The Enduring Charm of the Outlaw

While watching the Malayalam movie “Drishyam”, which is essentially about a man outwitting the police, I was suddenly struck by a thought: why are we entranced by outlaws? Most of us would prefer a country where there is a rule of law. We would not willingly support a thief or cheat in real life, and would like to see them jailed. Yet the Outlaw remains an abiding romantic figure in myth, legends and literature – and I am speaking not only about India.

The first outlaw I remember reading about is Robin Hood. I initially thought that he was a historical figure, and only later on came to know that evidence for his existence was very tenuous. The story of Robin is scattered over many legends, literary allusions and ballads; however, many of the details are standard knowledge.

Robin Hood robs from the rich and gives to the poor. He roams the Sherwood Forest in Nottingham, dressed in garments of Lincoln green along with his band of outlaws called “The Merry Men”: Little John (a giant of a man!) and Friar Tuck are two of the well-known members. He is a skilled archer and valourous fighter, and he fights against the evil Sherriff of Nottingham. His love interest is the Maid Marian. Apparently, Robin met his end when he was treacherously bled to death by nuns (bleeding was a common form of medical treatment in those days), and he is buried where his last arrow, shot moments before his death, fell.

Robin Hood is also portrayed as a loyal subject of King Richard the Lionheart, spoiling the schemes of his evil brother John to take over the kingdom. The Sherriff of Nottingham is sometimes portrayed as a henchman of John.

Not many people know that Robin Hood has an almost exact replica in far away from his native Nottinghamshire, in the backwoods of Kerala, other than Malayalis (who would know I am speaking of Kayamkulam Kochunni immediately). He is most probably based on a historical personage (19th Century), even though most of the stories about him have to be of legendary origin. It is surprising how many of his exploits closely resemble that of Robin, like a mythical cycle getting repeated.

Rob Roy MacGregor is another outlaw in the Robin Hood vein, although he was certainly a historical personage – a dispossessed Scottish landowner who fought against the English. I first read about him in a Walt Disney comic book, which later I discovered had taken a lot of liberties with history. However, the story enthralled me, and I was ecstatic earlier this year when I had chance to have a boat ride on Loch Katrine, on the shores of which he was born (they still show the place where his house originally stood).

A lot of these “outlaws” were branded thus because they fought against foreign occupation – in the face of an overwhelming military power, they had to resort to guerrilla warfare. Veera Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja was a heroic king-turned-outlaw in northern Kerala, who fought against the British East India Company from the forests of Wynad. His army consisted mostly of aboriginals. Pazhassi Raja’s story has thrilled countless generations of Indians, and has recently been revived by a blockbuster production on the Malayalam screen, with veteran Mammootty in the lead role.

It is a big question mark whether these people were actually outlaws or whether the occupying foreign power was the lawless entity. Taken in this sense, even Gandhi was an outlaw, although peaceable!

Some other outlaws are of purely literary origin, even though they have virtually become historical personages through popularity. Zorro is the example that springs to mind immediately. I first encountered him through (again!) Walt Disney, and immediately assumed that he was based on a historical personage. However, he is the creation American author Johnston McCulley.

Zorro is the type of outlaw who leads a double life: during daytime, he is Don Diego La Vega, nobleman and lover of arts – a pacifist and something of a coward. By night, however, he dons his black mask and jumps on his horse (“Hi-ho, Silver… away!”) and fights corrupt politicians and tyrannical officials in Los Angeles at the time of the Spanish rule.

This kind of double identity is common for most of these “righteous” outlaws – The Scarlet Pimpernel, created by the Baroness Orczy, is an English nobleman Sir Percy Blakeney who saves innocents from the guillotine under this alias. In fact, this character seems to be the original inspiration for all such heroes including Zorro.

Another literary outlaw is one of my favourites. Simon Templar, known by the name The Saint, strikes terror into the hearts of corrupt politicians, warmongers and international criminals in turn-of-the-century England and Europe. He is the masterly creation of the gifted writer Leslie Charteris, whose prose is a thing of beauty to behold. The Saint is an irreverent, humourous, swashbuckling hero (reminding one sometimes of James Bond as portrayed by Roger Moore) and Charteris’s language is equally funny – worthy of P. G. Wodehouse.

Simon Templar attacks, robs and sometimes kills (yes, he is not averse to committing the odd murder) villains; their money is distributed to charities or victims, after a certain amount for his upkeep. He always leaves a stick figure with a halo at the scenes of his crimes – it’s his trademark. In the middle of the series, however, The Saint changed from outlaw to detective after receiving a pardon from the Queen.



What is the charm of the outlaw? As he keeps on defeating the minions of law and order, why do we keep on rooting for him?

The simple answer is that these people are not really outlaws – they have been made so by a system which is evil and corrupt, and which is too strong to defeat in a straight fight. The outlaw is the common man, who only has his wits to help him. (In this context, the Hindi film A Wednesday! has to be mentioned: Naseeruddin Shah’s unnamed “common man” who takes on the might of the Mumbai Police became such a hit that the movie was remade into Tamil and Telugu.) Since most of us have felt the injustice of the system at one time or another, we subconsciously identify with him.

But I believe the matter goes deeper. There are some similarities between the outlaw in legend, history and literature, and the Trickster figure which is common in the mythology of the primitive peoples. The Trickster is a Jungian Archetype, who has been described as part of “The Shadow” – the part of our psyche which we prefer to keep hidden deep in the well of the subconscious. He is an agent of chaos, often maliciously attacking the established order – he is of ambivalent nature, both good-evil and cunning-foolish. He is an earlier god who has been submerged as human beings became more “civilised”.

If you look at the stories of the trickster cycle in many mythologies, he is more or less amoral – there is no righteousness to his actions. For example, see the character of Coyote in many Native American stories. However, as humanity evolved, god became more righteous, and the trickster changed into an actual figure of malice such as Satan, or got absorbed into the playful mischief of a god – Krishna being the prime example.

I believe that the outlaw also falls in this category. When society becomes too oppressively conformist and suffocating, we need the outlaw as an agent of chaos to free us, to remind us of the primitive freedoms we once had; that is why we lab-abiding citizens keep cheering him on while he rushes across our pages and our movie screens.





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