Months back many were dubbing 2012 “The Year of the Archer” between Katniss Everdeen, Green Arrow, Princess Merida, and Hawkeye all sprinting onto film and television screens. It is sort of funny in retrospect, seeing so many arrows fly out of the woodwork at once—but why do we love archers? It’s not as though this trend is new; heroes who prefer the balance of the bow have been around as long as we’ve been telling stories. Do they have anything in common? What sort of subconscious cues might they evoke for us? Is there a reason we’ve seen a resurgence in their popularity?
In ancient times archery was a skill that many people could acquire, practiced for hunting, warfare, and leisure. Mythology is full of gods who use the weapon for a colorful variety of reasons: Artemis and Oxossi have it on hand for hunting, Cupid takes it up for the sake of love, and Rama uses it in war. Great fictional heroes enjoyed the bow and arrow as well, from Herakles and Odysseus to the fictional version of famed archery tutor Zhou Tong. Archers were essential to practically any successful war effort up until the advent of the firearm.
But if we’re going to point the finger in any meaningful fashion, we have to admit it to ourselves: basically every Western fictional archer draws from one primary source, and that source is Sherwood Forest’s Finest. Robin Hood informs our entire cultural concept of the archer as a hero, whether we see it vividly in every incarnation or not.
So what is notable about Robin Hood outside of his ability to infuse himself into so many stories? For starters, there is his status—contrary to most current retellings, Robin Hood was not originally depicted as a nobleman, but a yeoman, the sort who would have owned land but not been subject to the privileges enjoyed by those with title. Scholars have argued for many years over whether Robin Hood was indeed a figure intended to stand for the rights of peasants, or propagated by the gentry to hold with the status quo. The idea of Robin actively giving to the poor didn’t show up until a couple of centuries after his first ballads were committed to writing, but he and his band were typically shown as courteous and kind to commoners. The appearance of Robin Hood as a philanthropist came to the fore during the Victorian Era, which is particularly ironic due to the revival of archery as an elite pastime just prior during the 18th century. Perhaps all that time leisurely hitting targets on lawns had well-to-do folk yearning for someone through whom they could live vicariously?
So there’s the Hood element in all of this—but there are other aspects to consider.
Archery also has the distinction of being a weapon that is thought of as largely unisex in its use. Though women have wielded many different weapons in battle throughout history, the bow and arrow is often put into play for fictional female characters because it seems less fraught—one can kill from a distance and very elegantly at that. This is the reason for Susan Pevensie’s assignment to it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardobe; Santa Claus specifically states that he wants her far from the center of the battle because she’s all female-like, so she isn’t permitted to a sword like her brothers Peter and Edmund. Are we surprised that both of Disney’s “fighting princesses,” Mulan and Merida, are so familiar with the instrument? (At least Mulan does get to use a sword half the time.) And then there’s Regency Era heroines, who are often depicted practicing it the way one might play tennis at a country club these days. It has a reputation for being an equal opportunity tool.
Though all types of weaponry demand some skill in the wielding, the bow is also often held in a higher esteem—there is something almost ethereal about its application. It is a precision weapon that demands patience, focus, and carefully developed strength and muscle memory rather than brute force, which makes the people who master it appear somehow elevated. To that end, it is hardly a surprise that Tolkien made the elves his master archers as a race in Lord of the Rings. It sets them apart if their entire species has this predisposition when other peoples of Middle-earth do not. Legolas is the Fellowship’s archer and he seems more magical than Gandalf at times—walking on top of snow and seeing things from afar that his compatriots cannot.
This also goes far in explaining why Hawkeye was one of the two ‘regular old human’ choices for the first Avengers outing. Black Widow has her spy moves, and both of them know their way around guns, but in order for Clint Barton to stand out among the likes of the Hulk and Iron Man he has to have a superior, unmatchable skill. So he’s their archer, the man who sees best from far away. Would Hawkeye have worked on that team as a plain sharpshooter, or gadget guy, or spear-thrower? Not likely. His trick arrows set him apart, make him seem instantly valuable even without super-strength or durability.
Then there are heroes like the Green Arrow cropping up in comics all the time, who spring directly from Robin Hood (and Batman), though a more modern version. Oliver Queen is the most direct example, someone from wealth who decides to dedicate his life to protecting the poor and disenfranchised. It plays more like the current retellings of Hood: Robin of Locksley coming back from fighting Richard’s crusades to find Prince John in need of a lesson or two. Oliver Queen similarly takes it upon himself to defend the defenseless and help those who have nothing. In fact, certain runs of the Green Arrow comics made Queen out to be quite the hero for social justice, more blatantly than perhaps any other superheroes at the time.
And perhaps this is where it all comes together—from Robin Hood’s humble beginnings as a yeoman to Mulan’s dedication to her family to Katniss’ role as the Mockingjay in Panem’s war, archers often take up the mantle of “The People’s Hero.” They wield a weapon that can also be used to provide for others; after all, no one is going to kill a deer with a broadsword. They come off separate from other fighters and combatants, the only ones capable of going that selfless road through specialized expertise—an expertise that informs you as much about their character as their choice of clothing or loquaciousness might. Archery is a romantic mode of combat, and the people who practice it seem romantic to us by turn.
Romantic in the same way our glossiest notions of Robin Hood can be—nevermind the fact that in many of his early ballads, Hood proves to have a short temper and loves aggravating others into brawls with him. It is the Victorian version of Robin Hood that we are enamored of, who continues to inspire so many when they create new heroes to idolize. (Victorian Era reworkings tend to hold sway in these situations a lot.) We have trapped the Sherwood Forest hero in the rosiest of hues, and that is how the Archer as an archetype continues to emerge today.
There is a reason why we keep refreshing these figures as protagonists in all forms of entertainment. It is a significance marker, a way of highlighting a character and letting others know they are special, no matter how practical their reason for toting a bow may be. It isn’t surprising, but it is fun to look back on the legacy of the archer, and understand why we are still so hypnotized today.