Robin Hood unmasked -- a swashbuckler or a butler?

He lives in the memory as a mixture of Hollywood's Errol Flynn and Sherwood Forest's medieval superman armed with a mighty longbow.

Brave and virtuous, he robs the rich, gives to the poor, and leads a band of merry men with a rakish grin. He protects Maid Marian even as he scourges the wicked sheriff of Nottingham. He is England's most famous outlaw - the standard by which anti-establishment heroes have been judged for 700 years.

Robin Hood - right?

Certainly so, says the city of Nottingham. It relies heavily on his memory to attract a million or so tourists here to middle England each year. The city is soon to open a new ''Robin Hood interpretive center'' at a cost of half a million pounds complete with life-size models and artful backlighting to do for Mr. Hood what a similar Stratford-on-Avon center has done for Mr. Shakespeare.

But all may not be - and probably never was - what it seems.

A number of modern historians, including J. C. Holt in a book published in mid-1982, and researcher Ronald Courtney, point out that:

* There is many a Robin ''Hode,'' ''Hoode,'' ''Hoodes,'' and more in early records. The man most likely to have been the basis of the original ballads came not from Nottingham but from south Yorkshire. He was born in Locksley and died in Kirklees Priory, both resolutely Yorkshire locations.

* If he roamed anywhere, it was Barnsdale Forest north of Doncaster. Any ambushes were on the Great North Road where it plunged into the valley of the River Went.

* Whoever Robin was, he did not rob the rich and give to the poor. He robbed rich and poor alike, and gave to himself.

* Far from serving King Richard the Lionhearted around the year 1190 as legend has it, he lived either 35 or 100 years later, perhaps at the time of Edward the Second.

* The love of his life was a wife called Matilda, not a flame called Marian. ''Maid Marian'' is absent from the early stories, and appears only in 17th or 18 th century versions.

* He was not a hero of Saxon resistance against a hated Norman French taxation system administered by the ruthless sheriff. Such embellishments were added in the 19th century.

* Far from being a swashbuckler, Robin may well have been the ''Robyn Hod'' on record as being hired by the court of Edward the Second as a valet de chambre - a ''porter, usher, and cleaner of bed chambers,'' as one US researcher claims. This Robin was fired for laziness after only eight months.

Yet the legend of Robin Hood, the bearded figure called ''Locksley,'' clad in Lincoln green, in Sir Walter Scott's ''Ivanhoe'' - the one in at least 16 Hollywood and British feature films, the one in children's story books in the US , Sweden, Japan, and even China, is much too ''real'' to be vanquished by mere facts.

The legend endures. J. C. Holt concedes it will. There will be no dramatic switch of tourists (many of them American) from Nottingham Castle to Yorkshire.

Unsurprisingly, chief defenders of the legend are city officials here in Nottingham, who need it. At a time of widespread economic recession, tourist dollars and yen are more valuable than ever before.

Asked about the new researchers, John Hartland of the Nottingham Information Bureau replies with one word: ''spoilsports.''

Well, can he prove Robin Hood came from Nottinghamshire? That he and Maid Marian were married at Edwinstowe Church near what is now Sherwood Forest Country Park? That Little John is buried at Hathersage?

''No,'' says the dogged Mr. Hartland. ''But no one can disprove it either. Nor can anyone prove Robin came from Yorkshire. Those people up there claim everything, you know.

''Besides,'' (in a lofty tone) ''it is internationally accepted that he came from Nottingham. . . .''

He has a point there.

A most un-Errol-Flynn-like bronze statue of the outlaw stands outside the wall of Nottingham Castle here, a heavy-set young man aiming a huge longbow, hung with hunting gear, and toting a giant quiver filled with arrows.

''A bit of a problem, the arrows,'' Mr. Hartland recalled. ''In 1980, they were still bronze, and tourists kept taking them as souvenirs. We changed them to fiberglass, but the life expectancy of an arrow remained at about 21/2 weeks.

''Now the arrows are made of the same kind of strengthened steel that goes into British army tanks. . . .''

Which all goes to show how potent the legend remains. The new ''interpretive center'' is to be as elaborate as the city can afford. Tourists keep coming in. A plan to build a (STR)10 million Robin Hood theme park near here, complete with an archery field, a fortified town, and 20,000 trees, has been abandoned because of recession, but the legend is comfortably triumphant.

Local Robin Hood scholar James Lees dismisses rival claims as a ''load of bunk.'' He - and millions of others - are happy with the legend as it is.

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