That Shrewd and Knavish Sprite Called Robin Goodfellow

What the Trickster Means to Me

by Allen W. Wright.

Everybody Says Don't
Everybody Says Wait
Everybody Says Can't Fight City Hall
Can't Upset The Court
Can't Laugh At The King
Well I Say Try I Say
Laugh At The King Or He'll Make You Cry
Loose Your Poise
Fall If You Have To But Lady Make A Noise

-- Everybody Says Don't from the musical Anyone Can Whistle, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

A word of caution


I first wrote these words (or most of them) nearly 20 years ago. As I update the web design of my site, it's interesting to see what the 20-something me thought, and it's in someways disturbing. I hope you won't mind a few interjections from an older and hopefully wiser version of myself.

I expect that we have all felt like outsiders and outcasts at one point or another. But there are and indeed should be limits to how we act in a civilized society. Delight in the fiction all you want, but please remember that in the real world, actions have consequences. We need to think of the greater good. Thankfully, I see even my younger self recognized that.

Perhaps it's fortunate that many of the tricksters I grew up lovely were, for all their jests, civic-minded figures who cared about their impact on the world.

Also, this is largely just a personal essay, it used to appear at the bottom of Puck: A Personal Journey. I expect that if I were writing this from scratch today, I would ditch a lot of the personal stuff and do even more research on what the trickster means across various societies. Unfortunately, I don't have the time to do that right now. So, aside from a few edits and additions, this will appear as I originally wrote it. If you want to know more about some particular tricksters in folklore I suggest you check out my articles Puck Through The Ages: The History of a Hobgoblin and Wolfshead Through the Ages: The History of Robin Hood.

Outcasts and forces of nature

The trickster figures of mythology have always had a powerful resonance with me (and with others it would seem given their general popularity).

Have you ever been frustrated with society? Do the rules and laws stop making sense to you at times? They do to me. And do you ever feel like an outcast? That you're removed from the rest of society? That's another trickster trait. Robin Hood and Spider-Man are outlaws. Robin Goodfellow and the Trickster of the Winnebago natives of North America are outcasts from their societies. Puck, and faeries like him -- brownies, hobs, etc. -- rarely interact with the faerie court.

The trickster is a force of nature and instinct. And I've been accused of thinking too much. So, there's something enticing about pranks and a devil-may-care attitude. I enjoy shaking my head at things and just thinking "Lord, what fools these mortals be."

Sometimes instead of getting angry, or perhaps as an outlet of my anger, I just curl my lips up in a puckish smile and laugh at a life that seems increasingly stupid. Tricksters are considered primitive, naive, even ignorant. But sometimes they also possess a wisdom others do not. The fools in Shakespeare, and Puck is one of them, often make wise comments amidst their jokes. There's a reason why some tarot decks place the Fool with the World, the ultimate stage of enlightenment.

Spider-Man as trickster

Spider-Man is an excellent example of the modern trickster. Peter Parker is studious, guilt-ridden and hyper-responsible. But when Peter puts on his webbed mask, he manages to cut loose. He jokes constantly and thumbs his nose at foolish authority. He swings from sky-scrappers, not giving a damn about heights. Wouldn't we all love to shelve our neuroses and worries and just "BE" for a while?

Spider-Man's relationship to a trickster is complicated. His feelings of exhilaration and his quick wit is genuine. And yet, so are his doubts, his fears and the sense of responsibility that comes with his great power.

Of course, I'm talking about the comic book version of Spider-Man. Some movie versions of the character have captured his doubts without his wit, and others may have depicted his wit without the underlying doubts.

The dark sides of tricksters

But the trickster isn't all good. There is a major dark side. Robin Goodfellow's pranks are mischievous more than out and out evil. Robin Hood's thefts don't seem too bad. But the Devil is often a trickster too. (One 17th century woodcut depicts a very demonic looking Robin Goodfellow.) In Norse mythology, Loki the trickster helps the AEsir in some stories (like when he recovers Thor's hammer), but he conspired to have Baldr killed. And when the world ends, Loki will be on the side of the bad guys. Even the most benign tricksters have a dark side to them. It seems that tricksters are beyond normal definitions of good and evil. They are a force all their own.

Which can be quite annoying to others. I know I've said some thoughtless things when I've been joking. There can be consequences to being a trickster. Whether it's getting kicked out of town like Robin Goodfellow is, or the nastier fate of Loki who is bound in the entrails of his own son, stinging venom dripping on his face. Loki was punished for disrupting a banquet of the Norse gods and mixing "their mead with malice" by insulting the guests. Tricksters can be real jerks and it's easy to lose friends by being too much a trickster. Let's face it, Bugs Bunny is fun to watch. But would you really want to deal with someone like that?

Do tricksters learn?

Also, tricksters can be gullible idiots. The story of the trickster being tricked is a common motif. Puck gets confused in A Midsummer Night's Dream and gives the love potion to the wrong Athenians. And the Winnebago trickster? He mistakes the watery reflection of plums for the real thing. He gets tricked out of a meal by foxes, and then burns his own arse as punishment. Another time, he gets buried in a mountain of his own excrement. As the Winnebago trickster often laments, trickster can mean "foolish one".

Who wants to get covered in their own feces? But it happens, doesn't it? I know I make an ass out of myself far, far too often. (Sometimes people think I'm foolish because they don't realize I am joking. Other times, I was just being an idiot.) And while a trickster can laugh off his folly, I am not so lucky. I tend to dwell on my shortcomings for years. There's something really attractive about trickster figures like Puck. Tricksters don't dwell on things. 

But they don't learn either, do they? Tricksters keep making the same mistakes, over and over. Jungians think of the trickster as the hero in adolescence. Well, in some ways, it's great to keep a youthful, child-like side. Too many adults lose something precious when they grow up. On the other hand, do you really want to have all the faults of a teenager for the rest of your life?

Further thoughts

Having said all this about the trickster archetype, I must say it's wrong to associate too strongly with an archetype. Even the complex, contradictory nature of the trickster is two-dimensional. It's a universal image for telling tall tales. But we are all individuals and it's the height of folly to give up our own personality in favour of a mythic caricature.

Still there are things to be learned from the stories of Puck and other tricksters. The concept of a free spirit is still very appealing. Just remember not to slip in your own crap on the path to being free. Or at least try to laugh about it.

One of the best books on the trickster is The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology by Paul Radin. My copy includes various essays and commentaries as well as native stories. One of the best is C.J. Jung's "On the Psychology of the Trickster Figure." Although this book does not mention the Puck legend, it was a major source for this page.

So, what's your interest in the trickster legends? Do you agree or disagree with what I've said? I'd love to discuss anything on this page with you. Please e-mail me .

Illustration Credits

Woodcut Images are taken from various collections of old English ballads

Spider-Man (C) Marvel Comics. 2021, art by Steve Ditko

Puck from The Sandman  (C) DC Comics Inc. 2021, issue 19 art by Charles Vess

The use of the images from Marvel Comics are in no way intended to infringe on their copyright of the artwork. They are used without permission for purposes of review or comment under the "fair use" provisions. This page is in no way affiliated with those companies.

The text, except where quoted, is copyright Allen W. Wright, 2021

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