Watership Down by Richard Adams is making me think about the importance of Trickster tales.
First, a brief summary: Watership is about a group of rabbits who escape from their doomed warren and set off into a terrifying (from a rabbit’s perspective) countryside to form their own new warren. It’s a fantastic adventure tale, highly recommended. Imagine if The Lord of the Rings characters were all Hobbits — no grandiose human heroes or noble Elves, just a bunch of small, fearful, amusing, relatable dudes who are fighting as hard as they can to retain their second breakfasts and convivial evenings down at the pub. If that sounds awful, this book is not for you, but I much prefer battles that are fought for stakes I can understand. Especially if I can read them while eating my second breakfast.
Anyway, over the course of the book the rabbits often pause to tell each other stories about their legendary rabbit god, El-ahrairah. These are Trickster stories: El-ahrairah steals the King’s lettuces, El-arairah disguises himself to fool a savage dog, El-ahrairah tries to cheat death. The rabbits use the stories to counteract their natural rabbitness, psyching themselves up for the difficult tasks they have to do to survive. They tell of El-ahrairah’s bravery when they have to defeat a sharp-toothed predator; they tell of his cleverness when they have to outwit a warren of enemy rabbits.
When I was growing up, my dad used to tell me his Trickster tales. For example: one year when my dad and his brother were kids, a basketball-shaped package appeared under the tree a while before Christmas. The boys would wait until their parents had gone out and then would unwrap the ball and play with it. When it was time for their parents to come home, they would wrap the ball up and put it back under the tree. They acted surprised when they finally opened it for good on Christmas morning, and their parents never found out.*
Now, I have always been something of a rabbit-type — I worry about breaking rules and getting into trouble, I worry about imaginary dangers. But I grew up listening to my dad’s Trickster stories and I think they influenced me a little. When I was a teenager I started sneaking out my window at night to roam around the dark suburban streets, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. The suburbs are designed for daylight hours: walking the streets at night, you’re in a different place. Being loose in that world was an adventure, one I might have missed out on without these stories to teach me that sometimes it pays off to hoodwink your authority figures.** Stories have power: that’s the real theme of Watership Down, and it’s why the book resonates so well with me. Read it if you like rabbits, adventures, stories, hobbits or things that are good.
*According to the STORY their parents never found out. But realistically there’s no way that two pre-adolescent boys in a hurry could re-wrap a basketball neatly enough to fool anyone.
**I’m pretty sure my dad did not tell me his childhood stories to encourage me to sneak out my window at night. Isn’t it fun how the smallest parenting choice can have drastic unforeseen consequences? Wait, is “fun” the right word?