Puck (mythology)

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

In English folklore, Puck is a domestic and nature sprite, demon, 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 other groups.

Origins and comparative folklore[edit]

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,[1] 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 Old English púcel[2] 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. The etymology of Puck is examined by Katharine Mary Briggs, in Anatomy of Puck (New York: Arno) 1977.[3] The term pixie is in origin a diminutive of puck (compared to Swedish word "pyske" meaning "small fairy").

Puck may also be called "Robin Goodfellow" or "Hobgoblin",[4] 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[citation needed] 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.[5]

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[edit]

17th century[edit]

  • As Robin Goodfellow, Puck appears in a roughly contemporaneous Elizabethan play, Grim the Collier of Croydon (1600). 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."
  • An early 17th century broadside ballad, "The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow" 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!"[4]
  • 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 reflects the influence of Pan imagery giving Puck the hindquarters, cloven hooves and horns of a goat.[6]

A Midsummer Night's Dream[edit]

Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is most widely known today as a main character in William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream; this depiction of him as a specific, individual character has since become 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'".[7]

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?

18th & 19th centuries[edit]

Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, painted by Arthur Rackham
  • Goethe also used Puck in the first half of Faust, in a scene entitled "A Walpurgis Night Dream", where he played off of the spirit Ariel from The Tempest.
  • The folklore of Puck was magisterially assembled by William Bell, in two volumes that appeared in 1852[8] that have been called a "monument to nineteenth-century antiquarianism gone rampant."[9]

20th & 21st centuries[edit]

  • In Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906) and Rewards and Fairies (1910), Puck, the last of the People of the Hills and "the oldest Old Thing in England", charms the children Dan and Una with a collection of tales and visitors out of England's past.
  • Harvey the invisible rabbit in the play and film of the same name is identified as a pooka.
  • In Susanna Clarke's short story "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," Robin Goodfellow appears as a mischievous yet caring servant to Auberon.
  • In Orson Scott Card's novel Magic Street, and in his short film, Remind me Again, we meet Puck, Queen Titania, and Oberon in a modern, urban setting. In Raymond E. Feist's novel Faerie Tale, Puck is a fey being in the faerie court and is portrayed as a jester of sorts, and stays true to the mythology of him as a trickster. At times throughout the novel he is referred to as Puck, Putz, and Aerial, and assists the main characters to prevent evil King Oberon from seizing global power over humanity. In Pamela Dean's Tam Lin (a modern retelling of the Scottish faerie ballad), the character of Robin Armin is implied to be Puck; he used a similar name while performing as a singer and actor for The King's Men, and had been the inspiration for the Shakespearean Puck and several other comic characters, but he and the others of his troupe were unsuccessful in luring the Bard off to the Fair Lands.
  • In Mercedes Lackey's novel The Wizard of London Robin Goodfellow/Puck steps in to play himself in a boarding school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream when no one suitable can be found for the part. He reappears throughout the novel mainly in his friendlier aspect, but becomes extremely dangerous when crossed.
  • The Puck who appears in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is a trickster and maker of mischief.
  • In the animated series Gargoyles, Puck is a traditional trickster and an important supporting character. During the long exile from Avalon, Puck comes across Queen Titania in the human guise of Anastasia Renard, the wife of David Xanatos' aged and ailing business rival Halcyon Renard. He also meets a nearly emotionless businessman named Preston Vogel, working in Halcyon's employ. Amused with the "wooden behavior" of the mortal, Puck decides to play the straight man for a while, and reinvents himself as Owen Burnett, who becomes Xanatos' business manager.
  • In Michael Buckley's The Sisters Grimm series, Puck is an Everafter who takes on the form of an 11-year-old boy. He is described as rude, selfish, and immature, and occasionally plays pranks on the Grimm Family. He helps them solve most of their cases, and lives with them in their house.
  • Puck plays a central role in Mark Chadbourn's fantasy trilogy, Kingdom of the Serpent, comprising the novels Jack of Ravens, The Burning Man, and Destroyer of Worlds. Puck manipulates the heroes in an epic battle between good and evil over two thousand years of human history.
  • In Kentaro Miura's dark fantasy manga Berserk, Puck is one of the main character's earliest companions. He is a fairy-like elf of the Pisky race, and serves as comedy relief.
  • Puck, the faerie dragon, is the name of a hero in the game mod Defense of the Ancients and its sequel Dota 2.
  • Puck is a small rat-boy in Final Fantasy 9 who messes around with other people.
  • Puck is also one of the lead characters of Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series. When the series begins, he hovers around as the lead character's bodyguard but as it progresses, he reveals himself to be one of the love interests of the heroine.
  • In the Nightside series by Simon R. Green Puck is the only imperfect elf. Born as son of queen Mab and a Camelot knight, Puck is the only hunchback fairy. He is mischievous and usually deceives the main character for a long time. Later in the series he ends the elf civil war between Oberon and Mab by deceiving and killing his own mother, when she wouldn't give up her revenge.
  • The Cal Leandros series by Rob Thurman predominantly features the character Robin Goodfellow, also known as Rob Fellows. The character has crossed over into the author's Trickster series.
  • Puck also appears in several books of author Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series. He appears in The Wizard of London, Unnatural Issue, and Home From the Sea.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2007) London : Collins & Brown
  2. ^ An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Germanic Lexicon Project.
  3. ^ Katharine Mary Briggs, Anatomy of Puck. New York: Arno, 1977c1959. ISBN 0405100825 OCLC 2876094
  4. ^ a b Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology, London, H. G. Bohn, 1870
  5. ^ 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).
  6. ^ Folklore - Robin Goodfellow (Puck) University of Victoria/Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
  7. ^ Briggs, A Dictionary of Fairies (London: Lane) 1976, s.v. "Puck".
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Winifried Schleiner, "Imaginative Sources For Shakespeare's Puck", Shakespeare Quarterly 36.1 (Spring 1985:65-68) p. 65.

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