Green Arrow – A 21st Century Robin Hood?

RH Curtal Friar
Anon. ‘Robin Hood and the Curtall Friar’ in Joseph Ritson ed. Robin Hood [1795] (London: C. Stocking, 1823)

This post analyses the similarities between the legend of Robin Hood and the TV show, Arrow.

This has come about mainly because I would like to justify my obsession with my new favourite TV show and, well, I doubt anyone has as yet applied Eric Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry to the Arrow TV series.


The legend of Robin Hood has spawned many imitators in times past, as it seems that the public like to admire a hero who is on the outside of the law. In the 18th century the English public warmed to the figure of the highwayman, and men such as Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin became household names. In the nineteenth century people were singing ballads about Jesse James, whilst the legend of Billy the Kid is popular with Mexicans. Everyone likes an outlaw hero.

I’ve never been one of those comic book reading people (although I’m a big fan of reading the forerunners of comic books, penny dreadfuls), and I don’t even watch much TV. One day, however, whilst browsing in HMV I came across a DVD box set for a series named Arrow. As I’m in the middle of my doctorate on Robin Hood, naturally my interest was piqued when I say the front cover featuring a man in a green hood, and a quiver on his back with arrows in it. Hesitant to fork out £31.99 on a TV series I’d never heard of, I instead downloaded it on Amazon Prime. I became engrossed/obsessed with it, as it is oh so easy to do with these types of TV series. I thought, then, I’d point out some of the similarities between the legend of Robin Hood (as it stands today), and the Arrow TV show.

Why do this, you ask? Well, because when I started asking my comic book enthusiast friends, they all had a vague notion that Arrow was meant to be some type of latter-day Robin Hood, but no one could say why he was meant to signify such, apart from the fact that he uses a bow and arrow. So, let’s see if Arrow stands the H-Test (the Hobsbawm test); can he live up to the principles of social banditry identified by Eric Hobsbawm?

Green Arrow in More Fun Comics (1941)
Green Arrow in More Fun Comics (1941)

The Green Arrow began life as a comic book hero in the boys’ periodical More Fun Comics. He was the brainchild of the author, Mort Weisinger, and the illustrator, George Papp. They took the figure of Robin Hood and turned him into a Batman-like figure. However, it is the TV show which is focused upon here.

Like most American superheroes, Arrow is the alter ego of Oliver Queen, born into a rich family. In the TV show, Oliver was stranded on a deserted island for 5 years during which time he undertook many adventures, and served on various missions for a military organisation. He then returns home to, in his words, ‘save my city,’ from the people who are ruining it through their greed.

Robin Hood is also (said to be) from a wealthy family; he is the noble Earl of Huntingdon, and in most versions of the legend he too returns home after a long period of absence, and decides to take up the plight of the people against the corrupt lords of medieval England.

I want to here, however, apply Eric Hobsbawm’s social banditry thesis to the case of Green Arrow/Oliver Queen, so let me iterate the nine requirements for one to be a social bandit and see how similar/different Arrow is to Robin Hood (aside from dressing in green and using a bow and arrow):

imagesFirst, the noble robber begins his career of outlawry not by crime, but as the victim of injustice, or through being persecuted by the authorities for some act which they, but not the custom of his people, consider as criminal (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.42).

Oliver Queen decided only to ‘save his city’ after he was almost killed in a boating accident engineered by a corrupt businessman. After all, asks Hobsbawm, if a social bandit were a real criminal, how could he enjoy the support of the people?

Second. He rights wrongs.

Third. He takes from the rich and gives to the poor (Ibid).

Arrow seeks, not a complete overthrow of the existing social and economic system, but reform; whilst his main targets are large corporations which skirt the edge of the law and exploit the common people, he has no issue with the existence of large and powerful corporations per se. Rather it is when that power is used to evil and exploitative ends that he takes issue with. Bandits/outlaws are actually quite conservative figures; the seek a restoration of ‘the old order’ of things,’ as Hobsbawm says of Robin Hood:

He protests not against the fact that peasants are poor and oppressed. He seeks to establish, or re-establish, justice or ‘the old ways,’ that is to say, fair dealing in a society of oppression. He rights wrongs. He does not seek to establish a society of freedom and equality (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.55). Indeed, a bandit/vigilante acting alone cannot singlehandedly wipe out all instances of injustice in a society, but they do prove that justice is possible (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.56).

Fourth. He never kills but in self-defence or just revenge (Hobsbawm, op cit.)

Bandits often have a ‘savage spirit of justice’ (Ibid). Here, the morality of Arrow, especially in the first series, is relative; he has no problem with acting as judge, jury, and executioner to the morally bankrupt and exploitative, wealthy businessmen of Starling City, his home. However, by the second and third series, the Arrow truly becomes the noble outlaw/bandit/vigilante.

Early (Elizabethan?) Depiction of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. (Source: Bold Outlaw Website).
Early (Elizabethan?) Depiction of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. (Source: Bold Outlaw Website).

Fifth. If he survives, he returns to his people as an honorable citizen and member of the community…

Sixth. He is admired, helped, and supported by the people (Hobsbawm, 1969, pp.42-43).

Naturally, we cannot comment on Hobsbawm’s fifth point, as the TV series is still ongoing and Arrow’s career has not yet ended (and hopefully will be continuing for quite some time). On the sixth point, however, Arrow fulfills Hobsbawm’s point; he is admired, and helped, by the people of his city. In time he gathers a number of supporters around him, such as his right-hand man, John Diggle, Black Canary, Arsenal, et al. One of the interesting things about the relationship beteween Arrow and Diggle is the number of times that they fall out over something which, on the face of it, appears to be trivial.

That a bandit and his right hand man fall out from time to time is a theme that dates back to the medieval period and the ballads of Robin Hood. In the ballad, Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, when Robin and Little John encounter a stranger in the forest, Little John tells his master to stay behind whilst he approaches the stranger in the forest, and Robin’s reply is:

“Stand you still, master,” quoth Litle John,
“Under this trusty tree,
And I will goe to yond wight yeoman,
To know his meaning trulye.”

“A, John, by me thou setts noe store,
And thats a farley thinge;
How offt send I my men beffore,
And tarry myselfe behinde?

“It is noe cunning a knave to ken,
And a man but heare him speake;
And itt were not for bursting of my bowe,
John, I wold thy head breake.”

But often words they breeden bale,
That parted Robin and John;
John is gone to Barnsdale,
The gates he knowes eche one.

Arrow and his Companions. Arrow Series 3 Promo-Shoot
Arrow and his Companions.
Arrow Series 3 Promo-Shoot

Arrow is, of course, admired by the mass of people in the city, even though the police view him with suspicion; all of which makes him more of a social bandit; a social bandit being an outlaw whom ‘the lord and the state regard as criminal, but…is considered by [the] people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.18).

Seventh. He dies invariable and only through treason, since no decent member of the community would help the authorities against him.

Eighth. he is – at least in theory – invisible and invulnerable (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.43).

Hobsbawm’s seventh point cannot be commented upon, for Arrow is still very much alive. His eighth point, however, stands; Oliver Queen, whilst he was in exile on the island, learned many hunting and survival skills, and of course, throughout the series, has proven himself to be a match for even the most sophisticated of baddies; from large and faceless figures of  multinational corporations and organised crime to the heads of shadowy transnational organisations such as the League of Assassins.

Finally, and this goes back to an earlier point:

He is not the enemy of the king or emperor, who is the fount of justice, but only of local gentry, clergy, or other oppressors (Ibid).

The “King” in the case of Arrow would be the US President; Arrow never calls for a revolution and an overthrow of the current political regime; hence he is not a revolutionary as such; the “local gentry” in his case are the rich business magnates who exploit the poor of his Starling City. In fact, when you think about it. vigilantes/outlaws, etc. are always quite localised figures; Robin Hood, if he existed, operated only in and around Nottingham. Similarly, Arrow can only operate in and around his home city, Starling City.

Marian wasn't Robin's only love interest...he also had a woman called Clarinda too!
Marian wasn’t Robin’s only love interest…he also had a woman called Clarinda too!

One point not mentioned by Hobsbawm, but which I shall mention here, is the Arrow’s love interest. Throughout the series (I am, I confess, not familiar with the comics…yet), it seems Oliver has two main love interests: Laura Lance and Felicity. Most people think that Robin Hood only ever had one love interest, but this is not true. In 17th-century ballads such as Robin Hood’s Birth, Breeding, and Valour, the famous outlaw meets a shepherdess in the Forest, named Clarinda, whom he has a romance with, but it torn between her and Marian. But ultimately, a social bandit, or a vigilante, has to be celibate. Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe recognised this; his Robin of Locksley character is celibate, in order to concentrate on saving the nation. In fact, most movie and TV adaptations of the legend feature Robin Hood and Marian settling down and marrying after he has returned to normal society. Similarly, poor Oliver Queen! He’s tried, yet it never seems to work out, and only once he stops being a vigilante will he be able to have a “normal” life.

Thus in what I hope has been an enjoyable post, it is clear that Arrow is, aside from his appearance, a modern-day Robin Hood; he fulfills the criteria of social banditry. Perhaps I’ll write the first academic paper on Arrow, and I have no doubt but that in a few years’ time the International Association of Robin Hood Studies will feature an Arrow-themed paper or two! (hopefully read by me…)


Further Reading:

Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969).

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Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood (Review)

TardisAn early Christmas present I received was the Doctor Who Series 8 box set. This gave me the chance to sit down and properly review the episode ‘Robot of Sherwood’ which transports the Doctor and his companion, Clara, to twelfth-century England where they meet Robin Hood and his band of merry men. I really enjoyed this episode for several reasons, and, being in the unique position of being both a life-long fan of Doctor Who  (every DVD going back to William Hartnell’s episodes), and currently doing a PhD on Robin Hood, I thought I’d give a review of this episode.

In many ways, both the Doctor and Robin Hood are similar characters. They are heroes who fight injustice in their respective times. Both are socially conservative figures, inasmuch as they do not seek to overturn society or cause a revolution, they simply intervene where they see an injustice happening then move along. This episode received mixed reviews both from Doctor Who fans and mainstream TV critics. Some praise the episode for being light-hearted family fun, whilst others have criticised it for being too tongue in cheek  (because they expect the utmost seriousness from a series which sees a flamboyantly dressed madman ride around space and time in a blue box which is bigger on the inside).

Every generation has reinvented/re-appropriated the outlaw legend, whilst retaining some elements of the original (if there ever was an “original” Robin Hood legend). Robin in this episode is still Robin of Loxley, a dispossessed Earl, he is betrothed to Maid Marian, he lives with a gang of men in the forest whose names are Little John, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck, and Allen-a-Dale. Tom Riley nailed it as the Bold Outlaw, and provided, in my opinion, viewers with a Robin Hood who was very close in spirit to the man who appeared in 16th, 17th and 18th century ballads. He is “merry”, a jester, and a skilled archer.

Robin Hood and his Merry Men in "Robot of Sherwood".
Robin Hood and his Merry Men in “Robot of Sherwood”.

The themes of the original Robin Hood ballads are present. The Doctor assumes the role of Robin Hood’s challenger, similar to the many Robin-Hood-meets-his-match ballads which were current in broadsides in centuries past. There is also an archery contest, which Robin wins by splitting the shaft of the arrow in the target (although it looks like the Doctor wins at first, it is revealed later that the Doctor cheated by using an arrowhead with a homing device, therefore the original theme of the legend is kept in tact). Allen-a-Dale, traditionally the minstrel of the merry men in the legend of Robin Hood, gives us various musical/ballad interludes, thus providing a nice bit of continuity with the enduring themes and tropes of the Robin Hood legend. The Sheriff of Nottingham is suitably camp yet menacing at different points throughout the episode, so power mad that after he has conquered Nottingham with his army of Robot knights, he will progress on to ‘Lincoln…then Derby…then THE WORLD!’

Maclise - Scene from "Ivanhoe"
Maclise – Scene from “Ivanhoe”

Production-wise, the episode seems to be similar in tone to the 2006 BBC Robin Hood TV series with Jonas Armstrong. However, the producers have given us a ‘typical’ Robin Hood, felt hat, a long bow, a fat Friar Tuck, and a large, stout Little John. This is the medieval world of Ivanhoe a “merrie England” of chivalry and romance not a gritty Game of Thrones style world, that has been recreated for viewers. And the look they went for works well. The predominant image of the medieval Robin Hood which has come down to us today is that pleasant, merry image of Victorian and Edwardian children’s books.

Neela Debnath of The Telegraph said that the episode was “an oddly pieced together episode that didn’t make much sense”. She is right,  the episode did feel a little disparate in parts. I have no problem with this however, and if Debnath has ever read the medieval ‘Gest of Robyn Hode’ (c.1470), she’ll realise that tales of Robin Hood aren’t always supposed to make linear, narrative sense.

This is one of the better Robin Hood episodes, and I’m glad that the producer Stephen Moffatt (of whom I am NOT a fan) let this one be made. It was pure, family fun, and the people who gave it bad reviews should remember that ‘it is what it is’ so to speak: a man in a blue telephone box lands in twelfth-century England and meets the most famous Englishman from history.

…of course, as a life long Doctor Who fan and a Robin Hood scholar, I may not be the most unbiased critic. But I will say one criticism: as a Yorkshireman, and someone who has spent a lot of time researching the original ballads, they could have set the episode in Barnsdale (South Yorkshire)…it is, after all, where the “real” Robin Hood of the medieval ballads hailed from!