I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the importance of tricksters in folklore and fairy tales. I know it’s fairly well-trod ground to start looking at the mythical value of tricksters like Coyote and Loki and Hermes and all the other devious deities and demigods who so love to upend the orderly world in favor of a little creative chaos. I’m not going to dive into specific tricksters here (though I do intend to do some exploring of North American tricksters in the not too distant future), but I wanted to look instead at the folkloric need for these figures. After all, they’re not exactly protagonists, and they’re not exactly antagonists, but they are something else entirely. Their very identification and definition is tricky. So what is the trickster’s role in the tales we tell? According to Jane Yolen, author/editor of Favorite Folktales from Around the World:
“The figure of the trickster can be found in every folklore tradition. The trickster as hero or as god plays an important role: Anansi in Africa is sometimes heroic, sometimes foolish, with definite supernatural powers. LIkewise his famous Native American counterparts, Coyote and Rabbit, act as both fooler and fooled….The German Tyll Ulenspiegel, a popular peasant jester, actually lived in the fourteenth century, but within another two centuries had become a legend around whose names volumes of anecdotes and jests had accumulated…Whether the trickster is an animal such as Brer Rabbit or Raven or the wily fox, or supremely human like the German master thief, he plays his tricks out to the end. And sometimes it is a bloody and awful ending” (From section “Tricksters, Rogues, & Cheats,” 127).
So then the trickster can be both a guide for overcoming adversity and self-empowerment, and he can be a sacrificial victim to fate—sometimes illustrating the tragically comic cycle of life and death we all must go through. In this latter capacity, the trickster attempts to operate outside the web of Fate (or natural order, if you prefer), and becomes deeply entangled in the threads he or she tried to avoid. I think here of Anansi, the spider, who in one tale learns of a magic spell which causes anyone who says the word “five” to drop dead on the spot and thus begins tricking various creatures to say that word so that he may eat them. Of course, the trick gets turned around on him, and he accidentally says “five” when a clever bird refuses to play by his rules, thus ending his own life. It is a storytelling picture of a spider weaving one web inside of another, only to be caught by the bigger web he didn’t see.
Why then do we need to have clever characters that can be so easily duped or destroyed? Do they play a similar role to folkloric devils, existing simultaneously as a threat and a challenge (and thus also functioning as teachers in some ways)? I would assert here that when a trickster is overcome by his own tricks, it is because his deceit has crossed a line. Knowing how and when to play a trick is deeply important. Teachers understand that the process of discovery is very important to really gaining understanding as opposed to simply forcing short-term rote memorization (a topic we discussed in our recent podcast on riddles). I’ll get to the role of deceit a bit more in depth in a moment, but first let me briefly detour back to the ide of a trickster as an empowering figure.
Without diving too deeply into the sticky issues of what is “moral” in fairy and folk tales, I think it’s relevant to point out that concepts of “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong” form central pillars around which many stories are built. At the same time, there remains an intense ambiguity about just about every “moral” decision in a fairy tale—the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” does seem to deserve to die, as she wants to kill and eat children, but is it a particularly happy ending for the children to return to a father who willingly (if reluctantly) abandoned them to that horrible ordeal? Bruno Bettelheim, in his controversial and classic fairy tale exegesis The Uses of Enchantment has this to say:
“Amoral fairy tales show no polarization or juxtaposition of good and bad persons; that is because these amoral stories serve an entirely different purpose. Such tales or type figures as ‘Puss in Boots,’ who arranges for the hero’s success through trickery, and Jack, who steals the giant’s treasure, build character not by promoting choices between good and bad, but by giving the child the hope that even the meekest can succeed in life” (10).
So then, the child, who knows intuitively that he or she is not as strong and capable in many ways as the adults around him or her, needs to understand that strength and physical skill are not the only methods for overcoming adversity. Brains count for something, too. For those of us who have outgrown the age of childhood (though you’ll be hard-pressed to convince me I’ve outgrown it in any way but the number of years shown on my driver’s license), that lesson can still be immensely invaluable. When we are faced with an ogrish boss or a monstrous task or a devilish choice, we need to believe that we have a tool in our arsenal that can beat the odds—and that’s where the trickster becomes more than a comical prop or sacrificial victim. As Bettelheim says, “Children know that, short of doing adults’ bidding, they have only one way to be safe from adult wrath: through outwitting them” (28). We, too, as adults and as magical folk, deal with a number of dangerous situations all the time, and we must adopt the trickster’s cleverness if we hope to overcome the challenges we face in one piece. To illustrate this point, Bettelheim relates the tale of the “Fisherman and the Jinny” (one we’ve mentioned a lot), in which a fisherman is threatened by a genie that he releases and must trick him back into the bottle or be killed by him. The genie is clearly bigger and more powerful, and only by means of deviousness can the fisherman preserve his life. If you want to lend a magical quality to your life, think about how often you bottle the genie of a ferocious argument with a lover or friend by a few carefully placed words or a well-timed gesture.
Still, one moral lesson that we so often teach our children (and one which we repeat to ourselves ad nauseum) is: don’t lie. Lies are bad. Always tell the truth. Except, of course, when you shouldn’t. And here we come to my last point of examination in the role of the trickster. In The Witch Must Die, scholar Sheldon Cashdan looks at lies and deceit by examining three fairy tales: “The Goose Girl,” in which lying is punished brutally when it is found out; “Rumpelstiltskin,” in which lies are accommodated and made true by the intervention of magic and/or fate; and “Puss in Boots,” in which trickery is rewarded because it is cleverly executed. What Cashdan uncovers by contrasting these stories is that trickery when performed for the sake of trickery is ambivalent, and when done in the service of another person (or a righteous cause) is praiseworthy, but deceit performed for the sake of harm to another must bring judgement or punishment down on the deceiver/trickster. As he puts it:
“[I]t is the intent behind the lie that counts rather than the lie itself. In other words, there may be instances in which telling lies is justified…These contrasting approaches to deception reflect the ambivalence people harbor about telling the truth. On the one hand, we know that lying is wrong. At the same time, it is hard, as Diogenes discovered, to find an honest man…In some fairy tales, lying is not merely treated with ambivalence but is actually rewarded” (140).
For an a magical practitioner, then, the power of the trickster is power that can be used reactively (to combat an attack or overcome an obstacle) or chaotic (to inspire the topsy-turvy energy that seems to surge up periodically in Nature), but if it is used offensively it must be justified. Willfully entrapping someone by magical means—and here I’d venture away from magic and say this principle extends to social behavior, too—has to have some solid reasoning behind it, or else the universe has a way of bringing its own justice down on the tricksy person who did the ensnaring.
What the trickster seems to say to me, then, is this: If you are a spider, spin for the beauty of your web; spin that you may catch the food you need; spin to keep your enemies away. But beware weaving the web of greed and harm, because there’s likely a bigger web you do not see, and a bigger spider who is very hungry dangling not far overhead.
Whew, enough philosophy, right? What are your thoughts on tricksters, especially as teachers? Do you agree about the idea of justification? Have you ever experienced a trickster in your own life or practice? Let us know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!