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Matter of the Greenwood: Little John: Evolution

An examination of how the character of Robin Hood's devoted lieutenant has developed over the centuries.

N.B. this post has been updated to take into account recent additions to the mythos.

Content note: murder.

The oldest surviving actual stories of Robin Hood, as opposed to fleeting mentions, are Robin Hood and the Monk and The Death of Robin Hood (both c. 1450). Little John is a major character in both: but he is characterised by an anger and violence shocking to modern sensibilities.

In Monk, Robin, distressed at not having heard Mass in two weeks, determines to go into Nottingham to the church of St Mary. Much – usually a silent presence in the ballads – counsels that, if he must go, he should take a dozen men for protection; but Robin takes only John. On the way, they gamble on their shooting, and fall out over the result when John wins and Robin refuses to pay him; and Robin goes on alone.

In the church, he is recognised by a monk whom he has earlier robbed of a hundred pounds, and who hastens to the Sheriff. The latter arranges an ambush outside the church, and dispatches the monk and a page with letters to inform the King; after a hard fight, Robin is captured. The page describing the end of the fight and the delivery of the news to the outlaws is missing from the manuscript; but all save Little John are dismayed. John takes control and sets out with Much to rescue Robin. Encountering the monk and his page, they pose as victims of the outlaws and worm from them the whole story: then comes the moment where medieval bloodthirstiness goes too far for the modern reader.

“John smote off the monk’s head:

No longer would he dwell;

So did Much the little page,

For fear lest he would tell.”

John’s exclamation that “He was my master!” may make his action understandable, though the monk has by his own lights done nothing wrong: but the balladeer expects his audience to approve the murder of the child witness as well.

After concealing the bodies, the two outlaws take the letters the monk was bearing and go to the King, who rewards them with money and position for bringing the news of Robin’s capture, and sends them with the royal seal to command that the outlaw should be brought to him. Explaining the monk’s absence by claiming that the grateful King has appointed him Abbot of Westminster, John gains entry to Nottingham Castle: whereupon they kill the jailer, free Robin, and return to the greenwood, where Robin offers to relinquish leadership of the band to John but is rebuffed. The King, on hearing of the rescue, is impressed by John’s loyalty and ingeniousness, and the ballad ends with a pious hope for heavenly bliss.

In Death, meanwhile, after the scheming Prioress of Kirklees (who will get her own article some day) has bled Robin beyond the point of recovery, the dying chief has to dissuade his lieutenant from burning down the priory. Murdering captive monks did not become standard for Little John in later tradition, though quarrelling with Robin and temporarily separating from him did, with a multitude of similar fallings-out stretching from Monk to the present day. So too did the theme that his prowess with a bow was comparable to his master's. What is consistent is that he is always present, first named of the outlaws after Robin himself; a Robin Hood ballad or tale is almost never complete without Little John. Sometimes he even shares top billing, as in the sadly lost 1594 play A Pastoral Comedy of Robin Hood and Little John (author unknown).

He can be pressed into surprising service. The Catholic allegory A Tale of Robin Hood (probably from the early seventeenth century) reverses the legend's usual anticlericalism to make Robin stand for bishops, Adam Bell for abbots, and John for the universities. “Robin Hood, as thou dost know, / Was the first that bent the bow”: episcopacy developed in the days when Christianity was persecuted, even as Robin founded his band as a fugitive. Adam and John, in this version, join (in that order) after Robin has made the world relatively safe for them (by slaying giants, dragons, and chimaeras, the monsters of chivalric romance standing in for the enemies of the Church). They reap the rewards of Robin’s courage, but grow lazy and careless of their own defence, and eventually Adam is taken unaware by a lion (Henry VIII). This leaves the unfortunate Robin prey to Puritan wolves and political foxes, who did not dare attack him before: and the dialogue abruptly ends. Presumably the poet intended to go on to say that, once Robin / episcopacy was defeated, John / the academic establishment would be defenceless. A couple of centuries later, William Edmonstoune Aytoun's Little John and the Red Friar (1845) would use him on the opposite side of the sectarian argument, representing Robert Peel in an allegory of the re-establishment of the Catholic hierarchy, with his men as the hostile Protestants who feared that this was a prelude to re-Romanisation.

His character, too, can vary at this stage. The wise counsellor of Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow (1670) and the philanderer of Tom Walker's Robin Hood, an Opera (1730) bear as little relation to the fierce medieval brigand as to each other, but they are both Little John. In Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1819), though mentioned in passing, he is entirely absent from the action, probably because the "lieutenant" role is filled by Robin himself - under, variously, Sir Wilfred of Ivanhoe, the latter's father Cedric, and King Richard. (Some adaptations, notably the 1997 miniseries, do add Little John to the cast.)

This seems surprising to the modern reader, in the light of the later crystallisation of the familiar character. By the end of the nineteenth century a template had been set of John the stolid lieutenant, from which later interpretations seldom deviated far. Alan Hale played three incarnations of this character, opposite Douglas Fairbanks in 1922, Errol Flynn in 1938, and John Derek in the "next generation" film Rogues of Sherwood Forest in 1950. Archie Duncan in the 1955-60 ITV series, and Rufus Cruikshank during Duncan's illness in the winter of 1955-56, follow much the same pattern, as does Clive Mantle in Robin of Sherwood (1983-86), and the Phil Harris-voiced bear in Disney's 1973 Robin Hood (a carbon copy of Harris' Baloo in 1967's The Jungle Book, with some sequences directly traced from the earlier film's animation).

Variations which do occur are mostly comedic in inspiration. With some irony, given that John's reputation as a giant is late in date and "little" may originally have been meant literally, it's common to draw humour from making him actually little: a tiny terrier in the Fox and the Crow cartoon Robin Hoodlum (1948), Little Ron in Maid Marian and Her Merry Men (1989-94), and murderous Jack Large in 1983 The Black Adder episode "The Black Seal": “I shall call you Large Jack” – “Why?” – “Well, because you’re so little” – “Then why not call him Little Jack?” – “Well, because Large Jack is more amusing” – “Why?” – “All right, all right, Little Jack” – “Are you making fun of my size?” (A variation on this reading is the one found in Robin Hood According to Spike Milligan (1998), where John is "also known as Big Dick, because". The sentence ends there. Milligan is hardly the only writer to have used this joke - John's girlfriend Meg in Robin of Sherwood asks "So why do they call you little John?", and there's a very similar line in the novelisation of 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.) In a 1949 Bugs Bunny short, Little John is a slow-spoken simpleton, constantly interrupting Bugs' battles with the Sheriff to interject "Do not worry, never fear, Robin Hood will soon be here", while Robin continually fails to turn up. (If ever there was a modern heir to the Reynard-like trickster side of Robin's character, Bugs Bunny is surely an excellent candidate!) In 1964's cynical gangster comedy Robin and the 7 Hoods, Dean Martin plays John as a pool shark, his cue standing in for the original's quarterstaff.

Latterly, we often find John as a previous leader of the outlaws, having ceded his authority to Robin after their famous fight (which, in these versions, Robin wins). Although the tradition of making the outlaw band exist under different leadership before the hero joins goes back at least as far as Paul Creswick's 1903 novel Robin Hood, giving this role to John appears to be an innovation first made in Prince of Thieves, where Nick Brimble's John even gets to speak Errol Flynn's iconic line "Welcome to Sherwood". Later examples are probably owed to the direct influence of the movie. The obvious reason why this interpretation has become popular is that it provides some explanation for the fight - if a less original one than in Robin of Sherwood, where John begins as an ensorcelled slave of the magician Simon de Belleme, attacking Robin at his master's direction and joining the outlaws after the spell is broken.

Most of these Johns, except those varied for deliberate comic effect, are made in the mould set by the Victorians. Loyal, reliable, blunt, and bold, often with a sardonic streak, the lieutenant of the Merry Men varies much less than, say, Friar Tuck or Will Scarlet. Even the 2018 Robin Hood, which combines the character with the Saracen outlaw as Yahya (Jamie Foxx: he is named "John" because Robin cannot pronounce his Moorish name, a disappointing endorsement of a commonplace bit of lazy racism) and makes him the mastermind behind "the Hood", depicts him in much the same light; Foxx's fierce performance is one of the few highlights in a mostly terrible film. There seems to be common agreement that the character simply works this way, and few writers are inclined to fix what isn't broken. The violence of the fifteenth century John had been left behind by Munday's time, and shows little sign of coming back: no doubt future incarnations will continue to follow the pattern.

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