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.


  • Kate Lechler

    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.