The legend of Jan Coo tells how a young boy working at Rowbrook Farm overlooking the gorge of the River Dart hears a voice calling ‘Jan Coo’, and despite being warned by his workmates to ignore it, is eventually tempted to follow the voice down into the gorge, and is never seen again. In some versions the boy is actually called Jan Coo (for instance the version recorded from Rowbrook farmer Algy May in 1979), but in William Crossing’s version of 1890 (in Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies) the boy is unnamed. In other versions, no definite explanation of his disappearance is provided, but in Crossing’s version he is said to have been spirited away by the pixies.
In an interview with Tom Greeves, John Hamlyn, who lived close to the Dart, stated that rather than Jan Coo, the voice called ‘Jan Oo’. This is suggestive of the pre-Christian wood spirit John of the Wood (jan being the Dartmoor version of John) who was at the root of the more magical parts of the Robin Hood legend.
Robin Hood Section from The History of Dartmoor Theatre play
FORD: It's sometime in March, and there's a meeting of the church authorities. Women could at least be church wardens in those days. In PARISH PRIEST, CHURCH WARDEN and ANOTHER PRIEST: Right, so we come to the last item on the agenda. Churchwarden? CHURCHWARDEN: Yes, well, John Creber has applied for a grant from the parish authorities to put on a Hood play. ANOTHER: What does he need a grant for? Won't it be self-supporting? CHURCHWARDEN: Apparently for items such as bows and swords and green garments. PRIEST: I'm new in the parish. As the parish priest, of course, I'm ultimately responsible, but I'd like to feel my way and not tread on anyone's toes too hard. Is this sort of thing in order? CHURCHWARDEN: In my youth I can remember the odd Hood play or game as they used to call it. But we haven't had one for a long while now. ANOTHER: Do we really want to be funding the provision of dangerous weapons to a young hot-head like Creber? CHURCHWARDEN: He comes from a good family. PRIEST: That means little where the behaviour of young men is concerned, in my experience. ANOTHER: Does anyone in this parish really want to see a Hood play? From what I've heard it's all about taking money from the hard-working well-off and giving it to the lazy poor. CHURCHWARDEN: I believe among the younger members of the parish there is some support for it. PRIEST: How much is Creber asking for? CHURCHWARDEN: One pound, two shillings and three pence. ANOTHER: That's a lot of money. CHURCHWARDEN: Can I remind the committee that receipts from our investment in tin mines have been good this year. ANOTHER: Yes but it is incumbent upon us as responsible trustees to build up reserves. Can we really afford to give out that sort of money to the first Tom, Dick or Harry... CHURCHWARDEN: in this case John... ANOTHER: ...who asks for it? What sort of precedent is that? Others may very well follow. And then when the church roof blows off, or the tower is struck by lightning - probably as the result of this blasphemous Hood drama - where will the money come from to repair it? PRIEST: It sounds as though we'd better turn him down, Churchwarden. CHURCHWARDEN: If that's your wish. I should point out that if Creber doesn't have a grant, the practice is for Hood players to make up losses incurred in the preparation of the production by robbing any wealthy members of the parish they happen to come across at sword-point. PRIEST: Ah. ANOTHER: I see. CHURCHWARDEN: And perhaps I should add that sales of ale at plays often raise a substantial sum for our funds. PRIEST: It may be, Churchwarden, that what you've just said throws a slightly different light on the matter. Shall we put it to a vote? Those against, raise their hands. That settles it. One pound, two shillings and three pence granted to John Creber for the purchase of tunics and equipment for a Hood play. Out PRIEST, CHURCHWARDEN and ANOTHER In FRIAR and HOOD FRIAR: Away, ragged knave Or you shall have it on the skin. HOOD: Of all the men in the morning, you're the worst. The one I least want to meet with. He that meets a friar or a fox in the morning Runs the risk of things going wrong for him the whole day. I'd rather meet with the devil in hell, Friar, if I'm to be honest with you, Than encounter a friar or a fox in the morning Before I've had a drink. FRIAR: Get out of my way, you tramp, if you mock me With any more of your words, I'll give you one hell of a knock. HOOD: Listen, Friar, to what I swear here. You're going to carry me over this stretch of water, Since the bridge has been washed away. FRIAR: I won't say no. It would be a pity and a sin for you to break your oath! Up on a Friar's back then. HOOD: Bend over then. HOOD climbs on FRIAR's back FRIAR: Now I'm a Friar in it and you, Robin, are out. But I can change all that like this, no doubt FRIAR throws HOOD in the water and climbs out Now Robin, you're in, and I the Friar am out of it. Lie there, you knave, and let's see whether you sink or swim. HOOD: Why, you lousy Friar, what have you done? FRIAR: Only thrown a criminal head over heels. HOOD: You won't get away with this. What are you like with staves? FRIAR: Have a stroke for Friar Tuck. They fight with staves HOOD: Hold your arm Friar and hear me speak. FRIAR: Speak away, you tramp. HOOD: In this forest I have a hound Which I wouldn't part with for a hundred pound Give me leave to blow my horn And summon my hound. FRIAR: Blow on, gypsy boy, blow I said Till both of your eyes start out of your head. HOOD blows and is joined by knaves in green cloth FRIAR: I gave you leave to blow at your will Now give me leave to whistle my fill. HOOD: Whistle Friar - you'll come to no good - Till both of your eyes start out of your head. FRIAR summons his dogs FRIAR: Bring out the clubs and staves And down with those ragged knaves. The outlaws and the dogs fight HOOD: How say you, Friar, will you be my man And give me the best service you can - You shall have gold? FRIAR: Gold, then it's a deal HOOD: And to celebrate let's have a dance. Here's the Marian. In BOY dressed as MARIAN LEAH: But it's a boy, it should be a girl. It's ridiculous, Maid Marian a boy. FORD: Have it your way. That's how it was according to the authorities, but as I said in the remoter parts of Dartmoor, who knows? And I was so young myself when I saw the plays, I'm not sure I can remember. Anyway, I think I agree with you - ridiculous, Maid Marian a boy. I saw in Brussels, at my being there, The Duke of Brabant welcome the Archbishop Of Mentz with rare conceit, even on a sudden, Performed by knights and ladies of his court, In nature of an antic; which methought - For that I ne’er before saw women antics - Was for the newness strange, and much commended. STEVE: What was all that about? What are antics? FORD: Antics are comic actors. A speech I wrote for Fernando in my play Love's Sacrifice suggesting my sympathy for the idea of women as actors. HOOD: Do you want us to get on with the play or shall we just run riot and force the audience to hand over all their loose change? FORD: He's referring to the Hood game - in some versions of Hood that's all it was, the young men of the parish running riot and forcing anyone who wouldn't join them to hand over whatever they had about their persons. No, I think not Robert. Though sometimes it gets close to what you might call 'spart', this is art not sport, so let's get on with the play. LEAH: And give us something to identify with. Give us a girl or two. MARIAN and HOOD do a broom dance HOOD: Alright. Listen my merry men (and women) and harken to what I say About an adventure that befell us just the other day. I met a proud potter with a rose garland on his head - The flowers of it shone a miraculously fresh red. These seven years and more he has used this track over the moor But never been courteous enough to pay a penny of toll for the poor. Is there any of my merry men that dare be so bold As to make the potter pay passage with either silver or gold? LITTLE JOHN: Not I, Master, not for twenty pounds of the ready. There's not one amongst us that dares meddle with that potter man for man. I felt his hands not long ago. I know what he is. Meet him when you will and in what way you like, he is as proper a man as ever you'll meddle with, Hood. MARIAN: Listen to him. I know that potter too; he is a friend of my uncle the Abbot Thomas, whose clutches I escaped from when I came to live with you. HOOD: I'll bet you twenty pounds, Little John, that if I meet that potter, I'll make his pay his passage. LITTLE JOHN: Twenty pounds - you're on, . They withdraw In JACK JACK: I am the potter's boy Jack. Alas that ever I saw this day. I've completely lost my way To Tavistock town If I don't get a move on By the time I get there the market will be done. HOOD steps forward HOOD: Let me have a look. Are your pots whole and sound? He takes a pot and drops it on the ground JACK: Yes Master. But they will not break the ground. HOOD: I will break them for that cuckold your master's sake. And if they will not break the ground You shall have three pence for a pound. He drops more pots JACK: Out alas! What have you done? When my Master comes he'll break your crown. In POTTER POTTER: Why, you son of a whore, are you still here? I told you to go on ahead to market. You should have been there by now. JACK: I met with Hood, a good yeoman. He's broken my pots and called you a cuckold. POTTER: You may be a gentleman, God save me, But you don't behave like one. You call me a cuckold, but I swear to you on my life By God and Saint Petrock That I've never had a wife. But if you'll be a good fellow and leave off I'll sell my horse and harness and pots and baskets too And you shall have one half and I the other. But if that doesn't content you you're going to be black and blue Even if you were my brother. HOOD: Harken potter, to what I say. These seven years and more You have used this way And yet were never courteous enough to me As to pay one penny In toll for your passage. POTTER: Why should I pay toll money to you? HOOD: Because I am Hood King of the Forest of Dartmoor. POTTER: These seven years I have used this route across the moor up and down and never paid any man for the passage. And I'm not about to start now, though you do your worst. HOOD: Toll money you shall pay here under Wistman's Wood Or else you'll leave me for dead. POTTER: If you're the good fellow men say you are Lay aside your bow. Take your sword and buckler in hand And see what the outcome is then. They fight HOOD: Little John where are you? LITTLE JOHN steps forward LITTLE JOHN: Here, Master. I told you, God save, You'd find the potter a knave. Hold your buckler fast in your hand I will stand Upright beside you Ready to fight. Be the knave never so stout I shall rap him on the snout And put him to flight... LEAH: I've had enough of this - one token woman who has about two lines and a lot of childish men taking every opportunity for a bit of violence. All of the toys out of the pram all of the time. And when a woman is mentioned, it has to be a whore doesn't it? STEVE: Calm down, Leah; it's history isn't it. LEAH: You'll be history if you don't stop stroking me like a pet. FORD: Once again I have to agree with you. I spent my working life trying to get men to pay less attention to battle and more attention to women. LEAH: It has to be the right sort of attention, the sort that means you're being taken seriously FORD: Of course. LEAH: Were Hood plays really that puerile, like some sort of computer game with aliens? FORD: I think there was more to them than that. One of their roles was an outlet for social discontent, a vehicle for ordinary people to satirise corrupt nobles and church men. The lines I gave to Rhetias in my play The Lover's Melancholy sum up that aspect of them: Why should not I, a May-game, scorn the weight Of my sunk fortunes? Snarl at the vices Which rot the land, and without fear or wit Be mine own antic? Another of their roles was to keep the forces of nature under the noses of the authorities so that religion and culture did not become too artificial. Right, Robert of the Wood, or Jan Oo as you were originally on Dartmoor, can you do a little better than that for our young friends? Use some imagination, depart from the script a little in the name of truth. I used to play Hood myself with my sister and some friends in the woods round Bagtor at Ilsington. We could do better than that. In JACK FORD as boy and JANE FORD with FRIENDS JACK FORD: What shall we play? JANE: Hood. JACK FORD: Alright. Which bit of Hood? JANE: The end of Hood, when Jan and Marian die. JACK FORD: You always like that bit, Jane. Why do you like it so much? JANE: Because it has the best parts for girls; girls are important at the end. JACK FORD: Alright. Let's do the end then. BOY: Why do we always have to do what she says. JACK FORD: Because it's our wood here, and I want to do what she says. JANE: Alright, players. You know the drill. Some of you come behind this tree over here with me, and the rest can go with Jack. GIRL: My bow string's broken. JANE: Here. I'll tie it with a knot. Out different ways JACK FORD, JANE and FRIENDS MARIAN and HOOD do a broom dance In JACK In ABBOT OF TAVISTOCK ABBOT: Will nobody rid me of this vermin? How many times must he rob those under my protection Before he is brought to justice? In ROGER THE CRUEL ROGER: I will. He stole Marian from me. I'll surprise him in his lair. JACK: Some say he is a spirit - No one can find his lair Though you hear him calling: Jan Oo, Jan Oo Nobody would dare To follow that sound. He would be on dangerous ground... ROGER: I do I know a trick will take me there. Out ROGER THE CRUEL, ABBOT and JACK In PEDDLER PEDDLER: I am a Peddler, I come into the wood To sell odds and ends to John Hood Or Jan OO as they call him on the Moor. Who's this? A seller by his sack, for sure. ROGER: Peddler, I've watched you setting off many a time To sell to John of the Wood - you know it's a crime, Which I shall report to the Abbot unless.. You take me with you. Your answer? PEDDLER: Yes. (Calling) Jan Oo, Jan Oo. VOICE OFF: Jan Oo, Jan Oo. ROGER: Is that an echo? PEDDLER: That's John Hood. His voice will guide us through the darkness of the wood. In JOHN HOOD, LITTLE ROBIN, MARIAN and his OUTLAWS JOHN: Peddler, who's this? Nobody strange Must come as a free man into our range. PEDDLER: He' s a poor seller of trifles, like me. WILL SCARLET: Open your sack, then, and let us all see. ROGER opens his sack and spreads out jewellery etc. on a cloth ROGER: Trinkets and jewellery, silver and gold. JOHN: Over here Marian. ROGER: Have one to hold. As he hands a broach to MARIAN she recognises him MARIAN: Roger the Cruel! ROGER THE CRUEL stabs MARIAN JOHN: Take him away. WILL SCARLET and LITTLE ROBIN take ROGER away JOHN: Marian, don't leave me. MARIAN: Jan, how can I stay? The world's gone dark, the branches wave me Farewell like friends. Let me be buried Somewhere in the woods where I loved you, Under a crag with ivy over, With white wood-sorrel growing on me, And whortleberries with juice like this Dark blood. Promise me. JOHN: I promise then. MARIAN: You too, when you must leave this life, choose Somewhere under the trees for burial So the wind may brush from you to me In leaves and back again with a kiss. She dies JOHN: Let's take her up and bury her. Woods Protect her and make us one in death. Out ALL with MARIAN'S body except PEDDLER PEDDLER: (Calling off) What shall I do? JOHN: (Calling from off) Never come into my sight again. PEDDLER: What have I done? VOICE: Betrayed the trust of Jan Oo So shall he ever you. Out PEDDLER Dumbshow: OUTLAWS march ROGER THE CRUEL to the gates of Tavistock Abbey and hang him from a tree, with a notice pinned on his back: ABBOT THOMAS BE WARNED In JOHN and ROBIN ROBIN: What shall we do now, Jan? JOHN: Go east, Rob, Past Exeter. I've lost all stomach For the Forest. ROBIN: You're not looking well. JOHN: I have a cousin there, a prioress, Good with medicines. She shall cure me. 11 In PRIORESS PRIORESS: Cousin Jan, what are you doing here? And looking so pale. I must hide you. Here, here's a bed for you to lie on. Let me feel your head. You're feverish. I'll fetch a bowl and a knife. ROBIN: Jan, eh? JOHN: It's alright, I trust her. She knows best. PRIORESS: Stay still while I bleed you. Marian? JOHN: Dead. PRIORESS: I'm sorry Jan. I didn't know. How did it happen? JOHN: She was murdered. One of Abbot Thomas' henchmen. PRIORESS: I'm sorry, Jan. How dreadful for you. All finished - good. Now go in and eat. I'll take you down to the kitchens. Come. In ABBOT THOMAS In PRIORESS ABBOT: Prioress, I have information That you are harbouring an outlaw By the name of John Hood, of the Wood, Jan Oo, whatever he calls himself. What have you to say to that? PRIORESS: Nothing. Whoever begs charity receives. I ask no questions. ABBOT: Well, nor shall I. Suffice it to say that I have friends Who will remove you from this priory At the first whisper you've protected John Hood from justice. And your nuns too. PRIORESS: Remove us then, we'll become hermits. ABBOT: And I might mention the small matter Of your illegitimate son, adopted By my monks? PRIORESS: What? ABBOT: The world could know it. PRIORESS: No. As a Christian man you wouldn't. ABBOT: I would. PRIORESS: Publish then on your press. Tell all the world. God will forgive me. ABBOT: And of course his place at the Abbey Would... be forfeited. PRIORESS: You'd turn him out? Pause. She stares at the ABBOT and he stares back What do you want of me? The man's ill. ABBOT: Make sure, then, he doesn't get better. Out ABBOT In JOHN helped by ROBIN. PRIORESS: Lie down Jan, I must bleed you again. ROBIN: But he's still weak from the last bleeding. PRIORESS: I say he needs to be bled again. Don't you trust me? ROBIN: What do you say Jan? JOHN: Of course I trust her. She's my cousin. We have known each other all our lives. JOHN lies down PRIORESS: This won't hurt. Just a small incision - There - to purge the fever from you. JOHN: (Looking into her eyes long and hard) That cut was deeper than the first one. PRIORESS: I failed to draw enough out of you. Now Robin, you keep him company, Make sure for me the vein stays open Until I come back. ROBIN: It's flowing fast. JOHN: Alice... PRIORESS: Yes Jan. I'll come to you soon. Out PRIORESS JOHN: Robin, quickly and bind up my arm. I saw the pain of dishonesty In her eyes, though I fear it's too late. ROBIN binds up his arm ROBIN: I'll kill her. JOHN: No. Let her be. I feel faint. ROBIN: Jan, don't leave us. We need you. JOHN: Robin I'm not leaving you. Bring me my bow While I've still the strength left to aim it. Point me at the window. Where this lands Mark it and under the nearest tree Bury my body. But the moaning Of this arrow will sound for ever In the brush of the wind in the trees. Oo, Oo, it'll call my name, Jan Oo. So I shall be with you in spirit. He shoots and falls back dead LEAH: So Mr Ford... FORD: Call me Jack. My friends did. LEAH: Jack then. What about you? You didn't write Hood plays, did you? FORD: Not beyond making them up as a child. Actually I think it was sister Jane who made up most of the one you've just watched. LEAH: What other plays were there around on Dartmoor when you were growing up? Any mystery plays? STEVE: Thrillers? LEAH: Religious plays, you know like the York Cycle. STEVE: You'll have to excuse her, Jack, she's a bit of a boffin. FORD: I never saw a mystery play on Dartmoor. They were before my time. I remember my grandfather telling me about the mystery plays they used to perform in Ashburton on the feast of Corpus Christi. And my father talked about seeing a professional performance there by the children of Totnes at the beginning of Queen Elizabeth's reign. But he was too young to recall what they performed. Those plays, like the Hood plays, were paid for by the church authorities, and when the church became Protestant instead of Catholic, they were thought undignified and so in most places died out.