The Outlaw Hero

by Graham Seal

© all rights reserved

The essential narrative structure of the Robin Hood legend is that of an unjustly treated man taking to the woods and robbing the rich to give to the poor in a heroic trickster manner, only succumbing to the inevitable at the hands of a treacherous nun or friar, depending on which version of the legend we prefer. Later embellishments, such as Maid Marian, do not significantly alter this basic narrative structure, which may be utilised or interpreted in various ways. The story can be understood as a true tale of historical events and characters, which indeed was how it was presented for many centuries. Or it can be seen as a metaphor for social and economic distress and as a fanciful wish-fulfilment mechanism for the poor. It could be read as a text for political rebellion of a rather more serious kind than whispered resentments. It can also be read as a form of chivalrous romance, in which Robin Hood functions as an ideologically appropriate figure for righting a few wrongs and keeping the peasants in their place while the nobles get on with exploiting them. Later still, but only a short step away, we get the thorough romanticisation of Robin Hood by Sir Walter Scott and a host of other literary workers. This media romanticisation continues throughout the nineteenth century in various kinds of popular literature, including `penny dreadfuls’, and is picked up in the twentieth century by Hollywood and the television industry, for which the story of the outlawed archer has long been especially convenient for generating income.

The Robin Hood narrative, variously inflected, has clearly been appropriate and convenient for some dramatically different social configurations, all of which have interpreted the character and his story (or stories) in quite disparate ways. A similar progress can be charted for the most outstanding of the outlaw hero figures discussed in this book. Just as Robin Hood became a stock character of children’s literature, so did Dick Turpin. Glamourised at first for adults in broadsides and chap books, then in Rookwood, `The short, dumpy, balding butcher’s assistant, horse-thief and robber, renowned for his brutal methods of torture, became a gay blade with magnificent moustachios, a bold and daring highwayman, a gentleman of the road, a protector of the weak and oppressed’ in the Victorian `penny dreadfuls’ and the boys’ comics that succeeded them until quite recent times. 1 The imperatives that keep particular narratives, such as those of Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, in continual oral and formal circulation for centuries are related to the utility, or convenience of the outlaw hero tradition for various social groups and historical actors. These groups certainly include children, especially males, who have long consumed the sanitised doings of the likes of Turpin, and even Ned Kelly, through reading matter produced explicitly for them. By such means was established a Boys’ Own environment of knowing in the mainstream popular culture. Through this environment an expectation was created in which the particular modes of criminality associated with highway, bank and train robbery could be invested with some positive, heroic features.

But the most important of the social groups for whom these fictions were convenient were those who generated, sympathised with and supported outlaw heroes. Such groups have, usually with some justification, seen themselves as `the poor’, or the oppressed of some particular political-economic configuration. The conflicts and tensions inherent in such situations eventually throw up an individual or number of individ uals who, deliberately or accidentally, rebel violently against their circumstances, infringing the laws controlled by the powerful groups in their society. Once this occurs, a significant sequence of events and tra dition is initiated in which the individual is obliged to avoid the clutches of the controlling authorities, leave his usual haunts and companions (other than those who may follow him) and seek a place of safety, such as the hills or the woods, away from the usual byways and highways. Often the individual’s infringement of power is taken as serious enough for a formal proscription against him, classically a declaration of out lawry, a legal separation of an individual from the body of the community. In any case, the individual in such circumstances is ideally situated for sympathy and support in accordance with the pre-existent tradition of the outlaw hero. The individual has stepped beyond the bounds of the everyday and, however clumsily, struck a blow against the hated system of oppression, the blow that every other oppressed man and woman would wish to strike. From this point onwards, the actual and the artificial tend to merge, as case studies of Dick Turpin, Jesse James, Billy the Kid and Kelly indicate.

A second major interested party for whom the tradition is convenient is the outlaw himself and, usually to a lesser extent, the members of his gang. In order to remain at large and survive, the outlawed individual must have a number of things: the sympathy and support of his peers, and money, arms, transport and food. While supporters are generally able and willing to give shelter, information and silence, they are usually not economically able to provide the considerable material means of existence required for a life on the run. The outlaw is therefore forced to rob those who do have these things the rich or, at least, the richer. Once this begins the outlaw becomes even more of a nuisance to the ruling powers, and resources are committed to capturing him, inevitably bringing the interest of the communication channels of the period and consequent popular notoriety. The status of celebrity villain is inevitably foisted upon the outlaw.

Whether he retains this celebrity and, far more importantly, the approbation of his social group and other groups who identify with his rebellion depends largely upon the outlaw’s actions. It is now that the intelligent outlaw must make some crucial decisions about his mode of operation. Not only should he refrain from robbing his own kind who are probably not worth robbing anyway: he must be seen to be robbing the rich, preferably those members of the rich who can be identified with the oppressors of the outlaw’s own group. The Sheriff of Nottingham enforcing King John’s unjust taxes and the corrupt clergy (never the church itself) are ideal targets for the medieval outlaw. Rich lawyers, lords and ladies are fair game for the highwayman. The impersonal rail road companies are ideal targets for Jesse James, while that master of public relations, Ned Kelly, goes out of his way to rob the banks that hold the mortgages of his supporters, publicly burning the documents and making grand-sounding speeches about social injustice to his captives. While little, if any, of the proceeds of such robberies may actually find their way to the poor, the spirit, if not the letter, of the outlaw hero creed is more than satisfied. And so the stories and the ballads begin to weave the legend of yet another doomed bandit snatching a few brief months of freedom before the overwhelming resources of the law and the power of those who operate it inevitably capture or kill him. Before that happens, the outlaw is expected to conform to the traditional code, at least as far as possible in such a situation. The details, the facts, are relatively unimportant, for the stereotype has been established and brought into operation and will obligingly fill in the finer details, if only the outlaw refrains from excessive violence, acts cour teously to women, orphans, children and unfortunates, robs the odd bank or railroad and manages to go out stoically or flamboyantly, but in any case, bravely. If any of these matters can be managed with even a modicum of eclat, so much the better. When these requirements are met, or seen to be met, reasonably well, the outlaw can be assured of becoming and remaining a hero.

Here the tradition itself has a dynamic of its own that is certainly related to actual events, yet is greater than the combined energy of those events. The cultural stereotype takes over from the historical and provides a framework of narrative, a basis for belief and an impelling power that thrusts the resultant legend of the outlaw through the present and into the future. This motivating intersection of fact and fiction can be seen at its simplest in the statement of one Henry Bliss to the judge at his trial for highway robbery in 1696: `the poor I fed, the rich likewise I empty sent away’, almost a verbatim quotation from one of the Turpin ballads that were published forty-five and more years later. Similar examples of outlaws anxious to assert their status as friends of the poor and upholders of the outlaw hero’s moral code are not difficult to find. The bushranger Frank Gardiner wrote to a local newspaper to defend himself against the charge that he had stolen a poor man’s boots, as well as his money. Gardiner’s letter reveals his familiarity with the tradition of the outlaw hero and of his British historical precedents. In America, the James gang wrote to a newspaper claiming that they acted only within the confines of the outlaw hero tradition

Is the outlaw hero tradition a thing of the past, simply a means of better understanding certain historical events and processes? It seems not. Even on the frontier of postmodernism, the Internet, the ancient imperatives of resistance and power can be seen in action. While these struggles occur in the as-yet sparsely peopled world of cyberspace, they are rapidly becoming `real’ as different interest groups compete for access, control or simply use of this new frontier. Given these circumstances, we are perhaps unsurprised to see the outlaw hero tradition assert itself yet again, the old problems in another new world.

Motifs of the outlaw hero tradition have accreted around computer hackers like Phiber Optik (Mark Abene), a young American hacker hero, referred to as `the Robin Hood of cyberspace’ and `a digital Robin Hood’. 2 The rapidly proliferating magazines and other media that cover the Internet use language like `Internet bandits’ and `hardcore hacker heroes’. There is a compelling intertextuality between the notion of `highway robbery’, the standard operation of the outlaw, and the possibilities for individual freedom and defiance of authority along the `information superhighway’. Well-defined groups of mostly young males, it seems, who do travel this virtual highway in cyberspace also espouse codes not unlike those followed by outlaw heroes. In hacker culture, it is claimed, the computer systems of banks, corporations, NASA, the Pentagon and other defence and scientific systems around the globe are penetrated and `robbed’. Hacker groups claim they are not doing this for themselves. Apart from the thrill of simply being able to crack security provisions, hackers have typically simply thrown the information obtained to anyone else who cruises the Internet. In this sense, their activities may be seen as noble cyber-robbery, taking from the information-rich and redistributing the proceeds among the information-poor. Importantly, the very `virtuality’ of their crimes removes any necessity for violence. No `person’ gets hurt, only the imper sonal, abstract equivalents of the frontier railroad and the colonial bank, the multinational corporation, the global communications network, NASA, the Pentagon

Such romanticism has, not surprisingly, claimed the attention of the global mass media, just as the activities of Turpin, Kelly, James and their peers claimed the attention of the media of their times. With an ease born of long practice and superficial inquiry, the press has deployed the rhetoric of outlawry in its treatment of Kevin Mitnick, apparently the world’s most wanted computer hacker, who began his illegal deeds along the information superhighway at a tender age when he broke into the United States air defence system. Since then Mitnick’s obsessively illegal cyberspace activities have made him `a legendary outlaw on the computer frontier’. 3 After a gaol term and breaking parole, this post modern cyberpunk was recaptured in February 1995. His picture, looking remarkably like that of a terrorist, was published in the papers with the caption `Mitnick legendary outlaw’. An article in Timecontinued to cast Mitnick in the role of modern outlawsingle-parent upbringing, youthful crimes, his sense of humour and trickster-like pranks such as overriding the microphones at fast-food driveways so that Mitnick could berate startled customers for eating junk food. Like the outlaw hero of tradition, Mitnick was elusive and disdainful of the forces of authority and was only caught by the FBI in 1988 when betrayed by a trusted friend. The Time article even made the specific American outlaw connection, describing Mitnick’s eventual capture through the superior computer skills of Tsutomu Shimomura as `Shimomura, playing Pat Garrett to Mitnick’s Billy the Kid’. 4

In the cases of Abene and Mitnick, the media have manipulated selected motifs of the outlaw hero tradition to suit their own ends and what they imagine, possibly accurately, to be the ends of those who consume their products. But with Mitnick and other Internet outlaws we may be witnessing more than a convenient media fiction. Instead we are watching the emergence of the latest redaction of the outlaw hero, this time in cyberspace. The Internet belongs to no-one. It also belongs to everyone. It is a global electronic commons, a virtual common land on which those with access have `squatted’ wherever and whenever their various interests and needs have dictated. Like the commons, the Internet is free, or at least relatively cheap to use. Like the wild spaces that have always sheltered outlaw heroes, the Internet has been beyond the clutches of authority. In the anarchy of cyberspace, the Internet community has evolved its own rules and regulations, its own moral and ethical code, just as all social groups have done. These rules have been `policed’ by the members of the group themselves rather than by any outside authority. The Internet is the first postmodern frontier.


Graham Seal is the Director of the Centre of Australian Studies at Curtin University and a leading international expert on outlaw traditions. This piece has been extracted with permission from his new book, The Outlaw Legend, Cambridge University Press.

Notes and Referernces

1. K. Carpenter, Penny Dreadfuls and Comics: English Periodicals for Children from Victorian Times to the Present, London, 1988, p210.

2. Time, 23 Jan 1995, p51. see also K. Hafner and J. Markoff, Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier, New York, 1991 and E. Krol, “Outlaws in Cyberspace”The Sciences, 5 Jan 1995

3. As described by James Bone in The Times and reprinted in the Weekend Australian, 18-19 Feb 1995

4.Time, 27 Feb 1995

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