Sunday, October 24, 2010

Trickster Archetypes

Just to mix things up a bit, I thought that, instead of a recommendation today, I'd run through some Trickster Archetype characters. I think knowing about these iconic characters gives an interesting perspective on some of the animals you find in adaptations. There are lots of ravens/crows in today's novelizations, but I've also seen wolves, horses, spiders, rabbits, and foxes.... And when you put them in terms of old Trickster tales, it can add another layer of meaning to the story you're reading. (And I do like layers.)

The Trickster is a motif that reaches storytelling throughout the ages. There are some types of storytelling that have a more clearly defined trickster than others, but there is usually a recognizable character. There are similarities and contrasts in these characters, but it is a fascinating study to see such a familiar character arise from diverse cultures throughout the ages.

One of the greatest Tricksters of fable history is the Coyote in the Native American tales. Coyote is cunning and smart, with insight that seems to come from out of the blue or the gods themselves. He is also one of the goofiest characters in history, letting his guard down so often that it’s a wonder his creator didn’t just throw up his hands in disgust. Coyote has the luck of being revived every time he dies, which is fortunate since he dies so frequently.

The Spider, Anansi, has that same sharp insight, and always manages to get the best of any deal. However, he doesn'tt usually seek anyone else’s downfall for the sake of making them miserable. He has no problem with causing grief to other creatures, but he doesn't go out of his way to achieve it. Rather, if there is some reason that he must make someone unhappy in order to get what he wants, he feels no regret.

For centuries, the Fox was seen as the Trickster character (think Aesop's Fables). There was a sudden shift in this idea when the Uncle Remus fables came along. Suddenly Brer Rabbit is the one fooling Brer Fox, who may seem, in these stories, to momentarily have the upper hand, but loses it quickly when Brer Rabbit outfoxes the Fox. Now the fox is not the trickster, and the focus has turned to the rabbit, who succeeds by sneaking and hiding in his Briar patch, and still gets away with tormenting the suddenly uncunning fox.

In these different fables, the Trickster motif runs true, in spite of the change of name. Often the character seems silly a great deal of the time. Sometimes he even tricks himself, or gets tricked by others when he gets overly cocky. (Although the rooster is not generally considered a Trickster.)

Brer Rabbit has a clear antagonist in the fox. Coyote and Anansi, on the other hand, run into a variety of characters ranging from gods to frogs. Brer Rabbit isn’t out to get anyone and doesn’t really seem to be trying to further any ends of his own, but he continually harasses Brer Fox. Perhaps this is simply animosity or just storytelling.

Anansi and Coyote have more of a religious influence. Both story types seek a way to understand the world and why things work the way they do. Through their various antics, they reveal the world of the gods and their respective creation stories. Though entertainment and jokes, these stories are a culture’s way of figuring out how the world got to be the way it is, from the Sun and Moon and Night to why the rivers flow in a certain direction.

The Tricksters are bad news for anyone that gets in their way, but on the flip side can be generous and surprising in their attitudes and goals. They are usually looking out for themselves first and foremost, and any favor they grant will require repayment. This theme runs through trickster tales from all cultures. Regardless of how kind they may seem to be, they are called troublemakers—Tricksters—for a reason.

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