Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Nonspoken Nomenclature of the Puckish Prankster

                             It is not wise to upset some things. Apple carts, for one. Or the Kindly Ones. That’s why we call them the Kindly Ones – so as not to upset them. The Eumenides, that’s Greek for the Kindly Ones, were really the Furies, the Erinyes, but you don’t go around calling them that, not if you know what’s good for you. No, you’re respectful, you give them a nice euphemistic name and you hope that they don’t notice you. Bad things happen to you if you bring yourself to their attention, so speak softly and with a little respect. 

The Erinyes

The same is true of the Little People, or the Good Folk. You don’t go calling them by their proper name either because they just might hear you. And then they might come looking for you, just to see who is talking about them. And you don’t want that to happen, not if you can avoid it. Puck is another one. Don’t speak his name aloud. Call him something else. Call him Robin Goodfellow instead. Best be on the safe side. Just to be sure. Robin Goodfellow has a long pedigree – he may even be the Green Man, and in Reginald Scot’s A Discouerie of Witchcraft (1584) he appears amongst a great list of menacing things that our ‘mother’s maids’ have named to scare us: -  
“… bull beggers, spirits, witches, urchens, elves, hags, fairies, satyrs, pans, faunes, sylens, kit with the cansticke, tritons, centaurs, dwarfes, giants, imps, calcars, conjurors, nymphes, changlings. Incubus, Robin good-fellowe, the spoorne, the mare, the man in the oke, the hell waine, the fierdrake, the puckle, Tom thombe, hob gobblin, Tom tumbler, boneles, and such other bugs, that we are afraid of our owne shadowes.” 

William Shakespeare - A Midsummer Night's Dream - 1600

Shakespeare used Scot’s book as a reference for his plays, it’s one of the places from which he got the model for the witches in Macbeth (… or The Scottish Play, if you prefer to play it safe), and Puck appears in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1600), where he gets up to his merry pranks along with the other Little People. Robin Goodfellow had been around in print long before Shakespeare wrote about him, and he almost certainly had read a pamphlet entitled Robin Goodfellow, his Mad Prankes and Merry Jests, the earliest existing version of which we have now have dating from 1628 but earlier versions existed to at least 1588. 

Robin Goodfellow - His Mad Prankes and Merry Jests - 1628

A woodcut illustration on the pamphlet depicts a goatish satyr, holding a candle and a broomstick and with a hunting horn hanging about his neck and surrounded by tiny, black, dancing figures, with a black cat, a jug and Tom Thumb playing his pipe set nearby. He looks very like someone else who we don’t speak of, just in case he appears. In the verses and tales of the pamphlet are the said mischievous pranks and jests which Robin performs; blowing out candles, hiding property, pinching people, knotting their hair, souring milk and so forth. None of it is malicious and all are accompanied with Robin’s characteristic “Ho, ho, hoh,” laughter (there is a Norfolk proverb, ‘To laugh like Robin Goodfellow’). Indeed, if someone pleases Robin, he will do their drudgery for them, cleaning hearths, sweeping chimneys, sweeping floors, leaving money in their shoes, and so on; as befits his goatlike appearance, he is capricious. 

Richard Dadd - Puck

The name Robin Goodfellow also gives us many variations – Robin, a diminutive of Robert, supplies us with hob, as in hob-goblin, hob-thrush and hob-in-the-lantern. There are the Yorkshire Dobbies, revived by J K Rowling as house-elves, the Dobbins of the Midlands and there are the Lancashire Hobbils, transformed by Tolkien, who was at Stonyhurst, into the Hobbits. Robin Redbreast, of course, and Robin Goodfellow is one step away from Robin Hood, in turn one step away from the Green Man. Fellow may derive from the Greek Φαλλος through the French fallot, a lantern or candle affixed to a pole, (as seen in the woodcut of Puck), with connections to phallus and thyrsus, and maybe indicating the bright and shining humour of a wit like Robin. 

Rudyard Kipling - Puck of Pook's Hill - 1906

Perhaps the most pleasing incarnation of Robin Goodfellow appears in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906) by Rudyard Kipling. Two children, Dan and Una, are acting out A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a meadow when Puck himself appears, telling them that he is ‘the oldest Old Thing in England’, and begins to relate tales of Old England, from Weland the Smith’s sword, a soldier on Hadrian’s Wall, a Norman who took part in the Conquest and so forth, culminating with the signing of Magna Carta. 

Rudyard Kipling - Rewards and Fairies - 1910

Kipling returned to Puck four years later, in Rewards and Fairies, which continues the story of Dan and Una one year on, when they meet Puck again and he tells them more stories of Old England, this time with a more supernatural slant. It was in Rewards and Fairies that Kipling first introduced the poem If- which has been voted the most popular poem in English. If you haven’t read Puck of Pook’s Hill or Rewards and Fairies, you really should. They are a fantastic recreation of a lost time.

Puck, Dan and Una - Kipling - Puck of Pook's Hill

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