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Robin Hood and Little John: Introduction

This ballad was printed by Child from a text in a 1723 London anthology, A Collection of Old Ballads; he later found a copy printed by W. Onley in London in 1680-85 (V, p. 297); this text is followed here. As with Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar and The Jolly Pinder of Wakefield, there is clear evidence of the much earlier existence of this story. A play called Robin Hood and Little John was registered in 1594 but has not survived, and there was another from 1640, though they may of course have been general dramas based on sources like the Gest or even Robin Hood and the Monk. A ballad with this title was registered in 1624, and that date is quite possible for the original version of this text. Dobson and Taylor (1976, p. 165) suggest that it has "every sign of having been produced by a professional ballad writer" with the intention of explaining how Little John came by his name and, long ago, joined the outlaw band: this would be one of the "prequels" like Robin Hood's Progress to Nottingham and Robin Hood and Will Scarlet which exploit and rationalize an existing tradition about a character.

Child describes the ballad as having "a rank seventeenth century style" (III, 133), and its language and technique suggest something rather later than the 1624 date when the title at least was in existence, having in particular the internal rhyme in the third line which is shared by most commercial Robin Hood ballads of the later seventeenth and eighteenth century. Child is convinced that all these ballads had the same tune, that of Arthur a Bland or Robin Hood and the Tanner. The rhymes and meter are, compared to earlier ballads, suspiciously smooth, and the language, which Dobson and Taylor found "very bathetic" (1976, p. 166), bears traces of the hack-writer's inkwell: passionate fury and eyre, line 71; I prithee, line 78; accoutrements, line 106; And did in this manner proceed, line 129; and, most remarkably, when the outlaws leave their entertainments it says the whole train the grove did refrain, line 152.

Nevertheless, this is a classic "Robin Hood meets his match" ballad, and bogus as some of it may be, there is a sign that the language and mannerisms grow more elaborate as the text proceeds, and there could be an earlier plainer ballad embedded in this one, signs of which may appear in lines 1-9, 26-33, 58-73 (except 71), 86-89, 94-113 (except 106), 118-27. Commercial as it may be, this ballad still outlines a focus of solidarity and tricksterism, presenting a central event in the myth which has remained dear, even obsessive, in the hearts of theatrical and film redactors over the centuries. In Hollywood, the same actor (Alan Hale) played Little John in 1922, 1938 and 1946, always with the same enduring portrayal of the ballad.

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