I attended one of my occasional day schools last week – this one was about Outlaws – men with a tendency, we realized, during the course of the day, towards masks and hoods. Folk heroes like Zorro and Robin Hood, and the masked highwaymen who feature frequently in poetry and historical romance.
If you encountered any kind of masked figure in real life, other than at a carnival or masquerade, it would be a terrifying experience, so why the eternal fascination with heroes whose faces are disguised? It must be this playing with identity that is so intriguing. Maybe it’s the illusion of freedom created by a mask? Historically the beautiful and traditional masks of the Venice Carnival, in Italy, hid the identity of the wearer and allowed all classes to mingle with a license that was not available at any other time. The masked ball is the traditional meeting place for lovers in countless historical romances. But why is the masked hero such a source of attraction? The eternal bad boy – with a black horse rather than a motor bike?
The study day was a fascinating look at the ‘fact’ behind fictional heroes – there have been mentions of a figure of “Robin Hood” in documents since 1370. What is now the accepted story of a freedom fighter in the time of the Crusades – the time of Richard the Lionheart and King John - was actually created by Walter Scott in the novel Ivanhoe. It's this story that has been transferred so regularly to the cinema and TV screen.
It was a lot of fun looking at the various film incarnations of "men in tights". When the current vogue for pirates palls, are we due for a resurgence of land-based swashbucklers? High escapism for difficult times?
Fictional masked heroes are often men who have been wronged, or falsely imprisoned, who have a secret identity, and a reputation for defending the weak, or fighting for a cause. An irresistible combination in a hero.