...a blog by Richard Flowers

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Day 2159: ROBIN HOOD: A Thing or Two About Loyalty


After a hard day Christmas Shopping on the Internet, Daddy has nipped off to Sherwood Forest to find some financing. I wonder where those bags marked "swag" come from!

Moral dilemmas and relationships dominate this week's Robin Hood, in the second episode written by Paul Cornell.

Sir Guy has encouraged his friend Lambert to develop his invention of "black powder" known to Robin and Djac as "Greek fire" and to everyone else as gunpowder. This would decisively alter the balance of power, but Lambert is unwilling to share his secret and he's been locked up by the Sheriff. So while Marion tries to persuade Guy to save his friend, the outlaws send Much into the dungeons to stage a jailbreak. At which point the Sheriff ennobles Much and grants him the estate of Bonchurch.

There is a potentially interesting new look at the moral dilemma that the series has placed at its heart: Marion has to choose whether to stay safe at the cost of maybe marrying Sir Guy de Gisborne; this is reflected when Much finds himself made an Earl by the Sheriff.

Biblical metaphor is running is slightly obvious mode: innocent everyman Much is introduced to temptress Eve (ostensibly his "first woman", at least since the Holy Land, if we can believe that he's that innocent). Forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge (in this case the secret of gunpowder) is the prize and the end result is that they are cast out from their "paradise" when they must flee their vengeful lord. There is even a moment recognising their shame at being naked when Much nearly ends up with Eve in his bath.

The difference, of course, is that this Eden has been created by the Serpent.

Bonchurch is what Robin promised to Much on their return from the Holy Land, and as the episode makes clear, Eve is pretty much all that Much has ever dreamed of. Add to that, for the first time in his life, Much is able to give directly to the locals and make them happy.

So the more interesting question is why does he give these things up?

The episode actually ignores this entirely, which is a shame, because it is actually at the heart of the implicit debate between Marion and Robin: is it better to work inside a corrupt system that gives us comfort, protection and some ability to look out for our friends and family or attack it root and branch as an outlaw?

Marion is actually the person in the hardest position. Guy reminds her that she cannot discard his protection as he alone stands between her and the Sheriff, and it is implicit – from the Sheriff asking after his health – that her father too is a hostage to her good behaviour. But Marion isn't just sticking to her position out of self-interest. By going along with Guy, by collaborating, Marion believes she is in a better position to do good than Robin. Robin, on the other hand, taunts her about Guy and what she is giving to him in return for his help.

(More of this next week, after – set sexism to maximum – Sir Guy gives her a pony. In fairness, the boys get to discuss the suspension on a sexy new carriage they've seen.)

Placing Much on the council of nobles does strengthen Marion's position. At the very least she isn't completely isolated in the face of the Sheriff's scorn, although obviously, the Sheriff's humiliation of Much in council is as much to be used as a warning to Marion (and others) not to step out of line. Much's generosity to the villagers of Bonchurch is also much in line with Marion's policy of helping through good works and by example.

So you would expect there to have been more of a tug-o-war between Marion and Robin over whether Much should stay in Bonchurch or return to the forest. Instead, both seem to see him as just someone to be used.

Ironically, it is the very fact that Much does not behave like this towards Eve that enables the outlaws to find the Sheriff's stash of gunpowder barrels. Bought and paid for by the Sheriff, Eve is won over to the side of righteousness by Much's generosity and trust. Awww. This is, however, awfully simplistic and I am reminded of Fiona Vulpe in "Thunderball" voicing her scorn for this sort of thing.

It also sits oddly here where so many of the other questions of loyalty are shaded in grey. Although it is clearly the moral of the episode that trust is rewarded with loyalty, Robin manipulates and abuses the trust of Much to deceive the Sheriff, and of Lambert in order to obtain the secret journal, and lastly misdirects the attention of the other outlaws away so that Djac can recover the journal which they believe he has tossed on the fire.

This is actually another point the episodes touches upon lightly and then moves on: is there an intrinsic right for knowledge to exist. You can't unmake the Bomb, is often said. But gunpowder is at the base of so many ladders of learning: not just chemistry but engineering, rocketry, mining (as here), manufacturing, even fertilisers and of course almost all projectile weapons above the arrow (now there's an irony – Robin of course is interested in maintaining the superiority of his own weapon).

To return to the Bible's image: if you eat the apple then the consequences can be good or evil. But at least you have the choice.

And the choice between good and evil reminds us of Sir Guy, who this week has his loyalty stretched between the Sheriff who humiliates him and the friend who betrays him.

Oddly, Guy seems to be the most straightforward character this week. He's been given a job to do – deliver the black powder to the Sheriff – and actually done it… up to the point where Lambert gets cold feet and the Sheriff starts expecting him to use torture to get results. Marion tries to complicate things for him, by suggesting that there is another way, but the Sheriff is having none of that "turn back to the light side" shtick and simplifies Guy's choices again in a pretty permanent way. In fact the Sheriff uses the truth here to serve his own purpose and binds Guy closer to him. Poor Guy is left with fewer friends and more in the power of the dark side than ever.

The character of Lambert, though, is a bit of a McGuffin in this episode – he's there as a device to serve the plot rather than as a person in his own right. His characterisation is rather off, too: he really ought to know what the Sheriff is likely to do with his invention, but it seems to be a spontaneous decision not to trust him; he won't work with the Sheriff because he doesn't want his black power used as a weapon, but has handily prepared several grenades. Rather than the more practical step of sabotaging the demonstration.

What exactly is his position anyway? The episode guide bills him as "castle scientist", which should probably be "alchemist", but that's a position that we know Sheriff Vasey was looking to fill last week when Djac almost got the job. He appears dressed as a peasant – to gain our sympathies, we suspect – but he is a friend of Sir Guy and clearly educated (never mind the alchemy, he can write!) which actually speaks to him being a noble.

Brooding psycho Sir Guy seems a rather unlikely sort to have a friend, to be honest; even his single-minded pursuit of Lady Marion smacks more of a desire to possess rather than an interest in her company. The fact that Marion has discovered ways to "play" Sir Guy – Marion too manipulating loyalties here – moves her to a new dangerous place even as it strengthens her character. Mishandling Guy may be more instantly lethal than a misstep with the Sheriff. The Sheriff as Marion herself points out is more of an endgame sort of man.

The thing is, with the Sheriff as deliciously villainous as he is there is never any question as to which side is "good" and which "bad", meaning these questions of loyalty are a bit empty.

On the other hand we score full marks for our War on Terror metaphors this week, with the Council of Nobles mirroring the United Nations, both withering under the invective from the biggest bully around, and the gunpowder standing in for atomic weaponry in the local arms race.

This was a reasonable episode, nice pace to the writing and direction and a plot that, while slightly naïve, hangs together and comes with a nasty bite in the middle when the Sheriff really gets his hands dirty. It takes the time to examine the balance of people's relationships: Robin and Marion; Marion and Guy; Guy and the Sheriff; the Sheriff and Eve; Eve and Much; Much and Robin. That's a lot of personal drama.

But it raises an interesting question or two about loyalty itself then unfortunately chooses not to follow through.

And a Verry Merry 12th Day of Advent to Everyone at Home!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I blogged on Robin a few weeks ago, and I am pleased that it has taken off to the point that Terry Wogan is running a spot on Monday mornings