Robin Hood Tales

No. 125

From The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
by Francis James Child, 1888.


Little John was practically Robin Hood's equal in the early ballads and references. Oh, Robin was clearly the leader, but Little John was almost as big a star. On some occasions, it's Little John who saves the day. In the 17th century, ballads were composed explaining how various Merry Men met Robin Hood. Such "origin" stories follow the same basic pattern. The story of Robin Hood and Little John is the most famous.

The quarterstaff duel continues to appear in Robin Hood novels, movies, TV shows and comic books. Click here to see read Howard Pyle's version of the story from his 1883 novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood. (Pyle placed it in his prologue, along with the story of how Robin was outlawed.) Classic filmed versions include the 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Errol Flynn and Alan Hale) and the "Dead or Alive" episode of the 1950s TV series also called The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene and Archie Duncan). However, in some modern versions, such as the 1991 film Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves, Robin wins the duel. The movie Robin and the 7 Hoods puts a 20th century twist on the ballad by replacing the quarterstaff duel with a pool / billards game.

For further information on Little John, check out the article on my Beginner's Guide to Robin Hood section. I also describe some of the historical people named Little John on my Search for a Real Robin Hood section. The links take you directly to the Little John segments.

View the images of the actual ballad at the Broadside Ballads Online website from the Bodleian Libraries.


      1  When Robin Hood was about twenty years
        With a hey down down and a down
         He happend to meet Little John,
         A jolly brisk blade, right fit for the trade,
        For he was a lusty young man.
      2  Tho he was calld Little, his limbs they were
        And his stature was seven foot high;
         Where-ever he came, they quak'd at his name,
        For soon he would make them to fly.
      3  How they came acquainted, I'll tell you in
        If you will but listen a while;
         For this very jest, amongst all the rest,
        I think it may cause you to smile.
      4 Bold Robin Hood said to his jolly bowmen,
        Pray tarry you here in this grove;
         And see that you all observe well my call,
        While thorough the forest I rove.
      5  We have had no sport for these fourteen long
        Therefore now abroad will I go;
         Now should I be beat, and cannot retreat,
        My horn I will presently blow.
      6  Then did he shake hands with his merry men all,
        And bid them at present good b'w'ye;
         Then, as near a brook his journey he took,
        A stranger he chancd to espy.
      7  They happend to meet on a long narrow bridge,
        And neither of them would give way;
         Quoth bold Robin Hood, and sturdily stood,
        I'll show you right Nottingham play.
      8  With that from his quiver an arrow he drew,
        A broad arrow with a goose-wing:
         The stranger reply'd, I'll liquor thy hide,
        If thou offerst to touch the string.
      9  Quoth bold Robin Hood, Thou dost prate like
          an ass,
        For were I to bend but my bow,
         I could send a dart quite thro thy proud heart,
        Before thou couldst strike me one blow.
      10 'Thou talkst like a coward,' the stranger re-
        'Well armd with a long bow, you stand,
         To shoot at my breast, while I, I protest,
        Have nought but a staff in my hand.'
      11 'The name of a coward,' quoth Robin, 'I scorn,
        Wherefore my long bow I'll lay by;
         And now, for thy sake, a staff I will take,
        The truth of thy manhood to try.'
      12 Then Robin Hood stept to a thicket of trees,
        And chose him a staff of ground-oak;
        Now this being done, away he did run
        To the stranger, and merrily spoke:
      13 Lo! see my staff, it is lusty and tough,
        Now here on the bridge we will play;
         Whoever falls in, the other shall win
        The battel, and so we'll away.
      14 'With all my whole heart,' the stranger re-
        'I scorn in the least to give out;'
         This said, they fell to't without more dispute,
        And their staffs they did flourish about.
      15 And first Robin he gave the stranger a bang,
        So hard that it made his bones ring:
         The stranger he said, This must be repaid,
        I'll give you as good as you bring.
      16 So long as I'm able to handle my staff,
        To die in your debt, friend, I scorn:
         Then to it each goes, and followd their blows,
        As if they had been threshing of corn.
      17 The stranger gave Robin a crack on the crown,
        Which caused the blood to appear;
         Then Robin, enrag'd, more fiercely engag'd,
        And followd his blows more severe.
      18 So thick and fast did he lay it on him,
        With a passionate fury and ire,
         At every stroke, he made him to smoke,
        As if he had been all on fire.
      19 O then into fury the stranger he grew,
        And gave him a damnable look,
         And with it a blow that laid him full low,
        And tunbld him into the brook.
      20 'I prithee, good fellow, O where art thou
        The stranger, in laughter, he cry'd;
         Quoth bold Robin Hood, Good faith, in the
        And floating along with the tide.
      21 I needs must acknowledge thou art a brave
        With thee I'll no longer contend;
         For needs must I say, thous hast got the day,
        Our battle shall be at an end.
      22 Then unto the bank he did presently wade,
        And pulld himself out by a thorn;
         Which done, at the last, he blowd a loud blast
        Straitway on his fine bugle-horn.
      23 The eccho of which through the vallies did fly,
        At which his stout bowmen appeard,
         All clothd in green, most gay to be seen;
        So up to their master they steerd.
      24 'O what's the matter?' quoth William Stutely;
        'Good master, you are wet to the skin:'
         'No matter,' quoth he; 'the lad which you see,
        In fighting, hath tumbld me in.'
      25 'He shall not go scot-free,' the others reply'd;
        So strait they were seizing him there,
         To duck him likewise; but Robin Hood cries,
        He is a stout fellow, forbear.
      26 There's no one shall wrong thee, friend, be
          not afraid;
        These bowmen upon me do wait;
         There's threescore and nine; if thou wilt be
        Thou shalt have my livery strait.
      27 And other accoutrements fit for a man;
        Speak up, jolly blade, never fear;
         I'll teach you also the use of the bow,
        To shoot at the fat fallow-deer.
      28 'O here is my hand,' the stranger reply'd,
        'I'll serve you with all my whole heart;
         My name is John Little, a man of good mettle;
        Nere doubt me, for I'll play my part.'
      29 His name shall be alterd,' quoth William
        'And I will his godfather be;
         Prepare then a feast, and none of the least,
        For we will be merry,' quoth he.
      30 They presently fetchd in a brace of fat does,
        With humming strong liquor likewise;
         They lovd what was good; so, in the green
        This pretty sweet babe they baptize.
      31 He was, I must tell you, but seven foot high,
        And, may be, an ell in the waste;
         A pretty sweet lad; much feasting they had;
        Bold Robin the christning grac'd.
      32 With all his bowmen, which stood in a ring,
        And were of the Notti[n]gham breed;
         Brave Stutely comes then, with seven yeomen,
        And did in this manner proceed.
      33 'This infant was called John Little,' quoth he,
        'Which name shall be changed anon;
         The words we'll transpose, so where-ever he
        His name shall be calld Little John.'
      34 They all with a shout made the elements ring,
        So soon as the office was ore;
         To feasting they went, with true merriment,
        And tippld strong liquor gillore.
      35 Then Robin he took the pretty sweet babe,
        And cloathd him from top to the toe
         In garments of green, most gay to be seen,
        And gave him a curious long bow.
      36 'Thou shalt be an archer as well as the best,
        And range in the greenwood with us;
         Where we'll not want gold nor silver, be-
        While bishops have ought in their purse.
      37 'We live here like squires, or lords of renown,
        Without ere a foot of free land;
         We feast on good cheer, with wine, ale, and
        And evry thing at our command.'
      38 Then musick and dancing did finish the day;
        At length, when the sun waxed low,
         Then all the whole train the grove did refrain,
        And unto their caves they did go.
      39 And so ever after, as long as he livd,
        Altho he was proper and tall,
         Yet nevertheless, the truth to express,
        Still Little John they did him call.

    NEXT: The Ballad of Robin Hood and the Butcher

    ALSO: Read a version of the Little John story from Howard Pyle's classic children's novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood.

    | BACK TO: RH's Progress to Nottingham | TOP | CONTENTS | FORWARD TO: Robin Hood and the Butcher |

    Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1997 - 2004.

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