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Little John

Little John

Character Background Essay Author: Valerie B. Johnson

And so ever after, as long as he liv'd,
Although he was proper and tall,
Yet nevertheless, the truth to express,
Still Little John they did him call.
Robin Hood and Little John (c. 1680-85, l. 154-7)

Critical and literary attention has rarely deflected from Robin Hood to land upon Little John, despite the character's prominence in the early modern / late medieval tradition. There is a curious split within the early materials of the Robin Hood tradition: three of the four Scottish chronicles which include Robin Hood mention John as well, and John appears prominently in the four earliest surviving ballads, the texts which are the foundation of the literary Robin Hood; however, references to Little John are far rarer in the popular proverb tradition, as well as in the brief chronicle references to the tradition from within a larger cultural context. The division continues today—where modern audiences find Robin Hood, Little John is never be far behind, yet he remains a member of the supporting cast, and is seldom found in the spotlight himself.

As with Robin Hood, the materials of Little John's mythic biography are scattered across several hundred years; unlike Robin Hood, there is no critical study devoted to Little John. As Stephen Knight notes, "[i]n the Robin Hood tradition the major characters do not change positions, moods and personalities" (Knight 3), though the circumstances they encounter are extremely flexible. This lack of change, combined with a general tendency to emphasize Robin's adventures over John's, has contributed to the absence of critical studies on Little John. What follows is a brief analysis of Little John's characteristics during three major periods of the legend's development:


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