By I.M. Knosp
Among the fey perhaps no figure is more well known, more infamous, and more representative of them as a whole than that figure known as Robin Goodfellow. Or his much simpler title “Puck”. The figures of the Faerie court were more or less set in stone once, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was set to pen and ink. Oberon and Titania sat at the top and below them was their court and Robin Goodfellow was the jester at the hand of The King of the Fey, Oberon. Yet it was not always so. The figure of Puck is in fact older than the depiction of Oberon and Titania as his master and mistress. Far older, far darker, far hairier, far stronger than his jests may at first reveal. So who is Robin Goodfellow, a simple Pooka or one of the most well known and powerful fey? The answer of course, is yes.
First and foremost we will need to look at the common perception of Puck. No other work has had more of an impact on his modern story than that of William Shakespeare’s masterpiece “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. In the play Puck is a jester of the faerie court. His job to entertain and serve Oberon. Throughout the play Puck is used as a source of transformation, fitting for a fey noted for his shape-shifting. He forces the plot along by using a love potion on Titania in order for Oberon to receive her treasured changeling as a servant, which is the core conflict between the two within the play. Hoping to make her fall in love with a forest animal and cause her to feel so embarrassed as to give the changeling to Oberon. Meanwhile two couples, Lysander and Hermia, and Demetrius and Helena, have entered the forest where the Fairy Court is having a spat and end up being treated to Puck’s love potion as well. Both Demetrius and Lysander had desired Hermia, while Helena desperately wanted the love of Demetrius. Demetrius was cruel to Helena and only wanted Hermia. Oberon observed this and ordered Puck to use the potion on Demetrius as well. Puck was unaware of which man was which, so he ended up applying it to the eyes of Lysander who then saw Helena as his love. The love potion given to Titania causes her to fall in love with Bottom, a member of a troupe of actors whom as a jape had been made to have the head of a donkey by Puck. Oberon collects the changeling, and releases Titania from the potion, cures bottom, Hermia and Lysander are together again, and Demetrius is made to love Helena, and all four are made to think they were in a dream. The play ends with Puck speaking to the audience acknowledging that he is in a play and proposes that just as the characters had been, the audience themselves has been but in a dream.
From here comes the bulk of Puck’s modern personality and abilities, but most of all his station. He is the jester, the servant of Oberon. This is seen in other stories such as in The Sandman Comic series by Neil Gaiman or in Disney’s Gargoyles television series. While this is not technically incorrect Puck is much more than a mere jester. Before I can discuss Puck it is important to mention the likely origins of Oberon and Titania.
For fairy royalty it would be easy to assume their origins lie in Celtic folklore. In the vast swaths of lore upon the British Isles. Though it is not in this epicenter of the fairy faith that these well known figures find their origins. Instead it is on the continent that their origins lie. Oberon’s name is thought to be derived from the figure of Alberich “Ruler of Supernatural Beings” a dwarf from German mythology, while his French equivalent Auberon was where Oberon was eventually derived. In literature Oberon is said to be the son of Morgan la Fey and Julius Caesar. While Titania is derived from a word for the daughters of Titans in Greek mythology, and is also said to have come from the goddess Diana who had nymphs as attendants. Nymphs and deities are often lumped in with the fey and elves of Northern European folklore. As such Diana was seen as the Queen of the Faeries. A figure who is otherwise unnamed in folklore. This also partly explains why “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is set in ancient Greece. These two royals, one German and one Greek, who rule over Puck in Shakespeare’s play are outsiders to England. Where Puck reigns supreme.
The Fey are a complex bunch. A class of spirits, the focus of an animistic cult, and many gods hidden among them after the Church moved in. The Fey are also often egregiously equated to the elves of Germanic lore. Though both are similar enough and both are used as catch all’s for spirits of many kinds. They are distinct beings in their own right. However, this becomes an important point when we begin to look at Puck himself. More often referred to as Robin Goodfellow he is definitively a member of the fae, though his power is such that he is treated as a kind of deity in his own right. While his form changes all the time, the oldest forms seem to depict as not too dissimilar to Pan in appearance. A Satyr or wildman figure, with a cult all his own in merrie olde England. Even being known as “The Oldest Thing in England” in Rudyard Kiplings Book “Puck of Pook’s Hill”.
It is in fact Puck himself who has more of a claim to the throne of the fey than Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania. It is he who gets directly involved in matters of young love, it is he who rules over the vegetation, it is he who was venerated in England and the other isles long before Shakespeare drew breath. So much so that his names reference his pagan past directly. Puck is a type of spirit and the word finds its roots in both the Germanic languages and the Celtic, fitting for the residents of Great Britain. Both Puck and Robin are names for the devil in England, and Goodfellow was a name often given to the pagans who had stuck to their ethnic faith in comparison to the converted Christians. These Goodfellows were also called Fey and Elves by the Christians. Which further complicates the Fey, when even mortals are being lumped into them.
In England Puck was often depicted as a Satyr like spirit with a phallus and a broom. The former an indication of his fertility aspects, while the latter is a reference to a trick Robin Goodfellow would preform. He would often walk around with a broom and call out “Chimney Sweep” until someone would call for him to sweep chimneys, than in his trademark laughter of “ho, ho, hoh!” he would run away, he would also do this as a beggar and then run away as soon as he was given alms, laughing like crazy.
His trademark laugh may bring to mind the story of Santa Claus, and while Robin Goodfellow was most likely one of the influences on Father Christmas, there is a more notable figure still who found himself being influenced by the tale of Robin Goodfellow. That of Robin Hood.
While I do not think that Robin Goodfellow equates to Robin Hood there is little doubt that Robin Hood has been influenced by numerous mythical figures; including Puck. Robin Hood also called Robin Wode would be a stand in during May Day festivities for the old gods. I would be remiss if I did not mention the other figures that have also lent their influence to that of Robin Hood. Most notably is that of The Green Man who gifts Robin Hood his coloration, but also Wode a “mad god” who functioned as a gifter of fertility in the wild hunt, and was invoked in chants during harvest. All three of these figures and likely others found refuge for their tales in that of Robin Hood.
How much the outlaw or outlaws who inspired Robin Hood came into play in the myths themselves as more than characters is a matter of opinion at this point. Ranging from all of it to very little of it. The fact that May Day is considered the chimney sweepers holiday of whom a sweeper would dress up as “Jack-of-the-Green” is likely a call back to Puck’s playful chimney sweeper prank. On this holiday Robin Hood is often said to be the May King, functioning as holy man, godhead, and folkloric hero. Thus Puck finds himself gifting fertility whether as Robin Goodfellow or when Robin Hood fills this role in his stead.
Just as he brings fertility he will expect payment later, to this comes the nature of the Pooka or Puck. A mischievous trickster spirit that is associated with Samhain (Halloween) and more notably Pooka’s Day on November 1st. Where a share of the crop is left out for the Pooka to consume. The Pooka like Robin Goodfellow/Puck is a shape-shifter. It serves as both a trickster with an injurious sense of humor, as well as a house spirit. This is notable as in the ballad “Robin Good-Fellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests” Robin Goodfellow fills both these roles. Aiding in chores around the house for payment of milk and bread, though do not offer him clothes or expect Puck or the Pooka to storm off in a huff. What use would a fey have for clothes. Puck also performs the same popular trick as the Pooka, transforming into a horse and throwing the rider from his back or into a body of water. Running away laughing as he had in other merry japes.
These similarities would likely lead to one believing that Puck and the spirits known as the Pooka are one and the same. Similar to Berginya of the Slavic pantheon being both a goddess and a class of spirits. Though I would argue that it is more likely to be similar to the case of Frau Holle and her Hollen. Hollen are the goddess’ attendant spirits and of course call to mind her name whether they be fey, elves, or imps. This is especially true when a look at the oral folklore seems to point to the Pooka’s being in service to Puck. Doing his bidding, and fulfilling the same role as he would had he decided to involve himself directly.
The Puck and Pooka connection has been dismissed by some before as a result of the Pooka being fused with Robin Goodfellow following “A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s” creation. Though I would argue it is unknown how much the spirit and the faerie king had been conflated. As a result it is a moot point as to whether it is a modern conflation or an elderly bond. The folklore has since decreed the bond to be.
There is also an entire festival known today as the “King Puck Fair” in which a wild billy goat is captured and crowned with his Queen a local girl. The festival goes back to pagan times and is often associated with Lugh. This festival is held in August though similar traditions were carried over to the United States and performed in the spring. Yet even neglecting the American festivals the King Puck Fair reminds me far more of something to do with Robin Goodfellow than Lugh. Both Lugh and Puck are associated with fertility, yet the name Puck here is intended to mean Goat and Robin is often depicted as a Satyr. If it is in fact a call back to this faerie king it would hardly be the first Celtic tradition to shift its date, another notable tradition that of the Mari Lwyd in Wales was originally a Samhain tradition before being associated with Yule in the modern day. The King Puck Fair was called the “August Fair” before though, so this creates a gray area. Regardless it was worthy of note and shows yet another tradition in which Puck’s influence rears its head.
With such a long history of being tied into satyrs and other hoofed animals from whence did the figure of a youthful cherub like Robin Goodfellow arise? We can thank the aforementioned play by Shakespeare and the ballad for that. The ballad clearly incorporated aspects of Shakespeare’s play as the opening of the ballad references that Robin Goodfellow’s father is unknown though he was possibly a powerful fey. While later he is mentioned as being Oberon as if it had been placed in there later on. Other fey figures such as The Grim and Tom Thumb appear in the ballad as well, though their roots are older on the isles than Oberon’s. In the ballad Robin Goodfellow is born of a human woman and leaves when she threatens to spank him. Shortly afterwards he discovers he can shape-shift. The ballad does depict him in the more satyr form he had come to be known, but it is understandable that before he learned to change shape his form had been that of a young child or toddler. This combined with the more whimsical nature he shows in Shakespeare’s play caused the childlike form to be more popular. Or at least it is a plausible source of such a change.
In the ballad Puck fulfills the role he was described as having in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that of a merry wanderer of the night. Traveling across the land helping people with chores, matchmaking young couples, playing tricks, and becoming enraged when someone dares to trick him back. However, unlike the Puck of Shakespeare’s play. Puck in the folklore has a bit more of a murderous vibe to him. Like the rest of the fey folk Puck’s tricks are not always safe and are at times lethal. Leading people astray disguised as animals or spirits such as a Will-o-the-wisp, this was common enough that the saying “Puck has visited you tonight” was a phrase meant that someone had become lost. Like the rest of the fey Puck’s more volatile and deadly attributes fell off over time, as a romanticized and infantile view of the fey folk gained prominence. As mentioned Puck at times acted as a house spirit at times being known as Hob, or a Hobgoblin a reference to his more domestic functions and his and the Pooka’s aspect of being house spirits.
Though after all of this while Puck is not a mere jester nor a simple Pooka. He is a trickster and is “The Puck” something older more reminiscent of a god than of a fey. Towering over many other mythic figures and incorporating himself into the myths of Robin Hood, Santa Claus, and Halloween. The bringer of fertility, the merry murderous wanderer, the jester of the faerie court and its king. No minor figure relegated as a servant to a playwrights whim, but an ancient deity or spirit of Northwestern Europe who found himself by extension of the divine whispers the bards doth hear, a part of the myths of Europe and beyond. The divine fool of our distant past written in blood, when the land, spirits, animals, and man were one.
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