The early ballads give specific names to only three companions: Little John, Much the Miller's Son, and William Scarlock or Scathelock, the Will Scarlet of later traditions. Joining them are between 20 and "seven score" (140) outlawed yeomen. The most prominent of the Merry Men is Robin's second-in-command, Little John. He appears in the earliest ballads, and is mentioned in even earlier sources, such as Andrew of Wyntoun's Orygynale Chronicle of around 1420 and Walter Bower's expansion of the Scotichronicon, completed around 1440. Later ballads name additional Merry Men, some of whom appear in only one or two ballads, while others, like the minstrel Alan-a-Dale and the jovial Friar Tuck, became fully attached to the legend. Several of the Robin Hood ballads tell the story of how individual Merry Men join the group; this is frequently accomplished by defeating Robin in a duel.
The phrase "merry man" was originally a generic term for any follower or companion of an outlaw, knight, or similar leader. Robin's band are called "mery men" in the oldest known Robin Hood ballad, "Robin Hood and the Monk", which survives in a manuscript completed around 1450.
Known Merry Men
- Little John – Robin's lieutenant. Later stories depict him as a huge man who joins the band after fighting Robin with quarterstaves over a river.
- Much the Miller's Son – A grown man and a seasoned fighter in the early ballads, later stories depict him as one of the youngest of the Merry Men. As his name suggests, he is the son of the Miller.
- Will Scarlet – Another very early companion, appearing in ballads like "A Gest of Robyn Hode". In "Robin Hood and the Newly Revived" he is a skilled swordsman and Robin's nephew.
- Arthur a Bland – He appears in only one ballad, "Robin Hood and the Tanner". He is an accused poacher who bests Robin in a fight and joins the band.
- David of Doncaster – He appears in only "Robin Hood and the Golden Arrow". He warns Robin against going to the Sheriff of Nottingham's archery contest, because it is a trap. In his novel The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Howard Pyle identifies David with the anonymous wrestler of "A Gest of Robyn Hode".
- Will Stutely – He appears in two ballads, "Robin Hood and Little John" and "Robin Hood Rescuing Will Stutely". In the former, he gives Little John his outlaw name; in the latter, he must be rescued after he is caught spying by the Sheriff of Nottingham. He is occasionally confused with Will Scarlet.
- Friar Tuck – The resident clergyman of the band. Tuck developed separately from the Robin Hood tradition; similar characters appear in 15th- and 16th-century plays, and an early 15th-century outlaw used the alias Friar Tuck. A fighting friar appears in the ballad "Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar", though he is not named. Robin and the friar engage in a battle of wits, which at one point involves the holy man carrying the outlaw across a river, only to toss him in. In the end, the friar joins the Merry Men. Later stories portray Tuck as more ale-loving and jovial than belligerent.
- Alan-a-Dale – A roving minstrel. He appears in the later ballad "Robin Hood and Allan-a-Dale", in which Robin helps him rescue his sweetheart, who is being forced into marriage with another man. Despite his relatively late appearance, he became a popular character in later versions.
- Maid Marian – Robin Hood's romantic interest. Marian developed separately from the Robin Hood tradition; the medieval French play Jeu de Robin et Marion tells the story of the shepherdess Marian and the knight Robin, and is unrelated to Robin Hood. The medieval archetype of Marian became associated with English and Scottish May Day festivities, and was eventually associated with Robin Hood. She is the protagonist of the ballad "Robin Hood and Maid Marian" and is mentioned in "Robin Hood and Queen Katherine" and "Robin Hood's Golden Prize"; in "Maid Marian" she joins the Merry Men by fighting Robin to a draw while both are in disguise. In some Victorian literature she takes a more passive role as a noblewoman and Robin's desired, but this all but ended in the 20th century, as Marian resumed her role as a cross-dressing tomboy and a capable fighter. She is depicted as such in the 1952 film The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, the television series Robin of Sherwood, and the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves; the children's comedy television series Maid Marian and her Merry Men takes this a step further by placing Marian in charge of the group. In the 2006 series Robin Hood, Marian works as a double agent, feeding Robin critical information about the Sheriff.
- Several modern adaptations add a member to the group who is a Moor or Saracen. This began with the 1984–1986 television series Robin of Sherwood, which included the character Nasir, a former hashshashin who joins the Merry Men. The character influenced the writers of the 1989-94 BBC TV children's series Maid Marian and Her Merry Men, which featured the black character Barrington, played by Danny John Jules, and 1991's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, who included the Moor Azeem in the cast, played by Morgan Freeman. The 1993 Mel Brooks comedy Robin Hood: Men in Tights featured Dave Chappelle as Achoo, a parody of Freeman's Azeem comically depicted with modern African American mannerisms and speech. The 1997–1999 television series The New Adventures of Robin Hood featured Kemal, played by Hakim Alston, and the 2006 series Robin Hood introduced Djaq (Anjali Jay), with the added twist that the character is actually a girl disguised as a boy.
- "Merry man, n.". Oxford English Dictionary. 2001. Retrieved May 2, 2013.
- "Robin Hood and the Monk", line 35
- Knight, Stephen; and Ohlgren, Thomas H. (1997). Robin Hood and the Monk: Introduction. From TEAMS Middle English Texts. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
- Robin Hood and the Curtal Friar: Introduction. Retrieved January 22, 2007.
- Jeffrey Richards, (1980). Swordsmen of the Screen: From Douglas Fairbanks to Michael York, p. 190. Routledge & Kegan Paul, Lond, Henly and Boston.
- Robin Hood and Maid Marian: Introduction. Retrieved January 22, 2007.