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Bleeding the well dry, Robin hood and king Arthur

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Kveto from Prague
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Bleeding the well dry, Robin hood and king Arthur

Post by Kveto from Prague » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 7:09 pm

Warning: this post is a stream of conciousness speculation.

In some other posts, we were discussing why certain historical figures are less popular than one would imagine they might be as subjects for HF, like el cid or charelemagne. this led me to the opposite end. overexposed HF personages.

Currently, Im on a personal boycott of both King Arthur and Robin hood. I feel these are the two most overexposed "historical" characters. Why do writers constantly feel the need to "reinvent" these same characters over and over again in literature and cinema. More importantly, why do readers still buy them? I reckon you could stack all the King Arthur and Robin hood books and films ever written and climb to the top and have a nice view. there is really nothing left to be done with these characters. I groaned when Ridley Scott came out with his latest "robin hood". Another one? just what we dont need.

these leads me to wonder why is a mostly legendary character like King arthur is more popular as a topic than say King Alfred, a real well documented, larger than life king? Or Kenneth MacAlpine? or Charlemagne? Why is the completely fictional robin hood more popular than say Dick Turpin, a real highwayman? Or any number of other authentic highwaymen.

Is it because the lack of records for these characters (Art and Rob, for short) gives the writers much more freedom? You can really do whatever the hell you want with King arthur as long as you include Lancelot, guenivere, and the rest. Make them English, make them celtic, make them roman, make them from the steppes of asia, heck nobody can contradict you. However if you get a fact wrong about alfred or chalemagne and the historians will pounce. So its less about the history, more about the story.

Or is it the familiarity that readers have with the characters that keeps them coming back again and again. the literary equivalant of Mcdonalds. you know more or less what youre gonna get. so whatever little twist the writer adds about the characters (ie. robin hood lived in the conquerors time rather than the lion hearts, that'll shock em) is extra spice. We all know little john, friar tuck and the lot and enjoy reading about whatever little twist the writer adds. that familiary makes the writers job easier. kind of like the way hollywood loves making films based on old tv shows. the familiarity is already there, they dont have to "sell" the story to you. you already know the basics.

I remember when the film "rob roy" came out and it was being described as "a scottish robin hood". i remember thinking that it was nothing like robin hood. but audiences needed that "familiarity" to sell them on the concept.

To me the dominance of certain personages means that other, more interesting personages are not being brought to light. instead every few years we get a "new" robin hood or a "new" arthur. and to be honest, these stories have already been told. no reason to "reboot" them.

Im really curious to see what others think about this. i hope i made my point reasonably clear (PS theres no anger here. just disappointment.) Do you agree with my points and/or can you think of other reasons why these guys are popular?

And im aiming this less at the writers and more at the readers. if readers didnt keep buying books on these characters they wouldnt keep getting written about.

for the nonce, im sticking by my personal boycott, for what its worth (please dont suggest I read.....such and such...because Ill like their original take on this old legend :-) thats really not my point :-)

thanks if you bothered to read this and i apologise if its at all confusing.
Last edited by Kveto from Prague on Sat October 2nd, 2010, 7:28 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Eigon » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 7:36 pm

I think that the reason King Arthur and Robin Hood get re-used and re-used is because of their mythic resonance. They're both part of what used to be called The Matter of Britain - the cultural myth of a nation. So Arthur is the wise and noble ruler of a golden age - who is brought low by the sin of adultery (Arthur with Morgana - which is also unwitting incest on his part - and Lancelot and Guenivere). Tristan and Isault was basically the same story, with King Mark of Cornwall and Tristan as his Lancelot.
Robin Hood is the other end of the social scale - the outsider who challenges unjust authority, hence all the run-ins with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John (the wise and noble Richard being safely out of the way in the Holy Land or imprisoned in Austria - which is one of the reasons for setting the legend in that exact period).
So it's not about using the right characters (you've got to have a quarterstaff fight with Little John when they first meet and so on) but more about the underlying myth.

And you're right - we haven't had a decent go at El Cid since Charlton Heston; there was a rather weedy film about King Alfred in the 1960s, and a TV series about Dick Turpin in the 1970s with Richard O'Sullivan, who had previously been a comedy actor.
And I can't think of any screen representation of Charlemagne, which seems a shame.
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Post by Kveto from Prague » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 8:18 pm

[quote=""Eigon""]I think that the reason King Arthur and Robin Hood get re-used and re-used is because of their mythic resonance. They're both part of what used to be called The Matter of Britain - the cultural myth of a nation. So Arthur is the wise and noble ruler of a golden age - who is brought low by the sin of adultery (Arthur with Morgana - which is also unwitting incest on his part - and Lancelot and Guenivere). Tristan and Isault was basically the same story, with King Mark of Cornwall and Tristan as his Lancelot.
Robin Hood is the other end of the social scale - the outsider who challenges unjust authority, hence all the run-ins with the Sheriff of Nottingham and Prince John (the wise and noble Richard being safely out of the way in the Holy Land or imprisoned in Austria - which is one of the reasons for setting the legend in that exact period).
So it's not about using the right characters (you've got to have a quarterstaff fight with Little John when they first meet and so on) but more about the underlying myth.

And you're right - we haven't had a decent go at El Cid since Charlton Heston; there was a rather weedy film about King Alfred in the 1960s, and a TV series about Dick Turpin in the 1970s with Richard O'Sullivan, who had previously been a comedy actor.
And I can't think of any screen representation of Charlemagne, which seems a shame.[/quote]

good points. the mythical resonance, i like that. but, that cant be the only reason. as you point out, tristan and isualt is also a Matter of Britain but by no means as overexposed as art or rob. neither are tailesin, brutus, or the like.

Im pretty sure the old robin hood ballads were not all universaly set in richards time. I recall several being set in Henry the 8th time, for instance. I think it was Ivanhoe that officially cemented Robin hood to King Richard. but im just going from memory here.

good point on the quarterstaff meeting. it really makes for colour-by-number storytelling as well. got to hit all the familar notes and so on.

thanks for your reply :-)

PS heres a link to an old legend with robin hood and henry the 8th. Queen Kathrine protects robin from her husbands wrath.
http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl- ... hiv-35.htm
Last edited by Kveto from Prague on Sat October 2nd, 2010, 8:29 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Post by Misfit » Sat October 2nd, 2010, 8:26 pm

keny, excellent rant ;)

I enjoy digging into these legends on occcasion, but I do realize they are legends and read them for entertainment value. I also have to space them out, or I burn out very very quickly. I prefer the ones with less myth and magic and more realism.

As to why authors chose these over real characters? That's not a question I can answer, except that perhaps because they sell?
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Post by Margaret » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 6:23 am

Really interesting question, Keny. I know what you mean about some of these characters being over-exposed. On the other hand, every now and then someone comes up with a completely new take on something that seems to have been done to death, and makes it all fresh again. Marion Zimmer Bradley did that with the Arthurian legends in Mists of Avalon, and now the feminist angle on the Arthurian legends probably qualifies as way over-exposed!

Here's a speculation: Do you ever notice that you enjoy a piece of music more the second or third time you hear it than you did the first time? It might be enjoyable the first time, but after it begins to feel just a little bit more familiar, you get a sense of the whole with every passage you hear that gives it context (even if only at a subconscious level) and helps deepen the appreciation. Perhaps the characters who get used over and over again are a bit like that, as well. With a novel involving King Arthur or Queen Elizabeth I or Caligula, the reader gets a general sense of the subject matter, tone and theme of the story before picking it up and reading the first page, which makes it easier to decide whether it's likely to be to his or her taste. If there's a fresh angle, it will be more interesting, but there will still be a lot that is familiar. With Mists of Avalon, for example, there was still a sense of heroism and magic and religious wonder - but all with a twist, because it was the women who behaved heroically, used magic adeptly and for good, and the religious awe was for a pagan goddess.

I really wonder if the fury with which some readers greeted Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl wasn't at least partly due to a sense that they thought they knew what they were getting into in a novel that featured Anne Boleyn and felt betrayed when Anne was portrayed as a thorough villain.
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Post by Kveto from Prague » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 6:50 am

[quote=""Margaret""]Really interesting question, Keny. I know what you mean about some of these characters being over-exposed. On the other hand, every now and then someone comes up with a completely new take on something that seems to have been done to death, and makes it all fresh again. Marion Zimmer Bradley did that with the Arthurian legends in Mists of Avalon, and now the feminist angle on the Arthurian legends probably qualifies as way over-exposed!

Here's a speculation: Do you ever notice that you enjoy a piece of music more the second or third time you hear it than you did the first time? It might be enjoyable the first time, but after it begins to feel just a little bit more familiar, you get a sense of the whole with every passage you hear that gives it context (even if only at a subconscious level) and helps deepen the appreciation. Perhaps the characters who get used over and over again are a bit like that, as well. With a novel involving King Arthur or Queen Elizabeth I or Caligula, the reader gets a general sense of the subject matter, tone and theme of the story before picking it up and reading the first page, which makes it easier to decide whether it's likely to be to his or her taste. If there's a fresh angle, it will be more interesting, but there will still be a lot that is familiar. With Mists of Avalon, for example, there was still a sense of heroism and magic and religious wonder - but all with a twist, because it was the women who behaved heroically, used magic adeptly and for good, and the religious awe was for a pagan goddess.

I really wonder if the fury with which some readers greeted Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl wasn't at least partly due to a sense that they thought they knew what they were getting into in a novel that featured Anne Boleyn and felt betrayed when Anne was portrayed as a thorough villain.[/quote]

thanks Margaret and misfit,

thats kind of what i was trying to mention. the familiarty, or comfort zone for readers. if you pick up a book with king arthur in the title you dont need to wonder whats its about but might get surprised by the interpretation or twist on the familiar legend. however, as you point out, i think we are to a point where even any twists with these characters are already cliche.

and misfit, i was trying to lay the blame at the feet of the readers and not the writers. i hope it didnt come off that way. in the end, most writers write what people want to read :-)

I think im burnt out on these legends as you say. i dont mind the originals, its the endless reinterpretations.

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Post by Madeleine » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 11:09 am

[quote=""keny from prague""]thanks Margaret and misfit,

thats kind of what i was trying to mention. the familiarty, or comfort zone for readers. if you pick up a book with king arthur in the title you dont need to wonder whats its about but might get surprised by the interpretation or twist on the familiar legend. however, as you point out, i think we are to a point where even any twists with these characters are already cliche.

and misfit, i was trying to lay the blame at the feet of the readers and not the writers. i hope it didnt come off that way. in the end, most writers write what people want to read :-)

I think im burnt out on these legends as you say. i dont mind the originals, its the endless reinterpretations.[/quote]

I think the highlighted bit says it all - it's a guaranteed seller, as it will always be popular. It's a bit like all the endless adaptations of Jane Austen and the Brontes - they are so popular there will always be an audience for a new film or TV series. I suppose you could say it's a perfect example of familiarity breeding contempt! ;)
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Post by Misfit » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 11:28 am

and misfit, i was trying to lay the blame at the feet of the readers and not the writers. i hope it didnt come off that way. in the end, most writers write what people want to read :-)
I was so brain dead from lack of sleep yesterday I could have misinterpreted just about anything.

Margaret has a good point - when a reader finds a character he/she is interested in, it is a natural inclination to want to read more and from different perspectives.

But in the end, one can get burned out and at that time it's best to lay it to rest for a few years.
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Post by Ash » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 3:23 pm

I think that the reason King Arthur and Robin Hood get re-used and re-used is because of their mythic resonance

I so agree with this. Both are part of the old good versus evil meme that have been told since stories began. The retelling of it, and reinterpretations of it speaks to that human need for peace and fairness; who wouldn't want a world where the poor got a share of the world's wealth (and Im not talking about socialism here at all), and a world where might did not rule over what was right. And each reinterpretation makes it sparkling new again for the next generation.

I do agree tho that sometimes its too much. I couldn't watch this new Robin Hood, tho I adore Russel Crow (well, his body mostly...). And I agree, I wish writers would turn to other great names in history for their books and movies. That being said, maybe we should be careful what we wish for given what they did to Rob Roy....

I really wonder if the fury with which some readers greeted Philippa Gregory's The Other Boleyn Girl wasn't at least partly due to a sense that they thought they knew what they were getting into in a novel that featured Anne Boleyn and felt betrayed when Anne was portrayed as a thorough villain.

Yep, thats pretty much my take. I don't mind reinterpretations, but there are some things that just don't fit what the facts on the ground were (take a look at what Weir did to Eleanor of Aquitane for another example)

i was trying to lay the blame at the feet of the readers and not the writers
Why? The readers read what writers give them to read. If they don't know there's something else out there its hardly their fault.
Last edited by Ash on Sun October 3rd, 2010, 3:27 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Post by Lucy Pick » Sun October 3rd, 2010, 3:50 pm

Mythic resonance is more than just about familiarity. It suggests that these characters, and the roles they play in the stories told about them, connects to basic archetypes that are still very compelling on some kind of inner, gut level.

Lucy, getting all Jungian

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