Robin Hood and Dante: Slings, Arrows and Taking Up Arms

I love the 1939 version of The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn as the eponymous Robin and Olivia de Havilland as the beautiful Maid Marian and the superb Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne.

It is  a good exercise to ask why we like the things we like–to tease out of our inner selves what things appeal to us about those things that draw us to them. Some years ago I created a website for my class and I had the following pictures on it (all down-loaded from Google images): 1) Robin Hood; 2) Yoda; 3) Don Quixote; 4) Sir Gawain; 5) Yoshi (or Oishi) from Chushingura or The Treasury of Loyal Retainers or The 47 Ronin.  A colleague of mine remarked to someone else that my website was filled with people with weapons–this had never occurred to me any more than placing pictures of some of my literary heroes on the website had occurred to me.

What do these 5 have in common?  At first blush perhaps not much.  But a closer look reveals them all to be characters that are immensely offended by injustice and determined to right some wrong.  Robin Hood, Don Quixote, and Yoshi are all essentially anonymous until their society needs them to come forth (Robin Hood and Don Quixote change their names to become the new characters).  The great knight Gawain, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight–ably translated by–variously–Burton Raffel, Marie Boroff, and JRR Tolkien–and brilliantly retold in Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex–participates in the exchange of blows with the Green Knight in part to protect Arthur and the other court members from having to endanger themselves and even Yoda–long since retired from the world–is called back for one more teaching session to pass on what he knows to Luke Skywalker.  They represent those who are called to rectify some injustice in society (comically but no less seriously in Quixote’s case).  I began to think that maybe this was how I conceived of teaching; at least part of me wants to arm my students (with the weapons of the mind–rigor, wide and deep learning, the ability to think about the best that has been thought and said and lots of good pulp stuff besides) so that they could defend themselves and make the world more just. Of course it’s not just the ability one needs; one needs to cultivate an attitude towards injustice, too.

Back to Robin Hood though–I have seen many if not most of the versions of Robin Hood ranging from Disney cartoons to Mel Brooks’ satire to the BBC series to versions starring Kevin Costner and Russell Crowe–but it’s the 1938 version that intrigues me despite its garish color (new at the time), its day-for-night filming, and generally minimal production values (by today’s standards).  It has none of the medieval grittiness of many more contemporary versions–but it has a tremendously cool depiction of evil that has its roots in Dante’s Inferno. (I can almost hear the head-smacking and the concomitant whispers that I have really rounded the bend this time).

Dante’s Inferno presents three distinct types of evil–in this order of seriousness: 1) the Incontinent (those who cannot control themselves–they are buffeted about by their desires); 2) the Violent; and 3) the Fraudulent (or betrayers).  My students are often thrown off by a couple of things.  They sometimes want to forgive the Incontinent by arguing that their sins were beyond their control (Paolo and Francesca)–and I understand their desire here–it is an attempt to forgive themselves.  They also believe that Violence is far worse than Fraud.  Indeed, this is a demanding argument by Dante.  All of us understand the horror of driving a truck loaded with explosives up to the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City, or the crashing of planes in to the twin towers, or a beating on the street of a young man for his tennis shoes.  Those are tangible evils.  But, even given the scope of Bernie Madoff’s fraud, it is difficult to feel quite as viscerally the pain involved.  Having read Michael Lewis’ The Big Short and followed the Enron scandal with some care; I mostly feel a sort of disgust but my anger is not quite as white hot about that as it is when confronted with violence.  Is that because part of us recognizes Violence as something that could compromise our physical being but we don’t quite feel that about Fraud?  The sense of being stalked in a dark alley, cornered, frightened, over-powered and violated gets my heart going much faster than the sense of having my pension stolen–even though that may be more damaging long-term.

In any event, Dante in his genius argued that Fraud represents a distinctly human capacity for evil (and he has lots of theologians and philosophers for company) whereas we share violence with the beasts and therefore, this corruption of reason, is deserving of its being treated more harshly and seriously.  And intellectually I agree (viscerally–not so sure about that).

Back to Robin Hood.  In the 1939 version Robin (and the other rebels) face a three-headed evil.  The comic Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) has an enormous belly that gives evidence of his gluttony (Incontinence) and in the manner of those tossed by their desires, his cowardice. When Robin is captured he accepts a slap in the face from Sir Guy–and promptly boots the Sherriff away when he attempts to slap him–Robin and Sir Guy are enemies but at least Robin respects Sir Guy.  The dangerous Sir Guy of Gisbourne with Rathbone’s predatory look and simmering Violence that erupts and culminates in my second favority on-screen sword fight (The Princess Bride fight scene is number 1 and various Japanese movie scenes [Harakiri has a great one as does The Twilight Samurai but there are so many!] and Star Wars fight scenes come in third through tenth) is a real tangible evil.  But, finally his sword serves the genuinely reptilian Prince John (Claude Rains is great) who has betrayed his country and his kinship, who has violated the guest/host relationship and betrayed a lord and benefactor (the four inner rings of the 9th circle of Hell–how’s that for a foursome! Dante would be so proud) who presents the greatest evil.  Still, Prince John’s punishment (banishment) seems anti-climactic (as does Bernie Madoff’s prison sentence) and carries none of the memorable flair of the sword fight.

No other retelling of the Robin Hood story has, to my mind, captured this particular representation of evil as a three-headed creature that needs to be fought on all levels.

I spent a day this week with a brilliant and gifted teacher working on Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales–so more about taking up arms against outrageous fortune and injustice next week.

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3 Comments

Filed under books and learning, Dante's Inferno, movies, pedagogy, popular culture, Robin Hood, teaching, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Robin Hood and Dante: Slings, Arrows and Taking Up Arms

  1. Another intriguing entry, Dan. In your next post, I hope you reveal how you’ve managed to regularly squeeze a 25th and 26th hour out of your day. I’d feel better about all this thinking and writing you’re doing if I also didn’t see you faithfully working out…

    I just tried to use Dante’s hierarchy of sins as a way to explain a priori and a posteriori reasoning (with limited success, judging from the looks on students’ faces). In Canto XI, when Virgil and Dante take a break to get used to the stench and Virgil goes on to explain the schema of hell (like you, he seems never one to miss a teaching moment), it all seems to be perfectly neat and logical. I remember of lot of nods coming from students when going over Virgil’s explanation (via Aristotle) of why the fraudulent are the the worst class of sinners. When we actually get down there, though, and have to deal with the idea of Attila the Hun being punished less severely than a flatterer, that logic becomes less satisfying. And I think Dante the poet also wrestles with some of the problems that come up when you consider more specific cases. We just talked about the Bolgia of the falsifiers yesterday–the evil ditch (the last before the worst sub-class of fraud, the betrayers) that is home to those who falsified money, their identity, and their testimony. Two specific sinners–Master Adam, a counterfeiter whose bogus florins almost brought on an economic collapse, and Sinon, the brilliant liar who the Greeks left behind to convince the Trojans to wheel the wooden horse inside their city walls–are side-by-side for eternity, making each other miserable with physical and verbal abuse. Sinon wonders aloud how it’s fair that he’s placed next to Master Adam, for he (Sinon) has given false testimony only once and Master Adam committed his own falsification–every time he stamped one of those counterfeit coins–thousands and thousands of times. The question is a good one; it seems obvious that a chronic transgressor is more culpable than a single-case sinner like Sinon. Master Adam and Sinon continue to exchange barbs, which quickly devolves into fighting, but Sinon’s question goes unanswered by Virgil and Dante the poet and pilgrim. Instead, Dante the pilgrim stands transfixed, watching the two bloated, grotesque sinners until Virgil upbraids him saying, “The wish to hear such baseness is degrading.” And so, Virgil, the embodiment of Human Reason, prods him to move past these two and the question Sinon raises. Although Dante’s head tells him all is well with Divine Justine, his gut seems to suggest otherwise.

    • Sam,
      What a cool extension and application of the idea. I especially like the end where you point out that Dante (the character) seems to be struggling with the ideas. Is this a way, do you think, to indicate to the reader that she too might be struggling with this idea–and that such a struggle is understandable?

      Thanks for classing up the blog with the post–I just hope people don’t start expecting this kind of hi-falutin’ observation from me.

  2. Patrick J. Clancy

    Wow! I would love to sit down with the two of you over a Guinness.

    I just returned from 2 weeks in Italy where a major highlight of my trip was visiting Dante’s birthplace/residence in Florence, and the church, which is about a first-to-third throw away, where he first saw the 9-year old Beatrice.

    Dante has been an integral part of my world view since Fr. Paul Donovan first introduced me to him at DeMatha. Imagine my surprise and pleasure when I returned to Maryland from visiting Dante’s birthplace, and opened Dan’s blog to see Dante in the headline of Dan’s recent post.

    Several quick reactions to the provocative call and response between Dan and Sam – – –

    Were I to put together a list similar to Dan’s list of 5 “heroes”, mine would include the Lone Ranger and Paladin (the latter from the old TV show “Have Gun, Will Travel”). Interestingly, they, like Dan’s fellows, carried weapons and often resorted to violence to redress grievances. As a guy who has tried to live my life committed to Gospel-based non-violence and pacifism, I don’t find these selections problematic because I can recognize the allegorical and mythic aspects of certain of my heroes.

    As Dan notes, the key feature is to admire “characters that are immensely offended by injustice and determined to right some wrong.” Christ, MLK Jr., Gandhi, Socrates, and others got quite peeved, but taught and practiced non-violence. But, damn, I do react with a thrill when a fictional or dramatic character “takes care” of the SOB.

    As to the Incontinent, the Violent, and the Fraudlent, my 39 years of practicing law has given me an appreciation for Dante’s stratification of evil that I never had as a student or as a young man. Based on my professional (and some personal) experience, Dante has astutely placed the Fraudlent in his Inferno.

    I have often told whatever audience will listen that Dante is the smartest man who ever lived. And interestingly, the longer I live, the smarter he gets.

    Thanks for the posts, Dan, and for the thoughts, Dan and Sam.

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