Do We Need the Trickster?

By | April 20, 2011

Review: Trickster Makes this World: Mischief, Myth, and Heart, by Lewis Hyde, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1998.

Many nonfiction books read as though the author had a good, tight essay and for some unfounded reason decided to expand it. Many of our school library’s books have highlighted passages, as though readers were wading through the fluff to get back to the original essay.

Trickster Makes this World is a notable exception—it is so substantive that a third of the way through its 400 pages I felt as though I already had a whole-book experience. It wasn’t just because of the density of the material, but the quality. Hyde knows the trickster archetype, and I don’t mean intellectually. He sees the trickster in a thief but not a politician, and he has a sense for identifying which artists are tricksters and which aren’t. He shows us why the trickster is not immoral, but amoral, and how his antics can help us break through our conventions in order to be fully present in the now. The trickster, according to Hyde, will not let us dismiss anything by stereotyping or categorizing it.

The author not only introduces us to trickster figures of Native America, Africa, Greece, and Norseland, but leaves us feeling as though we grew up with them. Who else but a trickster could lie, cheat, and steal from you and leave you feeling good about it? Hyde explains why, along with showing us how much we need the trickster to liberate us from our shame- and guilt-based culture.

But there is a deeper reason I consider this book to be of such value: although the trickster is alive and well in the contemporary world, he does not play a very active role in our lives, and we need him to. Without him, we might not realize that advertisers shame us into buying their products. We could miss the fact that bigotry is being promulgated in the guise of patriotism, and that cries for freedom are sometimes doublespeak that translate into more suppression. We might well continue thinking that we are given choices when all they boil down to is shades of conformity. The trickster will have none of this.

He is both above and below the law. Whether it stinks or pleases matters not to him, whether it is sacred or carnal will not slow him down for a second in pursuing his selfish goals. Even so, as the author shows, the line between selfless and selfish is blurred for the trickster. It doesn’t matter whether he follows his crudest impulses or highest aspirations, he somehow ends up serving the people.

Hyde is deft at showing how the trickster’s sole pursuit is truth—not the sugar-coated kind we are accustomed to that fits our belief system and cultural paradigm, but the bold, naked reality that lies hidden beneath. He left me with the conviction that when trickster stories again grace our lives to ferret out truth, as they did in the days of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we can again have lives of clear sight and genuine feeling. Trickster Makes This World is paving the way.

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