What are the Different Characteristics of the Trickster Archetype in Literature?

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Answered by: Caitlin, An Expert in the Genres, Themes and Subjects Category
A trickster is an archetype that has been around since the beginning of storytelling and myth-making. The trickster disobeys rules, ignores what is normal or expected and often encourages chaos. He or she is often very good with words and uses them to trick or fool others and to make up for his or her other shortcomings, such as physical or moral weakness. They take on different personas or put on acts depending on the audience or on what they need. The trickster openly questions and mocks convention and encourages other characters to follow their impulses, to do what is fun or what feels good rather than what is right. The trickster often creates and enjoys chaos. The trickster is fun, funny and frustrating.

There is a trickster archetype in every culture. In Native American cultures, tricksters are often coyotes, rabbits or other clever animals. In European folklore, crows, ravens and foxes are often depicted as tricksters. In African American folklore, Brer Rabbit is a famous trickster. In all of these trickster tales, the tricksters are often animals who use their wit and cunning to survive against animals that are physically stronger than they are. This often teaches the other animals the lesson that they can’t always expect to come out on top just because they are strong.

There are many portrayals of the trickster archetype in literature, too. Odysseus, the trickster hero of Homer’s Odyssey, uses verbal tricks and clever disguises to thwart terrifying monsters, but his trickery also infuriates the gods and prolongs his epic quest. This has a dual lesson for the readers: it encourages us to think outside the box, but it also warns against hubris. The Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland shape shifts, appears and disappears, leaving only his beguiling grin behind; he frustrates Alice but he also often raises philosophical questions that push her to think in new ways. Often, the portrayal of the trickster archetype in literature teaches the protagonist lessons by behaving in ways that are surprising and new.

In popular culture, we enjoy the pranks and antics of Bart Simpson, who amuses audiences while flouting all the rules of his parents and his principal; he will never do things in a conventional manner and though he sometimes takes his lumps along the way, he almost always emerges from his shenanigans victorious. The Joker from the Batman movies and comics is a more sinister trickster, pursuing chaos in ways that threaten lives and the very fabric of society. In The Dark Knight, the Joker says, “You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you. I just did what I do best. I took your plan and I turned it on itself.” This is one of the anthems of the trickster: to take what is expected and turn it upside down, usually for his or her own benefit.

Once you start to look for tricksters, you will find them everywhere, just waiting to tease, to teach and to turn things on their heads!

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