Article Series: Tricksters in Literature, Part 4 of 5
One of the most beloved genres in all of popular culture, including literature and mainstream media, is that of fairytales and fantasy. As children, we grow up listening to fairytales with “happily ever after” endings at bedtime, and those stories fuel dreams of dragons and princesses and knights in shining armor as we sleep at night. As we grow into adolescence and adulthood, we graduate into the larger realm of fantasy where we are consumed by entire worlds, myths, legends, new creatures and races of people, knights whose armor isn’t so shiny, damsels who are perfectly capable of saving themselves, magic, and other supernatural phenomena. Delving into a good novel and losing oneself in the wonder that is fantasy is a favorite pastime of countless people of all ages.
So, where does the trickster fit into fairytales and fantasy literature? And what is the relationship between the genre of fantasy and the mythologies, folklore, and fables that we discussed in previous articles?
Dobrynya Nikitich rescues Zabava Putyatichna from the dragon Gorynych
* "Dobryna" by Ivan Yakovlevich Bilibin (ca. late 1800s - early 1900s)
Those of you that have been following these articles can probably guess what is coming next and already know it by heart, but for those who are reading this article first, let’s quickly review the trickster archetype and characteristics before we delve into the realm of fantasy.
The Trickster is one of psychologist Carl Jung’s most widely known archetypes. Archetypes are the unconscious ideas that all humanity inherits, and these ideas transcend time and are found in the mythologies of all cultures. Archetypes are important because these unconscious roles are universal and are useful in the analysis of mythology, literature, art, and religion. (1) The Trickster archetype in particular is a character that revolves around the concept of one individual, human or animal, tricking or deceiving another individual or group. (2)
There are several characteristics that are common to most, but not all, tricksters. Tricksters are: ambiguous, amoral, almost always male, deceitful, shapeshifters, culture heroes, self-serving, solitary, less physically imposing, and boundary-crossers. (A more detailed list can be found here: [link])
With that recap in mind, let’s look first at the relationship between fantasy and mythology before we handle the trickster issue. Mythology has been around since the first people tried to explain their origins and their deities. As such, the mythologies of various peoples and cultures greatly influenced literature in general. According to Wikipedia, one of the identifying traits of fantasy is not only the presence of fantastic elements but also a setting which is internally consistent and draws inspiration from mythology and folklore. (3) Likewise, it isn’t difficult to branch off onto a fantastical tangent when dealing with mythology, folklore, and legends because they are all so intertwined. So mythology is an important source for fantasy and often the two blend together with mythological creatures and deities bleeding over into the realm of fantasy.
Perhaps the greatest appeal of fantasy is that it allows us to escape from the confines of everyday life and embark upon grand adventures; within the realm of fantasy, our imaginations are not limited by real world constraints. Scientific laws and theories like physics and even gravity no longer apply as we let our imaginations carry us away. Mythological creatures abound, allowing us to soar through the skies on the back of a dragon or experience the thrill of battle with a kraken on the high seas.
This is where the tricksters come in. The fantasy genre allows our imaginations to run wild and free so that we can follow alongside some of the trickiest tricksters at the top of their game. With mythology embedded so deeply within the roots of the genre, creatures not of this world in abundance, and magic and various other supernatural abilities at their fingertips, the realm of fantasy is the trickster’s playground…and they certainly do know how to have fun.
The term “fantasy” covers a broad range of settings, from the medieval to real world cities to entirely different worlds and everything in between. So, now that we are all caught up on the archetype and characteristics of tricksters, as well as how fantasy and mythology blend together, let’s explore some tricksters from different fantasy sub-genres: Rumpelstiltskin from a Brothers Grimm fairytale, the Cheshire Cat (Alice in Wonderland) and Gollum/Sméagol (Lord of the Rings) from traditional fantasy, and Robin Goodfellow (the Cal Leandros novels) and Trixa Iktomi (the Trickster novels) from urban fantasy.
Anytime I think about tricksters in fairytales, I always think about Rumpelstiltskin, also known as Tom Tit Tat, Repelsteeltje, or Rumpelstilzchen as he is known in the original German tale. Rumpelstiltskin is a clever little imp, willing to make just about any kind of deal as long as you have something he wants, but his contracts have some interesting fine print that you would do well to read before signing. Take the deal he made with the daughter of a miller, for example.
The imp Rumpelstiltskin
* "Rumpelstiltskin" from Andrew Lang's The Blue Fairy Book (1889)
The poor girl’s father lies to the king and told him that she could spin straw into gold, so the king locks her in a room full of straw with a spinning wheel and tells her that he will behead her if she doesn’t spin all the straw into gold by morning. She is doomed to fail until the impish creature shows up and promises to do the task in return for her necklace. The next day the imp spins another roomful of straw into gold in exchange for the girl’s ring. On the third day, the girl has nothing left to trade the imp but still wants him to spin the straw into gold since the king promised to marry her if she completed the final task. She ends up promising her firstborn child to the imp and marries the king. When the imp comes to claim her firstborn child, he says that he will release her from the agreement only if she can guess his name in three days. When she is unable to guess his name for two days, she sends a messenger to find out his real name. The messenger happens upon the imp’s cottage and watches as he sings this song around his fire:
“Today do I bake, to-morrow I brew,
The day after that the queen's child comes in;
And oh! I am glad that nobody knew
That the name I am called is Rumpelstiltskin!”
The queen at first pretends that she still doesn’t know then reveals the imp’s true name when he comes on the third day, and Rumpelstiltskin loses the agreement and his temper. He runs away and never returns according to the 1812 version of the Brothers Grimm fairytales, but in the 1857 version, Rumpelstiltskin "in his rage drove his right foot so far into the ground that it sank in up to his waist; then in a passion he seized the left foot with both hands and tore himself in two." (4)
The Cheshire Cat is a popular character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll. It is famous, or perhaps infamous, for that distinctive wider-than-physically-possible grin full of mischief and cunning. As soon as you see it, you know that cat is up to something. An entry in A classical dictionary of the vulgar tongue by Francis Grose says this: "CHESHIRE CAT. He grins like a Cheshire cat; said of any one who shows his teeth and gums in laughing."
That Tricky Grin
** "Cheshire Cat" from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010)
A trickster characteristic that the Cheshire Cat possesses is its use of cleverly manipulated language. In its conversations with Alice, it amuses, annoys, and even confuses her with its clever words. Perhaps one of the biggest clues that the Cheshire Cat is a trickster is the fact that when he disappears, his mischievous grin is often still visible for a few moments and is the last thing seen. It is one of these occasions that causes Alice to say that “she has often seen a cat without a grin but never a grin without a cat.” This also demonstrates another area in which the Cheshire Cat can be labeled a trickster. The ability to vanish into thin air certainly crosses boundaries between what is and what is not physically possible; true, it is part of the fantasy element of the novel, but it is also one of the characteristics of tricksters to challenge how we view reality. And in true trickster fashion, the Cheshire Cat starts a monumental argument about whether or not something lacking a body can actually be beheaded when, after being sentenced to death, it makes its head appear alone without its body. (5)
Gollum is a character that appears in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and all three novels in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was originally a hobbit named Sméagol but after becoming obssessed with the One Ring, which he calls “my precious,” he acquires the nickname Gollum. It should be said that most, if not all, of Gollum’s trickery stems from the effects of the ring from which he suffers, but I don’t think this fact disqualifies him from consideration. The effects of the ring are immediate; Sméagol strangled his relative Déagol when the unfortunate hobbit refused to let him keep it. The ring twisted and corrupted Sméagol’s mind as well as his body, and he used the ring for all sorts of trickery early on, spying on and provoking his fellow hobbits and stealing from them before they cast him out.
"Gollum" by Jose Luis Arenas (vegetanivel2) ~vegetanivel2
The trickery that Gollum is perhaps best known for occurs when he agrees to lead Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee to Mordor while secretly plotting ways to get the ring back from them. He swears an oath to help the hobbits, and even develops somewhat of a multiple personality situation when he begins to argue with Sméagol (his former self) over it, but Sam is still wary of him as are other characters that they encounter on the way to Mordor. Gollum leads them into a cave that he claims is a shortcut around the well-guarded Black Gate, only for the hobbits to encounter the giant spider Shelob, whom Gollum worshipped, and Frodo was stung by the spider before being taken prisoner by Orcs.
After Sam rescues Frodo and they continue toward Mount Doom, Gollum attacks, and Sam defeated him but left him alive out of pity. This demonstrates Gollum’s skills in deception since he goes on to attack Frodo one more at the Crack of Doom. In his efforts to get the ring back, he bites off Frodo’s finger and retrieves it. However, he was too clever for his own good, also a recurring trickster theme; as he dances around, gloating in having “his precious” in his possession again, he steps off the edge and plunges with the ring into the lava below. Inadvertently, he destroyed the One Ring and defeated the evil Sauron in the end, saving the day and becoming a hero to the peoples of Middle Earth. (6)
Robin Goodfellow, a character in NYT Bestselling Author Rob Thurman’s series of Cal Leandros novels, is one of a race of tricksters who are all identical and very ancient. His race comes from the mythological puck, which was a mischievous nature sprite, and Pan, who was the god of the wild and companion of the nymphs. Robin is more than a hundred-thousand years old – that’s a lot of time to lie, steal, and trick. Since no one else could do it justice, I’ll let Robin speak for himself about a few of his exploits (taken from Roadkill):
“I have led crowds of virgins to a mass fertility and deflower rite. I accompanied
the Argonauts because I thought I’d look amazing in Golden Fleece, and a threesome
with Caster and Pollux was nothing to sneeze at. I told a drunken and toothless hedge
wizard a ridiculous story about the Holy Grail and watched King Arthur’s knights roam
about the countryside forever, looking under every skirt and some for the thing. I was
with Columbus when he found the New World and at the Hawaiian barbecuing of
Captain Cook, who, while a cranky bastard, was quite tasty.” He pointed the empty
wine bottle at me and almost made it upright in indignation. “I create adventure. I live
life as it has never been lived before. I forge legends.”
As a god closely associated to nature, Pan was connected to fertility, and there are several mythological accounts of him pursuing nymphs, having also been called a lecherous god. The idea of an insatiable sexual appetite as a characteristic of trickster is one that we’ve alluded to when on the subject of Raven and Coyote in previous article but never discussed at length; it is, however, a common theme in many tricksters. Thurman’s Robin Goodfellow is the proud example of this since he is pansexual, and neither gender nor species gets in the way of satisfying his needs. He brags often and to anyone who will listen about his sexual exploits spanning the millennia, including attending every orgy thrown in Rome and being the coauthor of the Kama Sutra.
Character belongs to NYT Bestselling Author Rob Thurman, artwork by NiNi Burkart/Jayda Steele ~BloodAria
As stated in his bio on Thurman’s website, Robin “currently makes his living as a used car salesman, a perfect role for a trickster, and is shunned by the other supernatural races for his lying, stealing, tricking, and general fun-loving ways.” (7) And there is no love lost between Robin and the other occupants of the building where he owns a penthouse. After millennia of tricking and hosting sex parties, it was bound to happen. Robin’s constant companion is Salome, an undead mummy cat to whom he grew attached when she followed him home from the basement of the museum where she was created by a bored and malignant mummy. Though he doesn’t admit it, Robin adores this cat, especially after she kills the ancient dog of his equally ancient neighbor, which he thinks is a fantastic trick. In Moonshine, Robin comes face to face with a puck called Hobgoblin, or simply the Hob, who is even more ancient than he is and has been driven to a dark madness by the many years he has lived. He must out-trick the ultimate trickster, who has concocted such a twisted, elaborate plan that he was never even a suspect, or risking losing one of the only friends he’s ever had.
Most of the time, his pranks and trickery are purely for his own entertainment, but sometimes he and his companions use his lying and his deceptive ways in their efforts to defeat the bad guy and restore a sense of balance and justice to the world. Perhaps the best quality Robin has is that he knows when it’s time to trick and when it’s time to be serious. When one of his only friends is suffering from amnesia and is trying to make sense of his life (in Blackout), Robin elects to give it to him straight, so to speak, instead of lying to him, though he does soften the blow a bit with some clever language that his friend must figure out. Robin Goodfellow is the ultimate trickster, and he would be the first to tell you so…and remind you how gorgeous he is at the same time.
Trixa Iktomi is the shapeshifting trickster main character of NYT Bestselling Author Rob Thurman’s Trickster novels, including Trick of the Light, The Grimrose Path, and a novel to be released in 2013. She is described as having dark gold skin, wild hair that is black with streaks of dark bronze and rusty red, amber eyes with an Asian slant, a nose that’s a little too long–in short, she is a little bit of everything and defies labels. There is a reason that she took her surname from the Lakota spider-trickster spirit Iktomi. She favors the color red, as Iktomi did, and she could be regarded as good or bad depending on one’s perspective, as ambiguous as Iktomi himself. Often through her trickery, Trixa ends up righting wrongs and fulfilling the traditional role of culture hero, a title which many Lakota applied to Iktomi.
Trixa owns a modest bar in Las Vegas, conveniently located near shady establishments owned by the demons that she loves to provoke and terrorize. The first chapter of Trick of the Light opens with Trixa tossing a Molotov cocktail at a nightclub owned by Solomon, an incredibly sexy but dangerous demon who is an antagonist in the story. It is the fourth time she and her associates have burned it down. Why? Because he deserved it. Trixa herself says, “I deceived only those who deserved it, and you’d be amazed how many did.”
Character belongs to NYT Bestselling Author Rob Thurman, artwork by NiNi Burkart/Jayda Steele ~BloodAria
As you read a little further, you come across a scene where a man has somehow gotten into the wolf pen at the zoo and has been eaten alive. The news report states that the man was a pedophile, convicted multiple times, and shows video evidence of him using a leash and dog collar to convince a little girl to help him look for his lost puppy. A little girl all alone with a red balloon. (hint, hint) As it turns out, it was Trixa (remember that she’s a shapeshifter) who tricked the man and disposed of him in the wolf pen while she was supposedly out running errands. What does she have to say about it? “I have to say I love it when a pervert gets what’s coming to him. And the puppies got a nice treat too. It’s a win-win.” While she has an admittedly dark sense of humor, it is this sort of trickery in which justice is ultimately served that would earn her the title of culture hero.
And in the end of the book, after the quest for the Light referenced by the book’s title has been recovered, Trixa reveals her true identity to her enemy Solomon in a flash of fur and fangs, claws and feathers, as she assumes each of the forms in her trickster heritage – Coyote, Kitsune, Crow, Akamataa, Amaguq, and Iktomi – before violently beheading him because he had murdered her brother in cold blood years earlier. Before she kills him, she says, “I lie, but I lie to make others see the error of their ways. I trick to make things right. I even kill, if I have to, to balance the scales. But I need proof. Now I have it.” But that Light that I mentioned (you’ll have to read the book to get the whole story on that) decided that she needed a lesson as well; for getting carried away with assuming all her shapes at once and torturing Solomon instead of just killing him, she would be unable to change forms at all for the next four or five years.
In The Grimrose Path, Cronus (yes, the Titan) has picked up the habit of ripping wings off demons because once he collects a certain number of them, they will provide him with a map to Hell. Cronus in Hell is a very bad thing for everyone, so Trixa and company set out to stop him. This entire novel is one big trick, and as with the first novel you really have to read it to understand everything that happens, but she robs a museum in order to get the stone from which such indestructible weapons as Mjollnir were created, gets the better of some shady characters who were terrorizing the homeless with baseball bats, and has a dead soul retrieve a pitcher of water from the River Lethe for her. Fun times. But perhaps my favorite trick of the novel was when she convinced Hell to release all the souls with the name or similar name of Rose, and all because she told them that Cronus was looking for someone named Rose…when it had just been a clever play on his actual words. (8)
With the knowledge of the Trickster archetype and the way that tricksters fit into the realm of fantasy, it should not be difficult to distinguish the tricksters in fairytales, novels, and short stories other than the ones we've discussed.
In light of that, here's a fun little challenge: set aside some time to read through your favorite fantasy novels and short stories with these things in mind and see if you can pick out more trickster characters. And definitely check out Rob Thurman's books if you're a fan of urban fantasy.
See the links below for further reading.Next article: Tricksters in Modern Literature