Diana McCown

SLIS 5440 Storytelling

April 27, 2002


Trickster Tales


This research project is a narrative examination and exploration of the various forms and styles of trickster stories and tricksters.  Trickster stories abound in many cultures, and the trickster may take both human and non-human form.  The purpose of this paper is to gain some insight into the psychology of the trickster and how stories about the trickster are presented.  Also, the paper will address the underlying theme of trickster stories and the purposes that those stories may serve. 


The tales presented in this paper were found by using the online catalog at the Lewisville Public Library and by browsing in the children’s section.  The artwork presented in this paper is paintings with which I was already familiar, and I have been the accomplice on many occasions for the camping trick.  A friend unwittingly emailed me the radio scam recently.  In order for the reader to gain some familiarity with the trickster, I will begin with a bibliographic presentation of eleven trickster stories or presentations.


A Sneaky Peek


  1. Burton, Sir Richard. (unknown). The Lady and Her Five Suitors. From: Selections from The Arabian Nights. United States: The Programmed Classics.










A beautiful merchant’s wife falls in love with another man during her husband’s travels.  One day, her lover is thrown into prison, and the distraught woman appears before the Chief of Police to request his release.  The Chief of Police is smitten with the woman and offers to release the man in return for her affections.  She agrees, but insists that the Chief of Police meet her at her house at a designated time.  Then she works her way up the political hierarchy and visits the Kazi, the Wazir, and the King in an attempt to have her lover released from prison.  Each man makes the same demand, and she arranges to have them all meet her at her house at the same time.  She then employs a carpenter, who also demands sexual favors, to build her a five-compartment cabinet.  On the arranged day, the men arrive one by one, and the woman tricks each man into hiding from the next man in a cabinet compartment where she locks them in.   The final man to arrive is the carpenter, and she tricks him into a cabinet by telling him it is not large enough.  Once all the men are locked in the cabinet, she sends the letter she has obtained from the Chief of Police to release her lover, and the two move to another town.  The five men remain in the cabinets until neighbors set them free.


  1. Barchers, Suzanne I. (1990).  The Princess and the Giant.  From: Wise women: Folk and fairy tales from around the world.  Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc. 











A queen and her three daughters are exiled to live in a country cottage after her husband dies.  One day the daughters awake to discover that a giant has been stealing their cabbages.  The oldest daughter decides to stay awake to confront the giant.  Offended by her attitude, the giant throws her into his cabbage bag and takes her back to his house where he makes her complete his chores.  Disgusted with her inability to cook porridge and comb wool, the giant throws her in the loft.  The next night, the second daughter waits for the giant and suffers the same fate as the oldest daughter.  Finally, the youngest daughter waits for the giant, but greets him so politely that the giant treats her much more gently.  At his house, the youngest daughter is able to complete the chores with the aid of a traveler whom she feeds.  The giant is pleased and allows her to visit her sisters.  The young daughter requests that the giant take her mother some heather for the cow the next day, and he agrees.  The next night, the giant carries her mother some grass in a basket.  The last night, the giant agrees to carry a basket of myrtle to her mother and notices as he leaves that the youngest daughter has not arrived for breakfast.  When the giant leaves the basket, the youngest daughter crawls out and reunites with her sisters whom the giant unwittingly carried home on previous trips.  When the giant returns to their home, the queen and her daughters had already returned to the castle taking all the cabbages with them.


  1. Hayes, Joe. (1994).  In the Days of King Adobe.  From: Watch out for clever women!  El Paso, TX: Cinco Puntos Press.









A poor, old woman saves her money and manages to purchase a ham that she hangs in a dark closet.  On special days and when company visits, the old woman eats a thin slice of ham.  One day, two young men stop at the woman’s house and ask for lodging.  The old woman takes them in and feeds them some of her ham.  After the old woman goes to bed, the two men stay awake and plot to steal her ham.  One man takes the ham, wraps it in his shirt, and puts it in his travel bag.  However, the old woman, who had become a good judge of character, does not go to sleep that night and peeks out her door to see what the men do with the ham.  After they go to sleep, the old woman takes her ham back and replaces it with an adobe brick.  The next morning while eating breakfast, the men make fun of the old woman and tell her about a dream about a king named Hambone the First who lived in a country called Travelibag who fed them.  The old woman claims to have had a similar dream, but Hambone the First is thrown out and replaced by King Adobe the Great and a famine begins.  The men leave, laughing to themselves about the woman’s foolishness.  That afternoon, they stop to eat only to discover that the old woman outsmarted them.


  1. Johnson, Paul Brett. (1993). The cow who wouldn’t come down. New York: Orchard Books. 









One morning, Miss Rosemary awakes to discover her cow, Gertrude, flying.  Upset, Miss Rosemary marches outside and demands that Gertrude stop flying, but the cow ignores her.  Miss Rosemary then tries to lure Gertrude down with hay, catch her with a fishing rod, lasso her with a rope, and catch her by the tail from the roof, but all of the attempts fail.  Finally, Miss Rosemary devises a plan and posts a ‘Help Wanted’ sign for a cow on her fence.  Then she stays up all night sewing a stuffed cow on roller skates.  The next morning, Miss Rosemary brings the “new cow,” Matilda, into the yard and crosses through the ‘Help Wanted’ sign.  She then takes Matilda to Gertrude’s feeding bin and salt lick, pats her on the nose, and heads back into the house.  Jealous of the new cow, Gertrude zooms up into the air and crashes into Matilda.  Miss Rosemary smiles at the success of her plan, but notices that Gertrude, who no longer flies, has begun to spend a lot of time around the farm machinery.


  1. Hamilton, Virginia. (1997).  Buh Rabby and Bruh Gator. From: A ring of tricksters: Animal tales from America, the West Indies, and Africa.  New York: The Blue Sky Press.










Bruh Gator is playing his fiddle for all of his friends and calling out the dances.  Buh Rabby marches inside Bruh Gator’s house to dance, but Bruh Gator knocks Buh Rabby out of the house with his tail.  Buh Rabby hits his head on the ground and gets his feelings hurt.  Standing outside the house, Buh Rabby offers to give Bruh Gator a rest and play the fiddle.  Bruh Gator agrees, and Buh Rabby has the house dancing up a storm.  His feelings hurt, Bruh Gator slides out to the swamp.  Buh Rabby comes to the swamp and entices Bruh Gator to dance to his tune.  While Bruh Gator is dancing, Buh Rabby jumps on his head and knocks him out!  The next day, Bruh Gator awakes to see a squirrel wearing a hat and round glasses holding his fiddle.  The squirrel plays the fiddle and talks Bruh Gator into dancing on his tail.  Bruh Gator looks back to see his tail on fire and Buh Rabby, who was disguised as a squirrel, laughing.  Bruh Gator jumps in the swamp and vows never to dance on his tail again.  To this day, Bruh Gator has a knot between his eyes and his mouth.


  1. Norman, Howard. (1999).  Trickster and the Shut-Eye Dancers.  From:  Trickster and the fainting birds.  New York: Harcourt Brace & Company.









Trickster and Fox are trying to catch ducks to eat on the edge of a marsh.  Every time they get close, Fox rattles the reeds and scares the ducks away.  Trickster weaves a dance lodge while Fox sleeps.  Fox takes Tricksters carry-sack filled with moss and stands out in the open in front of the ducks yelling into the sack.  Trickster snatches the sack from Fox and ties it shut.  Curious, the ducks inquire about the sack, and Trickster convinces them to come in his dance lodge to hear the songs in the sack.  Loon refuses to join the dance, but stands guard outside the lodge.  Trickster convinces the ducks to shut their eyes to dance, and while Fox sings, Trickster begins choking ducks.  Loon notices that fewer duck feets can be heard dancing and opens the lodge to find Trickster choking his fourth duck.  Loon attacks Trickster and the others open their eyes and escape.  Left with three dead ducks, Trickster asks Fox to find sweet grass.  While Fox is gone, Trickster eats the ducks himself and buries their feet in the ground.  When Fox returns, Trickster tells him he will let him eat all the ducks and leaves.  After Trickster is gone, Fox discovers that he has nothing to eat.


  1. Swift, David (screen writer). (1960).  The parent trap [videotape]. Disney Enterprises. Burbank, CA: Buena Vista Home Video.










Identical twins, Sharon and Susan, who have been separated from birth meet by chance at summer camp.  Discovering their relationship, the girls devise a plan to switch places in order to get to know their divorced parents and bring them back together.  However, their plans are thwarted when they discover that their father, Mitch is planning to marry another woman, Vicki.  The girls triumph by playing practical jokes on Vicki during a camping trip.  Vicki leaves Mitch, and he reunites with his ex-wife.


  1. Radio station Q95.5.  MoJo in the morning phone scam.


A radio DJ poses as a car repairman and calls a woman whose car is in the shop.  He tells her of all the additional car problems he has discovered including low headlight fluid, tires placed on the wrong sides of the car, and no transmission.  The woman agrees to all the repairs until the end when the prank is revealed.


  1. da Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi. (1594).  The Cardsharps.  oil on canvas; 94.2 x 130.9 cm. In Beckett, Sister Wendy. (2000).  Sister Wendy’s American collection.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers.











This painting shows the story of a young man being cheated by another youth and an older, experienced cheat. The older man is behind the victim’s back, signaling to his accomplice which card to play.  His accomplice shows a nervous and distasteful expression as he reaches behind his back for the needed card. 



  1. de La Tour, Georges. (late 1620s). The cheat with the ace of clubs. oil on canvas; 97.8 x 156.2 cm.  In Beckett, Sister Wendy. (2000).  Sister Wendy’s American collection.  New York: HarperCollins Publishers.













The youth being tricked in this painting is extravagantly dressed with an inward expression on his face.  Across from him is the professional cheat looking to make sure no one observes him as he removes a card from the back of his belt.  His accomplices are two women.  An overdressed Madame signals both the cheat and a maid to play the trick.  The maid stands ready with a glass of wine to distract the youth from the game.


11.  The Dandelion wand.

Dandelion seed floating away pt.1 (14k)








I have seen this trick played on an unsuspecting student during campouts.  The trickster finds a dandelion and declares to the group that it can find a penny.  To prove the point, the trickster selects a victim from the audience.  An accomplice hands the trickster a penny.  The trickster instructs the victim to hide the coin on their personage and leaves.  The accomplice helps to encourage the dupe to place the penny in a pocket or under her shoe.  The trickster returns and moves the dandelion near the victim’s body in search of the penny.  After a few minutes of searching, the trickster says “You put it in your mouth!”  When the dupe opens her mouth to prove him wrong, the trickster pops the dandelion in her mouth getting it full of fuzz and seeds.



A Tricky Analysis


These stories will be analyzed collectively for their similarities and significant differences using the structures of character, plot, and theme. 


Character Analysis:  The character of trickster can take many forms: male, female, animal, young, or old.  The only qualifier about the form of the trickster seems to be that he/she must have human characteristics.  In other words, an animal playing the role of trickster must be personified (have human qualities).  In The Cow Who Wouldn’t Come Down and In the Days of King Adobe, the trickster is an old woman.  However, in The Parent Trap the tricksters are two young girls.  Both of the oil paintings contain male tricksters, and in Buh Rabby and Bruh Gator, the trickster is a rabbit. 


Personality traits of the trickster are also allowed to vary greatly.  A trickster may be kind (as in In the Days of King Adobe), humble (as the youngest daughter in The Princess and the Giant), unfaithful (the adulteress woman in The Lady and Her Five Suitors) or mean (as Trickster kills ducks in Trickster and the Shut-Eye Dancers).  The one common characteristic of all the tricksters in this study is that they must all be able to maintain a convincing facade of genuineness and honesty while secretly plotting against others.  If the facade dissolves, the victim will become aware of the trickster’s true intentions and the prank will fail.  So, regardless of the preposterousness of the trickster’s claims, such as “This dandelion can detect metal” or “The halogen fluid in your car’s headlights is low,” believability must be maintained in order to achieve success.


Finally, the motivation of trickster seems to fall into three broad categories of entertainment, self-preservation, and/or self-centeredness.  For the observer, these motivations can range from amusing to violating.  In both oil paintings, the trickster is motivated by greed: trying to swindle money from a naïve player.  The camping game and the radio scam are both conducted for the entertainment and amusement of the trickster and his/her audience.  The old woman in In The Days of King Adobe and the young daughter in The Princess and the Giant both engage in trickery for purposes of self-preservation.  The old woman is trying to protect her property, and the youngest daughter is trying to prevent the possible death and enslavement of her and her sisters.  Sometimes the motivation is convoluted.  The woman in The Lady and Her Five Suitors is motivated both by her lust for her lover and her desire to maintain her chastity with other men.


Plot Analysis:  Although trickster stories may contain all of the eight narrative structural components discussed in class, I will focus this discussion on the key components of the trickster stories: orientation, complicating action, and resolution.  These three components play a major role in the presentation of the trick being played.


With the exception of the hoaxes performed purely for the sake of entertainment, trickster stories tend to provide orientation at the beginning of the tale.  In the examples in this paper, the main purpose of the orientation is to provide the reader with an understanding of the trickster’s motive.  Sometimes the initial motivation changes or becomes more complex as the story develops.  For example in The Lady and Her Five Suitors, the woman’s initial motivation is to release her lover from prison.  As the complicating action develops, the woman’s motivation is complicated by her desire to avoid sleeping with other men in order to free her lover.  In Buh Rabby and Bruh Gator, Rabby’s initial motivation is to join the party; however, once rejected, his motivation becomes one of revenge.  In other stories, the motivation remains straightforward.  In The Cow Who Wouldn’t Come Down, Miss Rosemary’s motivation to stop her cow from flying remains constant and unchanged throughout the story.


As already mentioned, the complicating action may involve providing the trickster with an additional, or a more complicated, motivation.  However, the main purpose of the complicating action is to provide the set-up for the prank.  At this point in the story, the trickster must convince the victim to believe in his sincerity and to participate accordingly for a successful trick.  In the trick, The Dandelion Wand, the trickster has to convince the dupe that he has some method of finding the coin and then has to trick the dupe into willingly opening her mouth.  The story, In the Days of King Adobe, the old woman has to maintain the young men’s conviction that she is naïve and foolish.  In both oil paintings, the tricksters have to convince the victims that they are honest gamesmen in order to get them to bet money.


The resolution of the stories usually involves the victim discovering that he has been duped.  Sometimes the trickster is present during the revelation, but often, the trickster has already left the scene of the crime.  The more self-centered and greedy the trickster’s motivations are, the less likely he/she will be present for the discovery of the deception.  For instance in the radio prank, MoJo in the Morning, the trickster reveals the trick to the victim in order to enjoy the entertainment of the prank.  However in Trickster and the Shut-Eye Dancers, Trickster, who greedily eats all the ducks, makes sure that he is long gone before Fox discovers his deception.  Sometimes the victims learn a lesson from the event.  For example the travelers in In the Days of King Adobe vow to never try to steal from those who help them again.  In other stories, the dupe is simply left with the realization that he has been tricked. 


Holistic Thematic Analysis:  Individually, the themes of the trickster stories tend to revolve around issues of trust or the use of intellect as a survival skill.  In The Parent Trap and The Cow Who Wouldn’t Come Down, the thematic commonality is that the tricksters learn the power of intellect in overcoming problems.  Miss Rosemary solves her cow-flying problem by outwitting Gertrude, and the twins use their clever pranks to chase away the unwanted fiancé.  For these stories, the theme is that a person can use their intelligence to outsmart their opponent and bring order back to the (trickster’s) world.


On the darker side, many of the trickster stories involve a victim being harmed (i.e. through loss of money, food, comforts, etc.) by the trickster.  The theme of these stories usually generate from the victim’s realization that they must be careful with their trust.  In Buh Rabby and Bruh Gator, Bruh Gator vows to avoid rabbits from that point forward and to try to eat any that he finds.  In Trickster and the Shut-Eye Dancers, Fox develops a permanent distrust of the human, Trickster, and avoids any contact from that point forward.  In the oil paintings, one senses the imminent monetary disasters for the youths and can imagine that they will be far less trusting of fellow card players in the future. 


Holistically, I believe that the trickster stories exist as a form of initiation for the naïve.  Whether the reader learns that she must sometimes trick people in order to survive and maintain order in her world or that others cannot be fully trusted, the trickster stories demonstrate the darker nature of society.  These stories show the uninitiated how to use their brains to solve problems and how to see through ploys that others may be using on them.  In essence, these stories are a form of rite of passage to make the listener become more savvy and aware of the ways of the world.




Finding the books and stories for this project was amazingly simple.  By literally browsing through some fairy tale books and the children’s section of the library, I found almost all the information I needed.  Many of the books I found were of stories from other cultures.  An interesting continuation of this project would be to divide the trickster stories by culture and study the similarities and differences across cultures.


The most difficult part of this assignment was deciding how to analyze the stories and what criteria would work across the various formats that I had.  Through the study of these eleven stories, I have gained some insight into the role of a trickster in society and the personality of tricksters.