The Chaotic Champion – Part Five: The Outlaw Hero
In a scene early in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, when the duo have barely started on their criminal career, they come across a family sitting by the roadside outside their house. This is the Great Depression, and the bank has foreclosed on the mortgage, leaving the family homeless and not knowing where to go or how to feed their children. Nevertheless, they politely ask the strangers’ names and what they do, and Clyde (somewhat prematurely) announces, This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker. I’m Clyde Barrow. We rob banks.
These are decent, law-abiding people, yet we can see them internally punching the air, and it’s not difficult to see why. Even though Bonnie and Clyde aren’t heroic or philanthropic, even in the romanticised film version, they answer a need. Just as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so the robber of my robber is my hero.
The Outlaw Hero is the most anomalous of the Chaotic Champion’s iterations. After all, he’s* supposed to be fighting to protect order, and what can symbolise that more than the rule of law? So what’s he doing fighting the law?
The answer is that it depends entirely on who wields the law. If we think back to the story I’ve mentioned several times in this series, Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, consider what would have happened if the bandits had succeeded in taking control of the village. This would have made their word the law, and anyone resisting them could be viewed as a criminal.
Storytellers have never been naïve, and nor have the people who read or listen to their stories. Everyone knows that the rule of law isn’t automatically a good thing. Those in power are sometimes the biggest criminals of the lot, and only escape justice by the use of strength—always the philosophy of chaos. In those cases, the law that’s supposed to protect order becomes instead the weapon of chaos.
In the most famous of all outlaw stories, chaos is unmistakably in charge. The true king is far away, and the usurper who sits in his place mercilessly taxes and oppresses the ordinary people, while his allies—notably the local sheriff—cynically line their own pockets. When those who should protect them have become the agents of chaos, the people turn instead to their Outlaw Hero—Robin Hood.
In reality, of course, the situation in England during the Third Crusade was nothing like that. The “true king” was a man whose only interest was in slaughter and plunder, and who once said he’d sell the kingdom if he could find a buyer. The usurper, though deeply flawed as a ruler and a man, was busy promoting the growth of trade and of the towns that would eventually replace the feudal system, spreading wealth downwards, if not to the peasants, then at least to the middle classes.
Not that this was the original background to the Robin Hood legend. The earliest ballads refer to Edward, our comely King, and the stories are set in Yorkshire, not Sherwood Forest. It’s possible that the cycle may have been based on a Robert Hood who was recorded as being an outlaw during Edward II’s reign. This would, in fact, be fertile ground for a local Outlaw Hero. Yorkshire had almost completely backed a failed rebellion—it was for taking part in this that Hood had been condemned—and an outsider, the Sheriff of Nottingham, had been imposed on the county to restore order. An outlaw successfully running rings around the interloper was exactly the person to become a folk hero.
Much the same was true of the great Outlaw Heroes of the Wild West, many of whom had been Confederate soldiers. Men like Jesse James and John Wesley Hardin almost certainly never gave anything to the poor, any more than Robin Hood, but they were seen as resisting the outsiders and the institutions (the banks and railroad companies) who were oppressing the poor.
Conditions like this are often the background for Outlaw Hero stories—Hereward the Wake in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, Rob Roy MacGregor in Scotland after the defeat of the Jacobites, and Wilhelm Tell fighting for Swiss independence are further examples—but not always. The great Chinese outlaw story, The Water Margin, romanticised outlaws from the past, perhaps to express anger against the current Mongol occupation.
This is another common reason for outlaw stories to become popular. Even when there’s little true oppression and the majority see the rule of law as a good thing overall, we tend to have little resentments and irritations against the authorities, and tales in which heroes fight the law—for the right reasons, of course—help to provide a safety valve for those feelings.
Sometimes, current criminals will become folk heroes—this happened, for instance, in Britain with the Great Train Robbery of 1963—but it’s much more comfortable to focus on distant figures, including some very unlikely heroes. Many people speak with affection of Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the English Parliament in 1605—he’s been called the only person ever to enter Parliament with honest intent. In fact, the Gunpowder Plot—for which Fawkes was only the hired gunpowder expert—would have replaced the tenuous stirrings that would eventually lead to democracy with absolute monarchy and tyrannical oppression. But that was a long time ago, so Guy Fawkes can be used to express people’s frustration with politicians.
Wherever the legends of outlaws come from, the role of the Outlaw Hero in stories is to ensure protection can still be found at the worst of times. He might offer practical help to the poor and oppressed, like Robin Hood, or Woody Guthrie’s version of Pretty Boy Floyd, a contemporary of Bonnie and Clyde:
But a many a starvin’ farmer
The same old story told
How the outlaw paid their mortgage
And saved their little homes.
Others tell you ’bout a stranger
That come to beg a meal,
Underneath his napkin
Left a thousand-dollar bill.
Alternatively, he might maintain hope simply by being free, as Harry Potter does in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Voldemort has taken over the magical world. A position somewhere between the two can be found in the TV series Firefly, which, together with its spin-off film Serenity, is often described as a “space western”. As with western outlaws, the core of Serenity’s crew has been on the losing side of a civil war. At first, they simply combine smuggling and occasional robbery with legitimate trading, though they try to avoid harming the innocent. In one episode, discovering the booty from a commissioned robbery to be vital medical supplies for an isolated community, they return it, an act that has severe consequences for them.
On the other hand, once they inadvertently take fugitives from the government on board, the crew becomes involved more directly in fighting the injustice in the system. This culminates in the events of the film, in which they make public the secret the government was trying to keep.
Some Outlaw Heroes retain the role throughout their story, and it’s the whole point of the legend. Others, like Harry Potter, spend a specific part of their story as outlaws, when the enemy seems to have triumphed. In The Silmarillion, for instance, both Beren and Turin spend some time as outlaws. Beren is merely a partisan against Morgoth’s oppression, but Turin joins a genuine outlaw band—although, being a hero, he gradually steers them away from random robbery and towards resistance against Morgoth’s orcs.
In series three of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy—mainly an Outsider Hero—becomes an Outlaw Hero for a while, as a result of Sunnydale’s mayor being a semi-demon. Instead of simply having to remain invisible to the authorities, she now, quite literally, has to fight against City Hall.
As I mentioned in the last article, the series The A Team shows a group of characters whose role falls somewhere between the Outsider and the Outlaw. The difference between the A Team and the classic Outlaw Hero is that the only real crime they’re shown as committing is being free. They’ve been wrongfully imprisoned and escaped; but, instead of taking revenge on a corrupt system in the name of all others in the same position, they offer help against corrupt or criminal individuals, rather than against the government.
Being a Chaotic Champion, the Outlaw Hero rarely finds a peaceful end to his story. The western outlaws were usually shot eventually, whether by a lawman, a treacherous colleague or a squad of Bolivian soldiers. In the 15th century ballad A Little Geste of Robin Hood and His Meinie, Robin is pardoned by King Edward and given a post in the royal household, but gets fed up and returns to his life as an outlaw. In the end, he’s treacherously killed by his cousin, the Prioress of Kirklees Abbey.
No doubt the originals of most these outlaws—those that aren’t completely fictional, at least—would be astounded by the way they’re portrayed, but that’s irrelevant to the way that stories work. The Outlaw Hero is a figure that fulfils a deep need in virtually all human societies. If everything else goes wrong, there’s still hope.
*Chaotic Champions can be male or female, of course, but for the vast majority of human story they’ve tended to be male, so I refer to the generic figure as “he”. This isn’t meant to devalue any female characters.