Robin Hood & The Civil War: Rethinking the Power of Legends (Part 6, Conclusion)

Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne (1832)

End of a series

Legends are powerful, but that doesn’t mean they are right. Sometimes, we can still research to separate fact from fiction. Other times—like with Robin Hood—too many stories exist and too much time has elapsed to have solid certainty.

Following the thread of thought about memory in the previous blog post, I started thinking about why legends exist. Why are they created? Is there something deep inside our being that needs legends? I recognize that this is probably getting into some psychology, and I certainly have more reading to do before fully forming an opinion or hypothesis. But here are a few ideas I’ve been considering.

First, humans seem to need heroes. Even a generalized glance across civilizations reflects this. Gilgamesh, Osiris, Odysseus, Romulus, King Arthur—just for a few heroic examples from earlier eras of western history. (Eastern, African, and Native American cultures have their hero stories as well, but I am not as familiar with those and would not want to mis-represent.) Some cultures took the character qualities most desirable in a hero and applied them to religion—making gods. Some cultures celebrated their warriors or other leaders to the point that it’s hard to see where facts end and the legend begins.

Second, heroes and legends often go hand-in-hand. When a culture delivers the epitaph of “hero,” does the legend begin? Or at least the opportunity for a legend to form? I think so. Hero status has traditionally been seen as a rank above the common man. This is natural, and it is good for people to be recognized for their character qualities, leadership, and successes. But heroes are easily transformed into legends, especially after their deaths. This can create a slippery slope as the stories shift to meet an era or thought patterns and the legend grows into something unlike the original hero. (Oh, and occasionally people with “hero status”—in reality or in their own minds—will start their own legends based on their memories or their perception of themselves. Chamberlain comes to mind as a Civil War example.)

Third, events are static but legends grow. It can happen quickly or over a more extended period. Ever compared a Civil War battle report of an incident to the newspaper reporting of the same event a few days later? Oh, it’s fun! The facts might be relatively similar if the writer was putting forth a good faith effort, but watch the language change. It can be subtle, but the more times the story is told—particularly of an exceptionally good or bad event—the more noble, the more gallant, the more courageous the hero becomes. (Or the opposite, if it’s a situation of vilification.) Now, stretch the retelling over decades or centuries and mix in the need for a legend to conform to society’s views. The event that happened in 1862 has not changed, but the perception of it may have shifted significantly.

Fourth, legends inspire…and that’s not always a bad thing. It becomes problematic when legends are accepted or taught as complete, solid fact without the acknowledgement of the evolution of the story. Perhaps over time, people with good intentions have used or added to legends to illustrate their points of view. (This still happens regularly.) I’ve been trying to recognize how legends are inspiring people (what is it inspiring them to do or think?) and then think about ways to help peel back the stories and get to the facts, or call out the problems with the legend.

Fifth and finally, legends exist so we have to learn to deal with them. I suppose everyone will have a different approach to “dealing with them.” Just in a circle of history buddies, I’ve heard a variety of responses from forceful calling out to conversation about the issue to shrug and move on. I am not in favor of “burning legends” because I think the saga and evolution of the legend gives valuable insight into thought patterns and the historiography of a subject or person. However, I am weary of legends interfering with facts or being presented as facts.

If humanity needs heroes and legends, they will exist. But as a researcher, I find myself asking more and more often: is this legend accurate and is it fair to the “hero”? With one particular Civil War officer I’ve been studying, the legend does not jive with the primary source facts and I keep asking why. Why did the legend become what it is? Where and how did these stories start? Is there a basis for them and if so, what are those base facts (hopefully confirmed by multiple primary sources written close to the event)? It’s an on-going thought train and brain exercise for me, and I’ve got so much to keep learning.

In the meantime, if we need heroes and legends…I’ll accept Robin Hood with his centuries of legend. Want to watch another episode?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, editor, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to Robin Hood & The Civil War: Rethinking the Power of Legends (Part 6, Conclusion)

  1. Lyle Smith says:

    Interesting about Robin Hood is that it originally didn’t take place with King John as the villain. The first Robin Hood stories came about during the reign of Henry III or Edward I. I can’t remember which, but only later, like in the 16th and 17th century did King John become the wicked King we know him as.

    Forgive me if you mentioned this.

  2. Troy Harman says:

    Intellectually satisfying article. Practicing history at the highest level involves all the sciences, including psychology. Human inner need for heroes is rooted in the desire for immortality. All great stories have the common ingredients of a hero searching for redemption while trying to overcome a tragic flaw as in Achilles heel, or original sin. Overcoming the flaw represents the difference between mortality and immortality. -Troy Harman

  3. John Pryor says:

    A great series of posts! We have often explored the concept of heroism and the hero. in the various Lord of the Rings and Inkling websites I’m a member of. In Tolkien, one of the the truly great hero is Sam, whose devotion to another and utter ordinary nature makes him in many ways the anti Odysseus. Unlike Odysseus, he is not born noble, or high in the counsel of princes and kings. Unlike Odysseus, his rise to unexpected heroism does not require the death of all of his crew and friends. He is the Christian Everyman, and at the very end he returns fundamentally morally unchanged to his wife, if more experienced, and wiser. It always struck me that our two concepts of the hero, after infinite bloodshed, wastage and horror, somehow sat down with Grant and Lee in that small parlor at Appomatox Court House. In 1861, would anyone have picked Grant as the victor? In an aristocratic, hierarchal society, Lee was destined for the pinnacle of greatness, both by birth and skill. But all that Grant achieved, was by his own skill and the economic, agricultural and mechanical skill of all those Everymen behind him. That skill, in the end, outweighed birth. And in that small room, birth nobly, and with sorrowful grace, deferred. That incredible contrasts between Everyman and Aristocrat helps explain the difficulty in getting past our own personal myths to a shared objective truth, still strong enough to respect the other.

  4. An excellent series! Thank you for all the time and research you put into condensing this down for us. I especially like your observations of the comparisons you illustrated. I definitely think there’s a psychological and socio-cultural pattern and reason behind legends and myths. They help us to make sense of the world and everything in it, drawing a line between good and evil or acceptable and not acceptable. Philosophy says that changes overtime and between societies. Take the Cinderella story. Every culture has taken that story and adapted it to make its values and morals understandable to their target audience. I think the same can be said for Civil War studies. Memory and bias morph stories and people into saints or beasts. All fascinating stuff and definitely worth more research (or a book).

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