Robin Hood: Subversion’s Bellwether


One of the main questions I get asked about the Books of the Wode is: “Why a gay Robin Hood?”

My first instinct is to answer (in a proper seditious fashion of which ‘my’ Robyn would be proud): “Well, why not?”

Yet… I’m not really sure it’s all that simple.

You see, I really dig retellings that twist the tails of our expectations. A skilled storyteller who can take something, turn it inside out, sweep me up, convince me–even if only for the length of that story? I’m all for that.

If you can sell it, then tell it.

A big if, but really, the sell/tell of this particular point wasn’t the hardest part. One could argue that ‘gay’ as appellation doesn’t apply to the 12th century… but sexual appetites and preferences follow us through history in whatever guise we clothe them. In the outlaws of Barnsdale and Sherwood Forest we have, after all, a tight-knit and homosocial group of males hanging out where they aren’t supposed to, eating and drinking what they aren’t supposed to, whacking each other with staves and giving the two-finger salute to the powers-that-be. Perfect recipe for subversion. Whatever the reasons or theories why (and believe me, for every theory you can possibly imagine there is a reasonably-informed scholar or author backing or denying it), history originally places before us the legend of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men as living on their own, outcast, in a forbidden forest.

Lad’s club, right?

And these lads are outcast in a way most modern people cannot even begin to fathom. Casual brutality is a way of life, and that life can be very brutal indeed, and dependant upon which side of the blanket you’re born. It is also a time in flux. The 12th century balances upon the cusp of a paradoxical era; it ushers in a renaissance of thought and innovation that produces epics of romantic chivalry and Magna Carta, as well as a widespread fever of superstition that will end in thousands tortured and burnt under charges of ‘sodomy’ and ‘witchcraft’. Robyn and his lads exist on a sharper edge than usual. As outlaws, their lives are worth only the price on their heads; they can be killed by anyone, even a serf who has no rights. They would have to trust only in each other and the forest that shelters them. The ballads show them as competent rascals with an utter respect for the Divine Feminine–whatever name one chooses to give Her, it can hardly be denied that the outlaws live upon Her bounty. Yet they also remain culturally and physically separate from Her.

It’s a fascinating question–harsh duality forced from something that, perhaps, isn’t necessarily adversarial.

Therefore, in putting together my answers for said question, this reimagining isn’t solely about who Robyn beds. His sexuality gives a core definition to his being, and helps steer the subversion of this particular reimagining. But Shirewode, its prequel Greenwode, and the trilogy that Winterwode begins, are about who chooses to love, hate, or follow the lead of the man who will become Robin Hood. The story describes a Britain being inevitably winnowed of an ancient magic and those magicians who choose to stand for old ways; it’s about cultural obliteration and the fighting–and dying–for what choices are possible in life. It’s about subverting the system, religious and social to all the impositions in between. It posits what Robyn and his outcasts do with what power they can wrest from the corruption surrounding them… and the compromises and sacrifices that must be made to subvert any paradigm. Robyn is an utterly fascinating character. He’s his own paradigm and reaction, a force of nature indefinable by the norm; he wields change as easily as he wields his longbow.

And he doesn’t go it alone.

Not too long ago Stephen Knight, a noted Robin Hood scholar–and another maverick who enjoys twisting the leaden tail of expectation–said it was past time for a gay Robin Hood. But he also said something that truly resonated with me: “Robin Hood… always disappears into the forest, always eludes the constraints of authority, identity, sexuality…”

Robin Hood has, throughout history, been a voice for the victimised, the dispossessed… the ones who have no voice in a rapacious system. He and his people are sustained by a huge, magical forest; one that has, sadly, all but vanished, and again, because of a rapacious system.

But you know, all this theory and musing is after the fact. When I’m writing, I plug into the ol’ reptile brain; research is the cornerstone, but it is not the be-all, end-all. Story is what matters in the moment.

So the most important reason I wrote Robyn’s sexual orientation the way I did? It’s this: a tall, skinny archer lad said, very reasonably, Look, pet. You’ve fetched this all sidelong. Y’ know I love you, and I ken you love me, but trust to’t, there’s a proper Story waiting in th’ Wode… if you’d but open your eyes.

(And yes, it was indeed that same low voice with its polyglot of Yorkshire, Wales and the North…)

Not only England’s Greatest Archer was tapping me on my creative shoulder; there was a young woman–his sister, not his mate–smiling and shaking her head and leaning on not only a whopping great longbow but another lad. This second lad was almost as red-headed as she–and giving me a look like he didn’t quite trust me. I’m not sure I blame him, as when I wrote his first incarnation he was a bit of a walk-on… mea culpa, Gamelyn, sometimes your writer is stupid.

And the characters are always right. It’s their story, after all.

Maybe my first instincts weren’t so flippant, after all. It is time. Past time. Perhaps it is that simple. There is no decent reason “Why not?”