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Matter of the Greenwood: Friar Tuck - Evolution

I examine how the character of Tuck has evolved over the centuries.

Image: Woodcut by F. W. Fairholt for an 1847 ballad collection.


Tuck, though absent from early ballads, is a major character from the very beginning of the surviving dramatic tradition of Robin Hood. In the early sixteenth century play Robin Hood and the Friar (first printed as an appendix to a 1560 edition of the Gest, but clearly pre-Reformation), he begins in the same classic role as many characters in later ballads: a match for Robin. They encounter, fight, and the Friar wins, but they end up as friends – but there is a long section in between which does not have any equivalent for other characters.

They fight again, by a ford, Robin establishing his by now conventional anticlericalism (“He never loved friar nor none of friar’s kin”); then follows the famous scene of Robin demanding to be carried across the river, only for Tuck to pitch him into the water in a parody of the St Christopher legend. In the ensuing fight, Robin calls up his men, and the Friar whistles up his dogs (and apparently human followers as well, named as Cut and Bause, though these are missing from the later tradition): they battle to a standstill and Tuck agrees to join Robin. He is given a lady to serve as chaplain, although his reaction makes it clear enough what this will mean:

“Here is an huckle duckle,

An inch above the buckle.

She is a trull of trust,

To serve a friar at his lust.

A pricker, a prancer, a tearer of sheets,

A wagger of bollocks when other men sleeps.

Go home, ye knaves, and lay crabs in the fire,

For my lady and I will dance in the mire,

For very pure joy.”

This is the only one of the early plays (the others being Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood and the Potter, the latter printed together with this one) which is still occasionally revived, no doubt because Tuck is such a peach of a role.

By about 1590, George Peele (in Edward I) could rank Tuck with Marian and Little John as the essential members of Robin’s band, omitting Will Scarlet, who is always third named in the ballads in which neither Tuck nor Marian had yet appeared; and Shakespeare could rely on an audience’s understanding when he made an Italian outlaw in The Two Gentlemen of Verona swear “By the bare scalp of Robin Hood’s fat friar!”. Peele’s Friar Huw ap Davy, lecherous, combative, but inescapably likeable, was clearly based on the Tuck of the May Games in the first place, long before his prince declares him “fit as a die” for the role.

In Anthony Munday’s massively influential diptych The Downfall of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon and The Death of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon (1598), we find Tuck at first in the service of the villainous Prior of York, later sabotaging an attempt to capture the outlaws and defecting to their side. Tuck as defector was to become a familiar trope; he often begins as a chaplain to the Sheriff or some other villain (for instance, in Robin of Sherwood).

At one point, the Friar addresses the audience, declaring:

“For merry jests, they have been shown before,

As how the Friar fell into the well,

For love of Jinny, that fair bonny belle:

How Greenleaf robbed the Sheriff of Nottingham,

And other mirthful matter, full of game.”

This suggests that the popular ballad The Friar in the Well (not an outlaw tale, but a Reformation-era piece of anti-monastic satire) existed in dramatic form and was associated with Tuck, and that there was also a dramatic equivalent of Fytte 3 of the Gest (in which Little John, disguised as "Reynold Greenleaf", enters the Sheriff's service only to rob him). These are otherwise unknown.

In the Sloane Life of Robin Hood, dating to shortly after Munday’s plays, Tuck is combined with Much, as “a friar called Muchel, though some say he was another kind of religious man, for that the order of friars was not yet sprung up” – a remarkable regard for historical plausibility. This identification, although it resurfaces in Stocqueler’s Maid Marian in 1849, has not stuck.

Tuck’s one and only appearance in the ballad tradition is Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar, dating in its current form to around 1630: although its details, with Robin’s quasi-Arthurian oath not to eat or drink till he has seen the man rumoured to be able to outshoot him, and archaic semi-mythic touches such as the friar’s army of dogs and a duel fought in the water at a ford, bespeak a medieval origin. The friar is not given a name in the text, although some versions have the alternate title “Robin Hood and Friar Tuck”. (The precise meaning of “curtal” is debated; “short-robed” has been suggested, some going so far as to argue that the robe is short because it has been tucked up under the belt, hence Tuck. This is surely rather fanciful. John B. Marsh’s 1865 novel The Life and Adventures of Robin Hood would later turn this “curtal friar” into a separate character from Tuck.)

The opening stanza – possibly intended as a chorus – invokes summer festivities:

“But how many merry moons be in the year?

There are thirteen, I say:

The Midsummer moon is the merriest of all,

Next to the merry month of May.”

And, indeed, this ballad is closely related to the play Robin Hood and the Friar, following much the same plot. One interesting point which it introduces is Tuck’s association with Fountains Abbey, whither Robin travels to fetch him – he is apparently a cloistered Cistercian monk, not a friar at all. But the geography of the ballad is confused. Towards the end, “Fountains Abbey” has become “Fountain Dale”: there is a place of this name in Nottinghamshire but the name cannot be traced back nearly so far, and may even derive from the ballad. Robin invites the Friar to “go to fair Nottingham” – enemy territory for him if he means the city, so he may be planning to return to Nottinghamshire after a sojourn in the North.

Despite the fact that this ballad quickly became very popular, Tuck himself was not incorporated into the ballad tradition, scarcely appearing elsewhere: the division between ballad and dramatic traditions remained stark. Indeed, from here to the time of Ritson and Scott, he makes only one appearance of interest: in Leonard MacNally’s 1784 opera Robin Hood: or, Sherwood Forest. MacNally’s Tuck is in fact an impostor – he turns out to have been the villainous Baron Fitzherbert in disguise all along, colluding with a vain, lecherous, cowardly Will Scarlet to betray the outlaws. The two are tried by Little John in a comic scene lifted almost verbatim from Charles Johnson’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724): but, although the idea of enemies infiltrating the outlaws’ ranks has remained a perennially popular one, Tuck has rarely been the spy.

Walter Scott’s convivial hermit in Ivanhoe, the Clerk of Copmanhurst, though never named “Tuck”, set the model for the slightly softened version of the friar commonplace in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Thomas Love Peacock’s Friar Michael of Rubygill in Maid Marian, old friend of the heroine and wryly amused observer of the outlaws’ mayhem, added a few touches to this character but took little away. William Edmondstoune Aytoun’s Little John and the Red Friar (1845) is a curious beast: the “Prior of Copmanshurst / And Bishop of London Town” (who is also not only a friar and pilgrim but the emissary of the Pope) is an enemy of the outlaws after Robin’s death. The poem is in fact an allegory of the proposed re-establishment in England of the Catholic hierarchy, Little John standing for Robert Peel, the deceased Robin for the Duke of Wellington, and the Friar possibly for Thomas Walsh; this has little to do with Friar Tuck, and had no influence on the mainstream of the tradition.

In the twentieth century, Tuck often became something of a clown, his fatness being emphasised over his fighting ability or his clerical role. In the 1922 Allen Dwan Robin Hood film, he gets stuck in a door; a 1954 episode of the anarchic radio comedy The Goon Show (1951-60), “Ye Bandit of Sherwood Forest”, featured regular character Major Bloodnok (played by Peter Sellers as sleaze personified) as “Friar Balsam”; the 1958 Daffy Duck short Robin Hood Daffy cast Porky Pig in the role. (He proves surprisingly competent, outfighting Daffy with a twig against a quarterstaff; at the end, donning a habit and shaving off his top feathers, Daffy declares “Forget about joining me, I’ll join you – say hello to Friar Duck.”) He would later be a cantankerous badger in Disney’s all-animal Robin Hood (1973); the lascivious Friar Bellows in an evil counterpart to the Merry Men in a 1983 episode of Blackadder; a greasy purveyor of fake relics in the 1991 John Irvin Robin Hood; the hilariously out-of-place Rabbi Tuckman in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights; a comic teenage sidekick to the hero of 1995’s Young Ivanhoe.

(One interesting touch seen in some modern Tucks has been that - although called "Friar" and wearing habit and cowl - he is sometimes portrayed as a parish priest with church and congregation. This is likely a result of predominantly Protestant societies reimagining the alien figure of the mendicant friar as something more familiar.)

More serious Tucks, though often very well played, have seldom veered far from the template laid out by Scott and Peacock. Tony Caunter’s interesting portrayal of a genuinely pious man troubled by his own violent and gluttonous tendencies is perhaps the best thing in the 1975 miniseries The Legend of Robin Hood, while Clayton Emery’s fantasy stories show an initially inflexible man gradually learning to show tolerance towards magic, paganism, and the Fair Folk: but these have had little impact on the public imagination. But even the classic Tuck remains mutable. The schoolmasterly Alexander Gauge in the 1950s Adventures, affable Phil Rose in Robin of Sherwood, belligerent Michael McShane in Prince of Thieves, and charismatic David Harewood outshining his co-stars in the 2006 B.B.C. series, are in many ways very different readings of the character, but they are all instantly recognisable as Friar Tuck. This mix of essential and variable characteristics is what turns a character into a lasting legend.

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