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The Underdog: Tricksters in Folktales

Heroes come in many sizes, shapes and colors; sometimes they possess superpowers, brawny biceps, or wear colorful costumes. Other times, heroes are the most unlikely characters, the underdog, or someone you would never expect to step forward to save the day. In fact, tricksters come from a time-honored, deep, cultural tradition. They find ways to use their wits instead of brawn to stand up against overwhelming odds and to overcome more powerful antagonists.

Little Girl from Pickin' Peas holding Rabbit to look out of the window

Some of our favorite heroes come from a long line of unlikely tricksters like, Anansi the Spider from the West African oral tradition, and the Brother Br’er-inspired characters in Pickin’ Peas, and in Robert San Souci’s collection of Southern tales in Sister Tricksters. Many tricksters seem very different from the archetype hero at first glance, so we wanted to explore some of the common qualities that these timeless characters share and highlight the unique traits that make them so attractive to young readers.

Unfortunately, dictionaries commonly define tricksters as someone who deceives, a charlatan or prankster who manipulates the truth, but most native cultures honor tricksters as brave heroes who challenge the odds to overcome adversity. For example, the underdog archetype can be traced back to the popular Hebrew story of David and Goliath. David, a young shepherd, defeats Goliath, a fierce, larger-than-life warrior who intimidates his enemies with his show of strength, and everyone is afraid to fight him.

Young readers seem to relate well to the underdog character who doesn’t possess the power or physical dominance of a Goliath. No one would ever accuse David of not being honest and truthful, but he cleverly used his wit to outmaneuver and defeat Goliath. Since children are smaller than adults, possess less life experience, and have less formal power than adults, it seems natural that they would relate to characters who struggle bravely and cleverly against more powerful, larger, and more knowledgeable oppressors.

It’s also important to note that tricksters are good-natured and often humorous. One of our favorite tricksters is Anansi the spider from the West African oral tradition. Authors Bobby and Sherry Norfolk have worked with us to bring 5 Anansi stories to life for young readers. In Anansi and the Tug o’ War, Elephant bullies Anansi and calls him a “pipsqueak.” Anansi uses his wit to teach Elephant that brawns aren’t always as powerful as brains. He ties a rope to Elephant’s tail as he sleeps and runs to find Killer Whale. Anansi tricks Killer Whale into joining the tug o’ war by challenging his strength. Anansi pits the two largest animals against each other in a contest of power while both of them believe that Anansi is pulling on other end of the rope. Eventually, Elephant and Whale get tired and give up. Anansi finally reveals his intentions and declares that he is actually the strongest, not because of his brawns but because of his brains.

Anansi the Spider sitting on Killer Whale

On one level, Anansi could be interpreted as a whimsical prankster who makes a fool out of his larger antagonists. But similar to David, Anansi compensates for his lack of physical strength by outsmarting his foes, who are bigger and stronger, in order to survive. Sometimes tricksters aren’t just fighting an antagonist who is physically stronger, but one who has more power and influence on a social level. This theme is exemplified in slave stories like that of Br’er Rabbit and the stories in The Adventures of High John the Conqueror.

High John the Conqueror was a slave trickster who managed to find ways to consistently outwit his “master.” High John stories were shared in a series of subversive narratives, and his mission was always to outsmart his rather foolish oppressors. Tall tales of High John’s exploits flourished during slavery times in the American South, but after emancipation, the stories fell out of circulation. Br’er rabbit in the th Uncle Remus stories is said to be modeled after High John. This is evident in Pickin’ Peas, when Rabbit snatches Little Girl’s peas and escapes her clutches. This theme also shows up in Sister Tricksters.

Sister Tricksters takes the exploits of Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, Bre’er Rabbit and other Uncle Remus characters, and puts a twist on them. While these tales were circulating among slaves in the southern United States, another set of stories was passed along just as enthusiastically, only here the clever tricksters were female. The San Souci brothers interpret the ade old folktale with characters like Molly Cottontail, Miz Grasshopper, Miz Duck, and Miz Goose, all of whom outwit their male counterparts. For example, in “Mistah Fox’s Funeral,” Fox chases Molly Hare through a field. She eventually grows tired and hears the fox hunters in the distant. She challenges Fox to a race which leads to Fox’s funeral and Molly Hare’s triumph.

Mrs. Fox hitting Mr. Fox with a broom.

So, why do young readers tend to love these trickster characters? Tricksters are resourceful in the way that they solve problems without using violence. Kids read about characters like Anansi and see that he can overcome even the largest and most powerful animals, even though he is a small spider; or, like High John, although he’s in a position with little “formal” power, he uses his wit to overcome his oppressor.

Tricksters teach kids to think and act with intention, instead of responding impulsively and allowing raw emotion to dictate their actions. Children are attracted to these tricksters not only for their clever wit and humor, but because they are triumphant despite their circumstances. Tricksters rise from having less than others to overcome their fears and their restraints, and readers, both old and young alike, undoubtedly see the inspiration that comes from authentic trickster characters.


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