Trickster on NPR

Eileen Kane was featured on NPR's To the Best of Our Knowledge. Click here for the full programme.

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In the past few decades, tricksters have come into their own in popular western culture as modern literary figures: we're overwhelmed with trickster-themed novels (e.g., the works of Gerald Vizenor, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Maxine Hong Kingston, N. Scott Momaday, Tamora Pierce-even Henning Mankell's detective Kurt Wallander has been nominated as a trickster[i]); graphic novels (Matt Dembicki, Hiroaki Samura) films (most Jim Carrey and Eddie Murphy characters; Batman, the Joker, the Dark Knight); countless games and videos, television (Bart Simpson, perhaps Lucy Ricardo in I Love Lucy); and academic books and articles about tricksters, from Paul Radin's The Trickster (1956) to Lewis Hyde's Trickster Makes This World (1998).

Most of the academic literature ponders fundamental questions such as the trickster's nature (mortal/immortal; human/divine; animal/person; transformative power/culture hero/both); gender (male/but maybe not always); characteristics (scheming, heedless, amoral go-between, boundary crosser, boundary creator, and every form of contradiction and paradox); non-characteristics (not a fool, rogue or run-of-the mill smartass.) Trickster may not be a creature at all, but a process, a dynamic, something embodied in language that can be used to transform the world.

Today, as Helen Lock writes, tricksters are not the unconscious forces that have appeared in folktales around the world; they are more sophisticated, self-aware and self-reflecting. Perhaps they reflect the current state of cultural imagination in these most uncertain of times, when rules and boundaries of every sort are challenged. As she says "Each age redefines the trickster it needs." [ii] 

One of the most interesting questions is why the trickster, in whatever form, is drawn on so often in literature? Certainly he entertains, and also helps us to understand ourselves and our own situations. But another reason may be that the trickster, by nature, is a God-given gift to writers (which might make God somewhat of a trickster, too). This particular gift is a narrative device: the trope.

A trope, from the Greek tropos, "to turn or twist," is an important tool for writers, and most readers will know the concept, if not the term. A trope twists the meaning of a phrase or word:  the gentle giant; the absent-minded professor; the sexy librarian; the geeky wuss who has superhuman physical powers; the whore with the heart of gold. Tabloid headline writers love tropes: "Pensioner wins World Cup"; "Housewife Invents World's Most Powerful Bomb."

Plots of books, films and games are usually tropes, often multiple tropes with reverse twists. Indeed, entire genres can be based on tropes:  in the Romance genre, the good girl gets the handsome man in the end; in the Crime genre, today's detective is weary, middle-aged, heart sore, disheveled and alcoholic, unlike the earlier detective, who was often a suave, sophisticated upper-class dilettante.

"Trickster" is a trope-the trickster plays tricks but gets tricked himself, or does something unintentionally meaningful, either for good or for bad. Some of the descriptions in the opening of Trickster: an anthropological memoir highlight tricksterish tropes:

Guileless schemer, inept strategist, divine comic and creative destroyer, clever fool and serious joker, amoral innocent; sly dupe, sacred cheat...


In fact, tricksters are trope traps-read any Coyote story, for example, and you come away with some or all of these narrative themes, which derive from tropes:

My brother takes all the good stuff (i.e., my older brother, who should be good to me, is bad to me)

If I don't help myself, nobody else will

Anything you can do I can do better

What harm can there be in a little fun?

I was only trying to see how this thing works...

and many more, which you can identify by reading about the exploits of Coyote, Raven, Hyena, Anansi or any other trickster. (For the Youngstown of the past, as I describe it in Trickster, the trope is "Cold-blooded killers run the place better than elected officials.")

One way of knowing that you're dealing with a trope is if you become unnerved when it misbehaves. If the "gentle giant" becomes a pedophile, one feels that some rule has been broken: the twist should be between "gentle" and "giant"; a further twist undoes the first. Of course, if Trickster becomes a pedophile, one only shrugs; he is a pedophile (he rapes his daughter). He also engages in elder abuse (ditto the mother-in-law).

Some tropes are used so often that they become clichés, and it's important for writers to avoid them. Is Trickster becoming a discredited clichéd trope today? Look at an unusual site, to learn more about tropes and decide for yourself. (You can also go straight to 



[i] Cutting, Rosie. n.d. "Henning Mankell's Use of Trickster-Loki Characters." 5/part1/Rosie_Cutting.pdf

[ii] Lock, Helen.  Transformations of the Trickster.