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In English folklore, Puck is a mischievous nature sprite or fairy. "Puck" is used as a proper name of such a character, in folklore also known as Robin Goodfellow or by other names or euphemisms, but "puck" may also be used as a common noun to group such characters.
Origins and comparative folklore
The Old English puca is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in nighttime woodlands (like the German and Dutch "Weisse Frauen" and "Witte Wieven" and the French "Dames Blanches," all "White Ladies"), or coming into the farmstead and souring milk in the churn. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is "unsettled"; it is compared to Old Norse puki (Old Swedish puke, Icelandic puki, Frisian Puk). Celtic origins (based on Welsh pwca, Cornish Bucca and Irish púca) have also been proposed, but as the Old English and Old Norse attestations are considerably older than the Celtic ones, loan from Germanic to Celtic seems more probable. The etymology of Puck is examined by Katharine Mary Briggs, Anatomy of Puck (New York: Arno) 1977. The term pixie is in origin a diminutive of puck (compared to Swedish word "pyske" meaning "small fairy").
Puck's euphemistic "disguised" name is "Robin Goodfellow" or "Hobgoblin", in which "Hob" may substitute for "Rob" or may simply refer to the "goblin of the hearth" or hob. The name Robin is Middle English in origin, deriving from Old French Robin, the pet form for the name Robert. The earliest reference to "Robin Goodfellow" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1531. After Meyerbeer's successful opera Robert le Diable (1831), neo-medievalists and occultists began to apply the name Robin Goodfellow to the Devil, with appropriately extravagant imagery.
If you had the knack, Puck might do minor housework for you, quick fine needlework or butter-churning, which could be undone in a moment by his knavish tricks if you fell out of favour with him. He may also do work for you if you leave him small gifts, such as a glass of milk or other such treats, otherwise he may do the opposite by "make[ing] the drink[beer] to bear no barm" and other such fiendish acts. Pucks are also known to be inherently lonely creatures, and often share the goal of acquiring friends. "Those that Hob-goblin call you, and sweet Puck, / You do their work, and they shall have good luck" said one of William Shakespeare's fairies. Shakespeare's characterization of "shrewd and knavish" Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream may have revived flagging interest in Puck.
According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898):
[Robin Goodfellow is a] "drudging fiend", and merry domestic fairy, famous for mischievous pranks and practical jokes. At night-time he will sometimes do little services for the family over which he presides. The Scots call this domestic spirit a brownie; the Germans, kobold or Knecht Ruprecht. Scandinavians called it Nissë God-dreng. Puck, the jester of Fairy-court, is the same.
In English literature
Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is a character in William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose nature has been so clearly fixed in the English-speaking imagination that, as Katherine Briggs has remarked, "it no longer seems natural to talk as Robert Burton does in the Anatomie of Melancholy of a puck instead of 'Puck'". The audience is introduced to Puck in Act II Scene I when Puck encounters one of Titania's fairies. She recognizes Puck for
that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?
It is Puck's mischievous and sometimes mistaken doings that provide the convolutions of the plot.
Aside from Shakespeare's famous use of Puck, many other writers have referred to the sprite as well. An early 17th century broadside ballad, "The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow"—which is so deft and literate it has been taken for the work of Ben Jonson—describes Puck/Robin Goodfellow as the emissary of Oberon, the Fairy King of the Night, inspiring night-terrors in old women but also carding their wool while they sleep, leading travelers astray, taking the shape of animals, blowing out the candles to kiss the girls in the darkness, twitching off their bedclothes, or making them fall out of bed on the cold floor, tattling secrets, and changing babes in cradles with elflings. All his work is done by moonlight, and his mocking, echoing laugh is "Ho ho ho!"
John Milton, in L'Allegro tells "how the drudging Goblin swet / To earn his cream-bowle" by threshing a week's worth of grain in a night, and then, "Basks at the fire his hairy strength." Milton's Puck is not small and sprightly, but nearer to a Green Man or a hairy woodwose. An illustration of Robin Goodfellow from 1639 reflects the influence of Pan imagery giving Puck the hindquarters, cloven hooves and horns of a goat.
In Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), Puck, the last of the People of the Hills and "the oldest thing in England", charms the children Dan and Una with a collection of tales and visitors out of England's past.
- Bosworth and Toller list only "púcel" (puucel) in Old English. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Germanic Lexicon Project.
- Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2007) London : Collins & Brown
- Katharine Mary Briggs, Anatomy of Puck. New York: Arno, 1977c1959. ISBN 0405100825 OCLC 2876094
- Shakespeare's sources for Puck were assembled and analysed by Winifried Schleiner, "Imaginative Sources For Shakespeare's Puck" Shakespeare Quarterly 36.1 (Spring 1985:65-68).
- Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane) 1976, s.v. "Puck".
- Folklore - Robin Goodfellow (Puck) University of Victoria/Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
- On-line text of early 17th century ballads of Robin Goodfellow.
- Bell, Puck and His Folkslore: Illustrated from the Superstitions of all Nations, but more especially from the early religion and rites of northern Europe and the Wends 2 vols. (London: Richards) 1852.
- Winifried Schleiner, "Imaginative Sources For Shakespeare's Puck", Shakespeare Quarterly 36.1 (Spring 1985:65-68) p. 65.
- A Puck website gives the text of early 17th century ballads of Robin Goodfellow.
- A folklore page, with a 1639 Puritan image of a demonized Puck
- The Ballads of Robin Goodfellow
- The Fairy Mythology