Thursday, 20 January 2011

Don’t meddle with a myth

I’m thinking of organising a campaign for the pardon of Robin Hood. Well, why not, especially as Bill Richardson, outgoing Governor of New Mexico, spent eight years, yes, eight years, humming and hawing over whether or not to grant a pardon to William H Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid. He has decided, in the end, that it’s simply not worth the trouble. Was it ever worth the trouble, I have to ask?

Bonney, an outlaw and a killer, best known for his part in the Lincoln County War, was shot dead by Sherriff Pat Garrett in July 1881. The story goes that prior to this he had reached a bargain with Lew Wallace, then Governor of New Mexico, a former Civil War general best known as the author of the Biblical novel Ben Hur, who had promised him a pardon for his involvement in the Lincoln County killings in return for testimony on another murder. In the end this alleged promise – there is some ambiguity on the point- was never honoured.

The Kid campaign –opposed by the descendents of Pat Garrett – was headed by Randi McGinn, a New Mexico Lawyer, who organised a petition after reviewing the historical documents on the case. In an interview she said “What I found is that, as ever, history is written by the victors. The other side has had 130 years to make Billy the Kid out as a bad guy.”

But that’s just the point: he was a bad guy, which is precisely why he is so appealing, part of the enduring legend of the Old West, as immortal as Robin Hood. Like Robin he was an outlaw; and, like Robin, he will, thank goodness, remain an outlaw. American state governors should surely have better sense than to meddle with a myth.


  1. One difference between Billy the Kid and Robin Hood is that there is no certainty that Robin Hood was a real person, but that doesn't matter either.

    I don't know whether you're aware that China has its own outlaw myth, immortalized in the literary classic Outlaws of the Marshes (poorly adapted by Japanese TV in the 1980s as The Water Margin). Set during the Northern Song dynasty, the story has many parallels with the merrie men: oppression by a tyrannical government; wrongful accusations; siding with the poor against the rich; etc.

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  3. Dennis, is that anything to do with Monkey?

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  5. You can call me British if you like. I can think of worse things.

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  7. Dead is dead, these people don't have anything better to do.

  8. Wallace's pardon was a general amnesty offered to all who had participated in the Lincoln County "war" for crimes committed as part of that regrettable contretemps - but it didn't forgive the Kid's other felonies.

    Meanwhile, I will not tolerate any hint that Robin of Sherwood is any shade less than pure, died-in-the-fleece, Lincoln Green historical fact. I blame all failure of his deeds to appear in contemporary documents as being due to: 1 - an understandable reluctance of the hero and his comrades to appear on any tax-related documents, and 2 - the well-known incompetence of King John's civil service bureaucrats.

  9. Calvin, Robin was a perfect gentle Knight, the first libertarian in history, committed to reducing state taxation by the most dramatic means possible. :-)

  10. Here undernead this laidl stean
    lieth Robert earl of Huntingdon.
    Nea arcir wir as he so gud
    And people cault him Robin Hood.

    Sich arcirs as he
    And his men
    Will England never see again.

    I regret to have lost my original 1960's illustrated story of Robin Hood. In this version he was a blond, relentlessly cheerful youth who was setting out to explore the world and was tricked into killing one of the King's deer by a forester who questioned his skill as an archer.

  11. Hi Ana!
    Yes, it is amazing how some politicians choose to devote their time...

    I have a couple personal connections to this story: one of the first movies I ever remember seeing at the theater was the gratuitous John Wayne vehicle titled "Chisum," which is loosely based upon the Lincoln County War. Billy the Kid is a tragic hero in this film. Also, I coincidentally went to College in the town where General Lew Wallace lived much of his life, and where he wrote Ben Hur. There is a museum still there (in Crawfordsville, Indiana) of his Home and "Study." I was an inveterate walker in my college days, and I would frequently take "study breaks" and walk around town at "all hours of the night." Many a time my perambulations brought me onto the Lew Wallace property and past his statue whose base is carved with the words "Soldier," "Author," and "Diplomat."

    Just thought I'd share those memories. Thanks for reminding me of them. :)

  12. Biblophilica, I'm so glad that you did. :-)

  13. I prefer to see Billy as an anti-hero. A slightly less shady person fighting shady people.