Writing about Much, the Miller’s son.
By John Bainbridge
Much, son of the miller, has an important functionary role in many fictional interpretations of the Robin Hood story. It is by freeing Much, who has been caught poaching the king’s deer, that Robin Hood becomes an outlaw in the first place.
I first became aware of the character in my “Robin Hood Annual” when I was aged about eight. It started the story with Robin rescuing Much from Gisborne, just before he was about to kill Much after the poaching incident. Variations on this original theme abound in novels, films and television series.
Probably none of the merry men have enjoyed so many different interpretations as Much. In some versions he is young, in others quite old, or very often we see him as a middle-aged peasant.
I don’t recall him played younger than in the memorable performance by Peter Llewellyn Williams in that iconic television series of the 1980s “Robin of Sherwood”. Here he is very young indeed. Peter Llewellyn Williams plays him as a simpleton, “a halfwit boy” in the words of one of the opposing characters. This Much is easily frightened, superstitious, loyal, and with, despite all of those problems, a courage that shines through in moments of great danger.
Peter Llewellyn Williams gives a thoroughly convincing performance in what is a very difficult type of part. In “Robin of Sherwood” Much is shown as a kind of brother to Robin, Much’s parents having taken in Robin on the death of Robin’s rebellious father. The series starts with Robin Hood (Michael Praed) trying and failing to rescue Much from Gisborne (Robert Addie).
In the original ballads, Much plays a more menacing role. He is just another outlaw in the pack, and certainly no relation to Robin. (It is interesting that if you look through the ballads, none of Robin’s men appear to have a family; the only relation who rates a mention is the Prioress of Kirklees who we discover is Robin Hood’s cousin.) Only, I believe, in “Robin of Sherwood” do we actually see the miller, the father of Much. Writer Richard Carpenter gave us Much’s mother too!
The Much of the ballads is quite a skilled robber. And more than that, in at least one incident he is a murderer too. This is very true to the period. People driven to becoming medieval wolfsheads probably had to do a great deal to survive. Killing your victims was not so unusual. I hope to look at this aspect of the ballads in a future blog, when I’ll discuss aspects of being outlawed or made wolfshead.
The murder that Much carries out is all the more vicious to the modern reader because he kills a child. In the ballad “Robin Hood and the Monk”, a manuscript version of which still exists, dating from 1450, Robin Hood is captured. He has been recognised by a monk who betrays him to the Sheriff of Nottingham.
Little John and Much, on a rescue mission, encounter the monk and his page boy. To prevent the monk from acting as a witness against Robin, Little John “smotes off the priest’s head”. Much suggests that the monk’s page-boy cannot be allowed to live, in case he turns evidence against them. He then personally beheads the boy. Soon afterwards John and Much enter the dungeon where Robin is being held, murder the gaoler and set Robin free.
The modern reader might be horrified at this sort of action, but it was all grist to the mill to the listeners of the original oral ballads, or those who read the early manuscript and later printed versions. These ballads appeared during bloodthirsty times. These scenes of violence were probably met with whoops of delight! All a very long way from the kinder morality of “Robin of Sherwood”.
When I came to write my own Robin Hood novel “Loxley”, I spent a great deal of time considering how to portray the character of Much. It was hard to keep Peter Llewellyn Williams’ performance out of my mind. I decided therefore to go back to the original idea of an older peasant Much. An outlaw, even before Robin Hood arrives in Sherwood. I wanted a kind of Chaucerian character, not altogether pleasant, a singer of bawdy ballads, and someone who won’t hesitate to kill when it becomes necessary. Something closer to what a real-life medieval wolfshead might have been like. The least glamorous of Robin Hood’s followers.
You can read the first chapter of “Loxley”, which gives the scenes where Robin Hood first encounters Much by clicking on the page above. Or click on the link below to order the book, either in paperback or as an eBook.