Thursday, October 31, 2013

More than Candy: The Traditions of Halloween

Halloween: aka Samhain, aka All Saints' Eve, aka All Souls' Eve (yes, it was originally the same festival).  Christian feast-day, Celtic celebration, or a day for goofy costumes and candy?  Well, all of these, and more.

One thing to consider is why we celebrate the eve, rather than the day.  Eves are also celebrated for May Day and for Christmas, although in those cases the day too is important.  I remember many years ago reading (and believing at the time) that Halloween represents a festival for evil before it's banished by the holy day.

This is a load of nonsense, of course.  Night-time festivals like Samhain certainly represent the dark part of the light-dark cycle, but the idea of identifying dark with evil is relatively modern.  To our ancient ancestors, light and dark were simply two essential sides of the same cycle.  Dark had its dangers, to be sure, but that didn't make it evil.  It was also the time for hunting.

The actual explanation is that many ancient calendar systems (most notably today the Jewish calendar) count the day as running from sunset to sunset.  This means that the activities of the night of 31st October start the festival that continues into the 1st November.

So is Samhain really a Celtic festival?  Well, that depends what you mean by Celtic.  Properly speaking, the term refers to a family of languages within the Indo-European group, and by extension to the ancient tribes who spoke them.  It's applied, somewhat inaccurately, to the inhabitants of the countries or regions where Celtic languages are still spoken — Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany — but in reality these are all racially and culturally mixed countries.

The Celtic languages and the associated cultural elements were the last of a series of waves to sweep over western Europe and into Britain before the Roman conquest.  Or, possibly, the last three waves, representing the Goidelic (Gaelic), Brythonic (British) and Belgic groups, although the actual relationships between these three isn't clear.

In any case, the Celtic languages arrived in Britain during the 1st millennium BC, replacing whatever languages were spoken before.  Nothing of these has survived, and speculation that some may have been related to Basque, the odd-one-out of European languages, are no more than an intelligent guess.  It used to be believed that the Pictish language of north-east Scotland, which survived till well after Roman times, was one of these, but the prevailing view now is that it was probably Celtic in origin.

Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that the older populations, or their cultures, simply disappeared.  The old model was of successive waves slaughtering, driving out or enslaving their predecessors, as European colonialism has done so efficiently in recent centuries.  However, DNA profiling has shown that, aside from obvious recent arrivals, most people in Britain are actually descended from the hunter-gatherers who followed the retreating ice northwards.  On the matrilineal side, at least, which is easier to trace.

This suggests that all these new arrivals, including the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, may well have been relatively small numbers, mainly male — perhaps restless young men — who bred with native women.  They might sometimes have become leaders, or acquired the cool factor in some other way, and begun influencing both the culture or the language, in the same way that most of the "Romans" in Britain were actually Britons who'd adopted Roman language, dress and customs.

The older customs would have survived, though, alongside the new imports, just as both English and the modern Celtic languages almost certainly include elements from the unknown ancient languages.  It's convenient to refer to Samhain, Beltane and the rest as Celtic, but there's no reason to suppose they don't go back thousands of years before the Celtic influence began to be felt. 

So what was Samhain?  Well, for one thing, it was the ancient New Year's Day, marking the official beginning of winter in the agricultural calendar.  Other elements have to be largely deduced from later folk traditions, but two elements seen paramount: burning bonfires, often with a human effigy on them, and the presence of spirits, ghosts and the otherworld.

There are suggestions that Samhain may have been the occasion of human sacrifice.  In the ballad of Tam Lin — one of the masterpieces of the ballad tradition — the eponymous hero has been kidnapped by the faerie queen and is growing distinctly nervous as Halloween approaches, since at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to Hell, and I so fair and full of flesh am feared it be myself.  Although we don't get to see how exactly she pays her tithe — Tam Lin  is, of course, rescued by his True Love — this seems to indicate a ritual sacrifice, perhaps of the Summer King to be replaced by the Winter King.

Or maybe not.  It's notoriously hard to be sure whether to take descriptions of religious rituals literally or symbolically, since adherents tend to talk of them in literal terms regardless.  One of the major prejudices against Christianity in the Roman world was that it was a cannibalistic religion, since the rituals involved eating the flesh and drinking the blood of its dead leader.  If we step away from what everyone in the modern western world knows instinctively, whether or not they're Christian, it's easy to see how such a misunderstanding could be possible.

In the same way, the sacrifice might always have been a symbolic one, using an effigy to represent the dying god.  That's pure speculation, of course, and both Roman writers and archaeology suggest that the Britons performed human sacrifice.  On the other hand, the Romans had a vested interest in presenting the conquered people as barbarous, while the finds are inconclusive.  A handful of pre-Roman human remains have been unearthed that appear to have been ritually killed, but very few, and it's not clear from the context whether these were sacrificed or ritually executed — for sacrilege, for instance.

As for the otherworldly aspects, the folk traditions strongly suggest that Samhain was a festival of the dead.  Archaeological finds show that prehistoric homes often had bodies buried under the floor, suggesting that dead ancestors were seen as still present.  Samhain seems to have been a time when your ancestors might well visit you and expect a decent welcome.  This wouldn't necessarily have been something to fear, but it must, at best, have been spooky.

In any case, a night when the dead could return implied a night when all kinds of beings could get through the veil into our world, and not all of them would be friendly.  From the fae-folk to malevolent demons, they had to be discouraged, scared off or placated, and many Halloween traditions, from the fancy-dress to the scary stories, may have originated for this purpose.

The early Church simply appropriated Samhain, as it appropriated many pagan festivals and pagan sacred sites, eventually reserving it only for the most exalted of the honoured dead (All Saints) and shunting the ordinary folk (All Souls) to the following day.  Beyond that, little was done to discourage the pagan traditions.  With the exception of occasional bouts of zeal, the mediaeval Church tended only to care that the peasants attended Mass on Sundays and major saints' days.  As long as they fulfilled their obligations, they could get up to whatever they chose in the woods or on the hill above the village.

The puritans, though, took a dim view of a celebration that was half pagan, half popish.  After 1605, the perfect excuse was presented to hijack Halloween when the failure of the Catholic Gunpowder Plot began to be celebrated in a suspiciously similar way on its anniversary, 5th November.  The figure of special hatred became Guido (Guy) Fawkes, although he was actually only the hired gunpowder expert.  The plot's leader, Robert Catesby, and his cronies were mostly midlands gentry — several were related to Shakespeare on his mother's side.  Nevertheless, Guy Fakwes became the one whose effigy was burnt on bonfires all over the country, although sometimes it was the Pope.

This was close enough in date to take over from the fires of Samhain, and many Halloween traditions died out, though they lasted longer in villages and more out-of-the-way parts of the country.  When I was a child, in the 1960s, Halloween was scarcely a blip in the UK, except that there might be a ghost story on TV.  Instead of trick or treating, we went around a few days later with the "guy" that was to be burnt — this was actually the origin of the word guy meaning a man — asking for "a penny for the guy".

I say "we" — my parents didn't approve of this, since they considered it begging.  We had a bonfire — technically a balefire, since a bonfire should burn bones — and fireworks, but there was only one year when we made a guy.  We didn't have the heart to burn him, though, and propped him up against the house to watch the fireworks.  It's probably just a child's imagination, but I'm sure he looked relieved.

One tradition that survived for a long time in some villages was Souling, in which the children of the village went round to each house giving it blessings and good luck for the next year in return for specially baked soul cakes and other goodies.  A surviving Souling Song gives the wish-list:

A soul a soul a soul cake
Please good missus a soul cake
An apple or pear
A plum or a cherry
Or any good thing to make us merry

Not quite candy, but it still sounds familiar.

Whether it was descended precisely from this or from a similar tradition, the custom seems to have survived and flourished in America, turning into trick or treating.  I don't know where the trick aspect came from, but I suspect it was a graphic illustration of the consequences of not accepting the blessing.  Or maybe it was actually a kindness: getting the bad luck out of the way quickly and ritualistically.

When I was a kid, trick or treating was barely known in the UK.  We became gradually familiar with it through American films and TV, and I suspect it was after ET that it began to take off — I seem to recall that it was the 80s when I began noticing children doing it.  Even now, though, it's much more random and disorganised than in the US.

It's a long way from human sacrifice to candy, but the joy of true traditions is their variety and adaptability.  Whether you dress up in scary costumes, put on a horror film, go the church to give thanks for the saints, or head off to the woods to reconstruct a pagan ceremony, tonight has something for everyone.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Technology in Fantasy - Oxymoron or Opportunity?

How many fantasy writers does it take to change a light-bulb?  None — technology belongs in science fiction.

But does it really?  Leaving aside types of fantasy with more modern-style settings, is fantasy technology really such an oxymoron?  We tend to think of technology in terms of the recent — computers, jet engines, nuclear power stations and the rest — or what we might have in the future, such as warp drives or matter transportation.  We might stretch a point to include devices from the age of steam, but no further.

But that's misunderstanding what technology is.  A water-mill is technology; a suit of armour is technology; a plough is technology.  Hell, even bashing two rocks together to crack nuts could be regarded as technology.  The most successful piece of technology ever invented is arguably the wheel — though the plough might give it a run for its money.

Whatever kind of world you might create, it's going to have technology of some kind, and that means the technology is going to have to make sense.  Inventions aren't made in isolation; sometimes you can't have one thing without another.  The light-bulb (the one fantasy writers won't change) couldn't have been developed before the later 19th century, because it required a near-vacuum inside and depended on the development of high-quality vacuum pumps.

This kind of thing goes on all the time.  One of the most persistent misunderstandings about the ancient world is the belief that the Greeks invented the steam engine, but were too otherworldly to realise its potential, but that misrepresents them.

The first known steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century AD.  Called the aeolipile, it was a device that used pressurised steam to make a sphere rotate.  No records survive of it being put to practical use, but it's unlikely that this was pure otherworldliness.  Others of Hero's inventions, such as his force pump, were used, as were many inventions of the Greek world.  Archimedes's famous eureka moment is often seen as a breakthrough in pure physics, but he was actually addressing a very practical problem, while his irrigation screw was so successful that it's still in use for some purposes.

The Greeks were actually a highly practical people, and the Romans even more so.  So why didn't they see the potential of the steam engine?

The answer is that steam production requires huge pressure, and the materials need to be strong enough to withstand this pressure.  The reason steam power became a practical option in the Industrial Revolution was that metallurgy had reached the point that steel could be made strong enough to do the job.  Hero had to make do with inferior iron which, though it would do for occasional demonstrations and "miracles", would have exploded if the aeolipile had been used on an industrial level.  Perhaps it did.

There's a number of these myths about technology in other cultures, especially China.  The Chinese came up with printing long before Europe had it but, we're told, it took Gutenberg to think of using movable type.  Well, not quite.  The Chinese did develop movable-type printing, but it just never caught on.

This is because of the difference between the writing systems.  A European printer needed, with upper and lower case, numerals and punctuation, perhaps seventy or eighty drawers of blocks (a big drawer for e and a rather smaller one for q).  Chinese script has thousands of symbols.  Although systems were developed to make the blocks more accessible, it just took too long.  In that time, you could have etched a whole plate and been on to the next.

A rather different misunderstanding applies to the Chinese use of gunpowder.  Again, they had it long before we did, but supposedly only used it for fireworks, leading some people to regard them as naive, others as more civilised than us.  Actually, by at least the 13th century, if not before, Chinese armies were equipped with bombs and ballistic rockets, and even had a device for launching multiple rockets simultaneously.  The only thing they didn't manage to come up with was the gun as a means of delivery.

These examples illustrate three of the main elements that control what technology a culture might or might not have: the state of the supporting technology, cultural necessities, and mere chance — whether anyone happens to think of the idea.

Even if you're presenting a primitive culture where some genius has come up with the concept of the wheel, the invention will rely on whether he or she has the tools to create a circle of wood.  Or the idea might be there (from using logs as rollers, perhaps) and the challenge is to develop tools and products at the same time.

Technologies affect one another in many ways, and this is especially true in the technology of warfare.  In the mid-mediaeval period, for  instance, when the cutting-edge weapons (erm, sorry) were the sword, lance and mace, chain-mail armour was good enough to give a knight a sporting chance of survival. Crossbows were more deadly, but they took too long to reload to be a serious problem.

Then the longbow came into its own: incredibly fast loading and capable of piercing mail.  The answer was plate armour, but that came at a price.  Many of the French knights felled by arrows at Agincourt actually drowned in the mud of the battlefield, because the weight of their armour prevented them from rising once they were down.

The armourers fought back, developing plate armour that was both light and tough, and this (along with Joan of Arc's inspiration) played a large part in the eventual French victory in the Hundred Years War.  Even this new armour, though, wasn't a match for the hand-held, anti-personnel guns that emerged.  Through the 16th and 17th centuries, armour became increasingly more irrelevant, and was eventually abandoned.

Technology is a vital part of world-making, and it needs as much thought and research as anything.  Of course, unlike the "harder" forms of science fiction, fantasy offers plenty of short-cuts and cheats, and it's sometimes possible simply to create an alternative that doesn't have the same requirements.  You want artificial lighting in a society too primitive to have sophisticated vacuum pumps?  Just call it a glow-globe, and imply that it doesn't work the same as a modern incandescent light-bulb.

And, of course, there are always the standard fantasy get-out-of-jail-free cards: It's the product of magic, and no-one understands how it works or I know it doesn't make sense, but the god who created this world ordained it so.

On the whole, though, it's far more fun if your world makes sense.  That means that the technology needs to make sense too, whether it's a cart, a suit of armour, a ship or a light-bulb.

So, how many fantasy writers does it take to change a glow-globe?
(Light-bulb by Trixyrogue)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

River God in The Colored Lens Autumn 2013 Issue

The Colored Lens Autumn 2013 Issue #9
Edited by Dawn Lloyd and Daniel Scott
Contributors: Rhonda Eikamp, Nyki Blatchley, Rachel Hayes, Lauren Fawcett, Sean Monaghan, Holly Jennings, Jamie Lackey, Sara Puls, Matthew Hentrich, Jennifer Stakes and David Gallay.

My story in this issue is River God, an ecological fantasy story.  This had, if I remember correctly, more than a touch of influence from John Boorman's haunting film The Emerald Forest (as, I strongly suspect, James Cameron's film Avatar also did) but I've looked at the situation from a completely different angle.  If we should choose, for our own convenience, to dam a river in an unspoilt paradise, it certainly impacts on the indigenous people who rely on it.  But what about the god who lives in the river and has kept it flowing for millions of years.  He's not going to be happy, I imagine.

This story tells of how the god and his people fight back against the more questionable aspects of progress.

The river-god turned over in his sleep.  He’d worked hard for countless millions of years, guiding his river down to the sea, and he needed rest.  Voices came and went, but this was more insistent and beat on the gates of his slumber.

“Awake, O great god.”  The voice slipped into a dream that wasn’t quite a dream.  “Your people call on you in their need.”

His bed was less comfortable than usual: hard, jagged stones, instead of gentle water to rock him.  The dream from within slowly merged with the world outside, and the voice was saying, “You shall have whatever offering you wish, great god.  We beg you to awake.”

The river-god sat up, rubbing his eyes, and looked about.  So that was why his bed felt so uncomfortable.  The course down which his water should pour was empty, exposing its stony bottom.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Penumbra: The Best of Vol.1

 Penumbra: The Best of Vol.1
Edited by Celina Summers
Cover by Kelly Shorten
Featuring: Andrew Kaye, Terra LeMay, Rachel Acks, James Beamon, Chuck Rothman, Nyki Blatchley, Damien Walters Grintalis, Nathaniel Lee, Daniel Ausema, Bruce Golden, Rebecca Birch.
This includes my story A Deed Without a Name, from Penumbra's Shakespeare issue:
Nothing was visible of the sun, from where I sat waiting for them to come, except its scattered light seeping through black clouds like blood through a bandage.  It was only mid-afternoon, but the stain barely showed above the dark edge of the land, already waning into an early, stormy winter's night.  Looking up through the branches of the dead oak tree, I saw towering layers of cloud stacked unevenly.  A sharp wind shrilled against the twisted tree. 

The oak crested a slight swell in the dismal undulations of the plateau, twisted in the throes of its death by lightning many years ago.  I sat cross legged beneath it.  My clothes were mere rags that looked sometimes grey, sometimes a bright motley, but neither the wind nor the coming storm bothered me.  They’d be here soon.

Few came this way.  Perhaps a holy man would cross the moor on his pilgrimage; a knight-errant would search for adventure; a wandering peddler or minstrel sought the quickest way to the rich markets.  It was something else, though, that I waited for. 

Out of the gloom to north, south and east, three figures emerged, muffled in cloaks and hoods.  They moved slowly and laboriously, and the smallest of the three stumbled as though it could go no further.  Each approached the dead oak, as if using it as a goal to help them keep going.  They stopped at last, staring at one another, perhaps wondering whether to greet a new comrade or flee from a dangerous enemy. 

They didn’t notice me, sitting beneath the tree.  I didn’t expect them to.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In Search of Robin Hood

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the origins of the legend of the Holy Grail, and I thought this time I'd do the same for the greatest of the OutlawHeroes: the Outlaw of Sherwood Forest.

Everyone knows Robin Hood, whether your favourite is the portrayal by Errol Flynn, Richard Greene, Kevin Costner, Jonas Armstrong, Russell Crowe or countless others.  Or maybe even in Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, where he goes by the name of Locksley.  Robin is a nobleman dispossessed by Bad King John and the Wicked Sherrif of Nottingham, who gathers a vast outlaw band, including Little John, Will Scarlet, Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck, along with his love Maid Marian, to rob the rich and give to the poor, defend the people's rights and generally upset the Sherrif till Good King Richard comes back from the Holy Land and sorts everything out.

That's the story now, and it's an excellent story, but not at all how the legend began.  The earliest ballads of Robin Hood, dating from at least as far back as the 15th century, include the extraordinarily long A Little Geste of Robin Hood and his Meiny, which is 456 stanzas long and represents the earliest extant telling of the whole central legend.

We're not told who Robin is or how he fell foul of the law, merely that he's a good yeoman, who's an outlaw in Barnesdale with his followers, Little John, Will Scathelock and Much the miller's son.  He meets a poor knight, Sir Richard at the Lee, whose lands are in mortgage to the rich Abbot of St Mary's, and is unable to meet the deadline for repayment.  Taking pity, Robin loans him the amount needed to meet his debt, which Sir Richard promises to repay in a year's time.  Sir Richard redeems his land, and returns a year later to repay Robin.  However, Robin has already had the opportunity to rob St Mary's Abbey of twice the sum owed and tells Sir Richard to keep his money.

Little John then infiltrates the following of the Sherrif of Nottingham, already mentioned as Robin's nemesis, and, under pretext of helping him take Robin, leads him into a trap.  Robin spares the Sherrif's life in return for an oath guaranteeing safe conduct.  To test this, Robin attends an archery contest at Nottingham (which, of course, he wins) but the Sherrif breaks his word and tries to arrest him.  Escaping, the outlaws take refuge in the castle of Sir Richard, who is later seized and imprisoned by the Sherrif in punishment.  Robin and his men rescue him, and Robin shoots the Sherrif dead.

By this time, the King (Edward, our comely King) has heard of Robin's exploits and sets out to capture him.  Coming to Barnesdale, he finds Robin, who entertains him so courteously that the King offers him a pardon and a place in the royal household.  Robin only remains in the King's service for fifteen months before he grows fed up and returns to his life as an outlaw in Barnesdale.  Twenty-two years later, he's betrayed and murdered by his kinswoman, the prioress of Kirksley.  The end of the ballad is very perfunctory, but another early ballad, The Death of Robin Hood, tells the story in more detail.  This includes the famous scene where the dying Robin looses off an arrow and asks to be buried where it lands (therefore, as the old joke goes, being the only man ever to be buried in the ceiling).

Now, it should be obvious just from that brief synopsis that a great deal has changed over the intervening centuries.  Sir Richard, a central character here, has been almost forgotten, although his story featured in one episode of the 1950s TV series, and Marian is conspicuous by her absence.  One theory is that Robin and Marian first met in folk ritual, rather than story.  Robin gradually came to be identified with the Green Man and appeared in the May rituals as consort to the May Queen, and this may well have been Marian's original identity.

Only three "merry men" are ever mentioned in the early ballads: Little John, Will Scathelock and Much the miller's son — conveniently, the list forms a perfect half-stanza in ballad meter.  "Scathelock" eventually mutated into "Scarlet", but two of Robin's other standard followers, and one of his enemies, appear each in their own ballad.

Robin Hood and Alan a Dale, a somewhat later ballad, tells how Robin takes pity on a young man whose betrothed has been cruelly denied him and given instead to an old knight.  Robin succeeds in putting this right, but there's no suggestion that Alan joins the merry men.

Similarly, Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar tells the familiar story of Robin's meeting with Friar Tuck.  Here, though, Robin merely entertains the unnamed friar in the greenwood and sends him on his way laden with gifts.

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne tells of Little John being taken by the Sherrif of Nottingham.  Meanwhile, Robin meets a stranger who turns out to be Guy of Gisborne, a bounty hunter searching for him.  They fight, and Robin kills Guy, then goes to Nottingham disguised as his enemy to rescue Little John, who kills the Sherrif.  Again.

All these are one-off tales that gradually became integral to the legend, but a couple of the differences are more fundamental.  Robin Hood has become so firmly associated with Sherwood Forest that it's a shock to find that he was originally placed in Barnesdale, in southern Yorkshire (a fact now recognised by the local airport being named after him).

I suspect the reason for the change was the prominence of the Sherrif of Nottingham in the legend.  On the face of it, it would seem unlikely that he would be pursuing a Yorkshire outlaw, and this was eventually "corrected".

It's a curious anomaly, but county courtesy was doubtless laxer than now, and maybe one or more Sherrifs of Nottingham were noticeably diligent in chasing outlaws beyond their borders.  There was also a crucial period in the 1320s, following the Earl of Lancaster's rebellion, when the Sherrif of Nottingham was also given responsibility for policing Yorkshire, and it's possible that this aspect of the story arose then.

It's also clear that this version takes place not during the Third Crusade (the 1190s) but while a king called Edward was on the throne.  This could be any of the first four Edwards (1272-1377, 1461-1483) all of whom might well, by contemporary accounts, have been described as "comely".  Edward IV, for instance, was the grandfather of Henry VIII, who was supposed to be the spitting image of his granddad.

In fact, much of the legend seems to belong to a later period than the 12th century.  Given the importance of archery in every version, it would be odd for it to be taking place before the full development of the English longbow.  Robin is described as a yeoman, the class of peasants free from feudal obligations who became more numerous as the feudal system decayed, and who formed the backbone of the archers that destroyed the French armies at Crécy and Agincourt in the 14th and 15th centuries.

There's also no trace of the "Normans and Saxons" element common in modern interpretations.  In fact, this element seems to have been invented by Sir Walter Scott and was anachronistic even for the 1190s.  By that time, the issue wasn't really that the lords and knights were foreign conquerors, but that so many of them were absentee landlords, putting far more stock in their French possessions than their English lands.  This was particularly true of Richard I, who barely acknowledged that he possessed England, other than as a resource to fund his wars.  By contrast, "bad" King John was busy encouraging the growth of trade and towns throughout the kingdom.

By the later mediaeval period, many landholders were also building up patchwork "empires" of manors all over the country, destroying any hope of a relationship with the serfs on any given manor.  Many of these empires were owned by abbeys, who were too busy becoming piously rich to care about the peasants they owned.  The Little Geste seems to be deliberately contrasting the conscientious lord of a single manor (Sir Richard) with the corrupt abbot.

As I've suggested, the merry men were almost certainly not the small army depicted in some modern versions.  Mediaeval outlaw gangs, unless they were of high enough status to hold a castle, were typically no more than three or four men, so the four (including Robin) mentioned in the ballads are probably the whole group.  On the other hand, that may not have been the limit of Robin's power.  Near the end of the Little Geste, when Robin returns to Barnesdale, he blows his horn and

Seven score of wight young men
            Came ready on a row,

And fairè didden off their hoods,
            And set them on their knee:
'Welcome,' they said, 'our dear mastèr,
            Under this green-wood tree!'

Robin may not have had a large gang of his his own, but he seems to have been the Godfather of Barnesdale.  Some of the ballads suggest that he could call on other outlaws gangs, at need, to augment his own.

The ballads almost certainly include stories from tales about other outlaws.  A notable outlaw ballad from the same period, Adam Bell, Clym of the Clough, and William of Cloudesley, which derives from the north-west of England, contains similar stories. The most striking parallel here, though, is not with Robin Hood but with the Swiss legend of William Tell, in the scene where William of Cloudesley is forced to shoot an apple off his son's head.  Both legends appear to have borrowed the motif from a Danish story.

Nevertheless, there's a highly tempting candidate for the "real" Robin Hood, although many scholars dismiss it.  In 1322, a Robert Hood of Wakefield is recorded as being made outlaw, possibly as a result of the Earl of Lancaster's rebellion against Edward II, which led to the situation referred to above, when the Sherrif of Nottingham was restoring order to Yorkshire.

A lot is made of Robin's name, and he's sometimes referred to as "the Hooded Man", but that misses the point that Robin was the normal diminutive of Robert, while Hood was and is quite a common surname.  Surnames were fairly widespread even by the late 12th century, and were the rule, rather than the exception, by the 14th.  There's nothing at all unusual about the name.

A number of other features of the Little Geste seem to be reflected at this time, including Edward (several years before his ex-king/red-hot-poker interface) making a progress through the north, during which he pardoned many rebels, and a "Robin Hood" appearing in the accounts of the royal household immediately afterwards.

On the other hand, Robin Hood appears earlier than this as a generic name for an outlaw.  It's possible, of course, that the minstrels took up this particular outlaw simply because he had the right name (imagine what the tabloid press today might make of a notorious criminal called Robin Hood, Jesse James or Billy Kidd) but that still leaves the question of where that name came from.

Even if there was a model, it's doubtful whether there was ever one man who did all the things described in the early ballads, let alone in the later versions.  Which is fair enough.  Robin Hood is an archetype, a figure we can think of whenever we suffer from corrupt authority.  The legend that's developed is a great story.  I remember watching reruns as a kid of Richard Greene's TV series The Adventures of Robin Hood, and I wouldn't have anything different in the wonderful Errol Flynn film.  Some other versions — well, they have their good points, at least.

The legend of Robin Hood will and should continue to evolve, continue to be reinterpreted.  But the earliest versions were great stories too, and it would be good if the whole diversity of the tradition were better known.