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Fox portrait

The lure of the trickster figure

Nii Ayikwei Parkes
The archetype of the shape-shifting trickster figure can be seen in folk tales and mythology around the world, but remains relevant today.

If, like me, you’ve ever read Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox to your child a couple of days after speaking to them about the importance of not stealing, then you’ve experienced the delicious dilemmas that the notion of tricksters can throw up. Mr Fox is a thief, but there is an unspoken endorsement of his actions because the farmers that he steals from ‒ Messrs Bunce, Boggis and Bean ‒ are not very nice.

It’s essentially the same defence that the modern-day internet or Ponzi con artist will try to use if caught; they couldn’t have succeeded if their marks were not greedy. As our inboxes fill with get-rich-quick messages, the contemporary context within which tricksters sit appears more negative than positive. Even our political leaders like to trick us regularly.

Catalysts and storytellers

These new age avatars are just one class in a whole school of tricksters ‒ they are con artists. Focussing on them means that we miss many nuanced forms of what Jung labelled the trickster archetype. A trickster is ultimately an unconventional member of society. Wherever we find tricksters, the unexpected happens; they are catalysts, they foment revolutions. In my part of the world, the go-to trickster is Kwaku Ananse, a shapeshifter who is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but who, by outfoxing the Sky God, is responsible for us all having stories to tell ‒ so, as a storyteller, I love him.

But what about straightforwardly fun tricksters, like Bart Simpson, who makes epic events of simple phone calls; Pippi Longstocking, who befuddles unpleasant adults; vengeful tricksters like Jessica Rabbit, or snide ones like Slim Shady (otherwise known as rapper Eminem)? Even language can play the role of trickster; one only has to look at the role and enduring relevance of slang, coded language in both espionage and poetry, reworked language for Bill Clinton-style defences, and ‒ of course ‒ the various pidgin versions of Western languages used by enslaved and colonised people to stay one step ahead of their bullies.

Mentor as trickster

Trickster elements are all around us. Parents have to be tricksters. Even our pop music icons are often playing roles, borrowing influences, seeding trends, but by far the most relevant trickster for today’s world ‒ to my mind ‒ is the mentor.

I’m talking about the boss who gives you a deadline for a project weeks early to test your mettle, puts you in a promotion race with a colleague (as Grissom does to Nick and Warrick in CSI), or berates you only to reveal weeks later that she is promoting you. You are never quite sure what the relationship is, but it could make or break you.

The original mentor in Greek mythology was a friend of Odysseus who was a father figure to his son Telemachus while the king was missing. During a crucial time in Telemachus’s life, however, when his father’s kingdom was under threat from his mother’s suitors, it was the goddess Athena who took the mentor’s form and guided an unknowing Telemachus. That is classic trickster stuff ‒ voice imitation, role play, gender remixing, con artistry, language manipulation; starting a revolution.

Nii Ayikwei Parkes is a widely-translated writer, editor, cultural commentator and performance poet whose debut novel Tail of the Blue Bird was nominated for the Commonwealth prize. @bluebirdtail. Image Credit: Creative Commons, Peter Trimming.

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