Probably if you had to read A Midsummer Night’s Dream in high school, you know a little bit about who Puck is. Puck was originally a pagan trickster, and he’s been recycled in legend and fantasy as many times (and in as many forms!) as you can imagine. Because of this it’s not entirely sure where exactly he originated, be it German or Celtic origins.
Quite often, Puck is a character that will do good deeds and housework in exchange for a bowl of sweet milk—but if you get on his bad side or insult him, then all his work is undone in a moment, possibly leaving you worse off than when you started!
Usually Puck is a sort of sprite or fairy who belongs to the forest, and of course he’s also often seen as a servant and intermediary for Oberon, king of the fairies. Occasionally, though, he’s shown as a satyr, with the legs of a goat, as a sort of reflection of the god Pan.
Originally it was bad luck to say Puck’s name, as in the saying “speak of the Devil and he shall appear,” which is why he’s also called Robin Goodfellow—when he goes by Robin Goodfellow he seems to be a little more generous to mere humans! Interestingly, though, he’s also called “hobgoblin”—not exactly what that term brings to your mind nowadays, is it? And traditionally he laughs with a “ho, ho, ho,” like Santa Claus! Lots of little crossovers in mythology with our Puck here.
Shakespeare’s Puck is perhaps the one we’re most familiar with today, and his own description of himself (to Titania, who recognizes him) tells you a bit more of his devious ways:
Thou speak’st aright;
I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there. (Act ii., Scene i.)
Puck’s mischief is always done under the moonlight. According to “The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow,” attributed to Ben Jonson, he’d also sometimes douse lights in order to sneak kisses from women, or sometimes steal their sheets!
In 1906, Rudyard Kipling of Jungle Book fame (among other things, of course!) wrote Puck of Pook’s Hill, where Puck was the oldest thing in England, the last of the “hill people,” or fairies, and that’s a fairly fitting thing to call him, as Puck does continually seem to show up in popular culture. We’re not quite done with Puck as a culture figure, even now.
If you want to check out Robin Goodfellow, definitely read A Midsummer’s Night Dream, if you haven’t, or at least watch the movie! If Shakespeare’s not your thing, though, Puck also makes appearances in Neil Gaiman’s comic, The Sandman.