Why forest legends still matter

Anyone anywhere has heard the story of Robin Hood, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest who with his band of merry men robbed the rich to pay the poor. The new Hollywood version starring Michael Crowe is only the latest in many adaptations of the legend.
The setting as always is the forest of Sherwood, where the object is as much the booty of the bad Sherriff of Nottingham as the aim of every hunt: the red deer. Venison after all was more than mere meat in medieval Europe. Prior to the spice trade it represented meat on the hoof; a form of protein coveted by the commoner, priest and laity alike.
As with any resource in history, access was guarded, jealously and even at times violently. The Norman law rarely prescribed the death penalty.
When asked why this was not so, Maurice Keen, the author of The Outlaws of Medieval Legend and now retired Oxford don, gave a wry answer. “They would not cut off your head”, he said, “but they could deprive you of an arm or a finger”.
Poach a deer, lose an arm. Keen’s work reassembled the legend and found it did have some substance. There were Robin-like figures scattered across England’s past, but was there really one Robin Hood? The answer is elusive.
What matters more is the idea of the freedom of the forest, the notion of common right. Not only to hunt deer but to gather lops and tops and graze cattle, to glean the woods for a living. This idea lay at the root of the tensions.
After all, it ran full tilt into what the term “forest” meant in not just English but much of European history. It was not just a grove of trees or a wilderness but the place where the king and only the king (or those permitted by him) could hunt the deer.
One man’s poacher could be another person’s bread-winner. The very idea of the poacher was about who was and was not there by prior right. The commoner versus the noble, or as seen in the film epics, the good Angle Saxons against the Norman yoke. The deer was both symbol and substance in this epic contest.
There was other notion of the deer. There is the parable of the “sobbing deer” that shames the hunter. Chronicles speak of the deer with a blaze of light with the horns cast in a halo.
It speaks to the hunter’s conscience, evoking empathy and making of its possible killer a friend and ally.
This should be familiar to those who have read or seen the thirds part of the Harry Potter omnibus, where the young wizard’s father appears as a stag across the waters. Skilfully mining medieval legend, J.K. Rowling casts Harry’s father’s spirit in the form of a deer.
Fascinating as it is, does it really matter? It does and more than we sometimes realise. After all the forest is a keenly contested space. The fate of the forest is tied to who wins control of it and what they intend to do with it.
This was equally so in early India. In an amazing account of a 14th century hunt in Badayun, a chronicler refers to the hunt as akin to the conduct of war. Soldiers surrounded and beat the forest, killing any animal that emerged and capturing the men to sell into slavery.
The hunt as surrogate for war remained so till very recently. Only, that with elite taste changing, those armed with weapons were there to guard not kill animals.
Quite aside from whether or not this will work, it surely matters if it is simply reliving the past. The animal hunted by princes is now prized as living trophy, to be captured on film.
This is why legends matter. The story is less about the man but about a competing notion of rights to the forest. An alternative telling would recreate a forest peopled with those that eke out a living from it.
Wood charcoal makers and trappers, gleaners and grazers, honey collectors and fishers, a host of livelihoods as diverse as the great oak and hickory forests of England’s past.
The same could apply to deciduous woods and thorn scrub that once covered so much of India. And it was posed by India’s own Robin Hood, Daku Sultana, inimitably portrayed by Jim Corbett in his book My India.
Can the deer or the tiger or their ilk be reconciled with those who live with this basket of livelihoods? Is it really necessary to re-enact the monarchs of medieval legend to secure nature in this our new century?
If wars against or for nature begin in our own minds, then it is here that the struggle for a peace must commence. For a peace with people can and has to accompany a peace among nature.
One can surely not be achieved in a lasting sense without the other. Robin Hood may be a creature of legend. But the issue he raised still cries out for answer.

Mahesh Rangarajan is an environmental historian. He recently co-edited the book Environmental History: As If Nature Existed

Comments

Thanks Mahesh for this

Thanks Mahesh for this journey from myth to reality. I remembered Birsa, tantya, Bhillavir Kalinga, Durgavati who were real robin hood in India. It is quite difficult to tell today about the forest and ptg's habitat's , tribal's relationship with deer and tigers. In mythology Ram goes to hunt kanchanmrug on demand of Seeta. Because people were wearing deer's skin in that era.. It shows that in ancient period Nagri Aryan people were thinking about animals only regarding their flesh and skin. Aryan and British have same mentality. However in India real female robinhood like Shurpnakha, Hidinba who were protecting forests r known as rakshsi.. Today so called conservationists are blaming adivasis for endangering tigers.. Facts remain that due to urbanization forests r shrinking. We are making insecure the life of adivasis and wild habitat .I will request u to introduce about real Indian robin hood too.
Lata P.M. Pune

A very imaginative reading of

A very imaginative reading of legends & of lyrically weaving them with facts to create a seamless narrative. From his visage I remember him as a somewhat dour 'man of numbers' - statistician to be precise - appearing on TV shows years ago in then just started "Election Analyzes". His interest in the history of environment seems to have taken him far into more substantive & meaty matters affecting our fate. If his co-authored book "Environmental History: As If Nature Existed" - what a intriguing title - is even half as good as this article, then it is worth every rupee. Terrific Mahesh, "Dil Mange more".

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