The man in the green hood steadies his heartbeat and tests the breeze one last time.
He isn’t looking at the distant target or at his rival’s arrow embedded in its heart. He is feeling his shot, living its trajectory. He touches his lips to the bowstring, part kiss, part prayer. The meadow is silent: nobody dares breathe. He relaxes his fingers. A hiss. A gasp. And then a roar, drowning out the splintering of wood and the deep thud of an arrow hitting home, dead centre.
When I first heard the story of Robin Hood splitting an arrow, I knew there could be no greater assertion of victory. It was the most emphatic act in the world. All arguments, I thought, should be decided thus. You claim it is my turn to wash the dishes, and yet – behold! Yonder quivers my arrow and yours is rent asunder! Away, varlet, and leave me to my mead!
I still think archery shootouts should decide most of life’s duller challenges. How much more interesting might school have been if it was all decided by one arrow? (“Matrics, settle down; you have each been issued one arrow, please write your name on it in blue or black pen. Archery Literacy students, you will get three arrows. OK, you have 30 seconds to cleave yonder dart in twain.”) Certainly, our current politics might be livelier if the robbin’ hoods in government, stealing from the poor to give to the rich, were forced to reapply for their jobs by splitting arrows instead of cosying up to the sheriffs of Saxonwold.
The internet, which is a machine designed to suck the pleasure out of everything, insists that Robin Hood’s arrow-splitting heroics might have boiled down to simple probability. Even an average archer, it claims, will split an arrow once every 10,000 shots. Perhaps Robin was pretty rubbish and had spent months blasting 9,999 arrows in random directions, his merry men averting their gaze and making awkward small talk, before he finally got lucky on that bright spring morning.
I don’t believe a word of it. Because recently I discovered that I am an average archer, and I learned that I could fire 10 times that many arrows and still not come close.
The day was very bright. The straw bales were very close. The arrows were very sharp. At least, they were until I fired them into some nearby rocks.
The bow, however, was a disappointment.
I had expected an English longbow, a six-foot-plus monster that could fire an armour-piercing arrow the length of three football fields. (Incidentally, King Edward III, ruler of England from 1327 until 1377, discouraged boys from playing football and instead urged them to take up archery, so it’s possible Edward figured out the range of the longbow by firing arrows across actual football fields at footballers fleeing into distant woodland; a kingly sport if I say so myself.)
Instead, I got a short, twirly, over-elaborate thing; Cupid’s bow. Which is all very well if you’re dressed in a nappy and darting strangers with aphrodisiacs but it’s not okay when you want to stand your ground like a Welsh bowman at Agincourt.
Of course, it turns out that not all archers stood their ground. Some modern experts suggest that the archetypal image of Robin Hood, legs apart, anchored, serenely plucking an arrow from his quiver, is Hollywood nonsense. Archers, they claim, were much more mobile, dashing about the battlefield and turning people into human pincushions before zooming off to perforate some new unfortunate. Think Legolas in The Lord of the Rings except using blood instead of Pantene to condition his hair.
Rather than keeping their arrows in quivers on their backs (the surest way to snag an obstacle) they carried a few in their bow hands and could nock, pull and fire with terrifying speed, like Oprah turning this way and that to her screaming fans, saying, “You get an arrow and you get an arrow!” (They’re screaming because they’ve been shot in the eye.)
Given the choice between historical accuracy and not running, however, I will always choose not running. And so, in the end, I contented myself with standing unapologetically Hollywood-like, feet anchored, plucking at my Cupid bow. It was really just an ornate aluminium twig strung with glorified dental floss, but it did the job.
And then, just as in the story, my final arrow decided my future as an archer.
My arm was steady, my release perfect. My arrow flew straight and true, high and handsome, and all sorts of other clichés. It hit home with a satisfying thud. In a tree, 10m behind and to the left of the target.
Truly, whispered the ghost of Robin Hood, givest not up thy day job.
Still, a guy can dream.
Published in The Times