Reading List: Tricksters


Painting by Jan Matejko Stańczyk.

The trickster is an archetype that appeared in the myths of many different cultures and is still popular with writers today. These characters are rule-breakers and agents of chaos; they are often animals (e.g. foxes, crows, coyotes), travellers, or even shapeshifters able to cross boundaries between worlds. For this reason they sometimes function as a guide or messenger, like the Greek god Hermes. Characteristically, the trickster is clever and creative. They generally lie to obtain sex, food, or just to get out of something they don’t want to do, using their wit to outsmart of the Man/the Establishment/the gods/what have you.

Since they are so unpredictable and paradoxical, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what the perfect definition of a trickster is. As Lewis Hyde puts it in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art:

[The] best way to describe trickster is to say simply that the boundary is where he will be found – sometimes drawing the line, sometimes crossing it, sometimes crossing it, sometimes erasing or moving it, but always there, the god of the threshold in all its forms.

The Odyssey (and, to a lesser degree, The Iliad), Homer

Sing to me of the man, Muse,
the man of twists and turns …
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

“Lokasenna” (the Poetic Edda)

Freyja spake:
“False is thy tongue, | and soon shalt thou find
That it sings thee an evil song;
The gods are wroth, | and the goddesses all,
And in grief shalt thou homeward go.”

Loki spake:
“Be silent, Freyja! | thou foulest witch,
And steeped full sore in sin;
In the arms of thy brother | the bright gods caught thee
When Freyja her wind set free.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590-1597?), William Shakespeare

I am that merry wanderer of the night.
I jest to Oberon and make him smile
When I a fat and bean-fed horse beguile,
Neighing in likeness of a filly foal:
And sometime lurk I in a gossip’s bowl,
In very likeness of a roasted crab,
And when she drinks, against her lips I bob
And on her wither’d dewlap pour the ale.
The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me;
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,
And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;
And then the whole quire hold their hips and laugh,
And waxen in their mirth and neeze and swear
A merrier hour was never wasted there.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (1970), Roald Dahl

I understand what you’re saying, and your comments are valuable, but I’m gonna ignore your advice.

Watership Down (1972), Richard Adams

El-ahrairah, your people cannot rule the world, for I will not have it so. All the world wil be their enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.

Neverwhere (1996), Neil Gaiman

‘This way,’ said the Marquis, gesturing elegantly, his filthy lace cuff flowing.
‘Don’t all these tunnels look the same?’ asked Richard, tabling his diary entry for the moment. ‘How can you tell which is which?’
‘You can’t,’ said the Marquis, sadly. ‘We’re hopelessly lost. We’ll never be seen again. In a couple of days we’ll be killing each other for food.’
‘Really?’ He hated himself for rising to the bait, even as he said it.
‘No.’ The Marquis’s expression said that torturing this poor fool was too easy to even be amusing.

Anansi Boys (2005), Neil Gaiman

The creature laughed, scornfully. “I,” it said, “am frightened of nothing.”
“Nothing,” it said.
Charlie said, “Are you extremely frightened of nothing?”
“Absolutely terrified of it,” admitted the Dragon.
“You know,” said Charlie, “I have nothing in my pockets. Would you like to see it?”
“No,” said the Dragon, uncomfortably, “I most definitely would not.”

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers (2015), Max Porter – review here

What good is a crow to a pack of grieving humans? A huddle.
A throb.
A sore.
A plug.
A gape.
A load.
A gap.

So yes, I do eat baby rabbits, plunder nests, swallow filth, cheat death, mock the starving homeless, misdirect, misinform. Oi, stab it! A bloody load of time wasted.

But I care, deeply. I find humans dull except in grief.

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2 thoughts on “Reading List: Tricksters

  • November 8, 2016 at 6:16 pm

    A bit sorry to see here neither Merry and Pippin nor Fred and George, but I guess they may be a bit too obvious :)
    I find it really wonderful that you’ve chosen to illustrate this with Matejko’s Stańczyk – not only it depicts a trickster (and probably the most famous one from my country’s culture) but also it’s sort of doubly ironic that he’s more often than not shown as somebody deeply troubled and not trickestry in his behaviour at all. It’s a bit trickstery in itself to show this illustration in such a post :)

    • November 8, 2016 at 6:35 pm

      Oh, there are plenty of characters that I have left off this list (Robin Hood, Peter Pan…), but I figured that these works would be a good place to start and to give people an idea of what kind of characters to look for in their own reading.

      And I’m glad you approve of the picture! I tried to find something that showed that inner contradiction that you often see in the character, and this painting seemed like the best choice.


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