Sunday, 4 January 2009

On Why Weren't The "Good Guys" Celebrated?

Why are the "good guys" not celebrated in English folklore and popular culture? At least, not before the 1900s?

It is a difficult question, but this is my theory.

Until the 1900s, it was the "bad guys" - the law breakers - who were celebrated rather than those who enforced it.

Take for example the thief Robin Hood:

Or the highwayman Dick Turpin:

Or even the underworld king Jonathan Wild:

In contrast, those charged with upholding the law were the villains. For example, the Sheriff of Nottingham:

Or the witchfinder Mathew Hopkins:

And the hanging Judge Jeffries:

Even the literary character Sherlock Holmes was a private operator, usually working independent of (or in spite of) the officials who enforced the law.

So, in view of the lack of a tradition of the law enforcers as "good guys", it is perhaps not a surprise that the first popular police screen characters were the slapstick Keystone Cops, and not anything more dignified:

Indeed, it was only the cinema and television age, with a fictional invention such as Dixon of Dock Green - following the American wild west sheriff and Elliot Ness traditions - that there appears any popular sense in England as a law enforcer as a good guy:

Why was this?

I think the answer lies in a sense of the law's legitimacy. Before the 1900s, legislation was associated with the "them" and not "us". Even though the sheriff of Nottingham, Hopkins, and Jeffries were on the side of law and order, and that Robin Hood, Turpin, and Wild were dishonest law breakers, the latter somehow had more legitimacy when the tales were told.

As such, perhaps the popularity of the criminal as folklore - or literary - hero is perhaps a good barometer of the popular sense of legitimacy of law itself.

All because the bad guys are often starkly without merit, that does not mean that those who wield the State's immense power get instant easy support.

The legitimacy of State power always has to be earned. The State does not, and should not, get it by default.


Ben Murphy said...

Yes, but what about:

-King Arthur and his knights

-St. George

-Richard the Lionheart

-King Alfred

One thing to consider is what makes someone a 'folk hero'. Does that mean a hero who is one of the common folk, in which case a King is ipso facto ineligible, or someone who is a hero in tales told by the folk? In the former case, the lack of folk heroes who represent forces of law and order is almost inevitable, since enforcement of law and order was generally the role of the upper classes. In the latter case, the fact that King Alfred burns the cakes in a folk tale means he qualifies.

Another factor to bear in mind is that a hero has to overcome overwhelming odds. A sherrif who executes a brigand isn't a hero, he's just doing his job - unless the brigand is a larger than life figure, in which case, he becomes the more interesting character. A King generally becomes heroic by taking on powerful foreign enemies. Taking on a dragon is even better.

Also, the case of Jonathan Wild can be used to support your case, but not quite in the way that you present it. Jack Sheppard, a working class thief who escaped from gaol several times before his execution became a popular hero.

Wild himself was closer to the Sheriff of Nottingham: an example of corruption amongst the supposed enforcers of law and order, someone who was, by the time of his execution when his corruption was exposed, a popular figure of hate.

Graeme Archer said...

What a thoughtful and interesting article. I'd never thought of this, but you're quite right.


Nothing?...Hmm... Interesting reaction of author ;)
Probably it should be explained that sometimes lawyers themselves don't want the right laws to be used rightly, eh? ;)
Well. Then - let unjustice prevail... Sometimes it is necessary to lose a little thing to win all world.

Jack of Kent said...

Hi Ben, Graeme and Svetlana - happy new year to you all!

Ben, I think I am not with you on some of your points.

Your initial examples are chivalric figures, who followed (but did not really enforce) a chivalric code: a code which did not have any legal effect and the scope of which did not go beyond a certain elite.

In a way they are secular examples of medieval saints, also exemplars of those who follow a code of elevated conduct not really intended to be of universal application.

I concur, however, that kings and aristocrats were popular in folklore, but not for their enforcement of their laws.

I am puzzled by your reference to the 'folk hero' and your question to me as to what it means, as I did not mention the term 'folk hero' and indeed I was careful not to do so.

I wrote instead of folklore and popular culture, and those who were celebrated in such media. You do not need to be a hero to be celebrated.

I agree Wild was indeed no hero, and that he was hated by many at his end. But he was indeed celebrated in folklore, and people and places boasted of their connection with him. (Your suggestion of Sheppard is a better one.) I suggest that such boastful celebrations were not made of Jeffries or Hopkins.

I think enforcing law is always a thankless task. But it stands that, until fairly recently in English folklore and popular culture, those enforcing the laws were routinely viewed in a more negative light than those who breaking the laws.

Graeme - I have to agree :-)

Svetlana - you remind me that even lawyers in England became popular in folklore and popular culture before policemen ever did: Marshall Hall, FE Smith, etc.

And, more generally, who is the police equivalent to Atticus Finch?

In folklore and popular culture, even lawyers are more popular than policemen...


Sometimes, policemen are popular too. However, for this they must either be super-talented detectives (e.g., lieutenant Colombo) or (rather!) play a role of just lawyers/defenders. Generally, the second version (a just defender) is preferable always and in any case - both when personage is a private person and when he is an official "man of law".
For example, why is Sherlock Holmes rated the best world detective? Because he is best sleuth? Not at all. Because he is a detective-defender, but not a detective-castigator.
Why do people love him? Because is he honest and clever? No.
Because he is warm-hearted.

Happy New Year to you.

memmori said...

It is interesting that Judge Jeffreys is also a person of popular folklore. There are numerous stories about him, he is reputedly "seen" as a ghost throughout all UK even where he's never been in his life, and his name is a byword. The folklore has very little to do with his real historic personality, but it (and not the true biography of George Lord Jeffreys) prevails in public memories. I study him for years and can't stop wondering why people so much tend to fairytales if they have all possibilities to read a good book about him and other persons of such fate.