• Phil Parker

The History of Robin Goodfellow

Most people will be aware of Puck in Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream'. He's also called Robin Goodfellow in the play. This name was widely recognised in Elizabethan England. Puck was more of a nickname. This alter-ego idea appealled to me when I began writing The Bastard from Fairyland. Shakespeare portrays the character as the classic trickster. He obeys the Faerie King, Oberon but enjoys making human beings suffer at the same time. There's also a degree of cruelty in his actions. That aspect caught my attention too.

As I explored the character I discovered Robin Goodfellow appeared in western culture in many ways. It's why, in my prequel anthology, The Chronicles of the Bastard, Robin Goodfellow, I developed a story where he meets nineteenth century authors, like Lord Byron and Mary Shelley. Robin joins them at the Villa Diodati that fateful weekend in June 1816 when the literary genre of Gothic Horror is born. Robin's experiences inspire them. He describes events I use in The Bastard from Fairyland.

This post explores the character of Robin Goodfellow to show how he has permeated our culture. For a supposedly mythical persona, he has appeared in many different guises.


Medieval Robin Goodfellow

Robin Goodfellow's first appearance in history is vague. 'Early medieval' is the nearest we can get, I'm afraid. He is synonymous with mischief and his name is frequently used as another word for 'demon' or 'hobgoblin'. This is down to the Catholic Church who portrayed pagan spirits in this way. As a result, law courts viewed any reference to such creatures as black magic and witchcraft. Subsequent sources suggest this 'demonisation' was a means of combatting pagan beliefs which were rooted in the culture of the time. The name Robin is an ancient reference to the devil. His surname capturing the ironic twist, a demon who isn't all that bad really!

If you take the name Puck, then it opens up more 'early medieval' references. Celtic cultures identified a shape-shifting creature as a 'phouka'. In Wales it became 'pwca'. The name changes only slightly as it appears across Europe, through Germany and into the Baltic and Balkan countries. You can see the derivation of Puck. William Langland (possible 12the century author of Piers Plowman) mentions him too. He defines Hell as "Pouk's Pinfold."

"Robin Goodfellow has been with you tonight" is a reference from 1531 describing anyone who is lost or bewildered, no doubt as a result of trickery. However, by 1584 Reginald Scot, a Kentish writer and MP claimed belief in him was "not as strong as it had been a century earlier" in his book, 'The Discoverie of Witchracft'. (Though this might have been to fuel his claim that witchcraft was "un-Christian"). By the time we reach 1594, a well-estblished pamphleteer, Thomas Nashe, references our hero as an agent of the devil. Others follow-up this accusation, claiming the inclusion of such demons in plays allows Satan to get into the minds of common people.

Cue William Shakespeare.


Shakespeare and Robin Goodfellow

Shakespeare, as my university tutor was fond of saying, begged, borrowed and stole moost of his ideas. The outcry against Theatre as a tool of Satan, likely prompted The Bard to include fairies in the play that was commissioned for a wedding in Elizabeth I's court in 1595. It would have been scandalous. However, making this demon or hobgoblin a comic character, diluted any offence it might have caused. Will S knew how to manipulate his audience as well as his sponsors!

On a broader note, (and one I use in my stories), Shakespeare references a good deal of fairy culture in A Midsummer Night's Dream. He defines the two courts, led by Oberon and Titania, and the conflicts they have known. We discover the fairy world is filled with violence and suspicion. As a race they are cruel, ruthless and consider humans to be stupid. It is the Victorians who shift our perceptions of this race, turning them into beings more like flowers. You'll see what I mean when we get to Kipling!

If Robin's celebrity status was waning, as Reginald Scot claimed, Shakespeare's intervention changed all that! In Albion’s England by William Warner (published in 1606) Robin sits naked on the face of a dormant shepherd and laments the good old days of Mary’s reign, when English Catholics everywhere believed in him. He appeared in ballads performed in taverns across the country, sometimes such works were even printed and distributed. Ben Jonson used Robin in his unfinished Robin Hood play, The Sad Shepherd and is reputed to be the author of 'The Mad, Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow'. These ballads were frequently copied and claimed by other writers during the next two centuries. Even WB Yeats got into the act in Ireland. Robin was hot property!


Robin Goodfellow in the 18th & 19th Century

As I've already established, Robin became a popular character in the ballads of the time, though their ownership is hard to confirm. (More info here). In 1731, George Waldron argued that the belief in such beings was still important. He contended, ‘a person would be thought impudently profane’ to go to bed ‘without having first set a tub, or pail full of clean water’, in order for ‘these guests to bathe themselves in’.

Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1723–1792, one of the leading lights of the art world, painted Robin. He initiated the idea of pointed ears that has remained in our culture ever since. (Look at how the Elves are shown in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings). The character is loosely based on the Greek god, Pan. For me, it's that smile that intrigues me. It stops the character from being a child, their is something more enigmatic in that smile. Pure mischief.

George Romney 1734–1802 is another artist of the time who uses a boy, Tom Hayley, as his model. There is the famous 1785 William Blake painting where fairies are ethereal creatures in gossamer gowns. Also Richard Dadd's circular work of 1841.

Robin had moved from plays, stories and ballads into the world of art.


Robin in the 20th Century

I've already pointed out how the Victorians "sweetened" Robin's image. They turned him into a child. They did this with all fairies and similar creatures, as part of their romanticisation of culture. Once we reach the twentieth century, this changes and who leads the charge? None other than Rudyard Kipling.

He's called Puck now and he is the antithesis of fairies. He even says, in the book that he isn't affected by cold iron, running water and tinkling bells (traditional charms to ward off demons and fairies). And he is amused by people's perceptions that fairies are "painty-winged" creatures.

Published in 1906, it is an anthology of stories, defining England through the ages. It opens with Puck's Song which is a tale told to two children who hail from Kipling's house in Sussex, Batemans. It's interesting in the way it counters so much of the saccharin from the previous century but also the earlier history of the character. Puck is a product of his time here.

Beyond this, there is the statue Puck, by Carl Andersson, in bronze, 1912, in the Stockholm. There's another statue (again, back to being a child) by Brenda Putnam in marble, 1932, at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

To bring us up to date, in modern times the brilliant Neil Gaiman included Puck in his Sandman stories. He first appears as he watches a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream and scorns the actor playing him. A real play-within-a-play concept.

And if we're talking about those who played this mischievous sprite, then the list is impressive. In film you have Mickey Rooney (1935), Ian Holm (1968) and Stanley Tucci (1999). Laurence Olivier played him in a school production. Brent Spiner played him in a Disney TV programme in 1995. In The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2020) on TV he is given super powers and played by Jonathan Whitesell.


Conclusions

I find it incredible that a mythological character, first referenced in the early Middle Ages (twelfth century perhaps?) has had such a well-sustained career. So much so he still resonates with audiences today. He's metamorphasised (approriate for a shape-shifter!) from a hobgoblin, into a trickster, to a childish representation of an elf to something quite malevolent in Gaiman's work.


From my perspective, this longevity gave me the hook I was looking for in The Bastard from Fairyland AND The Chronicles of the Bastard, Robin Goodfellow. In the latter I explore the influences on Robin's long life as we see him through the centuries. We see the cause of his exile, the mistake he makes with Shakespeare and his encounter with a creature which Byron will later use. He meets other mythical fairy creatures like him too. Before finally encountering the two people who will launch him into my trilogy: The Bastard from Fairyland, The Bastard in the Dark, Revenge for the Bastard. You can find them all here.


Rather like the way the character has changed throughout history, my protagonist changes too.He moves from being the happy-go-lucky charmer that takes him to the pinnacle of fae society to become the bitter, resentful and war-weary character we meet in the books. Plus, we mustn't forget my decision to give this character an alter-ego. Puck is his inner demon. His psychotic character that he keeps suppressed, until events release him. I wanted to explore the nature his pseudo-schizophrenic personality. How do you deal with a "demon" that appears at times of great danger and who enjoys killing. In the end, when Fate appears to be treating you badly, you must conclude the fault lies with you. You are a bad person. Any attempts at redemption are never going to last because you will murder again and again. It's a character I've thoroughly enjoyed developing. And, from reactions I get from my readers, Robin is a popular character. It's why I wrote my anthology, it arose out of requests to find out more about Robin's 'savage backstory' as one reviewer described it.

When you look at his history, it's not surprising Robin has proved so inspirational!


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