when he is battling opponents.
By making his first opponent not merely unpleasant but downright diabolical, it justifies making Robin not just a human hero but semi-divine himself. Herne may be a pagan, ancient god, rather than the Judaeo-Christian Father God, but it is telling that he has a paternal relationship with Robin. The language is pagan but the symbolism is familiar to me as a Christian, and I have never had a problem with Robin of Sherwood from that point of view although I found the season two Swords of Wayland bank holiday episode far too scary for my liking!
Robin returns to the band of outlaws and rallies them with a patriotic speech, encouraging them to rise up against their Norman oppressors. (I found this perhaps the most jarring aspect of re-watching these episodes – I’m sure Carpenter was not intentionally attacking diversity, yet in our current political situation that seems an unfortunate by-product of nationalism.) The outlaws start training in earnest, with Robin learning sword-craft (the weapon of nobility) from Scarlet. It is not a moment too soon, as an opportunity comes to rescue Marion from Gisburne and his soldiers, and to send a message to the Sheriff: “Robin Hood holds Sherwood. Herne’s son has claimed his kingdom.”
Episode 2 opens with Abbot Hugo and the Sheriff discussing this message – Hugo dismisses Robin as another Satanist but the Sheriff recognises a different spiritual force at work – he shows Hugo Herne’s silver arrow which he captured from Robin’s father and which he will use as bait to lure Robin out of Sherwood. The “Englishness” of the arrow and its symbolic significance make it a threat to the Norman usurper but for some reason, de Rainault has kept it rather than trying to melt it down for arrowheads! Meanwhile, Marion is still determined to go to Kirklees Abbey to become a nun despite sharing a swoon-worthy kiss with Robin. (Clearly, Marion is made of stronger stuff than me).
Robin and the outlaws attend an archery competition organised by the Sheriff, designed to flush Robin out. There are lots of comic moments as the hapless Gisburne completely fails to recognise Robin in disguise as Hedger of Castleton, complete with a cushion up his jerkin and a white beard on his wrinkle-free face. The competition is also significant for introducing the character Nasir, another victim of Baron de Belleme (was it buy one, get one free on demonic vassals?) It hopefully won’t be a massive spoiler to know that Robin splits his arrow in two to win the day, this being one of the original Robin Hood legend elements which Carpenter has maintained.
However, in a twist on the original legend, Robin steals Herne’s arrow, and Baron de Belleme is able to use this to his advantage, persuading the Sheriff to let him have Marion to use as bait. Abbot Hugo overcomes his initial resistance once he realises he can still get his hands on her 400 acres (not a euphemism!) and poor Marion is captured by soldiers while trying to escape to Sherwood. Marion is not afraid of de Belleme – she bravely accuses the Baron of being scared of the demon he serves, risking his wrath. Learning of her fate, Robin leaves the outlaws with strict instructions not to follow him (advice they inevitably ignore) and the scene is set for a final showdown between the powers of light and darkness. The Baron attacks Robin with dark powers which allow him to mark Robin’s flesh with a knife which is being slashed into the air and calls up a wind which has the effect of a leaf-blower on full reverse. I may be able to laugh about it now, but my teenage self was properly scared during this section! The tension rises as Robin appears to be bewitched and just as he is about to stab Marion, now suspended from a pentangle, at the last minute the knife is swapped for Herne’s arrow, and the arrow is plunged into the Baron de Belleme. (Spoiler alert, not the last we will see of him – stay tuned for the second series, for more from the diabolical Baron!)
Just as Robin and Marion turn to go, who should turn up but Nasir, the mysterious Saracen warrior. This is slightly strange as surely the spell would have ended when the Baron is vanquished? Nasir fights Robin two-handed, which seems a bit unfair, and just at the last minute when he looks ready to lop off Robin’s head, Nasir smiles and spares his life, before disappearing when the outlaws turn up. There then follows an epic battle between the outlaws and the Sheriff’s forces, who have been stealthily advancing towards the Baron’s castle throughout the Robin/de Belleme confrontation. The battle will be familiar to anyone who has watched The Water Margin series – inexplicably the large group of armed men who have the advantage are defeated by the much, much smaller group of defenders, owing to the former being terribly polite and only allowing people to fight one at a time.
Even so, outlaws Dickon and Tom are killed, which is a source of grief to their fellow, far from merry, men. Robin tries to soothe the grief by saying that being dead is the same as being free, then at dusk the outlaws each fire a flaming arrow in memory of the fallen, and hold on, there’s an extra arrow? Who can that be? Aha, Nasir, no longer an enemy; now a friend. Nasir cocks an eyebrow which is the equivalent of a paragraph of speech for him.
The episode closes with Robin and Marion walking hand in hand through spring flowers before they plight their troth in front of Herne, and the camera pans upward into the trees, in a reminder that Sherwood is now their world.
It is a world I never want to leave, for it is a world of friendship, loyalty, beauty, love and laughter. For me, that’s one of the benefits of horror in fiction – it makes us appreciate the opposite. In Robin of Sherwood evil may be overt – sorcery and black magic – or more hidden – the cruelty of war and political oppression. Yet the solution to evil is the same – love, kindness and everyday goodness.
Happy Hallowe’en and Herne protect us!