The Mythology of Robin Goodfellow a.k.a. Puck

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WhispertheWolf's picture
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Hey, everyone! So, um...this may seem like an odd topic to post on this forum, but I have posted about mythical characters on this forum before's the thing. I've come to allow myself to be known as "the person who likes snowy/icy characters," and that is an accurate description. I've also made it no secret that one of my favorite myths is Jack Frost (and yes, my love pre-dates the Rise of the Guardians movie), and that I even based a dragon on the idea of Jack Frost, my Shivertooth Frostclaws. I have in the past made posts on this forum about the origins of the Jack Frost myth (which you can see here) and the incarnations of Jack Frost in popular media (which you can see here; links will open in a new tab). But the mythical creatures of the cold winter are not the only legends on my radar. For awhile, I've been rather mildly interested in a mythical character that I personally think of as an older brother to the Jack Frost legend...the mysterious hobgoblin Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow. And like Jack Frost, I want to make a dragon based on him. So I thought I'd explore the character of Robin Goodfellow, and now that I have, I'd like to share my findings...because why not!


Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, has not become as prominent in our modern culture as Jack Frost, unless you have read your Shakespeare. So rather than just talking about his origins and where you can find him in media, I want to discuss Robin Goodfellow more broadly and discuss who - and what - he is, as well as where he came from.




The Mythology of Robin Goodfellow a.k.a. Puck

Puck illustration, 1629


The Puki Myths...Actual Norse Myth?


Robin Goodfellow, more commonly known as "Puck," is a spirit that haunts the British Isles. Depending on the myth, he is a fairy or goblin or sometimes a demon. Puck's origins are shrouded in the mists that once hung in the rich British forests, but we do have some clues as to where he came from. Whereas Jack Frost's origins are relatively recent and easy to follow and were not Norse (despite urban legend saying so), Robin Goodfellow seems to come from truly ancient origins and does seem to have actual Norse connections. In Old Norse, the term puki or pook refers to a "nature spirit," and you can find something similar to this all over the British Isles. The Welsh tell of the pwca, a goblin that looks a bit like a chicken half out of its shell. The Irish tell of the pooka, a shape-shifting fairy, mischievous in nature, that normally takes the form of a grey pony. Both of these creatures were said to lead travelers astray. Cornish myth tells of the bucca, a fairy or hobgoblin who lives near the sea and takes refuge in mines during storms. Even the term "pixie," a term for the fairies of Devon and Cornwall, seems to be a diminutive of the term puck. There is also evidence that the term "pouk" was once an English euphemism for "demon," perhaps a way for a Christianized England to demonize spirits of old pagan faiths. Other puki exist across Scandinavia and the Netherlands, including the Swedish puke, Frisian puk, the Danish puge, and the Icelandic puki. There was even the pukis in Latvia and Lithuania. It seems the Norse idea of the puki spread wide over their realm touched during the Viking Age.

The Irish Pooka


But what of the Puck of England, who became known as Robin Goodfellow?


The Puck Called Robin

...and Why He was the Devil (No, Really)


It should be mentioned that the many puki across Scandinavia, eastern Europe, the Netherlands, the Norwegian Sea islands, and the British Isles varied in whether or not they were malevolent and benevolent. The hobgoblin Puck that evolved out of puki legends of England follows in kind. Puck was a fairy creature who was described by some as a mischievous little devil who caused a ruckus and created messes where he went and may even lead travelers astray, sometimes using Will-o'-the-Whisps to do so. (One 16th century expression for being lost was, "Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight.") But despite this deviousness, he may also be helpful if you are kind to him, doing minor housework in your home if you leave him a treat, such as a saucer of cream. In general, he's a merry fellow, whether his mirth is for good or for ill, and has been referred to as "the jester of the fairies." His appearance varies greatly. Some claim he is a shape-shifter that often takes the form of a donkey or pony or perhaps a bird. Others claim he is a hairy little man. Later appearances give him a similarity to Pan from Greek mythology, giving him the appearance of a faun or satyr. One 17th century play depicts him as having a tight-fitting leather suit with red-tinted hands and face and carrying a flail. Most accounts agree that Robin is red-haired.

Puck, or Robin Goodfellow by GreatArtScott


The reason for this puck, this "nature spirit," being named Robin Goodfellow can only be speculated, but the fact that he has this name may trace this specific puck back to the 15th century. Back then, it had become common practice to give things "common" names. This was touched upon briefly in my Jack Frost origins post, where I pointed out that "Jack" had become a slang term for a funny or clever fellow (seen in the many nursery rhymes and expressions that name things "Jack"). Likewise, "Robin," the diminutive of the name "Robert," had also become a similar name for a "fellow," particularly a trickster and/or someone associated with the woods and forest. You may recall the little songbird called a robin, named "Robin Redbreast" during this period. (In truth, the robin's censored is orange, but there was no English word for such a color for another century. It is also worth nothing that, just as "Robin Redbreast" was a nickname for an entire species of bird, sometimes Robin Goodfellows or Pucks were spoken of in the plural, seen as a type of creature rather than a singular being of that name. Others did think of him as one singular fairy or hobgoblin.) The name for this plucky little bird, the robin, was probably in part due to the alliteration with "redbreast" but also because the robin played a trickster role in much of classic British folklore. At this same time, "Robin" was even known to be a nickname for the ultimate malevolent trickster of medieval lore, the Devil. (Robin Goodfellow was sometimes even said to be the Devil himself.) So Robin must have seemed like a fitting name for the trickster woodland puck that could help you but also spell your doom on a lonely traveler's path.

European Robin


But the devil connection leads to another theory on the origin of Robin Goodfellow's name. Some think, being an old puki, Puck or Robin Goodfellow is actually an old god (possibly the Green Man, who we will discuss later). Some say that this god's name was, in fact, Robin and may have been connected to the orange-breasted bird of the same name. With the Christianization of the British Isles, pagan gods and spirits were often relabeled demons to try to keep converted Christians who still believed in them from worshiping them. If the beliefs were particularly powerful, these old gods may even be said to be the devil himself in disguise. The fact that he is also called Puck, an alternate name for a nature spirit, god, or ghost across most of northern Europe, adds credence to this theory. Even today, there are witch covens and neo-pagan groups who refer to their god as "Robin," a traditional name for such a god in many parts of the British Isles. So Robin, made a demon or devil by Christian followers seeking to kill pagan idols, may in fact have been the name of a powerful god, made into a small and inconsequential trickster as he became less relevant. Robin is said to haunt and live in areas of standing stones, which is where ancient gods of the British Isles were worshiped. It is believed this green god may have been the god of vegetation and the forest and the spring and summer seasons.

Medieval Devil


But what of the term "Good-fellow," you may ask? It is possible that it was meant as a bit of irony, as being the devil or even being a mild trickster was anything but "good," and the devil or his fairy demons were often said to trick you into thinking they were good and pleasant (once again, drawing on the Trickster archetype.) It's also possible that "Good-fellow" came from a reference to the god that Puck may have originated from, who people wanted blessings from the god. But I personally think the origins of the "Good-fellow" part of his name may have more to do with his connection to hobgoblin and brownie lore.


The Hobgoblin and the Brownie, True "Good Fellows"

or Where J.K. Rowling Got the Idea for Dobby


The most benevolent part of Robin Goodfellow lore is that which connects him to helpful household spirits, like the brownie and hobgoblin. In fact, the hobgoblin may owe its very name to Robin. "Hob" was sometimes an alternate name for "Rob," a shortening of "Robin" or "Robert." The name "hobgoblin" may have in fact meant "a goblin named Rob." Alternatively, it may have meant "goblin of the hearth," which relates to what the hobgoblin did in folklore.


Unlike its modern RPG incarnations today, which often depict an ugly, foul-smelling, villainous creature, the hobgoblin of traditional British mythology was normally a very positive creature. They were very small, hairy, naked men who had an aversion to clothes and did work around the home at night while the hosts slept, like dusting, ironing, and needlework. All they asked in return was a bit of food. They could be a bit mischievous in their works at times, often jokers, but they did their work well. But if they are offended, which could be done by forgetting to feed them, destroying part of their home, or leaving them clothes, they would leave the home, often after doing some sort of nefarious work out of revenge. This is very similar to the brownies of Lowland Scotland, who are similar in appearance and function but a less mischievous in their work and often less vindictive when offended (though they will still leave the home if they are).

Hobgoblin by Will Lyon


"Good-fellow" may in fact be a term used to refer to the good the hobgoblin did around the house. There is evidence that hobgolbins and Robin Goodfellows were the same creatures. In fact, in The Spanish Mandevile of Miracles, or, The Garden of Curious Flowers by Lewes Lewkenor, a 1600 English translation of Le Jardin Flores Curiosas by Antonio de Torquemada, uses the term Robingoodfellows and hobgoblins in the same sentence as if denoting the same creature. Puritans of the early North American British colonies referred to both hobgoblins and Robin Goodfellows as demons that a good Christian was not to believe in (as they are magical spirits that are not God Himself), and often used the two terms interchangeably.


A Hint of Shakespeare and a Really Weird Summer Dream


The modern idea of Robin Goodfellow, or as he's more commonly known, Puck, largely comes from Shakespeare's comedy play A Midsummer Night's Dream (my personal favorite of Shakespeare's works), written in 1596. It is said that, at the time of Shakespeare, the belief in Robin Goodfellow and creatures like him, such as hobgoblins and brownies, were a dying trend, as stated by Reginald Scot in 1584. While there is mention of a Robin Goodfellow ballad written in 1588, many believe it was Shakespeare who is largely responsible for reviving interest in the character. Most modern depictions of Puck or Goodfellow draw from this play in some way or another.


In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the character is called "Robin Goodfellow," "Puck," and "Hob-goblin" interchangeably. He is introduced in the second scene, where he is described as a "shrewd and knavish sprite" and "that merry wanderer of the night" but also said to bring good luck to those who are kind to him. He is a servant and jester of Oberon, the fairy king, and is largely responsible for the actions of the play by his interpretation of Oberon's commands. He is seen as having many magical powers, including the ability to change the shape of both himself and others. He brags by saying that he has been a pest to local villagers by ruining ale and butter and clearly loves a good joke, constantly making practical jokes throughout the play and being a source for a lot of its humor. While he causes all the troubles that the lovers in the play experience, he's also the one who fixes everything and gives the closing speech to the audience, where he calls himself "an honest Puck," apologizes to the audience if anything they have seen offends them and tells them that they may want to think of the events as a dream, and says to "Give me your hands, if we be friends/And Robin shall restore amends," effectively ending the play on the character.


There is no physical description of Robin Goodfellow given in the play, but many modern renditions of this Shakespeare play portray him as being dressed in green and possibly also in leaves and having beautiful elf-like features to match common depictions of fairies. Many times he's also given horns to relate him to his satyr look. And because of the popularity of Shakespeare, this look and nature is the Robin Goodfellow we see most often today.

Puck from A Midsummer Night's Dream, 2012 Brooklyn theater production


The Good-fellow Robin Hood and the Green Man...and Merlin?


No mention of Robin Goodfellow would be complete without also mentioning Robin Hood or the Green Man. In fact, many historians and Robin Hood enthusiasts believe that, at one point in time, all of these characters were one and the same.


Remember how I said Robin Goodfellow may once have come from a god, possibly named Robin? It's believed that this god may have been a figure we now call the Green Man, a green spring god. Not much is known about this ancient figure, but he adorned many churches and cathedrals throughout Britain and was associated with the Mayday, a spring-welcoming English celebration with pagan roots that centered, human fertility. (Can't really speak any more on that on a children's forum...) Going back to the name "Robin" being used as a name for people associated with the woods, children born as a result of the Mayday festival were often given names such as "Robinson," "Robson," or "Hudson," basically names that mean "son of Robert" or "son of Robin." It's believed that the first reference of the character "Robin Hood" was actually a corruption of the name "Robin of the Wood" and referred to Robin Goodfellow, the woodland spirit, which may very well have been a smaller and less powerful corruption of the Green Man in the shadow of Christianity.

Traditional Green Man Design by Rebecca Isacowitz


While we know Robin Hood today as a character who robbed the rich and fed the poor, the very first written ballads of Robin Hood that we have on record tell of a very different character. The original Robin Hood was a cutthroat thief who would gladly keep spoils for himself but also helped those who were kind to him. He was often portrayed as a fool and one ordinary people could overwhelm in hand-to-hand combat, but he got his strength from being a trickster character...much like the Robin Goodfellow on which he may be based. So connected are these characters that those who study trickster myths often lump them together as "Merry Robin, the British Trickster."


Through the romanticization of his mythology, Robin Hood has grown beyond a trickster archetype and into an epic literary hero. His ability to evolve with modern sensibilities and the timelessness of the hero who helps the underdogs has allowed him to outdo his former counterpart, Robin Goodfellow, in popularity. Whereas little Puck might be hard to spot in our media and the Green Man has all but faded from collective memory, Robin Hood continues to capture the imagination of children today in various books, movies, and TV shows. Sometimes the two even appear together in the same media as separate characters or Robin Goodfellow is said to also be Robin Hood.


James Woodford’s statue of Robin Hood in Nottingham, England

Nottingham's Robin Hood Statue


Unlike Robin Hood, Robin Goodfellow or Puck often continues to hold some connection to his old Mayday origins. Even today, he is seen more often as a spirit of spring and summer. One example is The Iron Fey by Julie Kagawa, a novel series about fairies where there are Winter Fey and Summer Fey. As a spring and summer spirit, Robin is a Summer Fey.


And of course, like all old British lore worth its salt, Robin Goodfellow even shares a few similarities to tales of Arthurian Legend. According to his ballads from 1628, his birth echoes that of tales of the birth of Merlin, the famous wizard figure of the British Isles who is known most popularly today as the magical adviser to King Arthur. And like Arthur, in that ballad Robin Goodfellow is son of a king...the fairy king.

Disney's Merlin from The Sword in the Stone


Robin Goodfellow in the Media

and Why He's Jack Frost's Brother...and a Hobbit...and a House-Elf...


Despite the two having no actual mythological connection, I call Robin Goodfellow "Jack Frost's brother" for a few reasons. One is that he has a generic "fellow trickster" British name. Jack and Robin both denote this sort of character. Both are fairies or sprites of British origin. Both are connected with seasons, Jack with fall and winter, and Robin with spring and summer. But despite this, their origins, popularity, and image are widely different. Unlike Jack, who comes from a Victorian turn of phrase, who is now as much American as it is British, and who remains a well-known name to this day, found in books and songs and movies and video games, Robin Goodfellow is none of these. He has extremely ancient origins difficult to uncover, lost in the murk of British lore. He is solidly British and largely unembraced by the U.S. He has largely faded from popular media and might have faded altogether if not for a Shakespeare play 400 years old, which still holds the image we base him on today.


But though obscure, he is certainly not forgotten; he pops up now and then, even making his way into a famous speech given by Karl Marx in 1856. And though he is not prevalent as a character, his legacy lives on in similar stories, like the hobgoblins of many roleplaying games or the more accurate hobgoblins of fantasies such as the Spiderwick Chronicles or small hobgoblin-like creatures like Tolkien's hobbits and Púkel-men or Dobby the house elf from Harry Potter ("Dob," being another nickname for "Rob," may in fact be a direct reference). And of course, his legacy also lives on in the many, many versions of the Robin Hood tale.

Dobby the House-Elf from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


Yet despite his type of creature and his Robin Hood counterpart overshadowing his persona, Puck or Robin Goodfellow has managed to leak into a few works of media as a stand-alone character. I have made a list of works where you can find him as such down below. (Note: in the Robin Hood works mentioned below, Robin Goodfellow appears or is mentioned as a separate character to Robin Hood or is said to also be Robin Hood):


  • 1596: A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare (play) (and any abridged and movie versions of this play and the paintings and songs illustrating this play and its characters...there's a lot of them)
  • 1600: Grim the Collier of Croydon, or The Devil and his Dame: with the Devil and Saint Dunston, playwright unknown (play)
  • 1612: Love Restored by Ben Johnson (masque, or "masked play")
  • 1613: More Knaves Yet? by Thomas Rowland (poem)
  • 1628: The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow, possibly by Ben Johnson (book)
  • 1641: The Sad Shepherd, or A Tale of Robin Hood by Ben Johnson (play)
  • 1645: L'Allegro by John Milton (poem)
  • 1906: Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling (book)
  • 1910: Rewards and Fairies by Rudyard Kipling (book)
  • 1920-1936: Puck by Joe Hardman (comic series)
  • 1988: Tales of Robin Hood, or The Beasts of Sherwood by Clayton Emery (book)
  • 1989-1994: The Sandman by Neil Gaiman (comic series)
  • 1991: Sherwood by Parke Godwin (book)
  • 1994-1997: Gargoyles (Disney TV show)
  • 1995: Jack of Kinrowan by Charles De Lint (book)
  • 1995: The Ivory and the Horn by Charles De Lint (book)
  • 2009: "The Mysterious Life of Robin Goodfellow" by Kenny Klein (song)
  • 2012: Iron's Prophecy by Julia Kagawa (from The Iron Key novel series)
  • 2013: Books for Boys: Robin Hood's Best Shot by Ian Whybrow (children's book)


Me? Die? Didn't they tell you, princess? I'm Robin Goodfellow!

~Julia Kagawa, Iron's Prophecy




If I missed any Robin Goodfellow incarnations that you know of, please let me know! And if you've read this far, and I thank you and hope you enjoyed our little fantasy exploration! If you can, tell me, what type of dragon do you think I should use as my HTTYD dragon version of Robin Goodfellow? And what should his canon-sounding name be (just like I renamed my Jack Frost Shivertooth to "Frostclaws")? If you think of anything, let me know down below!


To see other posts where I discuss European myth, you can check out "Wolves and Winter: A Norse Motif Analysis" here.


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SingingRedFox's picture
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Wooo! Tracking! Definitely

Wooo! Tracking! Definitely tracking! I'd like to talk about European/Scandinavian mythology but I'm at school, so later then :)





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SingingRedFox's picture
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HTTYD version of Puck...

Hmm, a dragon based on Robin Goodfellow.. Let me think..
Well, the first dragons that came into my mind are: Terrible Terror, Prickleboggle, Sand Wraith and Scuttleclaw.. I'm tired, and my brains won't work right now, i hope this helped a bit.
I think the Prickleboggle would be the best (darn, why don't they have tiny Prickleboggles!)
And names... Puck? XD No, no. I would say something related to summer & nature, like, Umm.. Leafwings or Greenthorn?

Other thing: The finnish translation for "Robin" is Peippo.

Anyway, i'm interested in this Robin Goodfellow and other kind of Northern mythology creatures :D

Yeah.. I'll go to bed now XD

Joined: 12/03/2017

Interesting post... thanks, I am always interested in such topics.


If you go with the mischevious nature of Puck, a Night Terror or Terrible Terror comes to my mind.

If you go with the cheerful, playful side... a Gronckle perhaps?

You can always colour the dragon dark green...