Native American Vs. African American Trickster Tales
Essay, Research Paper
Not Just A Bedtime Story
?Beep Beep???VRRROOOOMMMM??and the Roadrunner speeds away from the deceitful Coyote as Coyote falls over a Cliff with his ?Acme? dynamite still in hand. The tale of the ?trickster? is known and shared all around the world. It is an age old story that has many different versions and is culturally diverse. Almost every culture has some version of the trickster tale; from the early West African people and their tales of Eshu, to the modern day American versions like Wile E. Coyote that Warner Brothers has made so popular (Doty and Hynes 10.) Japanese culture has the story of Susa-No-O, and even the ancient Greeks had similar stories dealing with the character Hermes (Doty and Hynes 141, 46.) With so many different cultures involved, one would think that the tales and myths would be just as variegated. However this is not necessarily the case. It seems as though the trickster story hent this human characteristic in that when a character is tricked, he, in return, takes revenge on his rival. In fact, this is what constitutes the main purpose for the action in these folktales. If it were not for our desire to see the wronged character revenged, there would be no motivation for the reader, or the writer of these stories. Without this theme, there would be no justification for wrongdoing, no justice for the wronged. This element of human nature is what makes these stories timeless and appealing to many generations. It is bred somewhere deep within us that a wrong must be somehow righted and the trickster tale fills this human need.
Hand in hand with retribution is the theme of punishment. Not only must one be revenged, but also, in order to feel fully justified, your rival must be punished. Sometimes we can be our own rivals. When we have done something wrong to someone else, we feel the need to be punished, and sometimes, consciously or not, we punish ourselves if we do not receive the punishment from an outside source. Therefore, this idea of punishment is also innate in us. The trickster tale feeds this necessity for punishment. Each time the character is gullible enough to fall for one of the vengeful tricks, he is punished in some way for his naivety, and in essence, for punishing the other character earlier at some point. For instance, in the ?Rabbit Tricks the Coyote,? the coyote believes the rabbit and attempts to ?drink all the water to get the cheese.? At the end of the story he is punished with a stomachache, and ?the runs.? Brer Rabbit, in Uncle Remus, is punished by getting stuck in the tar-baby, and being laughed at by his adversary.
The motif of illusion is also reoccurring in these narratives. Referring once again to the tar-baby and Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox has created the illusion of a person sitting in the road and Rabbit believes it. In ?Rabbit Tricks Coyote,? Rabbit convinces Coyote that the reflection of the moon in the water is cheese lying at the bottom. This theme coincides with the general effect and purpose of storytelling, to create illusions of characters, places, and events, or to temporarily ?trick? one?s senses into seeing certain things in your minds eye. This plays to a reader?s imagination and makes the story magical and fantastic.
This theme of illusion helps to explain the theme of enchantment. Literature, and in particular myths and folklore, is known for it?s imaginative way of making the impossible possible. Pertaining specifically to the African American and Native American trickster tales is the personification and thus enchantment of animals. Only in these stories can a fox, a rabbit, or a coyote contrive anything so complex as those in the trickster tales. The feats that these animals attain are not even conceivable for a human being to complete. For instance, how would you go about making a baby out of tar? Or to go even further, in one Native American tale about the coyote, he sees an old elk skull and ?makes himself small in order to get inside the skull and see better? (Hynes and Doty 3.) This is, of course, in reality, an impossible feat, only made possible through the mechanisms of storytelling, and the theme of enchantment.
Talking animals, magical feats, punishment and retribution for wrong doing; these characteristics are most commonly and frequently seen in cartoons, (as discussed earlier with Wile E. Coyote) bedtime stories, and Walt Disney major motion pictures in today?s world. Why? Because all these elements appeal primarily to children, which brings about the realization of another common motif. This is the duplication of basic structures and fairy-tale methods that make the stories easy to understand and interesting to imaginative young minds.
Most people can remember hearing some version of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox when they were young. The Coyote Native American tales are written in the same form. They are not full of details or unnecessary literary ?fluff,? but instead are straight to the point. One blatant characteristic of Harris?s stories is the way in which he tells the story so that in effect, it is a story of a story that is being told to a seven-year-old boy. The opening paragraph of the tiny novel begins with ?Miss Sally? looking for her little boy and seeing him through a window with Uncle Remus as she overhears him begin to tell the story to the boy. This event is a clear statement that the stories are intended mainly for the young (not that older people do not read them and enjoy them as well.)
Which leads to the final reoccurring device in the trickster tales of the African Americans and the Native Americans, which deals with the apparent commonality of overall purpose and meaning in the myths. They are not necessarily to teach a lesson, although often they do remind us not to be so gullible, and that ?what goes around comes around.? Neither are they for shear entertainment to be told while sitting around a Native American campfire long ago. They don?t often explain the unexplainable, or involve religious meanings, but they do reflect the sometimes ridiculousness of ourselves. ?Their stories provide a fertile source of cultural reflection and critical reflexivity that leaves one thoughtful, yet laughing; and what a culture does with laughter, reflects its vitality, flexibility, and creativity? (Hynes and Doty 4.) You could say that the ?true? meaning of each individual tale is dependant upon it?s content and who it was written for, which is probably true, but overall, these stories do remind us of ourselves. In them we can see our faults and through these characters, we can subconsciously or consciously laugh at ourselves from a distance, and without letting anyone else know that we do these things too. They remind everyone that no one is perfect, and that this is okay. This is not to say that we can put our guard down and let ourselves fall for anything, but if it happens sometimes, we just have to pull our heads out of the ?tar? and get back on top of things.
So the trickster tales are not simply children?s bedtime stories, or enchanted folklore about talking animals. They are a universally understood literary genre that encompasses some of the most deep-seeded human needs, such as the need for retribution and punishment. But they also serve as reminders to us, and lessons to our children in several aspects.
Christmas, Darren. ?Rabbit Tricks Coyote.? Dinetah?s Home Page. February 27, 2001 www.Geocities.com/RainForest/5292/stories.htm.
Christmas, Darren. ?Coyote and the Hen.? Dinetah?s Home Page. February 27, 2001
Harris, Joel Chandler. Uncle Remus. New York: Avenel Books, 1985.
Hynes, William J. and William G. Doty eds. Mythical Trickster Figures. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1993.