THWAAANG! SWIFTER THAN A KING'S hawk does the arrow fly, singing as it pierces a stout oak trunk. The noblemen's horses whinny in apprehension; the beauteous Maid Marian clasps her handmaiden's arm; and soldiers in chain mail look to their swords. "Welcome to Sherwood Forest!" the splendid figure in Lincoln green might have cried, perched high on a tree limb, laughing down at the royal entourage as he summoned his merry band from the glade. "Perhaps the weight of your purses has wearied you. Then allow me to relieve you of them, good sirs. And if there be more than a just amount, why, we can share it with the poor—just as you can share meat and mead with us tonight in Sherwood Forest!"

Just so has the noble Robin Hood, protector of social justice, stood astride his sturdy branch for, lo, these hundreds of years, despoiling the unworthy to succor those in need—while providing generations with a thumping good tale in the bargain. A dozen times or so in our day, Hollywood has dusted off the enduring story (with the ironic result that the outlaw prince of Sherwood has filled to overflow the coffers of the already filthy rich). He has been played by no less than the dashing Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in 1922, the incomparable Errol Flynn in 1938, and now by the soulful Kevin Costner in the summer smash Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. (Sundry lesser lights have essayed Robin in between, including Walt Disney's animated sly fox and Chuck Jones's Daffy Duck, the most flustered, feather-dusted denizen of Sherwood the world has ever seen.) Beloved defender of the downtrodden, he leaps to the ground before startled nobility, plants himself in their path with a hearty laugh and captivates audiences in every land. "This forest is wide," cried Flynn's Robin in The Adventures of Robin Hood, "and it can hide a band of determined men who will fight to be free." And therein lies the hero's allure. After all, what man, woman or child doesn't secretly thrill to the prospect of disappearing into the forest medieval and committing grand misdeeds in the name of a noble cause?

Now, along with the current film, comes a question almost as old as the legend: Did Robin Hood really exist? And once again the only sure answer is...yes and no, probably. For Robin Hood was first and foremost a creature of the balladeers who wandered England in the 14th and 15th centuries as sort of medieval gossip columnists. Like so many of their modern counterparts, these myth-makers weren't necessarily tidy about their facts. The legend as traditionally handed down has Robin Hood ("hood" thought to be a term applied to medieval outlaws because that is what the prudent of their craft would wear) taking to Sherwood Forest (an actual woods in Nottinghamshire). From its vastness he and his preternaturally Merry Men struck out at the conniving Prince John and his local enforcer, the Sheriff of Nottingham, in the names of both the oppressed peasantry and Richard Coeur de Lion, who was off on the Third Crusade. (The real Richard, historians note, had scant interest in his subjects' woes, preferring instead to plunder the Holy Land for all it was worth.)

Some scholars have traced the object of the myth to a Robert Fitzooth, outlawed Earl of Huntingdon, born in 1160. A common historical argument for Robin's existence in this period is based on conducive social conditions—specifically the onerous Forest Laws, which forbade killing the King's game. (Hence no Robin Hood movie is complete without a slain buck yoked round the neck of some jolly poacher.) But a compelling counterargument against a legitimate Robin in this epoch is that the troubadours, who rarely missed a celebrity tale, didn't begin rendering the story until 200 years later.

By then they had burnished the myth of Robin with Little John and Will Scarlet, adding Maid Marian and Friar Tuck for good measure. They also made the Sheriff of Nottingham ever more villainous, though current scholars see him as just another tired cop doing a thankless job.

In the 15th century, a Scottish chronicler named Walter Bower placed Robin Hood in a revolt led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, against King Henry III around 1265. By the 19th century, antiquaries fixed Robin as one Robert Hood, who joined Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in his 1322 uprising against Edward II. History has it that Hood, an outlaw for a year, was pardoned by the King and wound up on his payroll as a valet de chambre. He later returned to Sherwood Forest with his wife, Matilda. This Robin met a sad end; he was apparently killed at Kirklees Priory during a fight with Sir Roger of Doncaster, paramour of the Prioress. Legend says that he now lies buried on the spot where he sank his final arrow, from a casement window, as he drew his dying breath.

Historian Maurice Keen, in his definitive The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, seems to have the last academic word: "A Robin Hood who played this part on the stage of real life eludes the historians' pursuit." Perhaps. But his legend will live on, as Robin himself might have said, as long as tyrants descend to crush the spirit of the people and good men rise against them with right's blade and honor's bow.

MARK GOODMAN