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Rich beware: Robin Hood rises again

Courses on beneficent outlaw flourish in hard times

After the US economy was brought to its knees by the self-indulgence of the rich, a hero of the poor, Robin Hood, is enjoying rising popularity on US university campuses.

England’s favourite outlaw is the subject of a multitude of new courses with booming enrolments. The courses are being offered everywhere from two-year community colleges serving low-income students to prestigious Dartmouth and Smith colleges, University of California Los Angeles, Purdue and Kent State universities.

The University of Rochester, in upstate New York, has one Robin Hood course in the English department and another in the history department, and is holding a biennial conference on the subject on 22-25 October expected to attract 100 scholars.

Thomas Hahn, professor of English at Rochester and the North American head of the International Association for Robin Hood Studies, said: “Robin Hood has really taken off as an academic subject… The question is, why?”

One answer is in Robin Hood’s resurgence in popular culture, including a popular BBC series that is currently being shown in the US, and an upcoming film by director Ridley Scott starring Hollywood heavyweights Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett, Dr Hahn said.

But another, he suggested, is that Robin Hood is easily politicised as a libertarian, socialist, terrorist, or whatever else academics want to make of him, and reflects the particularly popular dynamic in hard times of stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

Taxpayers, by this contemporary political interpretation, are the peasants; bankers, the landed gentry.

“Just google ‘Robin Hood’ and ‘Obama’ and you get hundreds of thousands of hits,” Dr Hahn said.

“Some of these have taken the position that Obama is exactly what we’re looking for: a leader who will intervene and put the brakes on the personal wealth and depravations of bankers and others.”

Others, he said, do not see this as something to celebrate, complaining that Obama wants to systematically take money from those who have it and give it to those who don’t.

“It’s the perfect illustration that Robin Hood’s a medium through which people can channel even contradictory interests, with both an entrepreneurial and anti-taxation perspective, and we can see him as a libertarian and sort of an anarchist.”

The Robin Hood conference, which has been held every two years since 1997 – including once in Nottingham and once in York – returns this year to the US: “They invented him, we stole him,” Dr Hahn joked.

It will include the presentation of scholarly papers, performance of Robin Hood songs and Elizabethan lute music, and a screening of a restored print of the classic 1922 silent film with Douglas Fairbanks, accompanied by a live orchestra.

Academics from as far away as Japan have registered to attend.

“As visual culture and media studies are becoming more and more popular, people are realising that the legend of Robin Hood travels with society, and has been constantly reshaped by popular culture over the past 700 years,” Dr Hahn said.

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