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Friday, August 27, 2021

Rhys - Robin Goodfellow - Keeping the Public in Public Domain

Puck (1789) by Joshua Reynolds
Today's story goes back in English folklore to Old English about a character known as Puck or by one of his other names as Robin Goodfellow in our story's title.  There are other name variations as well.  Hob for the shortened Rob or Robert, and also Hobgoblin.  Wikipedia traces the earliest written reference in the Oxford English Dictionary back to 1531.  I first heard about him in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when Puck is introduced and also called Robin Goodfellow.  At the time I had no idea this mischievous spirit was something an audience in the late 16th and early 17th century would know by both names quite well.

Interest and knowledge of this prankster continued into the next century with the painting by the great English painter, Joshua Reynolds, needing no explanation for its title.  

Even the word "puckish" may be unfamiliar to many today.  Looking up the word's meaning using various dictionaries gives a fine introduction to the character: impish, whimsical, cheeky, devilish, mischievous, teasing, naughty, sly, playful, whimsical, roguish, frolicsome, waggish, sportive, but most often impish.  We are told somebody who is puckish plays tricks on people, is up to a little trouble, and might play practical jokes on you, but they're more silly than mean spirited.  

The Welsh-English writer, Ernest Rhys, calls Robin Goodfellow a "Knave" and at times calls his actions "knavish."  That's so thoroughly British that I always wondered if a knave was a title somebody had at a royal court, rather like the nursery rhyme:

The Queen of Hearts
She made some tarts,
    All on a summer's day;
The Knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts,
    And took them clean away.

The poem goes on to have the King of Hearts beat the Knave who then promises to steal no more.

The knavish Robin Goodfellow may deserve a good beating, but we'll have to catch the story to see what happens.  I might give all I've said so far or a briefer version of it to talk about "knave", "knavish", "Puck" and "puckish", all good bits for vocabulary.  I'd also explain the story has a "red-faced clown", but it isn't a circus clown, merely a rather dim-witted man Robin meets.

With that explanation, I'd tell the story, but adapt it for modern listeners.  Rhys has the story in Fairy Gold; A Book of Classic English Fairy Tales.  It's not easily found online, but if you go to Project Gutenberg you can read it in Ada and Eleanor Skinner's The Turquoise Story Book: Stories and Legend of Summer and NatureI am not going to give the original here, but instead my slightly modernized version omitting the "thees" and "thous" and other things not helpful for many of today's listeners.  I will, however, include the drawing by Herbert Cole which opened the story in Fairy Gold as it shows Robin, the "red-faced clown", and a certain horse.


Once upon a time, a great while ago, when men did eat and drink less, and were more honest, and knew no knavery, there used to be many harmless sprites called fairies, dancing in fairy rings on green hills with sweet music. Sometimes they were invisible, and sometimes took various shapes. Many mad pranks they would play, such as pinching untidy girls black and blue, and misplacing things in disorderly houses; but lovingly would they treat good girls, giving them silver and other pretty toys, which they would leave for them, sometimes in their shoes, other times in their pockets, sometimes in bright basins and other clean containers.

Now it happened that in those happy days, a baby was born in a house which the fairies liked. This baby was a boy, and the fairies, to show their pleasure, brought many pretty things, coverlets and delicate linen for his cradle; and woodcock and quail for the christening, at which there was so much good cheer that the clerk almost forgot to say the baby's name—Robin Goodfellow.  So much for the birth and christening of little Robin.

When Robin was grown to six years of age, he was so knavish that all the neighbors complained about him; for, no sooner was his mother's back turned, he was in one knavish action or other, so that his mother was forced (to avoid the complaints) to take him with her to market or wherever she went or rode on horseback. But this helped little or nothing, for, if he rode before her, then he would make awful faces at all he met: if he rode behind her, then he would clap his hand on the horse's tail; so that his mother was weary of the many complaints that came about him. Yet she didn't know how to beat him properly for it, because she never saw him do anything deserving blows. The complaints came daily, so his mother promised him a whipping. Robin didn't like that, and to avoid it, he ran away, and left his mother crying for him.

After Robin had traveled a good day's journey from his mother's house he sat down, and, being tired, he fell asleep. No sooner had sleep closed his eye-lids, but he thought he saw many little people dancing about him, and he heard such music Orpheus, a famous Greek fiddler (had he still been alive), compared to one of these would have been a poor musician. As delights usually don't last long, so  these ended sooner than Robin wanted.  Sadly he awoke, and found lying by him a scroll.  On it was written in golden letters:—

"Robin, my only son and heir,

How to live take you no care:

By nature you have cunning shifts,

Which I'll increase with other gifts.

You have the power to change your shape,

To horse, to hog, to dog, to ape,

Transformed thus, by any means

See none you harm but knaves and queens:

But love you those that honest be,

And help them in necessity.

Do this and all the world shall know

The pranks of Robin Goodfellow,

For by that name you called shall be

To age's last posterity;

And if you keep my just command,

One day you shall see Fairy-land!"

Robin, having read this, was very joyful, yet he longed to know whether he had the power or not, and to try it he wished for some meat.  Immediately a fine dish of roast veal was before him. Then he wished for plum-pudding; right away he had it. This he liked well, and, because he was weary, he wished he was a horse: no sooner was his wish ended, but he was changed into as fine a horse as you could see, and leaped as nimbly as if he had been one at least a month. Then he wished himself a black dog, and he was so; then a green tree, and he was so. So from one thing to another, till he was quite sure that he could change himself to anything he liked.

Full of delight at his new powers, Robin Goodfellow set out, eager to put them to the test.

As he was crossing a field, he met a red-faced clown and called him to stop.

"Friend," said he, "what is a clock?"

"A thing," answered the clown, "that shows the time of the day."

"Why, then," said Robin Goodfellow, "be you a clock and tell me what time of the day it is."

"I owe you no service," answered the clown again, "but, because you shall think yourself owing me, know that it is the same time of the day as it was yesterday at this time!"

These shrewd answers upset Robin Goodfellow, so he promised revenge on the clown, which he did in this manner.

Robin Goodfellow turned himself into a bird and followed this fellow, who was going into a field a little way away from that place to catch a horse eating grass. The horse, being wild, jumped over the hedge, and the fellow followed after it, but the horse was too swift for him. Robin was glad, for now was the perfect time to have his revenge.

Robin shaped himself exactly like the horse that the clown followed, and so stood right before him. Then the clown took hold of the horse's mane and got on his back, but he had not ridden far when, with a stumble, Robin hurled his rider over his head, so that the rider almost broke his neck. But then again the horse stood still and let the clown mount him once more.

The clown now started to ride through a pond of water of good-sized depth, which covered the road. No sooner did he ride into the very middle of the pond than Robin Goodfellow turned himself into a fish, and so left him with nothing but the saddle on which he was riding between his legs. Meanwhile the fish swiftly swam to the bank. And then Robin, changed to a naughty boy again, ran away laughing, "Ho, ho, hoh!" leaving the poor clown half drowned and covered with mud.

As Robin went along a green hedge-side he started singing:—

"And can the doctor make sick men well?

And can the gypsy a fortune tell

Without lily, germander, and cockle-shell?

With sweet-brier,

And bon-fire

And strawberry wine,

And columbine."

And when he had sung this, he wondered what he should next turn himself into. Then, as he saw the smoke rise from the chimneys of the next town, he thought to himself it would be great sport to walk the streets with a broom on his shoulder, and cry:

"Chimney sweep."

But when Robin did this, and someone called him, then Robin ran away laughing, "Ho, ho, hoh!"

Next he set about to imitate a beggar on crutches, begging very pitifully; but when a stout shop keeper came out of his shop to give Robin money, again he skipped off nimbly, laughing in his naughty manner.

That same night, he knocked at many men's doors, and when in the dark the servants came out, he blew out their candle and vanished in the dark street, with his "Ho, ho, hoh!"

All these tricks Robin played, day and night.  He had many songs, one of which he sang in his chimney-sweeper's disguise:

"Black I am from head to foot,

And all does come from chimney soot.

Then, maidens, come and cherish him

That makes your chimneys neat and trim."

But it happened that, on the very next night of his playing the chimney-sweep, Robin had a summons from the land where there are no chimneys. For King Oberon, seeing Robin Goodfellow do so many merry tricks, called him out of his bed with these words, saying:—

"Robin, my son, come; quickly rise:

First stretch, then yawn, and rub your eyes;

For you must go with me tonight,

And taste of Fairy-land's delight."

Robin, hearing this, rose and went to him. There were with King Oberon many fairies, all dressed in green. All these, with King Oberon, did welcome Robin Goodfellow into their company. Oberon took Robin by the hand and led him in a fairy dance: their musician had an excellent bag-pipe made of a wren's quill and the skin of a Greenland fly. This pipe was so shrill and so sweet that a Scottish pipe, compared to it, would no more come near it than a Jaw's-harp does to an Irish harp. After they had danced, King Oberon said to Robin:—

"Whene'er you hear the piper blow,

Round and round the fairies go!

And nightly you must with us dance,

In meadows where the moonbeams glance,

And make the circle, hand in hand—

That is the law of Fairy-land!

There you shall see what no man knows;

While sleep the eyes of men does close!"

So marched they, with their piper in front, to the Fairy-land. There King Oberon showed Robin Goodfellow many secrets, which he never showed the rest of the world. And there, in Fairy-land, does Robin Goodfellow live now these many long years.


I confess I'm currently in a Shakespearian mood after seeing an outdoor performance of MacBeth recently.  Shakespeare's such fun, especially outdoors, and this has me wishing I could catch again a performance of A Midsummer Night's DreamTaking out the nearly Shakespearian sound of the story, as Rhys wrote it, especially leaves me sighing for the Bard.  Maybe next summer.

In the meantime I hope you enjoyed this medieval "Dennis the Menace" who became a member of Oberon's court.  (Yes, Oberon is a part of A Midsummer Night's Dream, too.)


This is part of a series of postings of stories under the category, "Keeping the Public in Public Domain."  The idea behind Public Domain was to preserve our cultural heritage after the authors and their immediate heirs were compensated.  I feel strongly current copyright law delays this intent on works of the 20th century.  My own library of folklore includes so many books within the Public Domain I decided to share stories from them.  I hope you enjoy discovering new stories.  

At the same time, my own involvement in storytelling regularly creates projects requiring research as part of my sharing stories with an audience.  Whenever that research needs to be shown here, the publishing of Public Domain stories will not occur that week.  This is a return to my regular posting of a research project here.  (Don't worry, this isn't dry research, my research is always geared towards future storytelling to an audience.)  Response has convinced me that "Keeping the Public in Public Domain" should continue along with my other postings as often as I can manage it.
Other Public Domain story resources I recommend-
  • There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection.  I have long recommended it and continue to do so.  He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key.
  • You may have noticed I'm no longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking specific types of stories.  There's another site, FairyTalez claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales, folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.

    Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
The email list for storytellers, Storytell, discussed Online Story Sources and came up with these additional suggestions:            
         - David K. Brown -
         - Richard Martin -
         - Spirit of Trees -
         - Story-Lovers - is now only accessible through the Wayback Machine, described below, but the late Jackie Baldwin's wonderful site lives on there, fully searchable manually (the Google search doesn't work), at .  It's not easy, but go to snapshot for October 22 2016  and you can click on SOS: Searching Out Stories to scroll down through the many story topics and click on the story topic that interests you.
       - World of Tales - 
           - Zalka Csenge Virag - doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links.  Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job.  In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it.  Possibly searches maintained it.  Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine.  It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!
    Somebody as of this writing whose stories can still be found by his website is the late Chuck Larkin -  I prefer to list these sites by their complete address so they can be found by the Wayback Machine, a.k.a., when that becomes the only way to find them.
You can see why I recommend these to you. Have fun discovering even more stories!


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