"Little" John is said to have been Robin's chief lieutenant and second-in-command of the Merry Men.
Little John appears in the earliest recorded Robin Hood ballads and stories, and in the earliest references to Robin Hood by Andrew of Wyntoun in 1420 and by Walter Bower in 1440. 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. According to a 17th-century ballad, he was a giant of a man who was 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. From then on he was 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.
According to local legend, Little John built himself a small cottage across the River Derwent from the family home. The site now has a 15th century Grade 2 listed ex-farmhouse and barn built on it, called Nether House at Offerton.
In Dublin, a local legend suggests that Little John visited the city in the 12th century and was hanged there.
Little John was a figure in the Robin Hood plays and games during the 15th to 17th centuries, particularly those held in Scotland.
"Little John" can be used as a term of endearment, typically denoting kindness, compassion, empathy, and a certain level of optimism, a bit hard headed at times. It also functions as an ironic name in this case, due to John being physically enormous.
Alan Hale, Sr. played the role of Little John in three movies. He first played Little John as a young squire in 1922's Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks. He reprised the role opposite Errol Flynn's Robin in 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood. And finally, he played an older Little John opposite John Derek, as Robin's son, in Rogues of Sherwood Forest from 1951.
Other notable film and TV Little Johns include Archie Duncan in the 1950s TV series, Nicol Williamson in Robin and Marian, James Robertson Justice in the 1952 Disney film The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, Clive Mantle in the 1980s TV series Robin of Sherwood, Phil Harris as the voice of Little John the Bear in the 1973 Disney animated film Robin Hood, David Morrissey in Robin Hood and Nick Brimble in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - both in 1991, and Eric Allan Kramer in 1993's Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
Kevin Durand plays John in 2010's Robin Hood. In this incarnation, he was a Scottish Foot Soldier in the Crusades and fought Robin over a lost bet, claiming he was cheating, then joined Robin, Will, and Alan when the King was killed.
In the BBC's Robin Hood, Little John is played by Gordon Kennedy. John meets Robin when his band of outlaws steal from Robin's band. He dislikes Robin immediately, but later comes to agree with him. John also has a wife, Alice and a son, both of whom believe he is dead until late in the first series. John is the oldest of the outlaws, and fights with a quarterstaff.
In the British television show Fact or Fiction, episode 4, hosted by Tony Robinson, it is postulated that "Little John" is in actuality the person Reynolde Greenleaf from near Beverley in the East Riding of Yorkshire.