A retelling of the ballad of the Scottish borders
Do you like prank(e)s? Do you like jests? Do you like them mad and merry? Do you like characters who are cruel, capricious and also have super powers? Well if so, we’ve got just the tale for you! Musical credits, sources and more at: https://talesofbritainandireland.com/episode-25-robin-goodfellow-his-mad-pranks-and-merry-jests/ #myth #mythology #folklore #legends
Ho Ho Ho!
Do you like prank(e)s? Do you like jests? Do you like them mad and merry? Do you like characters who are cruel, capricious and also have super powers? Do you like a big mish mash of fairy lore all smushed together into one character like a big bulging brick filled sack?
Well if so, we’ve got just the tale for you!
This is also about the time the episodes start to get quite a bit longer. So get prepped for that!
“In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognize our brave friend Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution.“Karl Marx
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The story in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on….
The midwife knew that it was more common than you might think for a new mother to claim her baby belonged to the King of the Fairies. There were lots of practical reasons for not revealing more than that.
It was much rarer when, a few minutes after the child was born the mother’s modest little cottage had a room suddenly full of exotic gifts – silks and meats and breads and wines and even furniture, that had appeared out of thin air.
The half fairy child was named Robin. And growing up he was a terror. A proper Dennis the Menace type, forever pulling pranks and pulling faces at strangers when his mother wasn’t watching. Generally being unpleasant.
Eventually his mother had enough. And reasonably enough by the standards of the time she told her errant child he’d be getting a spanking if he didn’t learn to behave.
Which was apparently too much for Robin. Having matured at an accelerated rate he was not having this, and in a fit of teenage rebellion he ran away from home.
And we never hear of his mother again. Which honestly seems pretty heart-breaking to me.
It was not heart-breaking for the disobedient Robin.
He was off into the big wide world for a life that would be all his own.
He first found himself gainful employment with a tailor, taking on a many years-long apprenticeship. And his time there was for the most part unremarkable. Robin seemed to much mature during the course of it and over time he became well respected by his master.
But all of that meant diddly squat in the end – for that wild fairy nature came out and ruined it all.
The tailor had been working on a wedding dress all day. A late commission that had to be ready for the very next day. He’d persevered with it and it was almost done. Just the sleeves needed attached. But it was very late and the tailor had been working all day. But this was well within Robin’s capabilities.
“My lad” said the tailor, “whip the sleeves on this gown and then come to bed yourself”.
Robin nodded enthusiastically.
And no sooner was his master climbing the wooden hill to Bedfordshire than Robin had hung up the dress, took into his hand the as yet unattached sleeves and, with great relish, whipped the rest of the dress with them, ruining it in the process.
The next day the horrified tailor awoke to find the destruction. He asked what had happened and Robin told him straight.
“I meant that you should attach the sleeves to the dress swiftly,” said the tailor through gritted teeth.
Nothing more could be said for that instant the woman arrived for her dress. The tailor hurriedly hid the piece of it in another room and then opened the door. He sat his guest down. Asked Robin to bring through the remnants (meaning of yesterday’s meal), through for his guest.
And you just know what Robin did.
And as the horrified bride looked at what should have been her gown Robin left, never to return.
If you’re hoping for a comeuppance for Robin, I’m afraid you’re going to be sore disappointed.
For next in his series of adventures Robin would receive pretty much the opposite of that. Pretty much a reward for his awful treatment of the people in his life.
The young man fell asleep under a tree and had Morpheus sent visions of indistinct figures, clad in rich colourful garb filled. He awoke to find a scroll next to him, one which had not been there before.
Being a curious sort he unfurled it. There was a long rambling poem inside. And Robin might have thrown it away. Except that it was addressed to him. And signed by Oberon, King of the Faeries. Robin’s father.
“Robin, My only son and heir
How to live, Take thou no care”
And only gets worse from there, so we’ll go for a summary.
It appeared on careful reading that the king of Fairies was, apropos of nothing, granting Robin two powers: To have whatever physical object he wished immediately, and to have the power to shape shift: to take the form of any beast or person that he desired.
Which seems overpowered to me.
Robin was of course delighted. He tested his power out at once, wishing for some meat and then some beer. And *pop* In front of him was meat and beer.
Then he turned himself into a horse.
A whole new life of crazy adventures with these abilities stretched out in front of Robin. It seemed he found his calling as a morally ambiguous superman – sometimes doing good and at other times mischief.
A short smattering of examples:
Crossing a field he heard the cries of a woman in distress. He rushed to find her being attacked by a man who had only evil intent. Robin turned himself first into a rabbit and ran between the man’s legs, and there he turned from rabbit to horse.
There was a sickening crunch from the attacker’s crotch as the horse form grew upwards, but that wasn’t the end of it as Robin followed this up by riding off and tipping the man into a briar patch.
He returned to the astonished woman, gave a winning smile, which is easy as a horse, let out a “Ho, Ho, ho!” and away he went!
And from this point on “Ho, Ho, Ho!” is pretty much his catchphrase. One he had many centuries before it was taken by a jolly bearded man.
Next he found some slightly drunk farmers heading home across a dark moor. And because he’d done a good deed I suppose he felt he had to do an ill one. He turned into a light, and they, thinking it was the lights of the village, walked towards it.
Until he changed and appeared elsewhere, confusing the men no end. And this continued the whole night through, them stumbling from false light to false light, until the morning sun’s rays appeared and Robin gave a “Ho, Ho Ho”, and wished the men a good night.
I don’t want to overuse it but capricious is a word that serves us very well when describing Robin.
Next the mercurial faerie heard of a money lender who was hoarding the wealth of a town. Living in luxury while those around him fair starved. And Robin decided to right this wrong by pulling the old Scroogeroo on him (many centuries before Scrooge was a thing).
One dark and wintery night he came to the man’s window in the form of a great Raven, all cawing and croaking. A clear omen of death. The old miser closed the curtain’s on the bird. But this was merely the warm-up act, for later when the man lay asleep Robin took the form of a ghost. And this was a medieval ghost so think less spooky sheet and more awful glowing skeleton with bits of flesh and skin hanging off of it…. proper terrifying stuff.
And into the miser’s room he came, brandishing a burning torch he had willed into existence.
The terrified man awoke to the sight of the ghostly figure chanting a song at him: a song that finished up with:
“Do good with money while you may
Thou has not long on earth to stay
Do good I say, or day and night
I hourly thus will thee afright”
There was only one real response a man could give to such a thing, and the next morning the miser was ordering roast turkeys all over the place and very soon he was a completely reformed character.
At other times Robin would creep into houses at night and do the housework at super speed simply because it amused him so.
He was naked as he did it for some reason, singing to himself all the while… tackle swinging in the open.
Seeing this rather disturbing site, a kind maid left Robin clothes some day. But the nakedness was completely his choice and he was offended. He sang her a little song about how she should have left him food instead, but because she’d offered him clothes he’d never come back. “Ho Ho Ho!”
Disorder! Madness! Chaos! Utter capriciousness!
Once he invited himself to a wedding party, disguised as a fiddler (which may just have been him playing a fiddle). For a while he entertained the party. Everything went well.
Right up to the point that he blew out all the candles and then ran around in the dark groping people madly at super speeds. The candles were relit and then everyone started to fight and accuse one another. “Ho! Ho! Ho!” went Robin.
But he was not done with this party yet. He played more tunes, everything eventually calmed down and at the very end of the night a huge posset was brought into the room. Enough for all the party.
As we’ve established Robin could create anything he wanted. But that didn’t seem to matter. Because he wanted this posset. So, logically, he turned himself into a bear.
Guests fled, though none were pursued by a bear because bear/Robin was eating the Posset and feeling pretty pleased with himself.
And so on and so forth. For many a year Robin roamed embodying the cruel and random nature of the universe.
But his actions had not gone unnoticed.
He fell asleep under a tree, just as he had many a year ago. And again he dreamt of strange figures. But when he awoke this time they were all around him.
They – the denizens of fairy land. And at their head was Oberon himself.
“My son” said his father, “let me introduce you”. And a great many faeries told Robin about themselves, and about the particular kinds of mischief they would get up to.
There were Pinch and Pach – the former would pinch the idle, the latter would mess with their hair.
There was Gull who stole away children and left changelings in their place, Grim who scared travellers at night. There was Sib and Tib, Lick and Lull and a great many more.
And there was Tom Thumb. As he was telling his story the sound of bagpipes came from a nearby field. A shepherd entertaining himself. This startled Tom. And this so annoyed his fairy brethren that they took invisible forms and went and broke the man’s bagpipes.
Robin watched this with unrestrained glee. Yes. These were very much his people.
And when all the introductions were done off they all went to fairy land, where more Mad Pranks and Merry Jests awaited them all.
A posset you ask?
I know this’ll be the first thing on most people’s mind after listening to the episode. Unless it is that I am but an ignoramus and everyone knows about possets but was just not telling me.
On the left below is Wikipedia’s picture of a modern posset, and it describes a Posset as “a cream, sugar and citrus-based confection”. This does not seem Bear-transformation worthy.
The right displays a Posset pot, and though no posset can be seen I believe that if you were imagine it filled with creamy sugary goodness it is just about possible to begin to understand Robin’s motivation.
Robin’s incongruous sabbath
If you google Robin Goodellow you’ll notice that the standard picture of Robin (to the right) shows him to appear very similar to the devil, what with the cloven hooves, the broomstick and all the sabbathy goings on, none of which feature in the story.
Woodcut images were often re-used when they were easily to hand, a process not too dissimilar to myself using images I can get for free to put on this website actually.
This one made its way on to the front of the most famous and reprinted pamphlet about Robin. Though it had nothing really to do with him its general vibe and aesthetic caught the imagination of many throughout the ages and in the absence of a better go to image this became the standard.
So while it doesn’t look like him it’s largely what we’ve got.
Other Robin depictions: Puck all!
Just as the image above doesn’t represent Robin Goodfellow in his own story the Robin of that story is, as a whole, eclipsed by the figure of Puck from Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream, who is also very occasionally referred to as Robin Goofdellow.
So lots of the other artistic, and indeed literary depictions of Robin are based on Puck. Which is fair at least in that Puck as a character does appear slightly earlier than the Robin Goodfellow of this story.
Where Robin does appear separately from Puck he is often semi-conflated with the much famous Robin Hood. Taken together these two factors mean that the Robin of the story in this episode is not much represented, for good or for ill, even though the name Robin Goodfellow is fairly common.
A lot of the later artworks, particularly Victorian rare based off of Puck and many show him as very young, which given the content of the Robin Goodfellow story would be inappropriate.
And even really for Puck in Midsummer night’s dream to be frank, but this is in keeping with the transformation in perceptions of English fairies into diminutive and/or infantile beings who very much do not not get up to the raucous x-rated shenanigans Robin does.
Anyway, here’s a miscellaneous selection of public domain images thrown together from the internet with one (count it!) actually featuring the scene at the end of the story where the denizens of fairy land find Robin sleeping. I’ve filtered out all the most egregiously Midsummer Night’s Dream ones, especially anything featuring donkey’s heads!
“Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends”– Puck, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare
St. Austin and the Longtails
Did a little bit more digging into this whole “Kentish longtails” business, and it seems that not only Kenitsh folk but all Englishmen (and perhaps women and others) were once said to have tails. You can read many more handily compiled instances here: Works of John Skelton – Notes to verses against Dundas – but the St. Austin legend is below.
Early Christian saints were some seriously brutal BAMFs.
“After this Saint Austin entered in to Dorsetshire, and came in to a town where as were wicked people & refused his doctrine and preaching utterly & drove him out of the town casting on him the tails of thornback or like fishes, wherefore he besought almighty god to show his judgement on them, and god sent to them a shameful token, for the children that were born after in that place had tails as it is said, till they had repented them. It is said commonly that this fell at Stroud in Kent, but blessed be God at this day is no such deformity.”
So obviously this episode is tied up very closely indeed with fairy lore – the character of Robin really being a kind of uncomfortable fit of lots of different kinds of fairy lore in one figure with all that didn’t fit put into the fairies he meets at the end.
On the subject of fairies There are literally hundreds of books on this topic I could point you to, and I’m not going to start trying to cover the whole topic here. But if you are interested further I would strongly recommend the website British Fairies as a huge incredibly detailed resource on the topic.
While I did a fair bit of research into fairy lore for this one it was kind of all over the place, and the main source for the story really is simply the reprint of the original text:
– The Mad Pranks and Merry jests of Robin Goodfellow
Musical credits for Episode 25: Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests
Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses (click to expand)