Monday, June 30, 2008

Portrayal of the Divine: Richard Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood

My brother frequently gets pre-release copies of books and DVDs hoping to be publicized by the radio station for which he works. Knowing me as he does, he recently sent me a complete set of Richard Carpenter's British television series Robin of Sherwood. While I know that this forum is not geared towards television shows, I felt that the way in which the subject of divinity is treated in this series was worthy of discussion. I should admit up front that I'm not finished with all 23 episodes, but I felt these ideas should be expressed before other thoughts took their places in my head.

God, not Christ

Because the protagonists in the series are Saxons, the divine favor they enjoy does not come from any God we would admit to. Instead their Pagan deity, an adapted version of British legendary figure Herne the Hunter, inspires them against the evils of the Sheriff of Nottingham and his fellows who are Christians. While we do see the religious side of the "bad guys" of the story (mostly through the Sheriff's brother, Abbot Hugo), I will primarily address the themes involved in the relationship between Herne and Robin.

But before I do that, I want to say that I don't think we need to be threatened by the use of Christianity as an antagonistic force or by the use of paganism to represent good. Although the series sets the two in direct opposition in some cases, with Christianity generally representing wickedness, I think it may be healthy to consider ways in which our faith can be and has been abused. I say "our faith," but the Catholicism portrayed in this series is really nothing like the restored Gospel. Also, religion is not attacked by this series as much as it is discussed. What I'm getting at is that the image of Christ associated with evildoers might offer a useful, if sometimes disturbing, perspective.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that LDS filmmakers use try to make Christianity appear evil, but we should recognize that the portrayal of Christianity as an oppressive force is consistent with history. I can imagine films appropriately made by Latter-day Saints that include the perspectives of those who have been oppressed by "Christians" in the past. Turning our eyes inward may help create understanding and reveal the tendencies that cause this perception of Christians, even today.

Ironically, and predictably, the Christian virtues the creators of the show clearly value are exhibited far more frequently (though not exclusively) by the pagans than the Christians in Robin of Sherwood. One exception is Friar Tuck, who never seems to abandon his Christianity but supports Robin in following the visions he receives from Herne.

Dispersal of Divine Attributes

Robin of Loxley is introduced as the son of a man who is killed while defending a sacred artifact. His father sacrifices himself to keep his son alive but loses the powerful artifact to the Sheriff, who can't use it and therefore has no appreciation for its real value. To him, it is only a silver arrow. Robin grows up as one of the last survivors of a destroyed village whose existence is no longer recognized. These two elements have echoes of pre-mortal life and the apostasy. One major difference is that Robin asserts that "Nothing [about Loxley] is forgotten."

Robin comes into his own at the end of the first episode when he is chosen through vision by Herne the Hunter to be the defender of the poor, and the last hope of England. From this point on, he is designated as "Herne's Son," who has "come to claim his kingdom." All of these things set up Robin as a figure of Jesus Christ, but of more interest to me are the ways in which both he and his adoptive "father" are humanized.

After the first vision, Robin is afraid and declines Herne's offer. He does not want to take up a divine mantle. After witnessing the devastation caused by the Sheriff, however, he changes his mind. In a cave near Sherwood, Robin meets the antlered Herne and is given his charge. Before this happens, however, Herne reveals his true nature to Robin by discarding his costume of fur and horns. Robin exclaims in surprise, "You're not a god. You're just a man."

The significance of this revelation is immense, because it reduces the figure who for the rest of the series imparts visions, power, and authority, to a mere mortal. When Herne replaces his costume, however, he is transformed.

Not only does the humanization of Herne point to the LDS concept of the origin of God, it gives Herne a dual role as deity and prophet/teacher. Robin takes on a similar role as he both channels the "powers of light and darkness" and reveals Herne's will to the merry men. As Robin learns more of the nature of God, he becomes more confident in this role, and more like the son of Herne the Hunter.

The main lesson I want to point to from this is that Robin and Herne both represent the divine in this series. About halfway through the series another character takes up Robin's mantle, adding to the list of those who symbolize deity. While the serial nature of the program prevents this kind of symbolism from being constant (sometimes it's obvious the writers just needed another story before the deadline) it is consistent in that it inevitably resurfaces and picks up the spiritual momentum created by the pilot episode. I've noticed in some films that one character or item is chosen to carry the burden of all divine meaning. I think this creates an overwrought analogy that loses effectiveness as these characters tend to demonstrate only power, omniscience, and an aptitude for saving the day in ways that can be hard to swallow. By dispersing the divine among several icons (but not too many, lest the symbolism lack potency), the filmmakers are able to create effective metaphors that also give the viewer some breathing room. I actually find this patchy symbolism refreshing, because it avoids over-simplification and "preachyness." The occasional vistas of clarity thus offered also allow the viewer to absorb the meaning more fully. Narrative devices that keep the action grounded in the proper context can fill the space between these moments of truth.

More on Divine Potential

As far as I have gone in the series, Herne is never given any identity other than a god of the forest. Yet, in response to Robin's surprise at his humanity, Herne unexpectedly replies, "We can all of us be gods. All of us." This redirects the viewer's attention from Herne's fallibility to Robin's potential. It sets the stage for the rest of the series as an extended metaphor for the progression of Robin and his men toward godhood. Robin's first task is to recover the sacred silver arrow and destroy the dark sorcerer who is trying to steal it. Again, as a television program, some elements are designed purely for show and to fill time, but the theme is recurrent for as many episodes as I have seen.

Herne gives Robin the tools he'll need to accomplish his purpose: a bow and arrows and a sword imbued with the powers of light and darkness. These objects also carry divine symbolsim and indicate that man, without constant divine assistance, cannot accomplish or even find his true purpose.

There's a lot more that could be said about this series, but I'd like to hear what you think about the ideas I've mentioned above. I particularly want to talk about how these things can help us in the portrayal of the divine.

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