Robin Hood’s Merry Men: Little John
As a companion to my blog series on the Magna Carta, I’m venturing forth with some character sketches of Robin Hood’s Merry Men. Let’s start with Little John, one of the oldest and most consistent characters in the legends.
Little John, or John Little, is reputed to have stood 7 feet tall and acted as Robin Hood’s chief lieutenant. In some translation the term “little” can mean crafty or tricky. His favorite weapon is a quarter staff. This element does not appear in the lexicon until the 17th C.
Most legends and myths evolve over time to suit the audience. Little John can be portrayed as a leader who hands over command of the outlaws to Robin’s superior intelligence and strategies. He is also depicted as a lumbering lout, his size draining his brain. In other tales he is an excellent swordsman and archer. The sword is the weapon of choice for noblemen and knights. A good one cost more than an entire suit of armor. The quarterstaff was the choice of tradesmen and peasants because it could be cut from a tree at any time and cost nothing. It could also double as a walking staff in the days when serfs and free holders were not allowed to carry weapons.
Contradictions abound depending upon the century and the bard weaving the tales.
The most popular legends place Robin Hood and Little John in Sherwood Forest during the time when King Richard I, the Lion Heart, had been imprisoned in Germany after his Crusade. This left Prince John, his youngest brother and sole surviving male heir to the throne, as regent of England and in command of taxes, which he increased to onerous levels. The Sheriff of Nottingham was chief tax collector in the region. The outlaws are pardoned and restored to their homes when King Richard returns and “saves” England from his little brother.
Prince John, and later King John were added by Sir Walter Scott in the late 18th and early 19th century. But then he gave us the middle ages as they should have been, not as they were.
If you go back further into the murky pre-Christian myths, you can find hints of Little John in the wildwood as the Green Man. Part tree, part man, his hair and beard sprout twigs, he is elusive and easily camouflaged, and he is the hereditary leader among the fae of the woods, their arbiter and judge. His roots spread throughout his domain giving him instant knowledge of all who trespass. Usually he is likened to a mighty oak, tall, strong, long lived, and incredibly durable. A forester in modern day Sherwood Forest says that oaks spend 300 years growing, 300 years living, and 300 years dying. Other authors make John a yew tree, the source of the flexible wood used in traditional English longbows.
Whichever version you choose to follow you can find multiple authorities on each one. In England there are cults that will show you where Little John lived and is buried. To me the tombstone looks far too new to be anything but modern wishful thinking and the typical wattle and daub hut of the 12th and 13th centuries would not survive or be anywhere as neat and charming as the typical thatched hut we see today.
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