John Little (Robin Hood changed his name into Little John) is a legendary fellow outlaw of Robin Hood. He is said to be Robin’s chief lieutenant and second-in-command of the Merry Men. The sobriquet “Little” is a form of irony, as he is usually depicted as a gigantic, seven-foot-tall warrior of the British forests, skilled with bow and quarterstaff.
Little John appears in the earliest recorded Robin Hood ballads and stories, and in the earliest chronicle references to Robin Hood, by Andrew of Wyntoun in about 1420 and by Walter Bower in about 1440, neither of which refer to any other of the Merry Men. In the early tales, Little John is shown to be intelligent and highly capable. In A Gest of Robyn Hode, he captures the sorrowful knight and, when Robin Hood decides to pay the knight’s mortgage for him, accompanies him as a servant. In Robin Hood’s Death, he is the only one of the Merry Men that Robin takes with him. In the 15th-century ballad commonly called “Robin Hood and the Monk“, Little John leaves in anger after a dispute with Robin. When Robin Hood is captured, it is Little John who plans his leader’s rescue. In thanks, Robin offers Little John leadership of the band, but John refuses. Later depictions of Little John portray him as less cunning.
The earliest ballads do not feature an origin story for this character; but according to a 17th-century ballad, he was a giant of a man (at least seven feet tall), and introduced when he tried to prevent Robin from crossing a narrow bridge, whereupon they fought with quarterstaves, and Robin was overcome. Despite having won the duel, John agreed to join his band and fight alongside him. He was then called Little John, in whimsical reference to his size and in a play that reversed his first and last names (as his proper name was John Little). This scene is almost always re-enacted in film and television versions of the story. In some modern film versions, Little John loses the duel to Robin.
Starting from the ballad tradition, Little John is commonly shown to be the only Merry Man present at Robin Hood’s death.
Despite a lack of historical evidence for his existence, Little John is reputed to be buried in a churchyard in the village of Hathersage, Derbyshire. A modern tombstone marks the supposed location of his grave, which lies under an old yew tree. This grave was owned by the Nailor (Naylor) family, and sometimes some variation of “Nailer” is given as John’s surname. In other versions of the legends his name is given as John Little, enhancing the irony of his nickname.
In Dublin, there is a local legend that suggests that Little John visited the city in the 12th century and perhaps was even hanged there.
Little John was also a figure in the Robin Hood plays or games during the 15th to 17th centuries, particularly those held in Scotland.
There are many historical figures named Little John and John Little, but it is debatable which – if any – are the inspiration for the legendary character