The first version of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream that really made me angry – or, at least, the first one I remember – was from my undergrad. I remember that I was visiting a friend, and while she was busy one evening I took myself to her college’s production. It wasn’t just passing the time – already, by then, I had a deep love for the play and I was excited to see a new version. More specifically, I was excited to see their Puck.
I don’t remember when I first read the play, or what version I saw first. At this point, if someone told me that I’d been watching Midsummer since I was an overserious child checking VHS out from the library, I would probably believe them. What I know is that I have spent a large portion of my life watching different versions, weighing them against each other and against some prime version that exists only in my head. At the slightest provocation I’ll go on about staging and delivery – the mistreatment of Hippolyta, the relative likeability of the lovers, the decisions to elide or lean into Shakespeare’s ribald humor. But at the end of the day, every time, my feelings about the production hinge on the choices it makes about the fairies.
The college production had made liberal use of an airbrush, and the fairies emerged onto the stage in gossamer and pastels, looking like the flowers they wear as their namesakes. Looking back, the entire effect was very well done, but at the time, overfull of coursework on medieval texts and a deep disdain for the Victorians, I was livid. Their Oberon, all in blue from hairline to hemline, was stiff and unimposing. Their Titania, garbed in green ribbons and plastic vines, loved as tenderly as a Barbie doll, her arms bent carefully so as not to smudge their color. And their Puck was – silly.
I cannot say where I got my understanding of the Puck, Robin Goodfellow, that merry wanderer of the night, who serves Lord Oberon and sparks the lion’s share of the plot of Midsummer. I’ve known him for as long as I can remember as a being of mischief and no little danger, a force that has been leashed, but not tamed, by the King of the Fairies himself. I have always thought of him as a wild thing who, when his plans go awry, takes deep joy in the chaos and confusion they cause while still enjoying the happy ending his unwitting victims earn. I have thought of him as complicated and irreverent and a little bitter. And I have never found a production that agrees with me.
Most of them are like the undergrad’s Puck, toothless and tame, airbrushed in browns, their hair tangled and matted, grinning at the simple pleasure of a small and harmless trick that they will, never fear, put right again as soon as everyone has laughed. Some are ethereal, forgetting quite the task they’ve been sent on until their king enacts his measured punishment and sets them straight. Some are wry and worldly-wise, their tricks merely lessons to lead the unwitting lovers to a better understanding of their needs and eventual happiness.
None of them were my Puck, the Robin who would happily drug his own queen and leave at least one young Athenian with his heart in the wrong place. I saw him as a rock star, as a homeless man, as a lover himself – but never as the reading I always, for no apparent reason, expected from the text.
It was probably to be expected that I started writing him myself.
When my partner and I were just getting to know each other, I told zir about one of the characters in my ever-in-progress novel, Rob Goodman. “Obviously,” I explained, “I based him on Robin Goodfellow. I’ve been writing him in some form for, oh-” I searched my memory, found nothing, and shrugged. “Maybe ten years? With role-plays and things like that, before the book.”
Ze looked interested, shifting forward. “I didn’t know you worked with the fae.”
I felt myself go pale. “Oh, I – no, I don’t. He’s just a character, you know? Just, like -” I shrugged. “Like, I love him, don’t get me wrong, he’s a bastard. But I don’t work with him. I just write him.”
Ze looked doubtful. “What’s the difference?” ze asked. “You got him from somewhere, right?”
I shook my head emphatically. “No, I mean – sort of. But he’s different. He’s more like a part of me, I guess?” That didn’t seem right, not entirely, but the thin protest of intuition didn’t stand much of a chance. I quashed it quickly, and moved on. “I definitely don’t work with the Neighbors. Too dangerous.”
Ze let it go at that, and we moved on to other conversations. But the tingle of intuition lingered, and I started to wonder, in my quiet moments, exactly where it was coming from.
Here is what I know about Robin Goodfellow, the Puck, the mythic figure that influenced Shakespeare’s work.
He’s old – old enough that records in the 1500s talk about working with him as a practice that was already fading, only remembered by grandmothers.
He’s famous – famous enough that, in one old text, some of the good folk in England are referred to as plural, “robingoodfellowes.” When he comes up, historians tend to talk about him as one of the main figures in fairy lore for a certain time period.
He’s complicated – a household spirit that travels between farms, a hobgoblin who travels with and may be related to fairy royalty, two names that were merged over time into one spirit.
He’s a household name – high schoolers across the US read about him, theaters produce him, Pagan festivals namedrop him in Midsummer rituals.
All of this is true – and yet I have only found a handful of Pagans practicing today who work with him.
My partner and I started digging around some time after that first conversation. We were writing together, by that point, and as my relationship with the Neighbors improved I thought, well – why couldn’t I work with him properly?
Ze had started exploring the idea too, in zir own practice. Collaborating, we reached out, connected, began both our own and woven practices, but neither of us knew the first thing about the modern fairy faith. Wanting to do this right, we reached out to our usual connections, asking around for anyone else who worked with Robin. Then, to message boards. Then further.
“I’ve never heard of anyone actually working with him,” most practitioners told us. “Are you sure it’s not someone else using his name?”
“Oh, he doesn’t actually exist,” others said – usually while I was in the middle of another dusty book about his folklore. “That’s just Herne. Or Pan. Or Cernunnos. Or Loki. Or…”
When we insisted that the spirit we were getting to know was not, in fact, Odin in a clever disguise (for we both knew the Old Man too well and too intimately to entertain that theory for long), people lapsed into confused silence. The few who claimed to have worked directly with Robin as something other than an aspect of the Horned God were cavalier about it.
“I worked with him for a while,” one practitioner told my partner. “But it didn’t last long. He was just here to deliver a package.”
Ze came back to me spitting mad, declaiming the story as ze poured milk into the bowl on his makeshift altar. “Why,” ze asked, “doesn’t anyone just love him for him?”
“Maybe people got tired of the same Midsummer ritual sometime in the 90s,” one of my friends said, when I posed the same question. “Maybe they think he’s just Shakespeare, you know?”
“I know someone who works with a spirit mentioned in one line of a saga,” I said, trying to control my patience. “I know people who build houses for any fairy who wants a free roof over their head. You’re telling me that someone who has songs and plays and ballads written about him-”
“Maybe because not everybody likes to set themselves a little bit on fire, even though it’s pretty,” one of my friends joked. “Which is a shame.”
“We must not be going to the same Beltanes,” I shot back. But that didn’t make sense to me, either. Too many of the spirits I know who are openly dangerous have vast and growing communities – and Robin has 400-odd years of propaganda on his side, rendering him a merry trickster in Stanley Tucci horns and eliding any hint of danger. “He’s in Sabrina, for crying out loud.”
“You mean ‘for Puck’s sake,’” they laughed.
It wasn’t even that we weren’t finding the right people. On a wild chance I reached out to a scholar in the field of modern Pagan practice, and heard back almost immediately. “You are, I am afraid, perfectly correct. His name crops up, but it does not extend to actually working with him.”
Another long shot reached out with similar news. “Have you considered,” they added, “That he might be Herne the Hunter?”
“Why is it so impossible for him to be himself?” I asked my computer screen. “Why is that the last option anyone considers?”
At a certain point, in any discernment process, the time comes to consider whether you might be the one in the wrong.
By this point I was sure enough in my practice that I felt like I knew Puck well, had almost certainly known him for years. He was not the character I’d been writing, not quite – or he was, but only in the way that the inspiration for any fiction is reflected in the work. The Robin I had expected from Shakespeare was closer, but as I got to know him he was sad in odd moments and short sighted, headstrong and clever and anxious. He delighted in making us laugh, slurped up our annoyance and the mix of sweets and whiskey that we got him with the same satiety, lingered and left messages and had a tendency to panic if he thought we might stop paying him attention. After years of working with deities, he was volatile and human in ways that took us both by surprise.
“At this point,” my partner said, “I will settle for anyone who knows anything about the Neighbors. Doesn’t even have to be him. I am just having a lot of culture shock.”
“I mean,” I said, hesitantly. “Maybe it’s not him. We should check, right?”
“Again?” There had been days of research and readings by this point, checking and rechecking our answers. A circle of two practitioners, no matter how good they think they are, can quickly become an echo chamber. We both wanted to make sure we were doing our due diligence.
“I’d feel worse if we hadn’t asked everybody we know,” my partner said, sullen, but we both went for new readings, asking again. Is it him? Are we wrong? Why isn’t there anyone else?
Yes, it’s him, the readings reassured us. You’re not wrong. We don’t know.
“Does it matter?” one friend asked us. “If it’s not hurting you – if it’s a good thing, that’s adding to your practice – does it matter why, or what anybody else thinks?”
“I just would like there to be a community,” I said, shrugging. “It’s lonely, without one – and if it’s lonely for us, how must he feel?”
Maybe there is something to be said for the mystery of spirituality, questions that remain unanswered that slowly form the foundations of practice. Maybe a thousand mediocre productions of a play each year even out, in the long run, to something like worship. Maybe there is nothing here to question.
Be that as it may. I rearranged my altar today, clearing off a space for some fabric leaves, a hand-thrown mug, and a tiny mask. I took a small carton of whipping cream and filled the cup, spread good butter over rich bread, poured honey onto both. “If we shadows,” I muttered, smiling, thinking about the dreams I’ve been forgetting, the ones filled with frantic energy and meandering plots that fade upon waking. “Hail the honest Puck, Robin Goodfellow,” I murmured into the mug, and blew over it to add that gift, as well.
It was a simple offering, as grounded in tradition as I could make it. I couldn’t help but feel that he deserved more.