A Beginner's Guide


By Allen W. Wright

Left to Right -- Little John, Will Scarlet, Nasir, Much, Robin, Marion, Tuck from Robin of Sherwood

Robin Hood is not a lone outlaw but the leader of a trained band of fighters. And it's a good thing too. Robin's a reckless lad sometimes. He'll sneak into Nottingham once too often and get caught by the sheriff. Or he'll pick a fight with the wrong traveller. And when the going gets rough, Robin blows three great blasts on his horn. That's when his Merry Men appear. Some say they are a small group of outlaws. Others say there were 140 or 150 Merry Men in Robin's band. Some tales even say there were 300 stout fellows in the band. Whatever the case, if it weren't for these sturdy yeomen (and yeo-women), Robin wouldn't last a week.

  • Little John
  • Maid Marian
  • Friar Tuck
  • Will Scarlet
  • Much the Miller's Son
  • Alan a Dale
  • Other Merry Men

  • Little John

    The first thing you should know about Little John is that he is not -- little, that is. Some stories say he was over seven feet tall. Often he looks like a wild man with a thick beard and dressed in skins.

    Howard Pyle's classic image of Little John standing on the bridge, from The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire.The next thing you should know about Little John is that he is Little, -- John Little is his real name. However, some say it is really John Naylor or le Nailer. It's said he comes from Hathersage in Derbyshire, the shire next to Nottinghamshire which was controlled by the same sheriff. His grave can be found in a churchyard in Hathersage. Click here to see his tombstone , and click here to see a picture of me alongside his very long grave .

    Little John is Robin Hood's lieutenant, his second-in-command. In the early ballads, he is nearly as important as his master. John has his own adventures. For example, there's the time he entered a Nottingham archery contest. The sheriff liked what he saw and hired Little John. Using the alias Reynold Greenlefe, the outlaw promised to be the worst servant the sheriff ever had. By the story's end, Little John encouraged the sheriff's cook to join Robin's band and they lured the sheriff into the greenwood where he was robbed by Robin Hood. In another ballad, John dresses as a beggar and fights three miserly beggars.

    He is an excellent swordsman and archer. In fact, one time Little John beat Robin in a playful archery contest. Robin refused to pay up and John quit his service. Then Robin got captured by a monk's treachery. It was Little John who organized the Merry Men to trick the sheriff and even the king in order to rescue Robin. Once free, Robin Hood apologized and offered to make Little John the leader of the band. John refused. No matter how much they fight, Robin is always the master.

    Little John's best-known weapon is the quarterstaff. He was carrying a quarterstaff when he first met Robin Hood.

    One day Robin Hood was bored. There hadn't been an adventure in weeks. And so he left the Merry Men behind and went in search of excitement. Robin found it when he came across a stream with a long, narrow bridge. He started to cross the bridge. On the other side was a tall stranger who was also crossing the bridge. Neither would not back down.

    Robin threatened to shoot the stranger, declaring "I'll show you right Nottingham play!"

    The stranger called Robin a coward. "Well arm'd with a long bow you stand,/To shoot at my breast, while I, I protest,/ Have nought but a staff in my hand."

    From Sherwood Forest. a display of the famous first meeting of RH and LJ. Robin lowered his bow and went to carve himself a staff. Then, Robin and the stranger battled each other long and hard. Both were wounded. But finally, the stranger knocked Robin into the brook. The outlaw was "floating away with the tide".

    Thus, Robin conceded the battle. He climbed out of the water, and blew his bugle horn. The Merry Men, led by Will Stutely, appeared. Robin's men threatened to fight the stranger. But Robin stopped them. Robin asked the stranger if he'd like to join the Merry Men and wear the Lincoln green clothing of the outlaw band.

    The stranger accepted. And he was baptized into the band by Will Stutely. To quote again from the ballad,

    "This infant was call'd John Little,"
    quoth he.
    "Which name shall be chang'd anon,
    The words we'll transpose, so where-
    ever he goes,
    His name shall be called Little John."

    Then, Little John was dressed in green and took his place in the band.

    Click here to read the ballad Robin Hood and Little John.

    In some movies, John loses the fight on the bridge. In the Kevin Costner movie, John is the original leader of the outlaws, and it's Robin who joins them and assumes control of the Merry Men after he had won the quarterstaff duel.

    Some modern stories portray Little John as nothing more than a dumb sidekick, but in the earliest tales, he was as crafty as Robin Hood himself. In fact, an old meaning of the word Little was "tricky" or "clever", not small. In some tales, Little John is a gentle man. In others, he can be downright angry and violent. He beheads a monk in one story and shoots the sheriff in the back in another. And in one modern story, he even killed a woman who spurned him. Thankfully his bad temper is usually not so monstrous.

    He might grumble or argue, but when push comes to shove, Little John is always there for Bold Robin. You couldn't ask for a more loyal friend.

    Maid Marian

    There's an old saying that behind every great man is a great woman. Meet Maid Marian. She is Robin Hood's true love and truly a great woman.

    A classic illustration of the Greenwood Lady by Louis Rhead, courtesy of the Robin Hood Project. Local legend says Robin and Marian were married in St. Mary's church in the village of Edwinstowe. Click here to see a picture of the church.

    Marian's a late-comer to the legend, and she doesn't appear in many of the traditional ballads. No matter. She has become a very important part of the legend.

    True, she can be merely a damsel-in-distress. Sometimes she's a Norman noblewoman, daughter of Lord Fitzwalter or Sir Richard at the Lee, a knight who was helped by Robin Hood. She meets Robin when he ambushes a group of Norman knights. However, in other stories, she's a Saxon who's known Robin since they were children. Other times she is the ward of the sheriff or Prince John. And her unwanted suitors include the sheriff, Guy of Gisborne and even Prince John. Our hero will have to rescue her from these men. There are times when Maid Marian is merely the hero's girlfriend. In some tales the happy couple refuse to marry until the Merry Men are pardoned, hence she is called "Maid Marian".

    But Marian (or Marion, as her name is often spelled) is not always a weak character in need of rescuing. Even cloistered away in Nottingham, she acts as a spy, passing information to the rogues in Sherwood. The sheriff only suspects her ties to Robin Hood. And in a time when women were forced into unwanted marriages, Marian chose to love Robin. She'll also speak her mind.

    And in many stories, she's an even stronger character. Sometimes she lives as an outlaw with Robin and is as good an archer and swordsman as he is. In these stories, she's usually just called Marion or Marian. The maid part of her name is dropped, or she is called Lady Marion instead.

    In one ballad, she is Robin's childhood sweetheart. Disguising herself as a male page she heads to the forest to find her outlawed partner. Unfortunately, when she comes across Robin, he is also in disguise. Not recognizing each other, they start a fight.

    They drew out their swords, and to
    cutting they went,
    At least an hour or more,
    That the blood ran apace from bold
    Robins face,
    And Marian was wounded sore.

    "O hold thy hand, hold thy hand," said
    Robin Hood.
    "And thou shalt be one of my string,
    To range in the wood with bold Robin
    And hear the sweet nightingall sing."

    Maid Marian and Robin Hood after their fight from Classics Illustrated #7, 1950s revision, Gilberton Publications, Inc. Artists unknown.As you can see, Marian fought him to a standstill. It was Robin Hood who called the fight off. When they recognized each other, there was much rejoicing and she entered the band.

    Click here to read the ballad Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

    Sadly, some writers at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century weakened Marian. She gets one tiny mention in a classic children's book. In another book, her fight with Robin ends when she sees blood and faints. Yet another says Robin overcame her easily.

    Rubbish! There have always been strong women in history, and some of them were warriors. I prefer a strong Marion who can beat Robin in a fight. Marian doesn't take crap from anyone, Robin included.

    Recent writers have restored Marian to her rightful place in the band. Sometimes she is even the brains behind the Merry Men. In one novel, it's Marian disguised as Robin Hood who shoots in the famous archery contest for the golden arrow.

    One young adult novel says Marian is the "Forestwife", a pagan priestess with magical healing powers. She is often the mythic Green Woman to Robin's Green Man.

    Don't underestimate this "Lady Wolfshead"!

    Friar Tuck

    Here's another Merry Man you shouldn't underestimate. Friar Tuck is very overweight and seems to love food and ale as much as his God. He can be jolly, foolish, lecherous, an alcoholic, a devout holy man and sometimes wise. He is also a dangerous opponent.

    Just ask Robin Hood. The outlaw leader was foolish enough to pick a fight with him.

    Howard Pyle's classic 1883 illustration, courtesy of the RH Project. Tuck lived by a small ford. Robin wanted to cross the river. So, he climbed on Tuck's back and ordered the friar to carry him across the water. Tuck did so. But then he forced Robin to carry him back across the water. Now, Robin climbed onto the friar's back again. But halfway across, Tuck dumped bold Robin into the water.

    Then, they had an archery contest and fought with swords. Tuck won.

    Robin asked a boon. He blew three blasts of his horn and fifty Merry Men appeared. Tuck asked a favour in return and blew a whistle. Fifty dogs appeared to fight the Merry Men. (In the play version, Tuck summons some men of his own. It's hard to get fifty fighting dogs on the stage.)

    But Robin Hood called the fight off and asked the friar to join his band. Tuck accepted.

    Click here to read the ballad Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar.

    It's said Tuck comes from Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire or Fountaindale in Nottinghamshire. Click here to see a picture of the river Skell and Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, supposed site of Tuck and Robin's first meeting. Occasionally his full name is given as Michael Tuck. Sometimes Tuck is the Sheriff of Nottingham's chaplain. In some stories, his connection with Robin is unknown by the bad guys and, like Marian, he can give secret help to the outlaws.

    In the novel Ivanhoe, Tuck is known as the Clerk of Companhurst and lives at a hermitage with his dogs, his wine and a storehouse of freshly killed venison. When he goes into battle with Robin of Locksley, Tuck discards the hermit's grey robes and dons a Lincoln green uniform. Tuck declares "When I am cased in my green cassock, I will drink, swear, and woo a lass with any blythe forester in the West Riding." He promises to confess his sins to his grey-clad priestly self.

    Friar Tuck isn't in many ballads, but he's still an important part of the outlaw band.

    Will Scarlet

    Will has a variety of last names -- Scarlet, Scarlett, Scarlock, Scadlock and Scatheloke. By one of these names, he's been a member of the Merry Men since the earliest tales. (In some versions, Scarlet and Scathelock are separate characters.)

    The dandy-like Will Scarlet by Louis Rhead. Courtesy of the RH Project. One ballad says that Robin Hood met a stranger dressed in scarlet silk. Naturally, they got into an argument. The argument lead to a broadsword fight. The stranger won, of course.

    Robin asked what the stranger's name was and where he came from. "In Maxfield was I bred and born,/ My name is Young Gamwell." Young Gamwell had killed his father's steward and was exiled to the greenwood. It turned out that the stranger is the son of Robin's own sister. That means Will is Robin's nephew. But in the same ballad, he is called Robin's cousin. Cousin used to mean any close relative beyond the immediate family and so this term is still correct. In other stories, Will is Robin's cousin in the modern sense -- son of Robin's mother's sister. Sometimes these cousins were outlawed together.

    When he joined the band, Gamwell (which is often spelled Gamewell) was christened Will Scarlet.

    Immediately after he joined the Merry Men one ballad says that Robin Hood, Little John and Will Scarlet saved a princess from three Turkish giants. For their good deeds, Robin and his men were pardoned. And the princess chose to marry Will Scarlet. Also, Will was reconciled with his father, the Earl of Maxfield. [Some claim Maxfield is really Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.]

    Will Scarlet can be a scarlet-clad dandy, obsessed with fashion and even carrying a rose. Sometimes he is even musical.

    But the early Will Scarlet was as violent and grubby as the other Merry Men. Some modern versions have returned to that tradition. Will Scathelock is his real name. Will was a mercenary, but his wife was raped and murdered by other mercenaries. Calling himself Scarlet, Will murdered his wife's killers. This Will Scarlet is hot-tempered and questions Robin's leadership. (Check out the picture of Ray Winstone as Will at top. He's the epitome of the angry Scarlet, and as far from the dandy on the side illustration as one can get.)

    But whatever his name or nature, Will is a welcome member of the Merry Men -- next in importance after Robin and Little John. His advice is considered valuable.

    Some legends say he was killed by the sheriff's men. Click here to see his unmarked grave in Blidworth, Nottinghamshire.

    Much the Miller's Son

    Much is mentioned quite a bit in the earliest stories. Some stories call him Midge or even Nick the Miller's Son. Sometimes Much and Midge are different people.

    Originally, Much was strong enough to carry Little John. And he was violent enough to behead a monk's page just to keep him quiet.

    But nowadays Much is seen as a young, innocent character who is not too bright. In one book, he's only 12, the son of an Older Much the Miller who was murdered by Normans.

    A somewhat brawnier Midge, later renamed Much, in The Rescue of Maid Marian from Robin Hood Tales #2. Copyright Quality Comics, 1956. Art by Matt Baker and Chuck Cuidera. Many films show Much killing a deer -- a severe offence against the forest laws. The Norman overlords are about to chop off his hand or burn out his eyes. That's when Robin interferes and saves the young man. Much joins the Merry Men.

    Another story makes Much (or Midge, as he was sometimes called) yet another tradesman who was stopped by Robin Hood. The young miller was carrying a great sack of flour, and Robin suspected that he might be holding gold in the sack. Much (or Midge) opened the sack and tossed flour in Robin's face. Then, like so many people before him, Much beat the stuffing out of bold Robin. Of course, Robin asked Much to join the Merry Men.

    Sadly, if there's a Merry Man who is left out of the stories these days, it is Much. Even so, he still appears in some tales and is often the youthful mascot of the band. And perhaps, its soul.

    Alan a Dale

    Allan A Dale, as illustrated by Louis Rhead, courtesy The Robin Hood Project

    Alan's only an occasional Merry Man showing up late in the legend. Still he is popular, sometimes as the narrator of the stories. His name is spelled a variety of ways -- Alan, Allen, Allan and Allin. (My own name is Allen, and so I know just how many ways there are to spell or misspell this name.)

    Robin came across a happy man in scarlet clothing. Amazingly Robin didn't start a fight. But the next day, he saw the same man depressed and unhappy. He stopped the man to ask what was wrong.

    Alan was to marry his true love that very day. But instead, she was given to an old, cruel, rich knight. The young man said he'd be Robin's servant if the outlaw could save his true love. Disguising himself as a bold harper, Robin snuck into the ceremony. He blew on his horn and summoned the other Merry Men, with Alan a Dale in the lead. They stopped the wedding, crossing the knight and the bishop. Then, Little John put on the bishop's clothes and married Alan and his true love. Other versions have Tuck performing the wedding service, which would certainly make it more official.

    Click here to read the ballad Robin Hood and Allen-a-Dale.

    Alan's wife has been given different names, although Ellen seems to be the most common.

    There's an early reference to this tale where it's Will Scarlet's bride who is rescued. Since both Will and Alan dress in scarlet, they can be confused. And somtimes both are musicians.

    Usually, Alan doesn't serve the Merry Men as a fighter. Instead he is a minstrel, providing musical entertainment for the outlaw feasts. Alan also spins tales of Robin's deeds, spreading the bold outlaw's fame throughout the land. In most tales, Alan is a master musician. But in one television show, he's hopelessly tone deaf.

    Other Merry Men

    In many ballads, there are said to be seven score yeomen in the Merry Men. That's 140 outlaws. So, there are many more Merry Men than just the major figures. Sometimes, they are just like unnamed extras in a movie, but occasionally these supporting characters are given names.

    Will Stutely (sometimes just another name for Will Scarlet and sometimes a separate character) is the most common. It's he who christened Little John into the greenwood band. There's also a ballad where Robin rescues Stutely.

    Gilbert with the White Hand is nearly Robin's equal in archery, and a member of his band in one ballad. David of Doncaster is mentioned in another.

    Mark Ryan as Nasir from Robin of Sherwood, the first Arab Merry Man Then, there are the many tradesmen in the Merry Men. Robin comes across them, picks a fight and loses. Stop me if you've heard this story before. Among these are the tinker Wat O' the Crabstaff, the pedlar Gamble Gold and the tanner Arthur a Bland, who is Little John's cousin. George a Greene is the pinder of Wakefield in Yorkshire and a star of his own tales.

    There are almost no women in the classic Robin Hood stories. Alan a Dale's wife is sometimes a part of the Merry Men, and George a Greene is married to Bettris. And naturally, there's Maid Marian. In a couple of stories, Robin's love interest is Clorinda, queen of the shepherdess (a skilled archer and huntswoman) -- although a few have said this was merely Marian in disguise. Some modern writers have wisely added a few more women to the outlaw band. These include Bold Jane Downey and Will Scarlet's sister Cecily. In a 2001 TV movie, Robin and Marian's daughter Gwyn joined the aging Merry Men.

    But the most important addition to the Merry Men is a Muslim, either a Saracen or a North African Moor. The original one, Nasir, is a deadly ex-assassin in Robin of Sherwood, a 1980s television series. The movie Prince of Thieves has the wise philosopher Azeem and a 1997 had a black martial artist named Kemal among the band. A 2006 TV series featured Djaq, a sometimes cross-dressing Muslim woman join the gang. She has some of Azeemís scientific know-how. It looks like the Arab Merry Man, with his ever-changing name and personality (and now gender), is here to stay

    Note: The basic information on this page reflects the biography or life story of the Merry Men as the end result of centuries of storytelling. It is only a small part of a much larger site with information on the Robin Hood legend. For a more advanced look at how the legend has changed over time, please visit the Wolfshead through the Ages section. For information on the candidates for a historical inspirations for the Merry Men, in particular Friar Tuck, check out the Search for a Real Robin Hood section.

    If you're interest in Robin Hood Books, DVDs, etc - check out the Recommended Reading and Viewing section.

    NEXT: Sherwood, Nottingham and Barnsdale (The Locations of the Legend)

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    Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 1998 - 2013.

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