I spent my 2017 academic year picking a fight with Joseph Campbell and his blithe assumption that The Hero can only ever be a dude. Well, as my focus shifts from Heroes to Tricksters, the same issues crop up. The most famous mythological Tricksters discussed in the field and in popular culture tend to come from the following list: Norse Loki, Greek Hermes, West African Anansi, Polynesian Maui, and various versions of the archetype that appear in Native American mythology in the form of the Coyote, Raven, and Hare characters. These are all Trickster gods rather than goddesses. Lewis Hyde—whose book Trickster Makes This World I’ve quoted a few times in this series—quite confidently declared that “All the standard tricksters are male”. And, in a broad sense, he’s correct. But does this need to be the case? There are plenty of folks—including one particular writer I’ll be looking at today—who say “c’mon, my guy” and disagree. Continue reading
In the midst of talking about what Tricksters are, let’s take another brief interlude to talk about what they’re not. Last time I mentioned that Kyuubey isn’t a Trickster just because they’re tricky, and neither are most others who fill the sort of Faustian demon role in their story, and I want to expand on that. However, I also want to look at a couple of demonic (or demon-ish) characters from fiction who do fit the archetype, and explore exactly why. Demons and devils (and fantastical equivalents of these things) can be Tricksters, but it’s not because of their devilishness. Rather, it’s almost in spite of their devilishness, and comes down to a few key points including, once again, their place in the narrative itself. With a spoiler warning for both The Good Place and the recent state of the Black Butler manga, let’s dive in. Continue reading
Storytelling has been an important part of life for essentially all of human history. In this long tradition of tale-weaving there are a few structures and archetypes we just keep coming back to, from ancient mythology to modern movies. One of them is the Trickster, which, in my view, is entirely fair—after all, it’s one of the most blatantly fun character archetypes out there, brimming with cheekiness and social commentary and a degree of unpredictability that you don’t always find with stories about, say, Heroes or Lovers. We’re not telling stories of gods and monsters so much these days, but this ancient character type is still strolling through our popular culture, though perhaps in slightly different shapes and sizes. Continue reading
Well, I went and did it–after years of unshakable love-hate fascination with Life is Strange and Until Dawn, I’ve taken the leap into the fire and brought discussion of them into my work life. This video is a recorded version of the conference paper I presented last week in Perth, preserved for the ages and intended to be accessible to those who couldn’t be there to see it in person (which includes folks outside the academic field). I explore how branching, interactive stories give us the opportunity to mess around with tropes and genre conventions, and the weird Schrodinger’s Cat conundrum that these games can both play into historically harmful cliches and subvert them, and neither result is more “canon” than the other. Check it out if you’re interested!
Once upon a time, a scholar named Farah Mendlesohn set out on a valiant quest to create a classification system for the fantasy genre. The result was her 2008 (yes, “once upon a time” is approximately in the realm of 2008) book Rhetorics of Fantasy, an analytical and example-piled volume that digs deep into the question of what the different types of fantasy are, what we expect from them, and why they work.
Mendlesohn assures the reader that these four categories she’s come up with—Portal-Quest, Immersive, Intrusion, and Liminal—are not the new “rules” for fantasy writing nor the be-all-and-end-all of classification within the genre. They’re a tool meant to make studying these stories easier and more interesting, allowing readers, researchers, and fans to look at the genre from new angles with a new frame of reference. And so, just as I have previously brought you Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Tolkien’s Cauldron of Story, and Leavy’s Swan Maiden, I bring you Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, summed up in several paragraphs and with a lot more anime and video games than the original textbook. Continue reading
Boy Meets Boy is a sweet little story about the complications and shenanigans of adolescence and first love, set in a world so accepting of its LGBTQ+ youth that it broke genre. Critics and reviewers had no idea how to categorise this novel when talking about it. By all counts, it’s a contemporary YA romance: as author David Levithan himself described it, it’s a pretty simple “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy gets boy back” love story. The difference is, of course, that that plot is usually “boy meets girl”. It’s this queer twist on a recognisable formula, combined with the delightful unusualness of the story’s setting, that sent everyone into a headspin. This novel could not simply be labelled a YA love story—it had to be “fantasy” “utopian” or “magical realism”. The whole thing conjures up the mental image of an office full of reviewers clutching at their hair, staring into space, muttering “but the gay kids are happy—so it can’t be realistic fiction!” Continue reading
Credit to Tom Gauld
Every text I’ve read that has anything to do with genre study dedicates at least a few paragraphs to the disclaimer that genre is slippery, arbitrary, and, while a useful tool for analysis, kind of a pain in the ass. This pain is only made worse if we take this system of categories to be Holy Doctrine rather than something we made up to make talking about stories easier. So, okay, maybe genre isn’t fake. When I say genre is “made up” I mean genre is “socially constructed”, rather than “not real”. Here, Brian Attebery says it better:
Both literary studies and folklore are built on the idea of genres, rather as biology is built on categories, from kingdom to species, reflecting morphological similarity and common descent. However, unlike, say, raptors and perching birds, different genres do not exist until someone imagines them.