You may have heard of this guy – he goes around Sherwood Forest shooting arrows, stealing from the rich, and giving to the poor? That would be the legendary outlaw and do-gooder Robin Hood.
The idea of a fun-loving bandit named Robin living in the forests of northern England and being good to poor people has been around a very long time. There are medieval ballads that survive to this day about the thief Robin Hood and his merry band of buddies. But our modern idea of Robin Hood – not just as an outlaw but also as a representative of Englishness and a fighter against governmental injustice – owes a lot to Sir Walter Scott.
In Ivanhoe, Robin Hood first appears on the scene at the tournament at Ashby-de-la-Zouche. He's an anonymous "yeoman," or free man: not a peasant but not a lord either. We don't get any backstory for this unknown "yeoman," but we do know that he's good with a bow and arrow, and he's got a big chip on his shoulder against the Normans and Prince John.
He reappears as the leader of the outlaws in time to invade Torquilstone and rescue Cedric. He tries to help Isaac get Rebecca back by convincing Prior Aymer to write Bois-Guilbert a pleading letter. And he swears his loyalty to King Richard as soon as the king finally takes his stupid disguise off and reveals who he is to the outlaws.
We can figure out three things about Robin Hood (at least Scott's Robin Hood) from this list of actions. The first is that he loves disguises and fake names. Of all the characters in this book who wear disguises – and there are a lot, including Ivanhoe, King Richard I, Wamba, Cedric, even Waldemar Fitzurse – we think Robin Hood has the best reason for doing so. After all, he's a thief. Even if it's for good reasons, he still steals other people's stuff. And how can you be an effective criminal without tons of aliases and fake identities?
The second thing we learn is that outlaws aren't all bad. The whole basis of Ivanhoe's plot is that Prince John's government is corrupt. The laws of the Normans make it hard to live a decent life as a Saxon. And if the nation's laws are unjust, why should good men be required to follow them? (At least, that's the question Robin Hood appears to be asking.) Here's the interesting thing: Robin Hood may not obey Norman laws, but he does follow broader laws of good and evil. Robin Hood specifically targets corrupt and greedy men, like Prior Aymer. In the absence of strong or fair legal institutions or a justice system, Robin Hood decides to take the law into his own hands. He and his men are the opposite of lawless; it's just that their law doesn't overlap with Prince John's.
One last thing about Robin Hood and his Merry Men: you'll notice that every time they jump into battle, they shout something like, "Saint George for merry England!" (29.27). When De Bracy's men pose as English outlaws and kidnap Cedric and his crew, they all shout, "Saint George for merry England!" (19.14) in imitation of the true Merry Men under Robin Hood. What's all this about Merry England?
Merry England is an ideal of a certain kind of traditional English culture that's based on honesty, fair play, fun... and wearing lots of green while hanging around forests practicing archery. The whole idea of the Merry Men, with their deep bonds of friendship, their songs, and their earthy senses of humor (mostly represented by Friar Tuck), presents a vision of down-home English life that's very different from the structured servant-lord relations of the Normans or even of the Saxon Cedric.
Yet while the bonds of friendship among Robin Hood's men might seem like a nice alternative to the other forms of social organization in the book, they never appear particularly realistic. However fun the drinking games and the archery contests among the Merry Men might be, we know that the outlaws will never get any real power in non-Merry England. We know that Prince John really existed outside the world of Ivanhoe. The Robin Hood bits just come across as a fun idea to make Ivanhoe a little more entertaining to an English audience. It's in the chapters dealing with Robin Hood that Ivanhoe really tips over from history into fantasy.