Tales and Their Tellers: 2. How to Spot a Trickster

2. How to Spot a Trickster

Anansi the Spider, written and illustrated by Gerald McDermott

By Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

“Only you could sell your own mother for a bunch of stories!”
How Anansi Stole all the Stories by John and Caitlin Matthews

Fundamentally ambiguous and anomalous.  Deceiver and trick-player.  Shape-shifter. Situation-inverter.  Messenger and imitator of the gods.  Sacred and lewd bricoleur.

Ah, how I wish I could take credit for that particular formation of words – and to be able to say that I knew what the word bricoleur means – but these are the fundamental attributes of the Trickster as presented by William Hynes and William Doty, from whose book of critical essays, Mythical Trickster Figures, I have truly cribbed.

Bricoleur, incidentally, refers to one who is able to use random objects for a variety of purposes.  It is now your responsibility to use it seamlessly in conversation (e.g. “My, that MacGuyver is one persnickety bricoleur!”).

Why does the persona of the trickster appeal to me so?  Consider the average hero of contemporary children’s picture books.  Consider Caillou the bald-headed boy.  Consider Franklin the Turtle.  Consider Clifford, that elephantine, scarlet canine.  Arlo dearly loves these characters, and we have read nearly every book in each of their series.  These are stories which teach kindness, tolerance, cleanliness…  All good things.  If Franklin is Messy makes Arlo want to start cleaning his room, I’m all for it.  True, there may be tricksters lurking in these background of these stories, but if so, they exist only as the foil.

Trickster tales stand in stark contrast to this. The Tricksters lie, cheat and swindle.  The Trickster is lazy.  The Trickster will go to almost any length if he thinks it might get him out of a day’s work.  Though it would not be fair to say that Trickster Tales reward this kind of behavior, or even encourage it.  The Trickster often fails and gets himself into trouble so deeply, he must plead for mercy.  But he always lives to tell the tale, and – thank God – never learns his lesson.

Coyote is a Trickster.  Raven is a Trickster.  But the greatest of all the Tricksters is Anansi the Spider, who originated amongst the Ashanti people of West Africa hundreds of years gone.  What is the most interesting to me about the character of Anansi the Spider is that he is attributed with being the originator of all stories.  That is to say, Anansi brought Stories to the human race.  Yes, it is from the laziest, most self-centered of creatures from whom all stories unfold.

It is probably the most oft-repeated of Anansi stories, and is a direct cousin – some have claimed – to the Greek myth of Prometheus.  Except no one chains Anansi to a cliff and sends a giant eagle to masticate his self-regenerating liver for all of eternity.  No sir, Anansi is rightly celebrated!

From Anansi the Spider, illustration by Gerald McDermott

The story is briefly this: one day Anansi (sometimes he is a spider, other times he is portrayed as a man) decides to buy all of the Stories from the Sky God.  So the Sky God gives Anansi three impossible tasks which he must first complete: to capture a python, a fairy and forty-seven hornets.  Together with his clever wife, Aso, Anansi tricks his way though each of these tasks, delivering them one at a time to the increasingly incredulous Sky God.  When the tasks have all been completed, Nyame presents Anansi with the box of stories, and, as Gail Haley writes in A Story, A Story, “when he opened the box, all the stories scattered to the corners of the world, including this one.”

I like this story very much, and I love Anansi’s trickiness.  But I always balked at Anansi’s apparent goodwill in wanting the stories in the first place.  In Anansi Does the Impossible, Verna Aardema explains it this way through a line of dialogue:

“It is wrong that the tales our storytellers have told for generations belong to the Sky God.  I’m going to buy them for our earth people.”

Really?  I never bought this apparent goodwill.  It wasn’t until I recently read How Anansi Stole all the Stories by John and Caitlin Matthews, that I finally understood.  The Matthews explain Anansi’s motivation in this way:

“He wanted beer in his cup, his finger in the pie, songs in his honor, and all the good things that come to a storyteller when people enjoy his stories.”

Aha, perfect!  How my heart smiles to know that yes, Anansi is a greedy jackanape after all!

And then – and I have not run across this in any other version of the story I could find (and I’ve read a lot of them) – Anansi even decides, just out of the goodness of his heart, to throw in his mother to the bargain as well!  The Sky God tells Anansi the impossible tasks he must complete, and Anansi replies, “I’ll go one better and throw in my old mother, Nsia, as well!”

At the conclusion of the story, there’s poor Anansi with the python, the fairy, the hornets, and a leopard, and he asks his poor old mother to help him deliver them up to the Sky God.  Being the good mother that she is, she does, not realizing that she ain’t coming back. Somehow, I just can’t imagine Clifford selling Emily Elizabeth for an economy-sized bag of dog treats, but that’s just me.

Not a Trickster

Lewis Hyde writes in his book, Trickster Makes the World, “…trickster only comes to life in the complex terrain of polytheism.  If the spiritual world is dominated by a single high god opposed by a single embodiment of evil, then the ancient trickster disappears.”  In other words, Tricksters have no place in our modern Judeo-Christian society. But he hasn’t disappeared.

Long ago, he stowed away on the slave ships bound for America, so I’ve been told.  He came along as the newly imprisoned Africans slaved away on the plantations.  That was when he got involved in some heady cross-pollenation with the local herb, Native American Trickster stories which were themselves still present in an undercurrent throughout our civilized discourse.

And what, pray tell, was to come from this unholy miscegenation?

Next: “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah!”


Further Reading:

* Anansi the Spider by Gerald McDermott

Ironically – at least to me, anyway – the most popular Anansi book is the least Anansi-like of them all.  Anansi the Spider won a Caldecott Honor Book in 1972, not bad considering it was his McDermott’s first book.  It is very colorful and beautiful.  In the story, however, Anansi is merely a hapless victim of circumstance, rescued by the ingenuity of his many children.  It ends with Anansi holding a globe of light, which he wishes to give to the son who has helped him the most.  Unfortunately, all of his sons helped equally, so, he asks Nyame –  The God of All Things – to hold the globe for him until he can figure out to whom it should go.  Nyame holds the globe in the sky for all to see.

Maybe if Anansi had tricked his sons into believing none of them had helped him so that he could keep the glowing white globe for himself and sell it for food… but as it stands, this works as more of a creation story of the moon.

* Anansi and the Talking Melon by Eric A. Kimmel and illustrated by Janet Stevens

Eric Kimmel has done a whole series of Anansi stories, and they are wonderful.  He writes them in a way that is absolutely accessible to modern readers. There is no faux-African dialect.  I think a lot of writers make a mistake trying to place their tales in their original culture, but it is contemporary takes like this which really propel a folktale forward. The best part – for me – is that they truly emphasize Anansi’s trickster nature.  He is truly sneaky and lazy.  I list The Talking Melon here as it is the one which made Arlo laugh the hardest.

* Trick of the Tale by John and Caitlin Matthews, illustrated by Tomislav Tomic

The best part of doing this column has been that it has forced me to pick up books I might otherwise have overlooked.  I was really trying to be a completest last week, going through my local libraries and finding every book I could on the subject.  My back ached when I finally got home and was able to begin sifting through them.  Trick of the Tale stopped me in my tracks.

The Anansi story I quoted above (How Ananse Stole all the Stories) is just one of twenty different stories from around the world collected in the compendium.  The Matthews are definitely good writers, both clear and witty, but dear God, it is the abundance of highly detailed black and white illustrations which really produce the dropping jaw effect.  Check out the illustrator’s website: http://www.tomislavtomic.com/.  When you first enter, you will be presented with an illustration of Adam and Eve standing before the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil while the serpent slithers down the center.  This will give you a pretty good idea of what nearly every single page of Trick of the Tale is like.  This might be one I have to buy.

Recommended Watching:

* During this past week while working on this column, I had checked out an old Sesame Street video from our library for Arlo to watch.  Suddenly, somewhere between a Bert and Ernie vignette and a Grover soliloquy, Arlo yelled out, “Dad!  Dad!  Anansi!”  Sure enough, he was right, and narrated by the great Ossie Davis, no less: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWU2oyqCg5o

* Every parent should know about the wonders of Weston Woods Studios.  They do animated versions of children’s books, but with such care and imagination that they really stand on their own as works of art (you have not experienced Maurice Sendak’s Chicken Soup with Rice until you’ve seen the Weston Woods version sung by Carol King).  Here is an Anansi story they produced in 1971, based on Gail Haley’s Caledecott Winning book, A Story, A Story: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=iv&v=xFnOCCq0y-w&annotation_id=annotation_715401


2 responses to “Tales and Their Tellers: 2. How to Spot a Trickster

  1. Great column. My favorite trickster would have to be El’ahrairah (spelling?) from Watership Down, who appears to have a lot in common with Anansi.


  2. Really interesting! I have Neil Gaiman to thank for my awareness of the spider trickster. His Anansi Boys (I think it’s called…) is a fun read.


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