Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Trickster

There always seems to be a trickster in the pack. Somewhere, embedded in the Pantheon or salon des refusées of almost every Mythology and Religion, a trickster figure can be found – in animal or human form, duping other gods and mortals; an ape of god who dupes himself; a Shapeshifter who constantly undergoes Metamorphosis; a polymorphically perverse blockhead (like Pinocchio), a scatological mocker, thief, culture hero; a raw, mutable first principle who manifests the inchoate birth of the world (> Creation Myths) and who quite possibly, through the upwelling amorality of his being (> Loki), helps bring the world to an end; a manifestation of raw appetite; a Liminal Being who can never be fixed into place, except perhaps in the "advanced" religions of the world, where – like the early Jehovah of Judaism, or Satan in the Christian tradition – he is constrained. Jehovah in the early books of the Old Testament is a tearaway; Satan is a trickster in Bondage.

Archaic mythologies – like those examined by Paul Radin (1883-1959) in The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (1956) – almost invariably incorporate Cycles of tales dominated by primordial trickster figures, who usually appear in animal form: as a Coyote in the lore of many southwestern Native American nations; as a rabbit or hare in northern cycles; as a raven along the Pacific Rim. As a Spider, sometimes under the name of Anansi, trickster figures are found throughout Africa; as Monkey he appears in Chinese Legends; as Anubis (though his functions are various, and some of them are fixed) he appears in the mythology of Egypt in the form of a man/jackal. Throughout these archaic tales, the trickster – inconsistently – does two things supremely well: he creates the world through Transformations and through seedings; and he sticks his voracious head (or huge penis) into the workings of the world, sometimes deranging the gods and mortals he butts against, sometimes dismembering himself, sometimes destroying everything.

No trickster can, in the end, be trusted; it is perhaps a sign of their wisdom concerning the essential untrustworthiness of life that he has so central a place in archaic belief systems. Even in later mythologies – as with Loki in the Nordic mythologies and Hermes in Greek mythology – he functions as an untamed signal that the world is no secure haven. Significantly, tricksters like Loki or Hermes are closely related to more "reliable" gods like Odin or Zeus; and are often conceived as Shadows of their more straightforward, responsible kin. This sense of the unfixable but undeniable marriage of upper and lower – of light and dark, fixed and inchoate, ritual and anarchy, hierarchy and revelling, catechism and Parody, ego and id – has perhaps not been satisfactorily addressed by the monotheisms characteristic of the religions of the Western World over the past two millennia; also, perhaps, the literatures of the Fantastic have so openly welcomed figures like the trickster out of a subversive need to undercut sermonizing versions of the meaning of life. In fantasy proper only Christian Fantasy seems notably (and probably deliberately) chary of the figure – J R R Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955) restricts itself to the sad figure of Gollum, and the closest C S Lewis comes to creating one is Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters (1942).

Animal tricksters in fantasy seem generally to derive from archaic lore. Reynard the Fox becomes the metamorph. Cat tricksters are a source for Puss-In-Boots. The archaic hare becomes Brer Rabbit (Joel Chandler Harris used Folklore imported from Africa) and Brer Rabbit becomes Bugs Bunny (many of whose early cartoons were filled with gay slang – "Oh Prunella!" being drag-queen slang in particular: Bugs is notorious for dressing in drag); Coyote becomes Wile E Coyote (> Chuck Jones); the trickster as butthead becomes Donald Duck. Bird tricksters often appear, especially crows as in Ted Hughes's Crow (coll 1970; exp 1972), which is a collection of trickster poems. US Animated Movies in general tend to incorporate trickster metamorphoses and mockeries as a matter of course. Most animals depicted in cartoon form are Shapeshifters, and the cartoons in which they feature can normally be understood as Beast Fables, a form immemorially conducive to mockery of the official version. Even Disney's notorious control over the punishment of anarchy slips slightly in the late Aladdin (1992), whose eponymous trickster hero sometimes seems at the verge of talking back to the world.

Tricksters in human form thread through the literatures of the West. Prometheus – who steals fire, as do many tricksters, but does so for the benefit of humanity – is an example of the trickster as culture hero. Shamans (> Shamanism) – like the eponymous hero of Terry Bisson's Talking Man (1986) – and Magi – like Prospero, or Charles G Finney's Dr Lao and the version of Aleister Crowley envisioned in John Symonds's The Trickster and the Devil (1992) – cannot be trusted to treat the mundane world with much respect. Jack-figures – from the Jack who tricks the Giant to Jack the Ripper to Fritz Leiber's Gray Mouser – incorporate trickster elements. Tom Thumb is a trickster, and so are Oskar in Günter Grass's The Tin Drum (1959) and the prankster Till Eulenspiegel ("Tyll Owlglass"), who has existed in German texts since circa 1483, first appearing in English in A Merye Jest of a Man Called Howleglas (circa 1560). Robin Hood is usually depicted as a trickster. As the Lord of Misrule, trickster figures emcee scenes of Revel from behind their Masks, as does the hero of The Mask (1994). As Harlequin (a figure who resembles Hermes, and who shapes Michael Moorcock's shapeshifting Jerry Cornelius), the trickster dominates the Commedia dell'Arte. As the Confidence Man (who also reflects the influence of Hermes) the trickster is Underlier for 19th- and 20th-century tales that treat Reality as problematic and morality as inherently inapposite in a shifting world. US Tall-Tale heroes – like Davy Crockett and Pecos Bill, figures who underlie late fantasy texts like Joyleg (1962) by Avram Davidson and Ward Moore (1903-1978) – are often tricksters. Over and above the huge number of tales featuring cunning rogues in Arab literature, Arabian Fantasy features figures like Ali Baba and Aladdin; in the Sufi tradition, the jokester Nasruddin is a trickster, and is so presented by Idries Shah (1924-    ) in The Sufis (1964).

Trickster gods feature in Celtic Fantasy, Nordic Fantasy, Slick Fantasy, fantasy versions of various god families (>>> Greek and Latin Classics; Mesopotamian Epic; Sanskrit Literature), where they are presented variously: as licenced Fools; as Machiavellian plotters; as co-creators of the universe; as grotesque or seductive shadows of the high gods; as emblems of the dangers and allures of Fertility, sometimes in the guise of Puck; and so forth. The best-known fantasies to feature trickster gods who wear a human mask are probably Philip José Farmer's World of Tiers, where Kickaha is both god and man, and Jack of Shadows (1971) by Roger Zelazny, many of whose other books also star immortals with trickster miens. Tanith Lee's Tales from the Flat Earth also features in Chuz, the god known as Delusion's Master, a fully developed trickster, two-faced (like Janus), and profoundly threatening to the Balance of the world.

When tricksters appear in Horror – as in Stephen King's Needful Things (1991) – they tend only to destroy, without passing through any change into a state which would allow them to impart or to manifest wisdom. In Supernatural Fiction, tricksters tend to disrupt the didactic flow – from supernatural realm to ignorant and seducible mundane world – typical of that genre; when they appear in fantasies, especially those set in Otherworlds, they perform the full range of functions described in this entry, and in their volatile mutability are primary conveyors of wisdom in fantasy texts. [JC]

see also: Beetlejuice (1988); Fool; Puck.

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.