Trickster Makes This World Analysis

Lewis Hyde

Trickster Makes This World

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

One of the recurring figures in mythology is that of the trickster, a humorous character whose clever schemes often seem to be self-defeating. The trickster is the sly rule-breaker who often proves to be the butt of his own pranks. Examples abound, but the best-known specimens are perhaps those of the raven and the coyote in Native American myths. Most readers might be tempted to conclude that these are shallow examples of anthropomorphism-stories about animals who embody the less attractive aspects of human nature.

Lewis Hyde, however, discerns a serious subtext in this much- maligned character. While the trickster may at first appear to be a shallow figure, he often represents change in more primitive societies. Specifically, the trickster functions as a kind of catalyst within traditional societies: he instigates change by breaking rules and violating taboos. The trickster usually is caught in the act, but the result is an elevated status for this mysterious figure. In Western mythology, Hermes is caught when he steals Apollo’s cattle, but he does manage to improve his lot among the Olympians.

TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD: MISCHIEF, MYTH, AND ART also portrays an actual historical figure as a kind of trickster, nineteenth century abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Hyde views Douglass through the lens of African folklore, finding some interesting links between the ex-slave and the trickster Eshu. However, Hyde is most convincing when he explores the connection between the trickster and his counterpart in the modern world: the artist. Like Hermes and the raven, the artist also challenges society’s rules and thereby brings about change. Both the trickster and the artist are prophets in that they reveal hidden truths. TRICKSTER MAKES THIS WORLD is a revelation.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIV, December 1, 1997, p. 590.

Kirkus Reviews. LXV, November 1, 1997, p. 1623.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, February 15, 1998, p. 18.

The New Yorker. LXXIV, March 16, 1998, p. 78.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, November 24, 1997, p. 63.

The Village Voice. February 3, 1998, p. 134.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, February 8, 1998, p. 4.

Whole Earth. Summer, 1998, p. 95.

Trickster Makes This World

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Readers familiar with popular works on mythology will easily recognize the character known as the trickster. On the surface, he is the somewhat clownish figure of cunning whose very cleverness ultimately proves to be his own undoing. The most common examples are those in Native American tales, in which the coyote and the raven play the role. It is easy to dismiss such a type because it is inherently comic in nature. In one such tale from the American West, Coyote’s failure to heed the rules leads to a bout of flatulence and diarrhea of epic proportions. However, there are two factors that need to be considered when assessing the role of the trickster. First, there is the widespread nature of this figure. While the Native American versions are the most recognizable, the trickster also appears in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Clearly, there are qualities in the trickster that seem fundamental to the human condition.

Second, there seems to be a deeply serious side to this immensely entertaining character. Even though the coyote evokes guffaws from readers, one is chastened to learn that this figure is the creator of human beings and animals. Keeping these points in mind, one can see how fruitful a detailed study of this culture- crossing hero would be.

What makes such an enterprise so enjoyable is the fact that it cuts across many different disciplines. The author must combine such diverse areas as history, anthropology, storytelling, and religion in addition to the more obvious subject of mythology. This runs counter to the specialization in knowledge that one finds among university professionals. When a work such as Hyde’s succeeds it holds the potential for synthesizing that knowledge and drawing together the disparate strands. Fortunately, Lewis Hyde is well qualified for such an undertaking. As the jacket blurb indicates, he demonstrated the necessary academic skills through his tenure as director of creative writing at Harvard University. However, the fact that he has also worked as a counselor and as an electrician demonstrates his ability to leap into different areas of knowledge.

It is this affinity between the author and his subject that awakens the reader’s interest. Clearly, Hyde loves this topic. This is evident in the great care he takes in defining the trickster, a description that serves to outline the format of the book. Hyde implies that every culture represents a collection of shared characteristics—one that seeks a kind of stasis. These are the similarities within a particular group that tend to make it distinct from others. However, Hyde feels that the very health of a particular society depends upon its ability to accommodate change, and this is where the trickster is so important. The trickster is the figure who is on the road, the one who embodies the process of becoming that is so crucial to a vibrant culture. As one would expect, there is an inherent tension between this embodiment of change and the inertia of society as a whole. When the gods jealously guard their power, it is up to the trickster to set matters right. The Olympians may wish to withhold fire from humankind, but it takes a trickster like Prometheus to steal it from the gods for the benefit of all. It is for this reason that Hyde characterizes the trickster as “a boundary- crosser” and “the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.” What Hyde describes here is a kind of vitality achieved through a necessary rebellion. This transcends the immediate context of the trickster in a myth, where he tweaks authority’s nose in order to achieve his own ends. Hyde claims “that the origins, liveliness, and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on.” In essence, the trickster is a kind of mutation in society’s genetic code, one that endows a culture with the necessary flexibility if it is to respond to changing needs.

Hyde’s lucid text and his commitment serve to draw the reader’s interest, but a word of caution is necessary. As already noted in Hyde’s own background, he is an occupational trickster of sorts. That kind of identification with one’s subject is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it results in personal insights from the writer that might otherwise be lacking. On the other hand, the author can be blinded to alternative interpretations of particular points. One can see this quite clearly in Hyde’s claim for the trickster’s rebellion against the status quo. It may well be true that the trickster is a kind of necessary irritant in every culture, but is this the only explanation? Hyde sprinkles his personal experiences throughout the text. Indeed, he begins the book with the story of his first encounter with the trickster while hitchhiking in the 1960’s. As a college student in that decade, Hyde was undoubtedly influenced by the rebellious flavor of his generation. It may well account for his emphasis on this aspect of trickster lore, and it may have blinded him to other possibilities. This is reflected in his very selective use of secondary sources for the...

(The entire section is 2116 words.)