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Matter of the Greenwood: The Saracen outlaw

Since the 1980s, most major new Robin Hood stories have included a Muslim Merry Man – but how much further back does the character go?

N.B. this post has been updated to take into account recent additions to the mythos.

Content note: racism; Islamophobia.

In many modern retellings of the Robin Hood legend, the outlaw hero (very often a veteran of the Third Crusade) has either brought back with him, or somehow encountered and recruited in England, a Muslim associate. Indeed, this figure is now effectively part of the Greenwood tradition. But how far back do the character’s origins lie?

In one sense, of course, they go back beyond even the Robin Hood legend itself, to the “good Moor” of medieval chivalric romances. This character could be a token convert, as in many Matter of France stories where Muslims are the main enemy; or the most prominent “Moor” in the story, like Sir Palamedes or Palomides in the Arthurian tradition, who is the hero of his own romance. But one will search surviving chronicles, ballads, and early plays of the outlaw tradition in vain for any such person. (Fouke FitzWaryn’s follower John de Rampaygne, in the romance account, does disguise himself as an Ethiopian minstrel in order to infiltrate King John’s court – and at another point Fouke spends time in North Africa and Moorish Spain, rescuing the Duke of Carthage’s daughter from a dragon in the only frankly fantastical episode of his otherwise grounded story. But no actual Saracen or other person of colour joins his band.)

Although the link between Robin’s outlawry and the immediate aftermath of the Third Crusade was first made by the Scottish chronicler John Mair or Major in 1521, and cemented in the popular mind by Anthony Munday’s plays in 1598, Robin himself was not yet a Crusader and did not encounter any Saracens. A lost variant of the Restoration era ballad Robin Hood and the Prince of Aragon reportedly did have him fight Saladin: but this battle took place (with remarkable disregard for history) in England. It was not until 1849 that the familiar modern trope of Robin the Crusader was created.

The man responsible was Joachim Hayward Stocqueler, in his novel Maid Marian: The Forest Queen. The novel wears its influences on its sleeve, prominent among them Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819): Prince John’s fool Gurtha owes his name to Ivanhoe’s squire and his entire characterisation to Wamba in the earlier novel; King Richard’s right-hand man is “Sir Wilfrid Cotherstone”, Ivanhoe’s Christian name attached to a clear echo of “Rotherwood”, his childhood home. And Stocqueler’s Robin, unlike Scott’s Locksley but like Ivanhoe himself, is a Crusader.

The scenes in Palestine are also indebted to Scott, specifically his 1825 novel The Talisman – although Stocqueler did so little research that he apparently thought “Paynims”, an insulting term for the Muslim foe, referred to the Christian side. His already outlawed hero, in reality Munday’s Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, enlists as a captain of archers under the pseudonym “Locksley”, attending a somewhat whitewashed siege of Acre (although Richard knows perfectly well who he is). As soon as the city has fallen, he obtains leave to return to England and Marian, despite the fact that Acre fell in June 1191, only a month after Richard arrived in Palestine. (It then transpires that two villains who are supposed to be veterans of the same campaign have somehow arrived well ahead of him.)

Robin brings back with him two Saracen prisoners, the conjurer Suleiman and his daughter Leila: so for the first time in the mythos, we find Muslims in Sherwood. Unfortunately, these characters are stereotypes of the very worst kind. (This is despite Stocqueler’s own travels in Asia and studies of Muslim societies, which had apparently served only to reinforce the prejudices of Empire.) They prove treacherous, recruiting the aid of a witch to wipe out the Merry Men with poison, and are duly thwarted.

But while Stocqueler was influential in many ways, not least in making Robin a returned Crusader, Suleiman and Leila do not recur. The hugely popular 1955-60 ITV Adventures of Robin Hood did embrace the idea of Robin the Crusader, drawing analogies to World War II – the disdain the Sheriff’s clerk shows to returning soldiers in “The Coming of Robin Hood” (1955) would have been familiar to many an undervalued and disgruntled veteran – but it is the Norman authorities and Philip II of France, not the Saracens, who fill the role of the Nazis. The one Muslim we meet (Ali ben Azra, played by Francis Matthews in the 1957 episode “The Infidel”) is a noble character whom Robin defends against an Islamophobic mob: but, although Matthews appeared the following year in another role, and the character name was reused for a travelling conjurer, this Ali does not reappear.

The Muslim outlaw as we know them, in fact, did not enter the legend until 1983, in the TV movie Robin Hood and the Sorcerer, made as a pilot for the series which became Robin of Sherwood (1984-86). The creation was entirely accidental: although the titular villain, Baron Simon de Belleme (Anthony Valentine), is a returned Crusader favouring Middle Eastern garb, and seems to have learnt at least some of his magic in that part of the world, his henchman (who shoots on his behalf for the silver arrow) was written as an English archer named Edmund, and was supposed to die at the climax. Only after Mark Ryan was hired to play him did he learn that Edmund had been reimagined as the taciturn Arab swordsman Nasir. The cast and crew then proceeded to grow so fond of Ryan and his character that writer Richard Carpenter changed the ending, allowing Nasir to survive and join the Merry Men.

Like many other innovations that derived from Robin of Sherwood, the Muslim outlaw is often mistakenly credited to the 1991 blockbuster movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Indeed, writer Pen Densham and director Kevin Reynolds have claimed credit for inventing the character in interviews. In fact, it has been rumoured that Azeem (their Moorish character, played by Morgan Freeman) was originally to be called Nasir before it was pointed out to them that the character was Carpenter’s creation and that appropriating him wholesale could give rise to legal action. Allegedly, they believed that he was a traditional character: be that as it may, they would soon help to make him one.

Azeem manages to be a very different character from Nasir, his entirely new back-story helping, and Freeman brings his usual dignity and gravitas to the role. The success of this film cemented the character in the popular imagination. Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) spoofs Azeem as Ahchoo (Dave Chapelle), a parody of modern black American stereotypes. (When Robin asks for Ahchoo to be made the new Sheriff, the crowd exclaims “A black sheriff?” and he responds: “It worked in Blazing Saddles”.) In the over-the-top fantasy series The New Adventures of Robin Hood (1997 – 2000), martial artist Hakim Alston played “nomad” Kemal, regularly showing off his entirely out of place fighting style. By the time of the BBC’s 2006-09 Robin Hood, it would have been a surprise – especially given that series’ heavy-handed equation of the Third Crusade with the Second Gulf War – if a Muslim outlaw had not featured. Novelty is therefore achieved by casting a woman, Anjali Jay, as the implausibly-named Djaq: but, in keeping with the series’ tendency to skirt around religious issues, her faith is barely mentioned after her first appearance. (At least Djaq’s presence in England is accorded an explanation. Elsewhere, characters of colour pop up in far greater numbers than could be expected in twelfth century England, and are seldom remarked on, apart from one aside by the Sheriff about “these Moors” when David Harewood first shows up as Tuck.)

In the 2018 film Robin Hood, Jamie Foxx's Yahya is conflated with Little John despite being an obvious copy of Azeem. The one-handed revolutionary Yahya has travelled to Nottingham because it is, in this film's weirdly ahistorical universe, "the bank and beating heart of the Crusades", whose depiction is entirely based on the 2003 war in Iraq, even to the point of arrows acting and sounding like bullets and soldiers wearing what looks like modern desert camouflage. As notable as the 2006 series' tendency to anachronistic design and overplayed parallels were, this film takes both to another and entirely ridiculous level; Foxx's performance is one of the few good things about it.

Whatever his or her name, the Saracen has, by now, become an obligatory part of the gang. It is strange to think that Nasir was created only a generation ago, and almost entirely by accident; but there is little doubt that his descendants will people new versions of the Robin Hood mythos for the foreseeable future.

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