Who Is Puck?

H. R. Millar, Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill

I have two Pucks in mind. One, my local Wealden version, is from Kipling’s Puck of Pooks Hill. The other is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Kipling’s Puck describes himself as ‘the oldest Old Thing in England‘, and that continuity with the past is essential to his nature. He also tells us he is the last remaining representative of the People of the Hills, the Old Ones, who long inhabited and crafted this land, and are now maligned and mocked, when they are not forgotten.

Puck is, in old-fashioned terms, the very genius of the Weald. Puck knows and loves the land; every wood, fold and hill, every stream and shaw, every ditch, mill and dyke, from the High Weald down to the marshes and the sea. And more, he knows all the peoples who have lived, built and died there. He has seen all that has come and gone over the centuries, and can ‘see deeper into a millstone than most’, to use the local saying.

Puck is always speaking of trees, which are very much an integral part of the landscape. His signature phrase, the incantation by which he manifests his magic, is ‘By Oak, Ash, and Thorn!’ For the Weald is a land of trees, and they, like Puck, have deep roots and have shaped and been shaped by the peoples and the very land itself.

A rather twee Puck, by Arthur Rackham

Puck is a storyteller, but don’t mistake him for a mere entertainer. He knows the power of stories is far greater than that of any of the lessons we are taught, or any belief or doctrine, come to that. Puck knows that we need to embed knowledge in narrative if we are to take it to heart, and especially if we want to pass it on. We need to be located in the world and in a particular time, as seen through a continuity of stories, told and retold down the generations. Transmitted narrative is the very heart of what it means to be human. For is it is not our ability to pass along information in the form of language, especially written narrative, that above all else, truly makes us, us? Puck reminds us,

‘That is the sorcery of books,’ said Puck. ‘I warned thee they were wise children. All people can be wise by reading of books.’

‘A Centurion of the Thirtieth’

But Kipling’s Puck chooses to reveal himself only to children, knowing that only they are both open-minded enough, and sufficiently uncorrupted by people, to be able to receive his stories. Perhaps I should have heeded that lesson myself.

Shakespeare’s Puck is not quite so child-friendly. He reminds us that Puck can be a somewhat disruptive character, a “shrewd and knavish sprite”, quite mischievous and a committed trickster. He is Jester to King Oberon and fulfils his role as sacred clown, satirising, with relish.

Puck mischievously ‘creatively’ misinterprets his instructions

This disruptive character is also a very old folk tradition in Sussex and elsewhere in England and indeed worldwide. Known as the Lord of Misrule, Jack in the Green, and many names besides, and Shakespeare names him Robin Goodfellow. He has licence to upset the normal rules and challenge the powers that normally restrict and regulate. He embodies a form of creative anarchy, punctures the self-regard of the pompous and self-important, and releases the down-trodden from their oppression, at least temporarily.

Illustration from the title page of Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1629)

Puck is also Everyman, for who hasn’t nodded along with Puck’s exclamation, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, and longed to prick their self-regard with some anarchic clowning?

Puck, then, is mischievous to a purpose (for how dull is a story without peril?), but means no lasting harm. A wise man knows that often we need to be made to feel uncomfortable if we are stir from easy self-content.

And so, in the end, I’ll let Puck’s valediction stand for my own.

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare 1596