Puck (folklore)

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Illustration from the title page of Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1629)

In English folklore, The Puck (/ˈpʌk/), also known as Goodfellows, are demons or fairies which can be domestic sprites or nature sprites.

Origins and comparative folklore[edit]


The etymology of puck was uncertain.[1] The modern English word is attested already in Old English as puca (with a diminutive form pucel). Similar words are attested later in Old Norse (púki, with related forms including Old Swedish puke, Icelandic púki, and Frisian puk) but also in the Celtic languages (Welsh pwca, Cornish bucca and Irish púca). Most commentators think that the word was borrowed from one of these neighbouring north-west European languages into the others, but it is not certain in what direction the borrowing went, and all vectors have been proposed by scholars. The Oxford English Dictionary favoured a Scandinavian origin, while the scholarly study by Erin Sebo of Flinders University argues for an Irish origin, on the basis that the word is widely distributed in Irish place-names, whereas puck-place-names in English are rare and late in the areas showing Old Norse influence, and seem rather to radiate outwards from the south-west of England, which she argues had Irish influence during the early medieval period.[2]

Alternative names[edit]

Puck may also be called The Goodfellows or Hobgoblin,[3] in which Hob may substitute for Rob or Robin. This goes back to the character "Robin Goodfellow" and his name. The name Robin is Middle English in origin, deriving from Old French Robin, the pet form for the name Robert. Similar to the use of "the good folk" in describing fairies, it reflected a degree of wishful thinking and an attempt to appease the fairies, recognizing their fondness of flattery despite their mischievous nature.[4]

The earliest reference to "Robin Goodfellow" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1531. Anthony Munday mentions Robin Goodfellow in his play The Two Italian Gentlemen, 1584, and he appears in Skialtheia, or a Shadowe of Truth in 1598. William Shakespeare may have had access to the manuscript of Lewes Lewkenor's translation of The Spanish Mandevile of Miracles, or, The Garden of Curious Flowers (1600), a translation of Antonio de Torquemada's Jardín de Flores Curiosas. The following passage from The Spanish Mandeville discusses the mischievous spirits:

Luduvico: I pray you let me somewhat understand your opinion as concerning Robingoodfellowes and Hobgoblins, which are said to be so common, that there is scarcely any man but will tell you one tale or other of them, of which for my own part, I believe none, but do make reckoning that every man forgeth herein, what pleaseth him.

Antonio: Many of them without doubt are forged, and many also true, for these kinds of Spirits are more familiar and domestical than the others, and for some causes to us unknown, abide in one place, more than in another, so that some never almost depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundry noises, rumours, mockeries, gawdes and jests, without doing any harm at all: and though I am not myself witness thereof, yet I have heard many persons of credit affirm that they have heard them play as it were on Gyterns & Jews Harps, and ring Bells, and that they answer to those that call them, and speak with certain signs, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not at all. But in truth, as I said before, if they had free power to put in practice their malicious desire, we should find these pranks of theirs, not to be jests, but earnest indeed, tending to the destruction of both our body and soul, but as I told you before, this power of theirs is so restrained and tied, that they can pass no farther than to jests and gawdes: and if they do any harm or hurt at all, it is certain very little, as by experience we daily see.[5]

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.


Joseph Noel Paton, Puck and Fairies, detail from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

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.

Puck might do minor housework, quick fine needlework or butter-churning, which could be undone in a moment by his knavish tricks if displeased.[6] A domestic spirit, he would assist housewives with their chores, in expectation of an offering of white bread and milk. If this were neglected he would steal that which he believed was owed.[4]

Pucks are also known to be inherently solitary creatures. Shakespeare's characterization of "shrewd and knavish" Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream may have revived flagging interest in Puck.[7]

Notable cultural references[edit]

16th–17th century[edit]

  • The character Robin Goodfellow, also referred to as "The puck, Robin Goodfellow" and Hobgoblin, appears as a vassal of the Fairy King Oberon in William Shakespeare's 1595/96 play A Midsummer Night's Dream, and is responsible for the mischief that occurs.
  • The character also appears in Grim the Collier of Croydon (1660, but perhaps based on an earlier play). It is unknown how Shakespeare's Puck appeared on the stage; but the figure in Grim was costumed "in a suit of leather close to his body; his face and hands coloured russet-coloured, with a flail."[citation needed]
  • A Robin Goodfellow play was performed at Hampton Court on 1 January 1604, followed by The Masque of Indian and China Knights.[8]
  • An early 17th century broadside ballad The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow describes the character 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 travellers 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.[citation needed]
  • Robin Goodfellow is the main speaker in Jonson's 1612 masque Love Restored.
  • 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 represents the influence of Pan imagery giving Puck the hindquarters, cloven hooves and horns of a goat.[9]

19th century[edit]

The Mad Pranks of Robin Goodfellow, by John Franklin, engraving by Edward Dalziel, 1845
  • Robin Goodfellow appears in 'The Mad Pranks of Robin Goodfellow', Gammer Gurton's Pleasant Stories of Patient Grissel, The Princess Rosetta, & Robin Goodfellow, and Ballads of the Beggar's Daughter, The Babes in the Wood, and Fair Rosamond, 1845.[10]
  • Robin Goodfellow appears in an 1856 speech by Karl Marx: "In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor profits of regression, we recognize our brave friend Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution."[11]

20th century[edit]

  • The character of Puck frames the tales in Rudyard Kipling's short story cycles Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910).
  • Dear Brutus is a 1917 fantasy play by J. M. Barrie, the host "Lob" is the aged Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream
  • The 1976 play Robin Goodfellow by Aurand Harris retells A Midsummer Night's Dream from Puck's point of view.
  • The Sandman by Neil Gaiman includes Puck as a significant character.
  • The 1989 Manga series Berserk written and illustrated by Kentaro Miura. Set in a medieval Europe-inspired dark fantasy world features a character named Puck (パック, Pakku) who resembles a small fairy or pixie like creature (though he is technically an elf).
  • In the Disney cartoon Gargoyles, Puck is one of several Shakespearean characters with recurring roles. He is something of an antagonist, but his mischief can also help the heroes.

21st century[edit]

  • Puck is also a major character in Michael Buckley's 2005–2012 book series The Sisters Grimm.
  • Puck (Robin Goodfellow) is a character in Rob Thurman's Cal Leandros series of novels (2006–).
  • Puck is a main character in Julie Kagawa's 2010–2015 The Iron Fey Series, along with other characters from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Puck is also the main protagonist in Kagawa's The Iron Raven (2021), the first book in The Iron Fey: Evenfall series.[12]
  • Puck is a major character in Chris Adrian's 2011 novel The Great Night.
  • In the 2019 Amazon series Carnival Row, the Puck are a race of fae.
  • Since 1998, a Canadian artist calling himself ElectricGecko has drawn a weekly comic strip called "Puck" in which the ancient fairy is incarnated as a young-appearing red-haired Canadian woman living in Hamilton, Ontario.
  • Puck (also known as Robin Goodfellow) joins the series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina in its third and fourth seasons (2019–2020).[13]
  • Puck also appears as a character in the God of War video games, synthesized with the character of Mímir from Norse Mythology. In these games, he is voiced by actor Alastair Duncan.
  • Puck is a hero in the Dota 2 video game.
  • 'Robyn Goodfellowe' is a young English girl in the Irish animated feature Wolfwalkers (2020) [14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See for example Katharine Mary Briggs, Anatomy of Puck. New York: Arno, 1977c1959. ISBN 0405100825 OCLC 2876094
  2. ^ Sebo, Erin (2017). "Does OE Puca Have an Irish Origin?". Studia Neophilologica. 87 (2): 167–175. doi:10.1080/00393274.2017.1314773. S2CID 164700561.
  3. ^ Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology, London, H. G. Bohn, 1870
  4. ^ a b Sparkes, Abigail. "Robin Goodfellow", Historic UK
  5. ^ Lewkenor, Lewes. The Spanish Mandeville or Garden of Curious Flowers, London, H. Mattes, 1600
  6. ^ Wall, Wendy (Spring 2001). "Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairylore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle". Shakespeare Quarterly. 52 (1): 67–106. doi:10.1353/shq.2001.0021. S2CID 191580811. Retrieved 2019-07-16.
  7. ^ Schleiner, Winifried (1985). "Imaginative Sources for Shakespeare's Puck". Shakespeare Quarterly. 36(1): 65–68. doi:10.2307/2870083. JSTOR 2870083.
  8. ^ Leeds Barroll, Anna of Denmark, Queen of England: A Cultural Biography (Philadelphia, 2001), p. 83.
  9. ^ Folklore – Robin Goodfellow (Puck) University of Victoria/Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
  10. ^ Gammer Gurton's Pleasant Stories of Patient Grissel, The Princess Rosetta, & Robin Goodfellow, and Ballads of the Beggar's Daughter, The Babes in the Wood, and Fair Rosamond. Printed for Joseph Cundall, 1845, State Library of New South Wales DSM/821.04/T
  11. ^ Karl, Marx (1856). "Speech at anniversary of the People's Paper".
  12. ^ Kagawa, Julie (2021), The Iron Raven, Toronto: Inkyard Press, ISBN 978-1-335-09176-5
  13. ^ "Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (TV Series 2018–2020)". IMDb. Retrieved 2021-01-21.
  14. ^ "WolfWalkers". IMDb. Retrieved 2023-03-24.