After a long year of closures and being sheltered in our homes, this summer feels especially celebratory! Though we yet remember the shadows of the losses of the last 16 months, so many of us are finally breathing a little easier, turning our faces toward the sun, and airing out our costumes and garb to head to our beloved Renaissance, medieval, Celtic, pirate, and Viking festivals. We’re ready to play! A favorite fixture of many faires is the faery court, where Puck may often be found. Folklorist Victoria Audley reveals some history behind this delightfully impish creature.
The fairy Puck is well-known to the Faire crowd, represented in nearly every fae court one can find. Much of the modern presentation of our old friend Robin Goodfellow is owed to his appearance in Shakespeare’s classic A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but Puck was not a creation of the Bard’s.
The name ‘Puck’ is echoed in languages across the British Isles and Scandinavia: the Welsh pwca, Irish púca or pooka, and Old Norse púki, to name a few. Etymologically related to ‘pixie,’ the word denotes similar beings in every language in which it pops up. Brownies, nisser, hobgoblins — whatever you like to call them, they’re potentially helpful, yet mischievous, domestic sprites. In some stories, they’re happy to help with household chores as long as you leave out a saucer of milk and some bread for them. Earning their ire, however, could be disastrous.
Once out of the domestic sphere, the pixies are much less inclined toward help. In Ireland, the pooka is known to shapeshift into a horse and gallop away with a victim on their back. In Wales, the pwca holds aloft a lantern, drawing lost travellers near, then blowing out the light. It’s from this incarnation that we get the term ‘pixie-led’ to describe being led astray.
How did the singular Puck emerge from the ranks of the púcaí? We’re not completely sure. The earliest reference we have to Robin Goodfellow as a singular hobgoblin is 1531, in which he was taking part in the classic pixie tradition of leading wanderers off their paths. His name has various origins — ‘Goodfellow’ is a reference to the fairies’ epithet, ‘the fair folk’ or ‘the good people,’ and ‘Robin’ is, depending on who you ask, derived from ‘hobgoblin’ or a name for the devil himself. There may even be a connection with Robin Hood, another merry trickster who is benevolent and mischievous in equal measure. The shapeshifting pooka and the master of disguise, Robin Hood, could very well be related.
Robin Goodfellow appeared in several plays preceding Shakespeare, but none as enduring. It is his appearance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that informs the lasting image we have of Puck. In the play, he serves the fairy king Oberon, causing mischief on his behalf. In later depictions of Puck, he becomes the son of Oberon and a mortal woman, and is sent by his father to cause night terrors, spoil milk, replace human children with fairy changelings, and all sorts of typical fairy roguery.
The image of Puck also changes with Shakespeare’s portrayal. Initially, his appearance was much like any other brownie or hobgoblin, but the shapeshifting aspect often came into play, giving him rabbit, eagle, and donkey forms, among others. As a member of the fairy court, Puck becomes more human in appearance. Roughly 50 years after the play, Puck appears in Milton’s L’Allegro as a Green Man, a wild depiction of a plant-based fae being or man of the woods.
Illustrations of Puck begin at this point to veer toward imagery of the god Pan. Puck shapeshifts once again into a satyr-like form with a horned head and hooved hindquarters. Though he began among the ranks of household spirits, he becomes more associated with the forest — same mischief, different setting. The Puck of the forest is arguably a more romantic figure; there is a mystery and enchantment to beings associated with the forest, a sense of exciting danger and magic that simply isn’t conjured by the domestic sphere. The invocation of Pan encourages exploration of gender and sexuality within the character of Puck, something many modern Shakespeare adaptations have enthusiastically embraced.
Puck’s ability to either harm or help puts him in a delightfully ambiguous position. It’s true of most of the fair folk that they have the capacity to do good or evil, and it all depends on how humans treat them. Puck and the other domestic hobgoblins stick to what is deserved; according to one 17th century ballad, Puck says he and the hobgoblins wash their children in clean water if it’s left out for them, or in the residents’ milk or beer or whatever’s handy if they don’t. But as Puck leaves the domestic sphere, his mischief becomes less focused. He blows out candles to kiss girls in the dark, scares animals, and infects children with disease. But he’ll still help you, sometimes. Maybe. If he feels like it.
The kindness does linger in the closing words of Shakespeare’s play — “Robin shall restore amends,” after all. It’s both easy and fun to focus on the mischief done by fairies, but that they have the capacity for both is worth remembering. Many stories of the púcaí position them as guardians, standing between humans and malevolent entities. One Irish story tells of a farmer’s son who gives a púca the gift of a coat, and in return, the púca helps him around the farm and eventually gifts him a golden cup at his wedding that ensures the couple’s happiness.
Robin Goodfellow himself is an interesting and ever-evolving creature. He later pops up in works by Rudyard Kipling and J.M. Barrie, and even Shakespeare’s Puck finds new forms in modern adaptations with fluid representations of gender and sexuality. As we embrace our own refusal to be constrained within one box or another, we return to Puck and the pixies: both good and evil, helpful and mischievous, domestic and foreign, shapeshifting and non-static.
Love Puck, the fae, or Shakespeare’s play? We recommend this gorgeous Pinterest board by pinner Moonstruck:
Victoria Audley is a writer and folklorist with degrees in philosophy and museum education. She has performed at the Texas Renaissance Festival as a Highland dancer and as the White Swan. When she isn’t writing ghost stories and fairytales, she can be found baking, reading, and attempting to convince the neighbourhood cats to let her pet them. She currently lives in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England, with her husband and twenty-one fake crows.