You’re late for work, but you can’t find your car keys. You walk down the street and suddenly trip over nothing. You turn to sit in your chair, only to fall flat on your bum. Your printer jams minutes before that final paper is due. And your laptop hard drive crashes two hours before you leave for your business trip. (I was so favored as to experience that final scenario last month). These are the mini-tragedies of the mundane that plague our lives.
Today, when these minor misfortunes befall us we have little recourse but to grind our teeth in frustration and try not to lose our cool. Yet, our medieval and renaissance forbearers had a better option: they could blame Puck.
Puck, for those who never read or don’t remember the Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was the woodland faery, “a shrewd and knavish sprite,” who afflicted the young lovers (and that clumsy Bottom) with his tricks and pranks. Puck’s heredity, however, springs from a source older and broader than Shakespeare’s fine pen. Puck was one of a sub-species in the Medieval “Great Chain of Being”: the Longaevi. Included in this category were the Fauns, Satyrs, Nymphs, Elves, Trolls, Gnomes, and the like; indeed, they might be called all creatures Faerie, in the classical conception of the word.
Those faeries like Puck took a mischievous, but never malicious, delight in sowing mischief into the lives of we hapless mortals. And we have enough medieval historical sources to know that it was not only in playwright’s pages where Puck and his ilk got the blame for some small daily misfortune or another.
It’s easy enough to chortle at the credulous acceptance of such ‘superstitions’ by our pre-modern ancestors. But before basking in our modern superiority, may I ask whether we are the better for banishing Puck from our lives?
I would argue that it’s more consoling to think that someone is playing a small joke at your expense than to writhe in frustration when encountering such trials. Thinking of Puck’s laughter makes it easier to laugh off some of the moment’s stresses. (And lest we think this is merely a pre-modern habit of mind, note that the idea of a Puck has been carefully smuggled into the 21st century: how often do we blame the abstract “Murphy” of Murphy’s Law fame when some minor catastrophe inevitably occurs at the worst possible moment.)
Simply put, it’s psychologically comforting to be able to blame life’s small misfortunes on a playful imp than admit that life might just be out of control, that our best laid plans oft go awry. But there also lies the main problem with Puck: isn’t blaming an imaginary phantasm for our problems–emotionally calming though it may be–ultimately unhealthy for mind and soul?
In answer to such an objection, I can think of three possible ways to keep the spirit of Puck alive–and healthy–in our lives:
1) The Liberal approach: Perhaps the simplest response is to fully admit that Puck does not literally exist, but having done so, use the metaphorical concept as a helpful coping mechanism (ala Murphy’s Law).
2) The Literalist approach: Puck, or spirits like him, may actually exist. As a theist, if you admit the possibility of the existence of any unseen beings, then why not faeries? One could argue that 1500+ years of testimonial evidence and our own contemporary personal experience, plus the inability to directly disprove their existence, is strong enough to at least make room for the plausibility of Puck-like spirits.
3) The last and most sensible approach, for my money, is to learn the lesson that Puck would teach us: that we mortals easily fool ourselves into thinking that life is under our control. When we encounter these mini-misfortunes in the margin’s of our lives, we should use them to admit our weakness. Too often we are tempted to trust in our own abilities, our own planning, our own wisdom even—all of which will inevitable let us down. In those times when Puck seems to be at play, perhaps we can find the handiwork of a much Greater Spirit, gently reminding His frail creatures in Whom they should place their trust.
Life’s letdowns are unavoidable. The wise, however, can use “Puck’s” small humiliations as lessons in humility.