As children, the stories we enjoy or create often involve heroes who always end up saving the day. These heroes are unabashedly good. Rarely, if ever do these heroes give us any reason to doubt their motivation or their ultimate success. And while these stories tend to be a bit simplistic in notions of good and evil, they also embody a hope in the world and a hope that eventually everything will work out. It speaks of a hope that there are genuinely good people out there fighting against injustice. As we get older we don’t stop telling stories, but they tend to take on a more realistic bent. We recognize that good does not always triumph, that those who are supposed to be heroes are often flawed and can be just as wicked as the “bad” guys. As we mature we see that evil isn’t confined to one or two bad apples, but that all of us are capable of doing wrong and wounding other people. In fact, evil does not always rely on active instances of exploitation and injustice but remaining passive and silent in the face of corruption is often enough to allow evil to succeed. Having a more nuanced view of how the world works isn’t bad and is in fact needed if we are to navigate an increasingly complex world. The problem arises when in addition to discarding the simplistic notions endorsed in our childhood stories, we also lose hope.
In the Robot of Sherwood, the Doctor gives Clara the opportunity to visit any person, time period, or planet. And excitedly, like a little girl, she states that she wants to see Robin Hood.
DOCTOR: Robin Hood.
CLARA: Yeah. I love that story. I’ve always loved it, ever since I was little.
DOCTOR: Robin Hood, the heroic outlaw, who robs from the rich and gives to the poor.
DOCTOR: He’s made up. There’s no such thing.
CLARA: Ah, you see?
And of course, part of the reason this episode is funny is because of the Doctor’s insistence that Robin Hood does not exist. (The other reason has to do with the fact that Robin Hood and the Doctor keep trying to outdo and outwit each other…) A few minutes into the episode, the Doctor attempts to prove that Robin Hood and his band of merry men don’t exist by taking blood and hair samples from them. He keeps trying to explain away their existence. They aren’t holograms but maybe they have arrived in a theme park or they are in a mini-scope. Throughout most of the episode, he remains convinced that Robin Hood could not exist. He explains his reasoning to Clara shortly after she makes her request to meet him:
Later on in the episode, the Doctor even insists that Robin Hood is a robot created by the sheriff and his mechanical thugs:
SHERIFF: Robin Hood is not one of mine.
DOCTOR: Of course he is. He’s a robot, created by your mechanical mates.
SHERIFF: Why would they do that?
DOCTOR: To pacify the locals, give them false hope. He’s the opiate of the masses.
SHERIFF: Why would we create an enemy to fight us? What sense would that make? That would be a terrible idea.
DOCTOR: Yes! Yes, it would. Wouldn’t it? Yes, that would be a rubbish idea. Why would you do that? But he can’t be. He’s not real. He’s a legend!
The Doctor understands more than anyone that old fashioned heroes don’t exist. When Clara refers to him as a hero, the Doctor quickly dismisses that assertion. He knows himself. He is very aware of all the times he has failed to save people and the times he has led others, perhaps inadvertently, to their deaths. He has every right to be skeptical of Robin Hood. And those of us in the real world, understand how the world works. We know that things don’t always get better, that abuse in its various forms run rampant, that people spend their lives fighting for social justice only to be murdered or to have their life’s work destroyed. In fact, many of us are so aware of the pain and suffering in this world that most of us will do whatever it takes to keep that hope alive in the children that we care for. We want them to hold onto their childhood hope and innocence for as long as possible. But the thing is, as we age, we too have stories that we hold onto into adulthood-stories that tell of our personal failures, stories of abuse, exploitation, etc stories that reduce hope to the confines of a children’s tale.
In this episode the Doctor’s stubborn insistence that Robin Hood does not exist and his dedication to his own personal narrative, which postulated that true heroes do not in fact exist, simply adds to the humor of this episode. In the real world, the stories that we stubbornly hold onto as individuals and as a society can have life and death consequences. The stories we tell ourselves dictate how we act. If we believe that the world is beyond hope or redemption-we will act like it. We will be indifferent to tales of suffering, we will passively accept violence, murder, poverty, injustice etc as simply the way the world works. It seems as if the older we get the more that we view hope and the stories that endorse it as nothing more than fairy-tales.
In society, we value verifiable facts to the point where stories and myths are treated as unimportant and they are denigrated as unscientific and false. In regards to myths, we act like the Doctor and dismiss them as silly. However, theologian Marcus Borg, provides a different viewpoint exhorting the value of myths, specifically religious myths:
…Myths are metaphorical narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred. Myths typically speak about the beginning and the ending of the world, its origin and destiny, in its relation to God. Myths use non literal language; in this sense, they do not narrate facts. But myths are necessary if we are to speak at all about the world’s origin and destiny in God. We have no other language for such matters… myths are true even if they are not literally true.
-Reading the Bible Again for the First Time
The myths/stories we hold onto matter. I for one, do not think that the incarnation and the resurrection are literal facts that can be scientifically and historically proven. I know some people will want to argue with me and will ignore everything I have said thus far and will continue to say. But for me the historical validity of sacred stories does not matter as much as what the story says about God and God’s relationship to the world. I cherish the story of the incarnation, even though it can’t be scientifically and historically “proven” (though some have tried) because it expresses the reality of a compassionate God who not only stands alongside those who are suffering, but who also suffers with the marginalized and the oppressed. Likewise, in terms of the resurrection, I do not interpret it as a literal and historical event. I do think it points to the larger truth that the systems and powers of this world do not overpower the purposes and justice of God.
The myths and stories do have value. The Doctor does not believe that he is a hero and as a result he cannot believe that Robin Hood exists. And the Doctor is right, old fashioned, perfect heroes do not exist. Robin Hood coincides that much and admits he isn’t a hero. But the stories that we base our lives around, whether or not they are “literally” true can point to a larger reality. The Doctor may not think he is a hero, but he has inspired Clara to open her mind and believe in the impossible. Perhaps in the end what ultimately matters are the stories that inspire us and that we re-tell again and again: