5 Chapter 5: Tricksters in Folk Lore, Fairy Tales, and Graphic Tales

Trickster Fairy Tales

Momotaro, or the Story of the Son of a Peach

Little Red Cap [Little Red Riding Hood]

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf

The Three Little Pigs

Trickster Folk Tales

The links will take you to websites that often include the story and some additional discussion about the trickster figures and their cultures, in Alaska, in West Africa, and in the American Southwest. In each case, you are only required to read the story itself, though you may find it interesting to read the other material as well.

Coyote and the Golden Eagle : A Tlingit Legend


Anansi and the Box of Stories

The Ballad of Mulan

The Fox Woman

Graphic Tricksters

The Sleeper and the Spindle, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell. This is the illustrated book we will study. It is available in print from the UWF Bookstore, from various online booksellers, and possibly other sources as well.


Trickster Figures in Literature

We’ve been studying fairy tales that attempt to teach how our culture wants us to think, to see the world, and to behave.

But trickster tales suggest other kinds of responses to culture.

  1. Characteristics of Tricksters

Virtually every culture has some kind of trickster figure their stories, folklore and legends.

LOKI: Norse legends have the trickster god Loki, as well as some Raven figures.

FAIRIES: In Celtic cultures, fairies, also known as brownies, elves, selkies, pookas, or collectively as the Fae, and all of these can be mischievous and even dangerous as well as cute and clever and helpful.

ANANSI: In West Africa, the trickster is variously a man and a spider called Anansi.

In the Americas, Anansi morphed into a female trickster called Aunt Nancy.

COYOTE: In the American southwest and Native American cultures.

RAVEN: Among native Alaskans, the primary trickster is Raven.


So tricksters come in many forms and with varying traits

But there are some broad parameters by which we can know most of them:

Underprivileged figures—tricksters are underprivileged by wealth or property or education or social position;

Boundary crossers—tricksters exist at the MARGINS of cultures;

Shape shifters—tricksters may shape-shift literally or metaphorically;

Rule breakers—tricksters often break rules in literal or metaphorical ways.


  1. Functions of Tricksters

For a culture to really thrive, it cannot be all about obedience to expectations and imperatives. It has to change at some point. Otherwise, it won’t last.

We see this in the basics of purity vs. hybridity in populations.

A culture that will not allow any outsiders or any difference (however that is defined)

will end up falling into ruin and dying out.

If for no other reason than inbreeding.

But when the outsider does find their way in, or exert some influence,

The culture experiences change, and that opens the door for progress.

All change is NOT progress. But progress is change, by definition.


SO if most fairy tales attempt to teach obedience to cultural expectations,

Then what do you imagine tricksters do with cultural expectations?

Most important: they ILLUSTRATE that defiance, resistance, and change ARE possible.

This kind of illustration of resistance is important not JUST as a model,

But also because just reading or hearing about it

Can change the way you think.

For further information about this kind of change, review the following video:

So just reading or, in the case of folklore, hearing stories of trickster defiance can encourage an audience (of readers, hearers of gossip, listeners around the campfire, any kind of audience) to sense the power of that defiance and the possibilities that might come out of it.

On the other hand, there is danger in defying expectations

(exogamy, resisting marriage, resisting cultural ideas like beauty and gendered roles).

But there is also power.

For example, fairy tales often teach us to avoid exogamy.

They illustrate the danger of breaking that rule, as happens in “The Swan Maiden” and “Urashima the Fisherman.”

But doesn’t one story show us the power of risking exogamy?

* * *

So the Trickster challenges the power in cultural imperatives, and turns it on its head, which is the power and the teaching of trickster behavior and attitude: that change can happen if you’re willing to take some risks.


We will cover each trickster tale in depth in class. Be sure you understand the principles discussed here, as they will apply to each of the tales in different ways.




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