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robin redbreast,common name for a migratory bird of the family Turdidae (thrushthrush,
bird, common name for members of the Turdidae, a large family of birds found in most parts of the world and noted for their beautiful song. The majority are modestly colored, with spotted underparts, in either the young or the adult stage, although some have bright
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British and Irish folklore often paired the robin and the wren. Some folk verses painted the two as sweethearts, in spite of the fact that they represent different species. These verses always cast the robin as male and the wren as female. The following lines describe their romance:
Cock robin got up early At the break of day, And went to Jenny's window To sing a roundelay. He sang cock robin's love To little Jenny Wren, And when he got unto the end, Then he began again [Lawrence, 1997, 38].
Traditional lore also paired robins and wrens according to their shared qualities. Several English and Irish folk verses express the following sentiment:
The robin and the wren Are God Almighty's cock and hen [Armstrong, 1970, 168].
Perhaps the assumption that the birds were especially beloved by God gave rise to folk beliefs warning against harming robins or wrens. As the following folk verses teach, bad luck inevitably followed: Cursed is the man Who kills a robin or a wren.
Kill a robin or a wren Never prosper, boy or man.
The robin and the redbreast The robin and the wren If ye tak'out of the nest Ye'll never thrive again [Lawrence, 1997, 40].
According to various legends, one of these sacred birds once performed a heroic feat for humankind. Old tales from various parts of Europe lauded either the wren or the robin as the original fire-fetcher, the creature who delivered the first flames to humankind. In addition, English folklore assigned supernatural abilities to the robin. A fairly widespread belief credited the robin with a foreknowledge of death and illness. According to these beliefs, a robin tapping on the window or flying in or about the house meant that death, disease, or some other misfortune would visit the family. Along similar lines, English folklore also claimed that both the robin and wren pitied the dead. According to this belief, the two birds often covered the lifeless bodies of whatever dead creatures they encountered in the woods with moss or leaves. These gestures of compassion supported their reputation as kindly, holy creatures.
Very little in the above account makes the robin a natural choice for a Christmas symbol. Nevertheless, in Victorian times the robin appeared frequently on Christmas cards as an emblem of the season (see also Victorian England, Christmas in). Perhaps the popularity of this image grew out of a general affection for this non-migratory bird, remembered especially at the time of year when nature presented the robin with its harshest conditions (see also Christmas Sheaf).
In addition, some connection can be drawn between the bird images printed on some nineteenth-century Christmas cards and elements of the folk beliefs explained above. For example, one illustration depicts a smartly dressed robin in top hat, jacket, and vest courting a wren in bonnet and shawl. Another shows a winter woodland scene in which a robin and wren drape moss and leaves over a doll (whose body resembles that of a dead child partially covered with snow). Other Victorian Christmas cards cast the robin as a symbol of the new year and the wren as a symbol of the old year.
Far more difficult to understand, however, is the popularity of Christmas cards depicting dead birds, especially robins, which peaked during the 1880s. Sentiments such as "Sweet messenger of calm decay," and "Peace divine" accompanied these perplexing pictures. Nowadays most people would agree that neither the sentiments nor the images evoke the spirit of Christmas. The Victorian fondness for that which evoked tender emotions, especially pity, may explain the popularity of these kinds of cards.
Few people today associate the robin with death. Instead, the image of the robin at Christmas time probably triggers kindly thoughts about animals enduring the cold of winter or about the promise of spring to come.
Armstrong, Edward A. The Folklore of Birds. Second edition, revised and enlarged. New York: Dover Publications, 1970. Buday, George. The History of the Christmas Card. 1954. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1992. Ingersoll, Ernest. Birds in Legend, Fable and Folklore. New York: Longmans, Green and Company, 1923. Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood. The Hunting of the Wren. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.
Imagine swooping from the rooftops and rushing into peril alongside a dark-cloaked crusader, crushing criminals while having the time of your life. Such is the appeal of Robin the Boy Wonder, Batman’s death-defying junior partner, who epitomizes the designation “sidekick” more so than any other comic book superhero. Touted as “the sensational character find of 1940” in his inaugural appearance in Detective Comics #38, Robin, premiering a scant eleven months after the debut of his cowled mentor, was envisioned by Batman creator Bob Kane as a hero with whom juvenile readers could identify. Kane’s hunch was correct: the Boy Wonder’s introduction not only instantly elevated the already-popular Batman’s sales, it also spawned a legion of imitators, including the Shield’s Dusty, Captain America’s Bucky, and Green Arrow’s Speedy.
Robin the Boy Wonder was actually Dick Grayson, the youngest of a family of circus aerialists, who witnessed his mother and father plunge to their deaths from a sabotaged trapeze. This murder was also observed by millionaire Bruce (Batman) Wayne, who as a child had similarly watched his own parents die. Batman took this vengeful youngster under his wing, training him as his partner. And thus the most famous of superhero teams—Batman and Robin, the Dynamic Duo—was born. But while both Wayne and Grayson’s childhoods were shattered after seeing the executions of their parents, the heroes’ parallels ended there. Batman was brooding and grim, demonically clad in shadowy hues. But Robin was buoyant and robust, ostentatiously outfitted in a red tunic; green shorts, boots, and gloves; and a yellow cape. With gymnastic flash and the crime-fighting arsenal in his utility belt, the Boy Wonder laughed in the faces of his foes, punning while pummeling. Before long, the line dividing the Dynamic Duo’s styles began to blur, with Batman’s attitude becoming more jovial and Robin learning detective skills from his teacher.
Robin accompanied Batman on a host of 1940s and 1950s escapades in Detective, Batman, and World’s Finest Comics, protecting their home of Gotham City against routine thugs and a growing contingent of colorful psychotics, including the Joker, Catwoman, and the Penguin. The characters’ acclaim became so immense that their comic book adventures soon spawned a short-lived newspaper strip, a guest sequence on the Superman radio program, and two movie serials, Batman, in 1943, and Batman and Robin, in 1949. Robin the Boy Wonder was even awarded his own series in Star-Spangled Comics, beginning in 1947 and continuing for several years thereafter.
During those innocent times, no one pondered the threat of child endangerment facing young Dick Grayson each time he leapt into action as Robin (although the theme would be addressed in 2000 in the flashback miniseries Robin: Year One). Real-life psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, however, perceived a different menace to the Boy Wonder and to the boys reading Batman and other comic books. In his 1954 indictment of the comics industry, Seduction of the Innocent, Dr. Wertham labeled the relationship between Batman and Robin as “homosexual,” and the resulting backlash sparked U.S. Senate hearings that nearly put comics out of business. Batman and Robin limped along through the late 1950s and early 1960s, plagued by mundane, often ridiculous stories and by the inclusion of the “Batman Family” (Batwoman, Ace the Bat-Hound, Bat-Mite, and the original Bat-Girl, the latter of whom was Robin’s sometime-girlfriend, devised to erase the notion of a gay partnership between the Boy Wonder and his adult companion). Sales dropped precipitously and the Batman titles teetered on the brink of cancellation.
In 1964, editor Julius Schwartz revitalized the Batman franchise with a movement called the “New Look.” Robin was now clearly a teenager, and while still an enthusiastic juggernaut of justice, he began to come into his own, joining other powerful adolescents as the Teen Titans. In 1966, ABC-TV’s wildly successful, campy Batman series made the Dynamic Duo pop icons and catapulted actor Burt Ward into instant stardom in his role of Robin. Ward’s earnest portrayal of the Boy Wonder birthed a national catchphrase: “Holy [insert your favorite noun here], Batman!” Millions of boys wanted to be Robin, masquerading as the young hero for Halloween and playing with the plethora of Robin (and Batman) merchandise that permeated the mid-1960s retail market. And millions of girls went ga-ga over the groovy Boy Wonder—Ward was a teen idol, his masked visage gracing the covers of 16 and Tiger Beat fan magazines.
By late 1968, the television series sputtered and ran out of steam, while the comic books were returning Batman to his darker roots as a “creature of the night.” Robin emerged from Batman’s shadow: He became the “Teen Wonder” and Dick Grayson vacated the Wayne mansion and the Teen Titans for Hudson University. In the early 1970s, Robin appeared in a series of relevant (for the times) backup stories in Batman and Detective, fighting corporate fat cats and student unrest, instead of supervillains. After a decade of sporadic appearances, Robin the Teen Wonder fronted a new incarnation of the Teen Titans that launched in 1980, and fell in love with teammate Starfire. In February 1984, Dick Grayson permanently shed his red tunic, ultimately adopting a new superhero guise as Nightwing. Despite these changes in the comics, television and movies preserved Grayson in the role of Robin: Via a variety of Batman animated programs from the late 1960s through the early 1990s; in the long-running Super Friends TV series; and twice on the big screen, with actor Chris O’Donnell playing Grayson/Robin in director Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997).
Even though Dick Grayson sported a new heroic name, the legend of Robin the Boy Wonder lived on, fueled by tradition and copyright protection. Succeeding Grayson as Robin, in 1983, was Jason Todd, a troubled teen who, after a largely unpopular stint as Batman’s aide, was slaughtered by the Joker in a 1988 event stemming from a DC Comics-sponsored phone-in contest where readers decided the new Robin’s fate. A new, female Robin, Carrie Kelly, appeared in writer/artist Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in 1986, although this four-issue series occurred outside of the regular DC Comics continuity. In 1989, a tech-savvy teen named Tim Drake entered the life of Bruce Wayne—having cleverly inferred Batman’s true identity—lobbying to become the new Boy Wonder. Reluctant to mentor another partner for fear of repeating Jason Todd’s ghastly demise, Batman resisted, but eventually Drake adopted the Robin identity, albeit in a new, modernized uniform. The Drake version of Robin has, as of 2004, twice made the leap into animation: first in The New Batman/Superman Adventures (1997), then in the Teen Titans series airing on the Cartoon Network in 2003.
Since then, the history of Robin has been a series of surprises. Stephanie Brown, formerly a costumed heroine called the Spoiler, became the first female Robin in main DC continuity in Robin #126 (July 2004); she later assumed the role of Batgirl. Jason Todd was resurrected, adopted the Joker’s original costumed guise of the Red Hood, and became a ruthless vigilante who clashed with Batman. This storyline was adapted into a direct-to-video animated film, Batman: Under the Red Hood (2010).
In perhaps the biggest surprise of all, Damian Wayne, who is purportedly the genetically enhanced son of Batman and Talia, the daughter of his adversary Ra’s al Ghul, turned up in Batman #655 (September 2006). Back in 1987, Mike W. Barr had written a graphic novel, Batman: Son of the Demon, in which Talia gave birth to Batman’s son. For years DC continuity ignored this story, until writer Grant Morrison introduced the boy into Batman, naming him Damian. Following Batman’s disappearance, Dick Grayson takes over the role of Batman. Ten-year-old Damian becomes his new Robin in Batman and Robin #1 (August 2009). Damian has even appeared as Robin in animation, in a 2010 episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which, however, presents him as the imaginary son of Batman and Catwoman!
When DC Comics relaunched its entire line of comics in September 2011, four Robins appeared in new series. Dick Grayson returned to his previous costumed identity in the new Nightwing #1. Jason Todd became the leader of a band of outlaw vigilantes in The Red Hood and the Outlaws. Tim Drake, now known as Red Robin, is one of the stars of the new Teen Titans series. And Damian Wayne now acts as Robin to the original Batman in the relaunched Batman and Robin #1. —ME & PS