Trickster Makes This World
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.