Thursday, March 15, 2012

How the Trickster Won His Spurs

Pretty much everyone agrees that honor and glory are nice things. We like them. We like people who have them. We especially like ourselves when we have them. Most of legend's "good guys" are honorable men. But sooner or later, every culture gets fed up with unblemished golden boys. There comes a time when we all just want to hear about someone who can think.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you... the trickster!

The Theft of Apollo's Cattle, Elizabeth Phillips
We've all got one. Talk about a universal character. He fits into any story; he can get away with anything; he's the life of the party, the funniest guy around. There are tons of tricksters, from Anansi to Raven to Loki, and the second they appear onstage they steal everyone else's thunder. Nobody cares that Apollo just lost all his best cows; all we care about is how Hermes will get out of this one.

So yes, you've got to have a trickster. But that doesn't mean that everyone has to like him.

The trickster may be the most morally complicated character in any pantheon. He's the undeniable audience favorite, but he also screws everyone else over like it's going out of style. Poor stupid Tiger trusts Anansi once and gets his balls stolen forever. Puss in Boots gleefully murders a passing ogre to secure a comfortable life for himself and his master. When the Norse gods call on Loki to fix a crappy situation, it's even money that Loki himself created it. Just try telling these guys that crime doesn't pay. They'll laugh in your face, ruin your life, and saunter on back to their paradises.

Brer Rabbit and the Briar Patch, Disney
And then you start asking questions about the tricksters' companions. How can they be so blind? If Odin knows everything, why doesn't he cop to Loki's double-dealing? If Raven comes to court your daughter, why don't you just shut the door and hide the valuables? No matter what Brer Rabbit tells you, why would anyone with sense ever believe him? Honor, glory, and even plain old goodness undergo a very disconcerting alchemy in the presence of a trickster; they blend together into one single, unappealing, trait: stupidity.

Loki's Punishment, Tudor Humphries
Which may be why some cultures go out of their way to tell stories in which the trickster is humbled. When Raven, who wants lots of delicious dead eyeballs to eat, forbids humans from having more than one life, his furious subjects kill his son and daughter to make him understand their pain. Coyote once courts a beautiful girl who tries to commit suicide when their liaison becomes public knowledge; he finds her in the nick of time, but the two of them are turned into ducks and can never return to her people. Loki reaps the worst punishment: when his mischief turns to malice in the killing of Balder, he's bound in a cave with a serpent dripping venom on his face until Ragnarok, when he dies in battle against the Aesir. Mess with the higher powers one too many times, and they'll have something to say about it. No one likes being made to look a fool.

Coyote Went up the River, Frederick N. Wilson
But plenty of cultures let the trickster get away scot-free. The one time Hermes gets caught (and taken to court) by Hera, he pleads his own case so eloquently and hilariously that everyone votes not to punish him. Robin Goodfellow wreaks endless household havoc and never gets called to account; instead, he gets a whole ballad in which he boasts of his exploits. Seasoned tricksters even have get-out-of-jail-free cards. All it takes to resurrect Coyote is for his friend Fox (another notable trickster) to walk over his bones.

Audience sympathy is a powerful thing. When your creator can't bear even to punish you, let alone kill you off, it's a good sign that you're here to stay.

It makes the trickster the oldest outsider in the book. He exists to upset the status quo. Having him around makes life dangerous and unpredictable; it's no wonder that he has to con his way into good fortune, since most of his fellows avoid him and the chaos he brings. It's hard to say whether he's outcast because of his tricks, or whether his tricks created a scenario in which he had to be cast out.

And it's that trait, more than any other, that makes him the popular character audiences identify with. Of all the characters in any given pantheon, fixed and steadfast in what they represent, the trickster is the only one who can change.

No wonder we like him so much. We see most of ourselves in him. He's the one who not only adapts to a new world, but shapes that world to his liking. Who wants to be a boring paragon when you could be a dynamic change-maker? Who wants to sit still when you could have fun?


  1. No lies, the trickster (and thief) has always been my favorite. I think you hit the nail on the head in saying we like him because he can change & we see ourselves in him. He's not an ideal like so many of the others - he is what we are, or closer to it.

    I think, even more than that, the trickster has the ability to see and understand both the good and the bad of the world, and accepts both. He isn't just closer to humanity, he is closer to reality, which is complex and not black and white like so many other myths would have us believe.

    1. YES. Completely yes. The trickster really is the only mythological character who could get zapped into any time or place and figure out how to cope. (And then how to rule the world, but give him time.) He plays by real-world rules, and you're right, no one else does.