|Huehuecoyotl, the Aztec trickster god|
We see this theme of greed repeated in fairy tales. Jack—a common name for the English trickster type—can’t help himself from going back to the country of the giants to retrieve the beautiful golden harp, even though he already has a hen who lays golden eggs. For a more ominous example, we only have to look at Rumplestiltskin, who demanded a baby in repayment for the third night of spinning. (What was he going to do with that baby? My bet is that he’s a fairy; fairies are known for stealing children for all kinds of reasons. But Jane Yolen reminds us in her story “Granny Rumple” that the character Rumplestiltskin was, at times, the locus of anti-Semitic propaganda such as myths about child-stealing Jews.)
Their large appetites and penchant for rule-breaking make tricksters a great example of the “carnivalesque” in literature. They embody the subversive energy Mikhail Bahktin described in his theory of carnivalesque: they overturn social hierarchies, making the powerful seem ridiculous and giving momentary glory or victory to the little guy. They inhabit the grotesque body, with its lust for food and drink and sex. And, whether cutting a caper under the desert moon in the guise of Coyote or dancing, Pan-shod, in a Dionysian revel, they love fun.
But — and this is something my students pointed out to me — tricksters don’t usually break their word. While tricksters actively work to deceive, when they make a promise, they usually perform at least the letter, if not the spirit, of the vow.
I think one of the reasons I love tricksters so much is that they are hard to pin down. They can be heroes or villains, the Fool or the Magician. Once you learn about them, you think you see them everywhere. Tricksters are shadowy like that. But they’re crucial to life, too. With chaos come the switches in our DNA that make us individuals; with chaos, the earth is broken and a seed can germinate; with chaos, a droplet of water takes a different path each time it crosses a . . .
(Wait. Is Ian Malcolm a trickster figure? *Reevaluates everything about Jurassic Park*)
Some of my favorite tricksters in fantasy literature are: Locke Lamora from Scott Lynch’s GENTLEMAN BASTARD series; Mat Cauthon from Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series; and the inimitable El-Ahrairah from Richard Adams’ Watership Down. Most of these figures are male; Windling addresses this near the end of her essay. Maria Tatar posits Katniss Everdeen and Scheherezade as potential female tricksters in her New Yorker article, “Sleeping Beauties Vs. Gonzo Girls.” After our unit on Tricksters, my class studied witches, and I have to wonder if Baba Yaga, with her hut of chicken legs and her unpredictable generosity, is a trickster figure.