Trickster Tales In British Literature

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A trickster is a recurrent figure in world folklore and literature. It is a cunning, deceitful, and mischievous character that upsets established hierarchies, conventions, and rules by playing tricks. Tricksters could be human, divine, or anthropomorphized characters possessing supernatural powers. Native American, African-American, and European literature and folklore have featured Anansi the Spider, the Coyote, Br’er Rabbit, Reynard the Fox, and the Raven. Trickster tales have used these characters to solve problems and pass down folk wisdom on human behavior. British literature transforms the trickster archetype in narrative and thematic representation as well as in character portrayals.

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The trickster theme in British literature is repeated in folk and fairy tales such as ‘The Three Little Pigs’, ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’, and stories involving ‘Jack’, an archetypal jester. The wolf, in ‘The Three Little Pigs’, after destroying the stick-houses of first two pigs and devouring them deceptively, is outwitted by the third pig who catches and eats him instead. ‘Jack’ in the ‘Beanstalk stories’ shrewdly steals treasures and conquers the giant. Whereas in ‘Jack Mary Ann’ versions, he fools the authority figures and poses a challenge to the dominant norms.

The fox in the Aesop’s fables, Rumpelstiltskin, and Hermes are other famous archetypal tricksters from traditional folklore and fairytales. Hermes has the ability to move between the mortal world and the divine. These impish characters can be benign to human beings but can also be amoral or immoral. Hermes is the inventor of music, but also the leader of thieves. Rumpelstiltskin is compassionate to help the miller’s daughter spin straw and turn them into gold, but he also frighteningly demands that she gives her firstborn child in exchange.

The wily trickster figure is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Dean Swinford opines that Chaucer transforms the familiar archetype to obscure fixed character identities. For instance, the Wife of Bath overturns a normative belief that women are inferior to men. She disrupts social hierarchies by being an outspoken critic of the marriage institution. She cunningly exploits the reference to the Bible, Greek, and Latin in her speeches. In ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’, Chaucer relates the tale of three drunks who wish to find Death. Finding gold instead, they decide to trick each other. However, they die falling prey to their own tricks imparting the lesson that greed is the root of all evils. Moreover, the tale plays a trick on human guilt as it portrays a sinner as a pilgrim seeking redemption.

British trickster tales also famously pertain to the fools of William Shakespeare. The Grave Diggers in Hamlet, for example, infuse wit and humor in the most sanctimonious location (Graveyard) and unexpected circumstances (Death). Disguised as man, Viola from Twelfth Night guides the actions of other characters and serves her own needs. Ariel in The Tempest is a shape-shifting spirit of the air, who enhances Prospero’s role. We see a rich share of trickster tales and figures in English literature.

Puck is another celebrated jester from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He can swiftly fly around the earth and is also called by the name, Robin Goodfellow. In an amusingly playful manner, he plays pranks on the village maidens and skims the cream off the milk. He clogs the flour-mill to stop further grinding of grains. He prevents the milk from turning into butter leaving the housewives breathless for ceaselessly churning the milk. He also thwarts foaming in the bear. He misleads the travellers travelling in night and then laughs at their delusion. He jests with Oberon, laughs at him, and makes him laugh too. He lures a fat and well-fed horse by neighing like a foal. He transforms himself into a roasted crab and dips into a gossiping woman’s cup of ale. When she puts her lips to the cup, he bobs himself in her drink. In her astonishment, the woman pours the ale on her lap. He capriciously transmutes into a stool for an old woman telling a sad story. When she is about to sit on it, he slips out from underneath her so that she falls down and hurts herself. Everyone preparing themselves for her sad story burst into laughter. Puck himself is greatly amused to relate the incident to the Fairy:

The wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,

Sometimes for three-foot stool mistaketh me;

Then slip I from her bum, down topples she,

And ‘tailor’ cries, and falls into a cough;

And then the whole quire hold their hips and loffe

And waxen in their mirth, and neeze, and swear

A merrier hour was never wasted there.

But Puck also obliges people by helping them in their affairs and earns the name “Hobgoblin” and “Sweet Puck”. He admittedly calls himself “merry wanderer of the night” and explains that people have great fun because of his jests. In the play, Oberon instructs Puck to put the love juice in the eyes of Demetrius to make Demetrius fall in love with the unhappy Helena. But Puck mistakes Lysander as Demetrius and pours the potion into Lysander’s eyes. Puck laughs at the resultant mistake. When Lysander awakens and sees Helena instead of Hermia, he falls in love with Helena. Puck then pours the love potion into Demetrius’ eyes and when he awakens and sees Helena, he too falls in love with Helena, thus creating an incredibly chaotic and funny situation. When Oberon scolds him, he corrects his mistake but explains that since the two woman dressed alike, he mistook one for another. Through his mischief, Puck makes the queen of the fairies fall in love with a common worker. In doing so, Puck dispels the belief that any given social order is absolute.

Trickster figure in British literature manifests itself in multivalent forms symbolizing the trickery of life. Found in both oral and written British literary traditions, it attempts to correct human follies and establish new orders. Exhibiting both humorous and profound characteristics, tricksters continue to fascinate and direct the readers to reflect more deeply on human behavior.

31 October 2020

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