Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves: Oedipal Fairy Tale?

Caroline Garland, Psychoanalyst, explores the seventh commandment ‘Thou Shalt Not Steal’ with research and a spectacular analysis of the tale of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves in her edited version, January 2021 and published on TF February 2021.

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Excerpt: In ‘Greenwood Tales’. Robin rarely just ‘says’ anything:  he exclaims, laughs, quips, jests, cries, jokes, roars, and on one occasion gurgles what he has in mind.   His men are at one with him in this, tirelessly and tiresomely merry.  In fact the whole of Great Britain gets caught up in this state of mania, and becomes Merrie England.  Did it never rain in the Greenwood, did no-one ever feel sick after all that carousing on stolen venison, were there no midges?   

Excerpt: Prohibitions against stealing exists in all of the eleven major relations of the world. In alphabetical order, they are Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hebraism, Hinduism, Islam, Jainism, Shinto, Sikhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism.   If we draw the outstanding precepts, or commandments from these eleven religions and philosophies, we see that each in its own way and in its own style supports selected norms.

Theft, or stealing, has not always been a major concern of primitive law, which concerned itself rather with direct offences against the person (assault, murder, sorcery, adultery) rather than with things, with goods. Among so‑called primitive peoples, there are ways in which food and other basic resources are open to all on an equal basis, and food and implements may be shared freely.

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Excerpt: Taking in and putting out is the basis of life ‑ of growth and change. Life itself begins with a putting‑into, a taking‑in: a man and a woman join, perhaps in a single act, perhaps in a marriage, to give and to take something from each other: the sperm joins with the ovum to make a new life. Nine months later the mother gives the baby the breast, and that too has to be accepted, taken in and held on to if life is to continue. The growing baby continues to manage its universe througha process of going on taking-in-what-it-wants and finds good, and expelling or putting out what-it-does-not-want-or-need; and this process of continuous exchange with the figures in its life happens both at a bodily level and simultaneously in phantasy and in imagination, at a psychic level. 

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Excerpt: Elizabeth Spillius (1993) has written a careful and subtle analysis of the complexities of giving and receiving.   She describes a situation in which real giving is possible, in which pleasure is taken by the giver in the action, and that this pleasure is perceived clearly enough by the receiver to avoid being overcome by resentment at having been found in a position to be given to; and that he can therefore bear to make a return gift to the giver, either in kind, or in pleasure and gratitude, so that a benign circle is set in motion.  Spillius says that in this situation, “Goodness in the other becomes bearable, even enjoyable.”   But it isn’t always like that. Sometimes the giver may give for a variety of narcissistic reasons, to exert control orsuperiority over the receiver, or he may give resentfully because he feels the receiver is making unreasonable demands on him.   If the receiver perceives this state of affairs accurately he may in his turn feel resentful and give as little as possible back to the giver in terms of grati­tude, and an increasingly grudging and mingy cycle is estab­lished, in which there is a diminishing possibility of either offering or accepting anything at all.  Spillius’ analysis is relevant because it addresses how difficult it can be at times to allow ourselves to be given something – not just things, presents, but also paradoxically and in a very complex way, compliments, or help, even help that is asked for.  In this kind of situation, some version of stealing may seem to be a way of getting what you want without either having to acknowledge indebtedness, or to fear the consequences of being enriched by accepting a gift.

Malinowski with the Trobriand Islanders, 1918

Excerpt: Mauss quotes Malinowski’s study of the kula among the Trobriand Islanders in Melanesia. This is a grand and elaborate form of gift exchange, a non‑economic, social and moral transac­tions, involving the formal presentation of valued gifts (arm­shells and necklaces) to selected recipients. However, these valued objects may not be held on to, for to accept a gift is also to accept an obligation to make a gift,and the valuables are after a little while passed on to another recipient in a never‑ending cycle, always with the same ritual and formality. Armshells circulate from west to east round the island, and necklaces circle from east to west. Both are highly invested things, more than mere coins; they have “a sacred and superior nature. To possess one is ‘exhilarating, comforting, soothing in itself’

Kevin Costner as Robin Hood with Marian played by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

Excerpt: I now try to show, in the light of the elements I’ve described, why I think the story of Robin Hood, reworked by every generation in its own way, has such a powerful appeal.  Over and above his origin as a social rebel, Robin also represents the one who got away with it, the one who did not have to suffer fear, or envy, or iealousy. Robin is the boy who succeeded in defeating the hated and feared version of his father and in making off with the beautiful feeding maternal object, to live for ever as a child of the greenwood.    Now we can begin to see something of the need for the endless merriment, the mania that is needed to carry off these exploits, while evading anxiety, guilt and the fear of castration.

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Excerpt: But fairy tales are just that: a playing with ideas, the imaginative expression of the impossible.   Freud says of psychoanalysis, in an interview recorded around 1918, published in an Austrian journal of the time, that it makes people become honest with themselves.  Psychoanalysis leads people “to become conscious of their instincts and thereby allows them to struggle against those primitive instincts…”    

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Caroline Garland is a British Psychoanalyst, Speaker and Author. She is:

  • British Psychoanalytical Society (incorporating the Institute of Psychoanalysis) – Fellow
  • Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust – Member
  • Tavistock Society of Psychotherapists – Member

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