In November 1953, Mrs Ada White of Indianapolis fired an arrow into the air of McCarthyite America.

She had been reading Robin Hood and the Knight, a tale rewritten from a 15th-century source by Mary McLeod Banks, president of the English Folklore Society, and reprinted in a popular anthology of children's literature.

As she turned the pages, Mrs White saw red. Maybe a little yellow hammer and sickle, too.

And as a Republican member of the Indiana State Textbook Commission, she felt moved to speak her mind. "There is a Communist directive in education now to stress the story of Robin Hood," she declared. "They want to stress it because he robbed the rich and gave it to the poor. That's the Communist line."

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Mrs White took aim at Indiana's State Superintendent of Public Instruction, who - rather wearily, I suspect - began combing grade school textbooks for evidence of Robin Hood's un-American activities. Press interest, however, sent her projectile ricocheting around the world.

A knot of student protesters scattered the campus of Indiana University with symbolic green feathers. In England, William Cox, the actual Sheriff of Nottingham, asserted that Robin Hood was more properly described as a gangster.

Then Radio Moscow joined in, trolling Mrs White by announcing that Nikolai Gribachev, a Soviet poet, had written A New Ballad of Robin Hood for the pages of Pravda.

This week, a new Robin Hood adds another few verses to the song - offering us an opportunity to consider just how long it has echoed through our culture.

This latest incarnation is on the big screen, his surest place of refuge since Douglas Fairbanks Snr first flashed his teeth and scaled the Sheriff of Nottingham's high escarpments in 1922.

In Otto Bathurst's new comic strip of a movie, Taron Egerton's Robin is a British soldier who returns from the Holy Land to take revenge upon the corrupt English authorities.

("This is my crusade!" he announces, as identical black hoods are distributed among his followers like Guido Fawkes masks at a demo against the G7.)

The prologue, set in the war-torn Middle East, makes the Third Crusade look so much like the second Gulf War - ruined streets, arrow-proof vests, snipers firing bolts from medieval machine guns - that you half expect the hero to return to England in order to give evidence to the Chilcot inquiry.

He even delivers a verdict: this, he declares, was "a liar's war".When Robin first emerged from the thicket of English folklore, he had no merry men or Maid Marian. His title, the Earl of Huntington, was conferred on him in 1598 by the playwright Anthony Munday.

His green tights - filled so impressively by Errol Flynn, and firmly declined by Russell Crowe in favour of trousers - were an inheritance from Victorian panto, where a principal boy took the part. The familiar details of the Hood biography are also mostly 19th?century. It was Sir Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe (1819), that gave Robin his Saxon heritage, his opposition to Bad King John, his Loxley pseudonym and his famous arrow-splitting trick.

It also made him decent, honest and cheerful. Earlier Robins, whose principal animus was against clerical authority, were given to beheading corrupt monks and bishops. Castrating them, if they'd done something really bad. Ivanhoe also set the template for Robin's screen career - particularly once Douglas Fairbanks had used it as a source.

His Robin Hood broke all kinds of records. A $1.4 million budget (about $20 million today) made it the most expensive film to date. Its castle set, complete with a 450ft banqueting hall, was the largest yet constructed for a movie. Its gala opening at Grauman's Chinese Theatre established the rules of the Hollywood movie premiere. Its success was not limited to America.

In Moscow, Robin Hood was a bigger hit than Battleship Potemkin, perhaps because Fairbanks's incarnation of the English outlaw - athletic, muscular, optimistic - wasn't so very different from the worker heroes of Russian revolutionary pop culture.

In the past century, Sherwood Forest has provided cover for any number of rebel sensibilities. In The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Errol Flynn's protagonist has principles that go far beyond Saxon nationalism. ("It's injustice I hate," he says, "not the Normans.") In Ridley Scott's 2010 film, Russell Crowe's Robin defuses a civil war, repels the French and cajoles the king into commissioning Magna Carta.

On television in the Eighties, Michael Praed's Robin of Sherwood presented himself as a fragment of a mystic English past. (Clannad's music set the tone.) Jonas Armstrong's hero of the 2006 BBC series was a Manc lad in an Oasis hoodie, with a character modelled on Tim Collins, the British Army colonel known for the speech he gave on the eve of the Iraq war.

The story is hard to insulate from politics. Even Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), a film remembered mainly for Alan Rickman's cherishable scenery-chewing, rather than Kevin Costner's Robin, attaches a message to its arrow by giving Robin a Moorish sidekick.

The most strongly political version of the story, however, is one with the cosiest reputation - ITV's late-Fifties teatime drama The Adventures of Robin Hood, which put Richard Greene, the avuncular matinée idol, into Robin's jerkin.

The series was produced by Hannah Weinstein, a New York-born journalist and former speech writer for Franklin D Roosevelt, and Sid Cole, an LSE graduate who had gone to Catalonia in the Thirties to make documentaries sympathetic to the anti-Franco forces.

Together, they recruited Hollywood writers who had been blacklisted by the House Un?American Activities Committee, instructing the office staff never to accept registered post in case it contained a subpoena to appear at a HUAC hearing.

Had Ada White known this, she might have felt vindicated. At the time, one of the few who came to her defence was a leader writer on the Indianapolis Star. Her remarks, he suggested, had been over-exploited by a liberal press keen to mock Midwestern bigotry.

And he produced a counter-reading of the Robin Hood legend. The rich he robbed were like the commissars of the Soviet Union. The merry men were like resistance groups behind the Iron Curtain.

The freedom brought by the return of King Richard, he reasoned, would one day be enjoyed in a post-Soviet Europe. "It might be a good idea," he wrote, "for us all to read Robin Hood again, in the original."

Except, of course, there isn't one.Some of the earliest accounts of Robin Hood describe him as a presence in amateur plays performed at Whitsun festivals in the 15th and 16th centuries. Robin remains subtly allied to this folk tradition.

More than a literary or historical character, he is a game we play, one that takes on significance from our circumstances, not his. "Forget history!" declares Friar Tuck, in the narration that begins the new retelling of the tale.

It's the wisest line in the script. You won't find Robin there. He's a man whose story has no beginning, and no end.

Robin Hood is out now in Britain