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Truth Be Damned


Robin Hood’s ‘grave’ could be bulldozed and covered in concrete”!

Screams the headline. Well, the site is called Robin Hoods grave, there has always been some controversy over it and when a TV programme investigated with ground penetrating radar they found no sign of bones under the grave stones. The absence of Robin’s remains may not surprise some, there is quite a lot of evidence available to suggest he was always a fictional character and never had a body to start off with. The question therefore is: does it matter if they concrete it over?

Robin Hood is a folk hero with better than average geographical specificity. He is undeniably English, his adversary is unarguably the Sheriff of Nottingham and he is inextricably linked with Sherwood Forest. We also have unusual clarity about what he did: anybody you ask will tell you he was a champion archer and he lived outside the law with not one version of the tales making him a part time magistrate who was handy with a frying pan. The thing about him that is most uncertain would appear to be his basic existence… and I say it matters not one jot!

What is important about the guy who stole from the rich and gave to the poor is not who he was, it is who the rich and the poor were. The earliest written reference to our hero is from 1377 so his stories were in common usage before then and probably had their genesis much earlier. During the three hundred years since the Battle of Hastings, the general populace of England, the Anglo-Saxons, were heavily subjugated to William’s conquerors. The Normans were rich because they took all the land and the Saxons were poor because that was an easy way to keep them under control. The Normans considered themselves a separate and superior race and all Saxons slaves. The oppression of the Saxons was systemic, violent and total. The outlaws of our early medieval folklore, like Hereward the Wake and of course Robin, were not just poor people getting by, struggling with one despotic official, they were freedom fighters, the rebel resistance, battling for their country against a tyrannical occupying force. A quick look at the top movies of the last thirty years will show you how powerful a story that is, even if it happens in a galaxy far, far away.

The Robin Hood story as we know it is part of what UNESCO call our Intangible Cultural Heritage. It is our story, it shapes how we think about ourselves as a nation and feeds into our attitudes to morality, authority and personal freedom. Like King Arthur, Luke Skywalker or even Jesus, arguments against their factual, historical actuality are largely irrelevant; how we relate to the story emotionally and psychologically is the important business.

Would it matter then if, in pursuit of further wealth, the rich and powerful in collusion with the local authorities destroyed the probably invented resting place of a possibly fictitious character?

Simply, yes.

Much as it is the psychological resonance of the stories deep inside us that determine our behaviour, physical items and locations connected with a story reinforce and amplify the re-telling of the tale. Those who feel threatened by a story will seek to denigrate (“It’s not really his grave.”) and eradicate (“Therefore we can bulldoze it.”) these foci. Those who are comforted or inspired by the story will rally to defend them.


As indeed they did. It turns out that the Telegraph’s article is no more factual than the green clad cop-dodger himself. The plans have already been changed to leave the site of the tomb untouched. In a time of idealogical austerity, with the rich avoiding their taxes, I can see Mr. Hood’s merry band returning to the forefront of the folkloric cannon… whatever the truth of the matter may be.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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Didn’t We Tell You That?


We all have little things that trigger our anger and frustration causing outbursts that leave the person who has unwittingly pushed our pedant button shocked and baffled. One of my current triggers is people saying “well that’s just a story” or similar. Everything is a story! Some stories are factual and others less so but if you are being told it by another person, either through speech or the written word, it is a story. Now some may contain facts and some may not. Even as late as the 14th century there was no difference in meaning between the words “story” and “history”, both come from the same French word meaning the relating of events from the past, yet we accept one as true and the other as dubious. The stories I deal in are, as I hope I have illustrated over the years, full of truths and histories are equally full of distortions and sometimes even outright lies.

For some time I have used the death of Robin Hood as my example of a forgotten truth buried in a story and considered an exaggeration. The story goes that on his death bed Robin Hood shot an arrow saying “bury me where this arrow falls”. The distance between Kirklees Priory, where the outlaw spent his final hours, and the site known as Robin Hood’s Grave has for many years been considered too far for even an Olympic archer to shoot and the whole episode written off as “just a story”. However, the excavation of the Mary Rose brought to light long bows with a draw weight well in excess of current sporting maximums. It was soon agreed that a professional archer of the middle ages who had been shooting since their youth, armed with a bow of such power would have been able to make the shot. Story 1 – Common sense 0.

Recently I have found a new tale to tell of forgotten truth hidden in a story. In the middle of Australia there is a valley that has palm trees growing in it. Now, palm trees’ seeds are quite large and only travel any distance from the parent tree if they fall in to water. So palm trees in nature are either found next to each other or next to water. The valley in Australia is neither. The nearest palm trees are two thousand miles away and the sea is slightly further. Since their presence was a bit of a conundrum a scientist looked in to it. After getting a genetic profile of the valley’s palms he checked it against other Australian palms until he found their nearest relatives and with some archaeology and other clever work he was able to put together the story of the palm trees that shouldn’t be there: The seeds were carried from the north coast of Australia, 2,000 miles away, by people and planted in the valley 30,000 years ago. It was a quite a big thing and a bit of fuss was made in the Australian media. When the Aboriginal Australians heard about this they were rather surprised that such a fuss was being made. They said “Didn’t we tell you that story? I’m sure we must have done. The one about the gods who carried the seeds to the middle of the country and planted the palms in the valley? We must have told you… We’ve been telling that story for 30,000 years!”

That’s Robin Hood out of a job then. I now have a scientifically proven fact preserved in a folk tale for 30,000 years, which makes me wonder what else might turn out to be true and how long it may have been hiding. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether turning the seed carriers in to gods is an acceptable exaggeration over 30,000 years or whether the scientist needs to adjust his version in light of the new evidence… unless you think it’s “just a story”.

…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.

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