Little John - Gentle Giant?
On a gentle autumn afternoon, just outside the village of Blidworth, a tall, jovial man greets me with a big smile. He has long limbs, stands almost seven feet tall and makes light of an oak quarterstaff that he twirls around in an enormous hand. Surprisingly called Little John, he is Robin Hood's right-hand man.
He is a lusty fellow, a jolly brisk blade, right fit for the trade and they say that wherever he goes they quake at his name and he quickly makes them fly.
That's not at all the impression he gives me. His sense of humour bubbles easily as he Ho-Ho-Ho's at his own jokes like the biggest, jolliest youngster at the fair and his eyes shine as brightly as gold. To be sure, he is too large and not quite silly enough to wear a jester's cap and bells but he does laugh loud and often. I realise that I shouldn't be fooled by all this flippancy, no matter how gracious. He obviously enjoys a good joke but is also big, strong and brave and such men make dangerous enemies. I suspect that he is about as daft as a King's justiciar.
'How did you fall in with Robin Hood?' I ask him.
'Fall in!' he guffaws, his face lighting up in a gigantic grin. 'You've hit the right nail on the head there except he was the one who fell in - into the stream!'
Still chortling, he courteously spreads his cloak on the ground and we sit under an old oak tree, its golden leaves see-sawing slowly down. The sun is sliding slowly down the sky as I listen to Little John's story though it sounds more in tune with a ballad.
'Listen awhile, for this jest out of all the rest, is bound to bring you a smile. My journey through the greenwood took me alongside a brook when a stranger I happened to spy - on the opposite side. By chance we both wanted to cross and met on the narrow bridge but neither would let the other by.
'I'll show you fine Nottingham play,' this young fellow said as he loaded an arrow into his bow. Straightaway, I determined not to give way.
'I'll thrash your hide if you offer to pull that string,' is what I advised.
'You prate like an ass,' said he, 'for if I were to bend my bow I could send an arrow through your proud heart before you could strike me a blow.'
'You speak as a coward,' said I. 'Standing well armed and fine with a bow in your hand but I have nought but a staff in mine.'
'The name of coward I scorn,' said he. 'I'll lay aside my longbow, take up a staff and a man I'll prove to be.'
Fetching a staff of ground oak from a thicket of trees, he merrily challenged: 'Now on this bridge we'll play and whoever falls in, the other will win, so what do you say?'
'All right,' I agreed and we both set about each other as though threshing corn.
We flourished our staffs about and I have to admit he gave me such a clout that it made my bones ring. 'As long as I can handle my staff,' I told him, 'I'll give you as good as you give me.'
The crack I gave him on his crown drew blood, so enraging him that he laid blows on me thick and fast and at every stroke he began to smoke as though he was about to catch fire. With a damnable look I gave him a clout that tumbled him into the brook.
'Good fellow, where art thou now?' I shouted to him.
'In the flood and floating with the tide,' he shouted back and then crying with laughter he submitted: 'I no longer contend for you have won the day and the battle is at an end.'
But as soon as he had pulled himself out of the brook he gave three loud blasts upon his bugle-horn that rang through the valleys. Suddenly, from out of the trees, three score and ten stout bowmen all clothed in green swarmed around like bees.
'What's the matter, good master? You are wet to the skin,' asked one fellow who called himself Will Scarlet (pictured right).
His master replied: 'No matter, for the lad that you see, by fair fighting has tumbled me into the stream.'
'We'll duck him likewise: he'll not go scot-free,' the others shouted, all ready to grab me.
'Forbear!' their master ordered. 'Though he laid me low he is a stout fellow.'
Turning to me, he said: 'Fear not for your fate, my friend, for I am Robin Hood and these are my bowman. Come and join me in the greenwood and I will provide your livery and teach you how to use a bow to shoot at fat fallow deer. Speak up, jolly blade, never fear!'
I swiftly offered Robin my hand: 'I'll serve you with all my heart. My name is John Little, a man of good mettle and never doubt me for I shall play my part.'
Will Scarlet spoke up: 'Let's prepare a feast and a'merry we will be. We'll alter his name, and I'll be his godfather - are you all game?'
Good wine and feasting followed - someone fetched a brace of fat does - and there in the greenwood they baptised me. Helped by seven strong yeomen, Will Scarlet himself performed the deed: 'This infant was called John Little but the words we'll transpose, so that wherever he goes, he'll be known as Little John!'
Great shouts from the yeomen raised the elements and so ever after although I am high, Little John is the name I go by.
After the ceremony, Robin clothed me in Lincoln green from top to toe, handed me a bow and said: 'You will be an archer just as good as any who range o'er the greenwood.'
And that's how I fell in with Robin Hood.'
At the end of his story, I look at the length of this giant spread nearly two ells over the ground and I realise that these outlaws possess an ironic sense of humour.
'Do you like your life in the greenwood?' I ask.
'Tis a merry life. We shall not want of gold and silver while bishops have ought in their purse, nor cloth when travelling merchants are so generous. We live here like squires, or lords of renown, with ne'er a foot of free land, feasting on beer and wine and good cheer with everything at our command.'
'But surely, the deer belong to the King?'
For the first time he frowns: 'The deer belong to the forest. The birds and wild beasts all belong to the greenwood and the beasts and fowl of the forest, both chase and warren. They are food for everyone - not just for the King's delight.'
'You are a good friend of Robin Hood?'
'Yes, just one of his many friends, mostly poor, abiding between York and Nottingham. But you are also a good friend of his too?'
'Me?' I answer with surprise.
'He often speaks of a fair and gracious lady whom he was privileged to meet at St. Ann's Victualling House.'
'But we have only met once!'
'That may be so but he seems to know you quite well and speaks highly of your graciousness and beauty.'
'Oh!' I foolishly mutter before being completely lost for words. It's breaking no confidence when I say that my heart does hold a soft spot for Robin Hood - outlaw though he may be.
'Come dear lady, better to return home before darkness falls. I'll escort you back to Nottingham,' he says, then adds with a broad grin: 'Best be wary. There are a lot of rogues abiding in these parts. Why, only the other day, I was bringing food and money to a poor widow hereabouts who had nought in her stomach after paying her taxes to the Sheriff when I came upon three beggars. One was deaf and dumb, another blind and one limped behind on crutches.'
'Good morrow!' I greeted them and asked if I could accompany them. You see, I was in disguise dressed as a palmer with a staff and a bag of spoil. You may find this hard to believe but the blind man said he did not like my face; the deaf and dumb one did not like my manner of speech; and the crippled one landed me a lusty kick and told me to clear off or they would make it hot for me.
'Well, I gripped the dumb one so tight that he shouted for mercy, gave the blind one such a blow that he saw stars, and the miraculously-cured cripple ran away as fast as any deer as I've ever seen.'
I fail to hide my wry smile.'You will certainly make a comforting bodyguard,' I told him. 'Thank you for your concern.'
'My good lady, it is a pleasure as well as my duty to ensure that a good friend of Robin's gets safely home. Though truth to tell, to leave your gracious company will bring sadness to my heart.'
Thankfully, or should I say rather boringly, we met neither a beggar nor a robber on the road back to Nottingham.'