About Little John by John Bainbridge
Little John gets one of the earliest mentions of any of Robin Hood’s men. He’s right there in the oldest surviving ballad “A Lytell Gest of Robin Hood”. And much like Tuck we get a very instant picture in our minds whenever we hear his name. He’s big, we know that, and his name is a source of amusement at first to the other outlaws.
The reversal of his name is first suggested by Will Stutely, that most neglected outlaw. In the “Robin of Sherwood” television series, the honour of naming the giant wolfshead is given to Will Scarlet, as Stutely never appears. In my novel “Loxley” I thought I would create a character who actually resents being called Little John
The traditional Little John also features in one of the iconic depictions of the Robin Hood legends – the fight with quarter-staffs on a log bridge over a stream. This incident doesn’t actually feature in the earliest of the Robin Hood ballads, not putting in an appearance until the 1600s in the late ballad “Robin Hood and Little John”. But there might be an older oral tradition behind it. Time and again the combat appears in countless Robin Hood films and most of the television series. It’s one of the great classic moments.
In the television series “Robin of Sherwood” Little John is sent to the forest, bewitched by the sorcerer Simon de Belleme, meeting Robin on the bridge and being defeated by him, thus releasing him from his enchantment. An interesting twist on the original.
When I was writing my Robin Hood novel “Loxley” I thought long and hard about whether or not to include the scene. It has been done so well by other writers. And I also didn’t want to do a rewrite of what so many have done before. In the end I decided to bring my own version of it to the novel, though I’ve written a chapter explaining just how Little John happens to be there.
Interestingly, there is a similar scene where Robin first encounters Tuck, where both men vie to be carried across a river. There’s a lot of knockabout fun in it and both Tuck and Robin get wet. It features in many a film and television programme. I decided not to use it in “Loxley”, preferring to give my Robin and Tuck a longer back story together.
In most of the earlier interpretations of the stories, Little John is very much second-in-command of the outlaw band, and Robin’s closest associate. He actually plays a major part in the earliest ballad “A Lytell Gest of Robin Hood”, where there are specific Little John episodes where John wins at an archery match and even finds employment with the Sherriff of Nottingham!
Archie Duncan, a fine John in the 1950s television series “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, is very much Robin’s deputy. Clive Mantle’s positioning in “Robin of Sherwood” is more confused, as there seems no command structure except for Robin himself. There’s more a sense of Robin struggling to control a band of disparate individuals
This earliest balled tells us that John is actually a yeoman (Lytell Johan). Historical suggestion is that Little John might have existed as a character quite separate from Robin Hood in a series of ballads and folklore of his own – sadly lost – much as the Cumberland outlaw Adam Bell does. The title yeoman is quite interesting, indicating a higher social status than a villein or bondsman.
Was there an historical Little John? We’ll never know, though I find the constant references to John coming from the Derbyshire town of Hathersage, where you may still see his grave, quite interesting. Unlike the other outlaws this is a very specific tradition that has lingered through time. In folklore there is rarely smoke without some kind of flame.
There have been a number of Little Johns in the films made about Robin Hood. Alan Hale played the part several times in Hollywood versions, starting with the silent classic “Robin Hood” alongside Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin. He played him again in 1938 in the Errol Flynn film version, and one more in the 1950 “Rogues of Sherwood Forest.” My memory suggests that he didn’t seem to age much or change the performance in any of them. Great fun though.
The first Little John I recall was Archie Duncan in the TV “The Adventures of Robin Hood” with Richard Greene as Robin. Whenever I think of John, this is the characterisation that comes first to mind. I think, with no disrespect to the other actors who’ve played the part, that Archie Duncan’s Little John comes closest to the medieval character in the ballads.
Clive Mantle in “Robin of Sherwood”, though, gives a very enjoyable and interesting performance. John almost as a new man. Not just tough but emotional as well. The first time in film or TV that we see Little John cry, not once but a couple of times. In various episodes we see John as a farmer back in Hathersage and as a wrestler, taking on Lionheart no less at the conclusion of the first series.
When I was writing “Loxley” I found John the hardest character to write. At one point he was in danger of becoming a stock figure, just there for the fights, particularly as I didn’t want to do much back story for him until the second novel in the series of four – which I’m writing at the moment. I made him a farmer and a wrestler and, as in the ballads, an employee – albeit briefly – of the Sheriff of Nottingham.
If you’d like to try my new “Loxley” just click on the link below, or you can read the opening for free on the page above.