Friday, May 5, 2023

Puck: Fairy Lore

by Ty Hulse

 I've posted a large encyclopedia of fairies on Google Books for free. "Fairy Encyclopedia"


Today I would like to talk about Puck.

You know the ruggedly handsome man who helped women with their chores and of whom they had many naughty stories. 

Or as Buccola put it, 

"Nothing pleases Puck more, Latham claims, than to make the morning fire, sweep the house, grind mustard and malt, draw water, and help the maids with breaking hemp, bolting and dressing flax, as well as spinning…. Robin Goodfellow was typically depicted with a huge phallus and a broom. It takes little present-day imagination to come up with reasons why early modern women might have sat around the fire over their darning sharing tales about a figure with such attributes….

That’s right women sewing and spinning loved to tell stories about a huge fairy man who could help them with their chores. 

Puck is connected to the Robin Goodfellow and the hobgoblins,  “rough hairy spirits, which do domestic chores…. Useful as they are they are easily offended and often mischievous. They are not exclusively domestic, but are often associated with streams, pools, and rocks…”

At this point it is worth looking at a related fairy from Puck’s Anglo-Saxon homeland, the Puk or Niskepuk. These stories evolved elsewhere and so don’t represent an original Puck but the similarities in their characters are interesting. Here Puck were often wild fairies that people would bring into their homes by building them nests out of straws or logs with holes in them, they could then capture or offer the fairy some food, often butter or oatmeal to live with them. Those homes with these fairies would prosper, beer brewed better, cattle thrived, household choirs got done quicker, and everything seemed to generally go well. 

That said, inviting a wild fairy into your house is a little like inviting a wild cat into your house. I mean it can go great most of the time, but every once in a while, the mood for mischief will strike, and the cat will pounce on your keyboard while you’re trying to type, or scratch up some of your furniture. Further, niskepuk could steal from the neighbors, but they would fight the neighbor niskepuk if it tried stealing from you. 

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” it is interesting to note that the fairy and Puck introduce him differently. For the fairy mentions that he is the one who frightens maidens, steals the cream from milk, makes it harder for butter to churn, and beer to brew properly, causes people to get lost. Yet, she also mentions that those who call him Hobgoblin will have their work done by him and good luck. 

Puck, however, speaks of making Oberon smile and of punishing those he feels have violated some fairy morality. He takes the shape of a roasted crab apple in a gossips drink, so that he can bob and cause her to spill ale on herself. He also takes the form of a three-foot stool in order to cause those telling sad or boring stories to fall, so that everyone will laugh and have a marrier time. 

Within these lines we can see the push between Puck’s multiple natures. He is a mischievous trickster on whom bad things were blamed, a helpful figure which was believed to bring fortune, and of course a moralizing figure. 

Contrasting their wild fairy nature in chapbooks, Robin Goodfellow was often said to be the half human child of the fairy king Oberon, who was granted the power of shapeshifting by his father. Which adds a fun layer when watching him cause Oberon trouble during Midsummer Night’s dream. 

It’s difficult to say how early this aspect of his character was added, if it was a purely literary device. 

During this time there was a spike in literacy and Yeomen began writing about the fairies. These writers knew the fairies “well from their mothers and grandmothers, and their new readers knew them, and loved them because they were familiar… they appealed to the court as well as to the country, and the fairy vogue was made.”

Further, in the past, people didn’t want to display too much knowledge of fairy lore which could have led to charges of heresy. When this changed, people wrote more regularly and honestly about the delightful aspects of fairy nature. 

At this time the English world had been turned on its head as it went through rapid changes as well, the religious assumptions were being reexamined. The English Civil War had beheaded a king, holidays like Christmas had been outlawed by his non-king successor. 

People were grasping for something, what people often grasped for during times like this was in part spiritualism and fairies. 

During this time people began to focus on the more frolicsome, frivolous and tiny side of fairies. 

“a little school of friends among the poets, Drayton, Browne, Herrick, and the almost unknown Simon stewards, caught by the deliciousness of Shakespeare’s fairies, and coming from counties where small fairies belonged to the folk tradition, amused themselves and each other by writing fantasies on littleness.”

Nimphidia and the Wedding of a Fey


The fairies are hopping, 

The small flowers, cropping,

And with dew dropping,

Skip thorow the greaves

At barly break they play

Merrily all the day

At night themselves they lay

Upon the soft leaves

The idea of tiny frolicsome and whimsical fairies didn’t begin at this time. Rather these aspects of their nature were emphasized.

Another aspect of Puck was emphasized early on, but faded later, that of Puck as a moralizing figure. Like most house fairies he hated laziness and certain bad behavior writers used Puck as a way teach people the importance domestic morality. 

Over time this was replaced, however, with a focus on whimsy and mischief.