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Little John A Begging: Introduction

Little John a Begging appears in the Percy folio in a form too damaged by torn pages to be used as the basis for a text, but the earliest broadside is of a similar date as it was printed for William Gilbertson, who was active between 1640 and 1663. This text describes it as a "merry new song" (line 86) and while broadside publishers were not above claiming modernity for something borrowed, it does have the characteristics of a new creation. Both the internal rhyme in the third line and the stylistic fluency argue against antiquity, the refrain line "With a hey down down a down down" is common to many of the mid-century ballads, and the plot appears to be a composite of earlier narratives, focused for a change on Little John. This ballad appears towards the end of the Forresters manuscript and is one of the late texts apparently related, with some minor variations to the 1670 garland, so it has the curious status of apparently having been twice copied in manuscript from print.

The story opens with John being sent to beg for the outlaws in a palmer's clothes (reminiscent of Robin Hood Rescues Three Young Men, including the "bag" motif in lines 12-17). He meets beggars who claim poverty as do the monks met by outlaws in earlier ballads; he finds in their bags two lots of gold in hundreds of pounds, and the outlaws celebrate their new wealth. The plot is simple, and its only added complexity is the idea of false beggars who pretend to be dumb, blind, and crippled. The notion is found as early as Langland's Piers Plowman and its exposure of "faitours," but it has a contemporary ring in its critique of "sturdy beggars." A different formation lies in the idea that the hero can disguise himself as a beggar; this is central to the popular ballad "Hind Horn" (Child, no. 17, 1965, I, 202-07), Robin Hood does it in Robin Hood Rescuing Three Squires, and William Wallace does the same in a major episode in the late fifteenth-century epic that bears his name. A recurring structural feature is that the outlaws disguise themselves to expose the falsity of their enemies, with Robin appearing as a friar in Robin Hood's Golden Prize, and as a shepherd in Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford. In one sense John plays a tradesman (at the "begging-trade," line 66) with the same success as Robin had playing potter or butcher, or even sailor, and yet these beggars are morally corrupt in a way that the mercantile figures whom Robin imitated were not. In this case the polymorphic capacity of the hero is an instrument of his power of social evaluation: like Hamlet he pretends only to expose pretense.

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