Tricksters in Fairy Tales

Huehuecoyotl, the Aztec trickster god

Huehuecoyotl, the Aztec trickster god

“They seek him here, they seek him there…”

This past spring, I taught a class on fairy tales and fairy tale adaptations to undergraduates at the University of Mississippi. We started the semester reading three stories: “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rumplestiltskin,” and “Cagliuso” (Straparola’s Italian counterpart to “Puss in Boots”). I chose these stories first so we could talk about trickster figures because, let’s face it, tricksters are fun.

The archetype of the trickster is older than recorded literature. Jack Zipes’ essay “Fairy as Witch/Witch as Fairy,” in his collection The Irresistible Fairy Tale, posits that stories about both witches and fairies may be descended from myths about pagan goddesses associated with the earth and with the feminine energies of both virginity and procreation. When it comes to trickster figures, their descent from ancient gods (and we all know the name of at least one trickster god, thanks in part to Marvel) represents the universal force of chaos — creation and destruction, in one little package.

And that package usually is little, or at least non-threatening. Think of Anansi the spider, Br’er Rabbit, Reynard the Fox, the Raven, the Coyote, Puss in Boots. None of these animals are the top of the food chain. There are few trickster lions, tigers, or bears, because tricksters have to rely on their wits and their cunning rather than on their force.

Tricksters are morally ambiguous. While they like to break the rules, they aren’t all bad or all good. As Terri Windling says in her essay, “Trickster,” at the Endicott Studio Journal of Mythic Arts, they can be culture heroes who save the world, who bring fire or music or storytelling to humanity. But they also trail destruction in their wake, like Pandora and her box, the punishment for Prometheus’s theft of fire.

What tricksters are is greedy. They have big appetites and large ambitions; perhaps they want to swallow the sun, or steal their neighbor’s wife, or climb back up the beanstalk. And almost every time, their greediness is their downfall. It’s the trope of “the biter bit,” in which the sly one lays a trap for someone else, only to get caught in it himself.

We see this theme of greed repeated in fairy tales. Jack—a common English trickster name–can’t help himself from going back to the country of the giants to retrieve the beautiful golden harp, even though he already has a hen who lays golden eggs. For a more ominous example, we only have to look at Rumplestiltskin, who demanded a baby in repayment for the third night of spinning. (What was he going to do with that baby? My bet is that he’s a fairy; fairies are known for stealing children for all kinds of reasons. But Jane Yolen reminds us in her story “Granny Rumple” that the character Rumplestiltskin was, at times, the locus of anti-Semitic propaganda such as myths about child-stealing Jews.)

Their large appetites and penchant for rule-breaking make tricksters a great example of the “carnivalesque” in literature. They embody the subversive energy Mikhail Bahktin described in his theory of carnivalesque: they overturn social hierarchies, making the powerful seem ridiculous and giving momentary glory or victory to the little guy. They inhabit the grotesque body, with its lust for food and drink and sex. And, whether cutting a caper under the desert moon in the guise of Coyote or dancing, Pan-shod, in a Dionysian revel, they love fun.

But — and this is something my students pointed out to me — tricksters don’t usually break their word. While tricksters actively work to deceive, when they make a promise, they usually perform at least the letter, if not the spirit, of the vow.

I think one of the reasons I love tricksters so much is that they are hard to pin down. They can be heroes or villains, the Fool or the Magician. Once you learn about them, you think you see them everywhere. Tricksters are shadowy like that. But they’re crucial to life, too. With chaos come the switches in our DNA that make us individuals; with chaos, the earth is broken and a seed can germinate; with chaos, a droplet of water takes a different path each time it crosses a . . .

(Wait. Is Ian Malcolm a trickster figure? *Reevaluates everything about Jurassic Park*)

Some of my favorite tricksters in fantasy literature are: Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMAN BASTARD series; Mat Cauthon from Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series; and the inimitable El-Ahrairah from Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Most of these figures are male; Windling addresses this near the end of her essay. Maria Tatar posits Katniss Everdeen and Scheherezade as potential female tricksters in her New Yorker article, “Sleeping Beauties Vs. Gonzo Girls.” After our unit on Tricksters, my class studied witches, and I have to wonder if Baba Yaga, with her hut of chicken legs and her unpredictable generosity, is a trickster figure.

We want to hear from you in the comments; who is your favorite trickster character, and why? One lucky commenter with a US mailing address will win a book from our stacks.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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  1. Izzy A. /

    Definitely locke lamora! This guy was born to be a trickster and always comes up with a way to escape trouble and continue his “game”. I also love the story of capa barsavi and his “prize possession carpet”. That was a real good trick.

  2. Loki is the best trickster out there, no matter what incarnation of him you are talking about. He is the king of all tricksters!

    • Rebecca North /

      I’m with you there, it doesn’t matter which trickster you are, Loki is an old time classic for tricksters.

  3. With regards to Maria Tatar’s essay: It’s easier for me to accept the idea of Lady Gaga as a trickster figure than, say, Katniss Everdeen. Gaga (and Coyote and Rabbit and Loki) all take direct control over their shifting appearances/loyalties/motives/etc., while Katniss is far more passive in allowing others to change her outward self in order to accomplish her goals, and she has absolutely no skill with verbal manipulation. If anyone’s a trickster figure in that trilogy, I’d say it’s Peeta. (But then I could talk for hours about the interesting ways in which Collins shifts gender roles and motivations for both Peeta and Katniss, which isn’t really germane to this essay.)

    To return to the topic at hand: Great essay, Kate! I’m a big fan of Coyote, Puck, and Japanese kitsune stories. Really, any tricksy character with a gift for words is all right by me.

  4. Fox maidens (kitsune) must be tricksters!

    I love tricksters because they do engage in word-play, but also, since they are subversive, they do somewhat represent the underdog, the Little Guy (okay, maybe not Loki, since he’s a god). I also like characters who use their wits to solve problems and escape from tight spots.

    They also very often puncture the self-importance or pomposity of other, more “regal” characters, and who doesn’t love that?

    I was researching folk tales about otters and found some northeastern American native folktales about Rabbit and Otter. Rabbit was the so-called “trickster,” but in most of these tales, while he was trying to one-up a clueless Otter, the joke rebounded on Rabbit. It was an interesting twist.

  5. Trey /

    Jean Le Flambeur from the Quantum a Thief trilogy. I like him because he’s a technological trickster and thief, mostly human still stealing from the post-human god-like entities.

  6. Just to say: a very good piece.

  7. I think there is an entire essay in the sub-genre of “thieves as trickster characters,” especially if confidence artists are included in the mix.

  8. Please be sure to check the Notify Me box, since this is a giveaway. A reminder; we are able to mail books within the US only.

    Check back on or around June 23rd, when we’ll be announcing our giveaway winner.

  9. Tatar knows a hell of a lot more than me re folk/fairy tales, but I have a hard time with Katniss as a Trickster as well.

    I’ve always loved Coyote stories since I was a kid. A few years ago I read a slew of them for research for an essay. Hardly counted as “research.” Big fan of Spider and Raven tales as well.

    and really, who didn’t want to be the chaotic neutral thief in a good D & D campaign, stealing from your comrades while they slept, gluing their sword into their scabbard . . .

    Great post!

  10. Gryphon /

    It is interesting that so few trickster figures are female, since one of the hallmarks of tricksters is clearly their comparative lack of physical power.

    It’s hard for me to nail down a favorite trickster… but coyote’s always held a place in my heart. Quick-witted and clever, generally helpful but not ENTIRELY nice, and definitely somewhat self-serving.

    • Good point about female tricksters.
      One of my favorite movies is Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, I think because it’s about a female trickster.

      • Kat, that is one of my all-time favorites, too! OKLAHOMA OKLAHOMA! :) So glad you brought it up. And she’s a great trickster.

        • haha! My family has so many favorite lines from that movie. Anytime the word “Oklahoma” comes up, we say “OKLAHOMA, OKLAHOMA, OKLAHOMA!… he’s going to love the wide open spaces.”

          Or: THIS! THIS! I WANT THIS! THIS is what I want…

          I could go on….

      • I love that movie!

  11. Thejaswi Udupa /

    I’m disappointed that the first half of Huehuecoatl’s name is not the sound of his villainous laugh, and instead means “old old” implying “very old”

  12. Anansi was my jam as a kid. I must have read Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock a million times.

  13. Gryphon, if you live in the USA, you win a book of your choice from our stacks.
    Please contact me (Marion) with your choice and a US address. Happy reading!

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