The Geschichte of Robin Hood: Story and History

Another installment from our good friend in Berlin, Jonathan Mumme, of “Take a Theologian to […]

JDK / 5.14.10

Another installment from our good friend in Berlin, Jonathan Mumme, of “Take a Theologian to Work Day” fame, that is inspired, in good Mockingbird fashion, by the release of the (seemingly) bi-annual remake of Robin Hood. Enjoy!

With some British foresight Matthew Parris host of BBC Radio 4’s “Great Lives” invited Clive Strafford Smith to put forward his choice of a great life for the April 14th program. So a month before Russell Crowe would bring him to the silver screen the human rights lawyer (re)introduced Robin Hood to the BBC listeners. Chosen as the hand of justice fighting for the wronged, the impoverished and the underprivileged, Robin Hood’s is for Smith the best of all personal sagas. Only one small catch for the self-described “biographical series”: Robin Hood never existed.

This breaking of an unwritten rule (only real people as subject of biography), though proving a glitch for the BBC, may have flown with the Deutsche Welle (German Wave). In German “Geschichte” does double duty, covering both “story” and “history”. 
A tale told or a record of past of events – it’s all Geschichte. Wherever we classify him Robin Hood’s Geschichte appears to have some staying power. With over 100 TV and movie appearances Crowe will take his place in the ranks of Errol Flynn, Sean Connery and Kevin Costner, and Ridley Scott beside Mel Brooks. It all begs the question, why does Robin Hood keep coming back? Perhaps it is the little Marxist in each of us – the masses finally sticking it to the Man. Or perhaps Brooks was right and it’s just men in tights. 

There is however some solid honesty in hunting for the best biographies in fiction. History only presenting us with a pool of broken persons can only give us blemished heroes. If you are looking for an ideal life, best to find it among those who never lived. With the rest of us the story is at best a very mixed bag. Clive Strafford Smith joins the ranks of G. E. Lessing, who told us that something like faith can’t be grounded in the contingent truths of history but only in the necessary truths of reason, and Bultmann, who could deliver Easter faith without a resurrection, the Easter story without the history. More recently Umberto Eco (Baudolino) and the film “The Brothers Bloom” indicate that we can’t pull our story-telling and our biographies apart anymore. Reality is what you make it; the history is the story you tell. The critical space is in our heads; the decisive words, those coming out of our own mouths; our lives a mix of truth and lie (if they still exist), our histories our own self-spun stories.

Christian faith as a faith with a date, seems to be dated. Born during the census of Augustus “when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” Jesus Christ is history. But not closed up history. The Gospel according to St. Matthew ends with the promise of his presence “all the days until the completion of the age.” His teaching, his name, his chosen witnesses, telling us how it is with us, to whom we belong, and locating every last one of our days – he has written us in. If the history is still being written, still being told, does that make it story? Whatever the case, that is a Geschichte like no other. Catching us up in his his-story he frees us from the need of having to tell, or outright make our own. 

That may just free you to go to the theater, among other things to rejoice in the small grace that Bryan Adams is not featured in this soundtrack.