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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

A Bit of Background on the Trickster

In less rational times, trickster tales were considered sacred, because they describe the world and are often creation stories.  Stories of tricksters occur in mythology and folklore from around the world and much has been written on the tricksters, despite his indefinability (Hyde, 1998: Pelton, 1980; Radin, 1972; Jung 1954/1990; Kerenyi, 1973/2003; Hynes & Doty, 1993; Combs & Holland, 2001; Hansen, 2001).  Hansen (2001) relates that “the term was probably first introduced in this context in 1885 by Daniel G. Brinton” (p. 35). 

Tricksters have a number of common characteristics, however not all tricksters exhibit all of these characteristics.  First of all, most trickster characters are usually male, and they usually trick or deceive more powerful beings than themselves, hence the name trickster. Tricksters are marginal characters and their statuses are ambiguous. Hansen relates that marginalized groups, such as women and minorities have an affinity for tricksters, and observations from these groups have shed important lights on the trickster phenomenon.

Tricksters often end up being tricked by their trickiness, too. Almost all tricksters have magical powers and they are often unmarried.  Hansen (2001) notes that the trickster’s most important characteristics include: “deception, disruption, reduced sexual inhibition and magical practices” (p. 46).  As Radin (1972), who worked with the Winnebego Indians between 1908-1918 and wrote The Trickster in 1956, explains:

Trickster is at one time creator and destroyer, giver and negator, he who dupes others and who is always duped himself . . . . He knows neither good nor evil yet he is responsible for both.  He possesses no values, moral or social, is at the mercy of all his appetites, yet through his actions all values come into being . . . . Laughter, humor and irony permeate everything Trickster does.  The reaction of the audience in aboriginal societies to both him and his exploits is prevailingly one of laughter tempered by awe.  (pp. xxiii-xxiv)

Radin (1972) says that in the figure of the trickster we are dealing with a speculum mentis [a mirror of the mind] depicting “man’s struggle with himself and with a world into which he has been thrust without his volition or consent” (p. xxiv).

During the 1960s, anthropologists Mary Douglas, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Victor Turner all wrote about the Trickster.  For Douglas, who wrote Purity and Danger in 1966, the trickster had

a social function of dispelling the belief that any given social order is absolute and objective (1968: 365).  The anomalous is precisely that realm excluded by rigid classifying systems, and Douglas’s works returns again and again to categories between categories—such as the various trickster representations that reflect repeatedly strong antinomies (male vs. female, good vs. evil) caught into a single figure.  (Doty & Hynes, 1993, p. 21)

Douglas argued that what “can’t be clearly classified in terms of traditional classical criteria of classification, or falls between classificatory boundaries, is almost everywhere regarded as ‘polluting’ and ‘dangerous’” (V. Turner, 1969, p. 109).  Lévi-Strauss, not surprisingly saw the trickster in terms of opposites, specifically as the embodiment of opposites: 

Victor Turner characteristically, saw the trickster in a liminal light, as symbolic of the liminal state itself. I, too, share V. Turner's view. V. Turner regards the trickster as "temporarily breaking down and intermingling all categories so as to cause new combinations and anomalies (1967;106)" (Doty & Hynes, 1993, pp. 19-20). Pelton (1980), whose work draws on V. Turner’s writes:

Some years ago, Turner pointed out that the “anitnomian, multiform, and ambiguous” character of the trickster was like that of man himself in certain liminal states, but here his insight into the nature of liminality suggests that the trickster is more than a symbol of liminal man.  It seems closer to the truth, rather, to say that the trickster is a symbol of the liminal state itself and of its permanent accessibility as a source of recreative power.  (p. 35)

Joseph Campbell felt that tricksters were “super-shamans” and like shamans, tricksters mediate the middle ground between different opposites, such as life and death, heaven and earth, good and evil (Doty and Hynes, 1993). Shamans, like tricksters use magic and are often on the margins.  This middle ground, which shamans and tricksters are able to cross, was considered to be dangerous and surrounded by taboos.  Hansen (2001) notes:

The middle area goes by several labels: liminality, interstitiality, transitional space, betwixt and between, anti-structure.  These are dangerous positions, situations and statuses.  They break down categories, classifications, and boundaries.  Violation of the boundaries was taboo and brought the wrath of the gods.  There was a price to be paid.  Yet during some liminal periods, taboos were deliberately violated in order to obtain magical power. (p. 31)  

In this regard, trickster tales often have scatological and sexual elements to them, since both of these areas are typically surrounded by taboos. However, since Mary Poppins is a Disney movie, taking place in a Victorian setting no less, it is no surprise that the sexual and scatological components are absent.  The most scatological thing in this movie is the chimney soot!

Doty and Hynes (1993) report that Joseph Campbell saw in the trickster a primitive or less developed “Paleolithic form of the hero archetype (1959: 274)” (p. 21).  Campbell (1990) also associated this trickster-hero with the fool:  

Almost all non-literate mythology has a trickster hero of some kind.  American Indians had the great rabbit and coyote, the ravens, and blue jay.  And there’s a very special property in the trickster: he always breaks in, just as the unconscious does, to trip up the rational situation.  He’s both a fool and someone who’s beyond the system.  And the trickster hero represents all those possibilities of life that your mind hasn’t decided it wants to deal with.  The mind structures a lifestyle, and the fool or trickster represents another whole range of possibilities.  He doesn’t respect the values that you’ve set up for yourself, and he smashes them.  The fool really became the instructor of kings because he was careless of the king’s opinion, careless of the king’s power; and the king allowed them because he got wisdom from this uncontrolled source.  The fool is the breakthrough of the absolute into the field of controlled social orders. (p. 39) ∆RC[mp12]

Of course, Mary Poppins would never consider herself to be a fool, but her friend Bert plays the fool during the movie at times, and from George Banks’s point of view, what Mary is teaching the children is pure foolishness. 

Trickster myths embody the playful and disruptive side of human imagination. Combs and Holland (2001) in their book on synchronicity, discuss the trickster and his relation to synchronicity, shedding light on the boundary blurring and bricolage aspects of the trickster as well.  They also give us insight into the selfish and uncontrollable aspects, and the trickster's relation to play and boundary breaking:

For the inner, archetypal Trickster, play includes a synchronistic taking hold of whatever materials come to hand in order to break the boundaries of our usual perceptions of reality . . . . In addition, trickster stories almost universally emphasize his doing exactly what he pleases regardless of the consequences.  The apparent selfishness is, in part, a way of portraying his sovereign nature as an uncontrollable aspect of the human psyche that originates totally outside the reach of the conscious mind.  The meaning of his actions, however, depends not on himself but on some deeper aspect of the psyche in whose service he acts . . . . There are no limits to his antics.  It is his delight to shatter our boundaries, borders, and frames, stripping us of our protective coloration and baring us helplessly to something new.  This is his play, and when we ourselves are playful, we are in harmony with him. (Combs & Holland, 2001, pp. 133-134)

Hansen (2001) relates that tricksters cannot be reduced to the formulations of any one discipline and to see the trickster, boundaries must be crossed and blurred.  Hansen also mentions that “several commentators have noticed that productions of trickster characters is often something of a bricolage, a French world meaning a product made from a hodgepodge of materials at hand . . ." (p. 29). One such commentator is Pelton (1980) who sees the trickster as representing the human race:

The trickster depicts man as a sort of inspired handyman, tacking together the bits and pieces of experience until they become what they are—a web of many layered being.  In symbolizing the transforming power of the imagination as it pokes at, plays with, delights in, and shatters what seems to be until it becomes what it is, he discloses how the human mind and heart are themselves epiphanies of a calmly transcendent sacredness so boldly engaged with this world that it encompasses both nobility and messiness—feces, lies, and even death.  (p. 4)

Doty and Hynes (1993), commenting on Pelton, summarize and explain his argument: 

According to Pelton the trickster represents the human race “individually and communally seizing the fragments of his experience and discovering in them an order sacred by its very wholeness” (255) hence “the trickster discloses the radically human character of the whole cosmos,” while at the same time “he shows the holiness or ordinary life.  And in causing reflection upon the boundaries, upon the very nature of social order, the trickster represents “metasocial commentary” (266) or “hermeneutics in action” (243). (p. 21)

Tricksters are found in conditions of transition and their tales often deal with transitions. In fact, as Hansen (2001) notes:

Many trickster qualities can be understood in terms of boundaries, structures and transitions.  They also embody paradox, contradiction, and ambiguity . . . . In a multitude of ways, the trickster doesn’t quite “fit in.” By his nature, he resists complete and precise definition, and Barbara Babcock and Jay Cox comment that he “eludes and disrupts all orders of things, including the analytic categories of academics.”  (p. 46)

Mary Poppins, although not unscrupulous, is definitely tricky, and has no regard at all for George Banks’s authority.  She takes every opportunity and uses every advantage to rupture his stifling routine.  It is no surprise that the trickster would turn up in the guise of Mary Poppins, and would be present in the troubled transitional time of the 1960s, a time, as we have seen, that was particularly liminal, as we have seen. 

Hynes (1993) observes that R. D. Laing, an unconventional psychologist from the 1960s, saw “his task as mediating between man’s present and potential states.  The trickster is also a mediator.  He’s usually pictured at a crossroads. He’s very cunning” (p. 209).  Lunsford (2000), in discussing the concept of nepantla, talks about the unsettling nature of liminality:

“Being a crossroads” feels like being caught in remolinos, vortexes . . . we occupy positions that oscillate in a to-and-from movement—mobile, migrating, liminal.  We basically live in in-between spaces (nepantlas).  We are experiencing cognitive dissonance, hit by discordant stimuli on all sides.  We no longer know who we are and what our lives are about . . . . We have a choice: We can retreat back to our comfort zones, prisons of familiarity, habitual thought patterns and behaviors rather than risking changing: its easier to remain in entrenched systems and erect defenses to keep out new ideas or we can learn to navigate through these whirlwinds.  (Lunsford, 2000, p. 279)

Hynes (1993) argue that tricksters are so badly reputed, "because so much of what is said about the trickster is seen from the perspective of order” (p. 215). If we look at the trickster from the side of order, it is no surprise that he is seen in such a reprehensible light, as the chaos that no good can come from.  If however we turn the tables, as tricksters are wont to do, and see things from the other side, from the trickster’s point of view, order would seem too sterile, routine, and constricting, too habitual and "predetermined and closed”  —in other words, not much fun, while the trickster represents instead the creative, amorphous, undifferentiated generative life-giving state, the creative wellspring of the yet-to-be." (p. 216).

Tribal cultures had high regard for the trickster, who although sometimes feared was also revered.  Tricksters were often culture transformers and culture creators.  Their in between position, being either psychopomps, mediators or messengers between the gods and man, allowed them access to the gifts of the divine, and tricksters sometimes tended to steal things from the gods and give them to man and thus transform culture in the process.  Prometheus would be a most important example of a trickster who stole from the gods and transformed culture. 

As culture creator, the trickster’s disregard for boundaries allows him to tinker freely with the world.  Hynes (1993), citing Lévi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage notes that:

The bricoleur is a tinker or fix-it person, noted for his ingenuity in transforming anything at hand in order to form a creative solution.  Because the established definitions or usage categories previously attached to tools or materials are suspended/transcended for the bricoleur, these items can be put into whatever inventive purpose is necessary.… yet the bricoleur aspect of the trickster can cause any or all … acts or objects to be transformed into occasions of insight, vitality, and new inventive creations.  (p. 42) ∆RC[mp13]

Hyde (1998), in his book Trickster Makes This World observe that the trickster’s tricks serve mostly to

disturb established categories of truth and property and, by doing so, open the road to possible new worlds.  When Pablo Picasso says that “art is a lie that tells the truth” we are closer to the old trickster spirit.  Picasso was out to reshape and revive the world he had been born into.  He took this world seriously; then he disrupted it; then he gave it new form.” (p. 13)

This is what tricksters do in creating and transforming worlds, and this is what Mary Poppins does when she comes into the Banks family’s world.  We can see that Mary Poppins fits many of these trickster categories—she uses tricks and magic to disrupt the entire Banks household and George’s way of life in particular.  The “established order” can be disorderly as well, in which case, as with the children, Mary's disruptions can create more order. Pelton (1981) observed that the purpose of trickster stories is “to put an adult mind in a child’s heart and a child’s eye in an adult head.” (p. 279).  Mary Poppins does exactly this.  ∆RC[mp14]

One last aspect of the trickster that is important to mention is that of being a psychic explorer and adventurer. We will consider this more fully in the scene-by-sceneplay. Hynes (1993) notes:

As a prototypical human, the trickster “symbolizes that aspect of our own nature which is always nearby, ready to bring us down when we get inflated, or to humanize us when we become pompous . . . the major psychological function of the trickster figure is to make it possible for us to gain a sense of proportion about our selves" (Singer, 1972; 289-290) . . . . Abrahm sees the trickster as the embodiment of a "repressive infantalism and yet the pattern of a small animal outwitting larger animal or human can also provide model of hope to children or adults who find themselves oppressed.”  (p. 209)

Mary Poppins take the children on many adventures and the movie is one big liminal mandala [LINK].  She helps the family to become united, helping the parents to realize the importance of their children.  But, Mary Poppins is not your ordinary traditional trickster. For one thing, she is a woman, unlike most tricksters, who are classically male, and for another, Mary never tricked by her tricks.  Mary is more of a trickstar!


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