“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.
Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.
As for the style and storytelling techniques, this story is far more similar to the work of Katherine Mansfield than to Alice Munro.
Can you guess which country this “eat-me-when-I’m-fatter” produced this fairytale? I’ll drop some clues:
Goats have historically been very important to this country, for their meat, milk and cheese.
It’s not a fertile country, which is always better for goats than for cattle and sheep.
It’s a land of mountains.
Yes, it’s Norway.
From ca. 1700 until 1850 the human population as well as the number of goats and sheep of this country almost tripled.
The increased pressure on the natural resources worsened the living conditions for people and animals alike.
A characteristic feature of this period was the herding of single flocks by children. During the daylight hours, this was a precaution against predators as well as a way of keeping the animals off the areas meant for the harvesting of winter fodder. At night, the small flocks were in some places gathered in mobile corrals guarded by adults with dogs.
The Three Billy Goats Gruff was first published between 1841 and 1844, when goats were important to survival. The idea of a creature taking the life of a goat was not so far removed from taking the life of a child (due to the resultant starvation).
My childhood version of The Three Billy Goats Gruff was unfortunately — I see now — not a good one. It’s the small format Little Golden Book published in 1982, retold by Ellen Rudin. (The 1980s were chocka block full of retold fairytales.)
Rudin has a good sense of rhythm, and has retained all the things that are fun about this story as a read-aloud, but I feel the point of it is lost.
STORY STRUCTURE OF THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF
This is not clear from the text of the Little Golden Book version, but the goats need to get to the other side of the bridge because there is nothing to eat on their current side. Perhaps if I’d looked at the pictures more carefully as a child I’d have noticed all the rocks on the left, contrasting with the healthy green growth on the right. But I just assumed the goats happened to be standing on a pile of rocks and that the greenish hue of the background was perfectly good grass.
The stakes were much higher than that.
Here is a page from a completely different version, illustrated by Paul Galdeone. “There was very little grass in the valley” offers a clear need in the text (as well as in the illustration.)
Notice these goats looking left. In the vast majority of Western picture books the main characters look right, encouraging the reader to look forward to what’s overleaf.
The three billy goats gruff have to cross the bridge. They’re not doing it for the adrenaline rush.
They desire food.
The troll under the bridge.
Trolls featured prominently in Norwegian myth and legend. They were originally believed to be actual supernatural beings who lived in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves. They lived together in small family units, and were rarely helpful to human beings. Later they became more concretized. They became more evil and although they were often ugly, it was also thought that trolls would walk among us, undetected. Like vampires, they have trouble with sunlight. I suppose this is why the troll in this fairytale lives under a bridge.
Roald Dahl was influenced by such mythology. You’ll find aspects of trolls in some of his stories (along with witches, of course). The Trunchbull of Matilda feels a bit troll-like in her one-sided badness and ugliness. So do The Twits.
One day the littlest Billy Goat Gruff said, “I cannot wait any longer. I am going t cross the bridge and eat the sweet, green grass.”
“We will come, too,” said his brothers. “We will be right behind you.”
This is the most problematic part of the retelling, because it always seemed to me that each goat genuinely attempted to sacrifice the older one in order to save himself. I feel the ‘plan’ should be made clearer here. These brothers are working together strategically rather than looking after self-interests.
“Then I am coming up to eat you!” the troll shouted. And he climbed onto the bridge.
Big Billy Goat Gruff was not afraid.
“I would like to see you try!” he said.
He rushed at the troll and butted him with his horns. The troll fell off the bridge and disappeared, leaving no trace.
Since trolls can’t be exposed to light, the simple act of coaxing the troll out from under the shade of the bridge may have been all that was needed!
For me this story failed, because I had no revelation. I was supposed to realise at the end that these goats had worked together. Instead I wondered why the older goats didn’t spend the rest of their lives holding grudges against the younger ones.
I was supposed to learn that working together can defeat evil.
After that the three Billy Goats Gruff crossed the bridge whenever they liked and ate their fill of sweet, green grass.
And the horrible, mean troll never bothered them again.
THE THREE FISHING BROTHERS GRUFF BY BEN GALBRAITH
Ben Galbraith is a Kiwi illustrator who says on his blog that he’s ‘quite colour blind’, which kind of backs up my theory that colour selection is far more scientific than successful artists like to make us think, and that it can be learned. (There are also tools to help artists out like Adobe Kuler and that picker thing you get in Illustrator etc.)
The art in this book is an appealing mixture of textures and collage. Sometimes this art style can look too digital, but it’s done well here. I like the humour of a boat called ‘the cod’s wallop’. If I had a boat I might call it that. The author is a keen fisherman, and this comes through in the story. The New Zealand way of speaking and its sea setting also comes through quite strong, and the issues about over-fishing aren’t specific to New Zealand, but remind me of the problems I see on any episode of Coast Watch. It was an inspired choice to set the story in ‘Bay of Plenty‘ and in ‘Poverty Bay‘, which are not only allegorical names but are actually real places.
The trickster is a lower form of the magician archetype and — in various forms — is very popular in modern storytelling. Audiences love characters who break the rules and outwit others to get what they want. Also, tricksters are the best archetype for increasing narrative drive. The reason for this: The trickster’s actions increases the number of reveals available to the writer in constructing a plot.
In any negotiation, the one who lays out his position first usually loses because it allows his opponent to reposition accordingly and outflank him. This is true whether you want a kiss, a confession, or a treaty. Clever people play their cards close to the vest and lead their verbal sparring partners on until they can trap them with their own words.
Don’t assume that only unsympathetic or devious characters do this. All people who are clever and persuasive know they must pepper their conversation with tricks and traps.
Matt Bird. “The Secrets of Story”
Tricksters often appear as pranksters or mischief-makers. In stories for adults and young adults, tricksters can also have a sinister side.
STRENGTHS: Uses confidence, trickery, and a way with words to get what they want. Their antics can do great good.
WEAKNESSES: Tricksters may become complete liars who look out only for themselves. They’re often at the mercy of their own passions and vices (e.g. the seven deadly sins). Their antics can do great harm. Although it is the trickster’s job to shake things up, they can inadvertently end up preserving the moral code they seek to destroy.
What Is A Trickster, Exactly?
Tricksters can be found along the entire spectrum of morality. They can be supremely evil or extremely good. Most often they’re ambivalent, shifting back and forth as the story sees fit. Think Pennywise the Clown, who changes from scene to scene to be the monster the plot requires him to be.
By the way, all clowns are descended from the trickster archetype. (Comedians, jesters, Medieval court fools, the masked actors of the Commedia dell’Arte, Punch and Judy.)
Tricksters don’t care about the usual taboos, and can therefore help challenge them. They just don’t seem to care. Some of them, if real people, might be analysed as psychopaths. Because tricksters don’t worry so much about taboos, some of them are extremely scatological. For this same reason, native cultures have sometimes been reluctant to share these stories with ethnographers, and have probably gone under-recorded as a result.
Some animal characters are tricksters, established by storytellers such as Aesop. Foxes, ravens and other animals who live on their wits are most likely to get the trickster treatment in our stories.
Why Tricksters Work So Well In Narrative
In his book Secrets of Story, Matt Bird ranks five levels of scene work. From weakest to strongest scenes he lists:
Listen and Accept Scenes
Listen and Dispute Scenes
Extract Information or Action Directly Scenes
Extract Information or Action Through Tricks and Traps Scenes
Both Try To Trick and Trap Each Other And One Or Both Succeed Scenes
Notice how 4 and 5 are the most lively scenes? They both involve tricksters. Or, they both involve ‘tricks’. Even when your main characters aren’t trickster archetypes, it’s really helpful if they sometimes use trickster tools to get what they want.
An audience identifies with a trickster because we all feel like we have hidden layers. The hidden layer of a trickster is that there is an ironic distance between what they appear to do and what they really do. Tricksters are inherently ironic, and irony is necessary for a story to work.
A Brief History Of Trickster
The word “trickster” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in the eighteenth century. However, the concept has been around for a lot longer than that.
Tricksters are descended from ancient gods.
Tricksters are “beings of the beginning, working in some complex relationship with the High God; transformers, helping to bring the present human world into being; performers of heroic acts on behalf of men, yet in their original form, and in some later forms, foolish, obscene, laughable, yet indomitable.”
— The Trickster in West Africa, Robert D. Pelton
The term actually refers to a variety of different character archetypes, from the magician to the wise fool. A trickster can be a shapeshifter or parahuman creature or a human simpleton who blunders into good fortune.
In the Middle Ages, the Christian Feast of Fools was a celebration of tricksters. People dressed up as their perceived inverse. Men as women, peasants as lords and so on. In Catholic countries there are the Carnaval festivities — fun before the hard days of Lent. (This is related to the term carnivalesque. Both are derived from the Latin word for ‘meat’. )
A lot of fairies are tricksters. Puck of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a good example.
Even today, scholars argue about the definition of the term ‘trickster’, but writers don’t need to get into that. We can create any kind of trickster for our stories as we see fit.
Examples Across The Ages
Odysseus/Ulysses— Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus, a hero in ancient Greek literature. Odysseus is renowned for his brilliance, guile, and versatility, and is hence known by the epithet Odysseus the Cunning (mētis, or “cunning intelligence”).
Prometheus— Prometheus in European myth is both Trickster (when he steals fire from the gods) and culture hero (when he lifts the darkness for mankind).
Hermes— the Greek god. (Mercury to the Romans). According to prominent folklorist Yeleazar Meletinsky, Hermes is a deified trickster. He is the god of messengers, of merchants, and of financial transactions — but he’s also, in his dark aspect, the god of liars, gamblers, and thieves.
Merlin— from the Arthurian legend, perhaps based on 6th-century Druid living in southern Scotland. He causes trouble at his former wife’s wedding, for instance.
Sirens— You didn’t expect sirens, right? Sirens have changed a lot over the course of history, from terrifying Greek flying birds who killed sailors at sea, to seductive naked girls sitting by a pool. You’ll find a lot of mythical creatures at some point went through a trickster phase, and sirens are a case in point:’ Many scholars today believe that the Sirens were considered to be manifestations of the human soul after death, and duplicitous tricksters. “The bird-woman became a death-demon, a soul sent to fetch a soul, a Ker that lures a soul, a Siren,” writes Jane Ellen Harrison in her essay, “The Ker as Siren. (Sirens are actually bird bodied messengers of death, not sexy mermaids)
Brer Rabbit— For some reason, trickster rabbits and hares are found in stories from all over the world. Perhaps this is because they’re hard to catch, being so fast, disappearing into otherwise invisible holes in the ground.
Hares— Hare is the primary Trickster figure of various Native American tribes, particularly among the Algonquin–speaking peoples of the central and eastern woodlands.
Jack— There are a whole lot of tales featuring a human simpleton called Jack. They come from Great Britain and the Appalachian Mountains of North America. There’s a similar character in German and Pennsylvanian Dutch cultures. Jack and the Beanstalk
Anansi the Spider— a trickster whose tales are known in many parts of Africa, the West Indies, and far beyond. His tales are generally humorous, with Anansi in the role of antihero. He breaks the rules, violates taboos, makes mockery of sacred things; he gets what he wants by plotting, scheming, lying and cheating. Anansi is famously lazy, greedy, pompous, vain, and ignorant — but he’s also very, very clever, usually outwitting everyone around him.
Reynard the Fox— a European epic of the Middle Ages. This fox is a satirical figure —– greedy, wily. He dupes peasants and nobility alike.
Raven— the central Trickster figure for many tribes on the North Pacific Coast of America.
Old Man Coyote— Old Man Coyote makes the earth, animals, and humans. He is the Indian Prometheus, bringing fire and daylight to the people. He positions the sun, moon, and stars in their proper places. He teaches humans how to live.
Coyotes in general— though this expectation is ironically explored in the Road Runner cartoon, though in common with Old Man Coyote, this one is soon on his feet again after any setback. Coyotes are the best known animal trickster in North America.
Puss In Boots — a vain and silly creature, yet clever enough to win a castle and a princess for his master
Eshu-Elegba is the trickster god of the Yoruba people of West Africa. Like Hermes, this fellow is the god of thresholds and roads. Eshu can be benevolent or malign — and is usually both these things at once, delighting in playing tricks on human beings and the other gods. Notice that the older variety of religions feature gods who are assholes but really nice also. Modern religious thought has no time for this. Why love a god who is also heinous?
Loki in Norse mythology is full of clever pranks that both undermine and benefit the gods of Asgard. He is an irrepressible liar, schemer, thief, and lover of practical jokes; he is also a shape–shifter, with the rare ability to shift between genders. Perhaps the character of Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs is (problematically) based on this Loki character. (Transphobia goes way back.) Unlike Buffalo Bill, however, Loki is exuberantly amoral.
Maui is New Zealand and Hawaii’s folklore trickster. He may have created the world but he’s also a meddlesome troublemaker.
Iktomi— a small but powerful creature, devious and mischievous. According to the Lakota and Dakota (Sioux) tribes of the American Midwest, it was Iktomi who created time, space, and language, and gave all the animals their names, but he’s also a thief, a glutton, a letch, and “the grandfather of lies.”
Monkey King— famous in China
Lord Hanuman— the Monkey God of India is sometimes considered a trickster though he is upstanding rather than amoral.
Examples From Contemporary Pop Culture
Carrie Mathieson — from Homeland does underhanded things in her job in order to do her job well, gets herself fired and committed to a mental institution
Sarah Manning — a mistress of disguise, often throws away the book in order to accomplish her goals
Jessica Jones — a private investigator from the Marvel franchise
The Doctor— Doctor Who
Walter White— Breaking Bad. On the other hand, we can’t stand watching Marie because she tries to get away with petty theft and keeps failing miserably. This is excruciating to watch and makes us hate her not just for the immoral behaviour itself but for the fact she fails.
Marty Byrde— Ozark — a Walter White off-shoot.
Newman— from Seinfeld
Bart Simpson— is always getting into trouble at school and trying to get out of it
Jack in Titanic — Leonardo DiCaprio plays a rogue charmer hero
The Usual Suspects
Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
Pirates of the Caribbean — Johnny Depp plays a rogue charmer
Men In Black
Ferris Bueller — Bueller, the hero of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, tricks everyone so that he can have a relaxing day off school
Silence of the Lambs — Hannibal Lecter is a trickster character who sets up a puzzle for Clarice to solve
James Bond — a (good-looking) loveable rogue
All of Eddie Murphy’s roles in his younger days, e.g. Beverly Hills Cop
Villanelle from Killing Eve, and also Eve herself, who is her equal but on the other side of the law. Villanelle’s special super power is that she is a young, attractive woman and few people except that from such a character. She can shiv someone with a hair pin and get away with it. She can walk into a fancy party and look like she fits in.
In children’s stories, the trickster and the underdog are the two main archetypes for heroes. Trickster heroes are more common in the highly entertaining (comedy) stories.
In picture books you’ll find tricksters in ‘carnivalesque‘ stories. Tricksters upset normal hierarchies and rules of everyday or official behaviour, either through cleverness or foolishness. Oftentimes in picture books the trickster doesn’t get away with their plan because there’s a hole in it. Jon Klassen’s This Is Not My Hat is a good example. In picture books there’s also a moral issue whereby some adult consumers want to expose children only to upright, moral characters, and this means tricksters (liars, in other words) must be punished at the end. This comes through in consumer online review of books such as This Is Not My Hat.
Fairytales are full of tricksters. Some stock characters such as ogres are destined to be outwitted, always by a smaller, smarter hero. In fairytales, the trick is often a simple reversal. In Italian this is known as beffatore beffato (the cook gets cooked). Hansel and Gretel is an excellent and very literal example of that.
The cook gets cooked
The biter gets bit
Trickster tales are humorous stories in which the hero, either in human or animal form, outwits or foils a more powerful opponent through the use of trickery. Anansi the spider is a trickster figure in African folklore; Iktomi, which means spider, comes from the U.S. Plains Indians and is generally in human form; Coyote is a trickster figure from southwestern Native American folklore; and Raven is from the U.S. Pacific Northwest. Picture book examples are A Story, a story (1970), illustrated by Gail E. Haley; Iktomi and the Boulder (1988), illustrated by Paul Goble; Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest (1993), illustrated by Gerald McDermott; Nail Soup (2007), illustrated by Paul Hess; and Mauri and the Big Fish (2003), illustrated by Frane Lessac.
A Picture Book Primer: Understanding and Using Picture Books By Denise I. Matulka
The Red Wolf by Margaret Shannon features a female picture book trickster. Although examples can always be found, across cultures, the female character is not normally the trickster.
TRICKSTERS IN STORIES FOR OLDER READERS
The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy (clearly)
Hannah’s Garden by Midori Snyder
A Rumor of Gems by Ellen Steiber
Deluge by Albertine Strong
Chancers by Gerald Vizenor
Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore
Bone Game by Louis Owen
Tips For Writing A Good Trickster Character
Tricksters have extreme confidence.
They have a way with words.
They are fun-loving. By seeming not to care about common morality (always) they teach the audience how to have fun in life.
Deception is crucial. The more deception, the better the story.
They are complete liars but we like to watch them in action so we do forgive them.
The trickster might be the main character, but if not, they are the hero’s main opponent.
Trickster opponents are very smart and have the ability to attack the hero, giving heroes a lot of grief.
New Female Tricksters
As mentioned above, the original archetypal trickster is almost always gendered male.
[T]he major reason that plastic surgeries, gastric bypasses, and sex reassignments are all given similar sensationalistic treatments is because the subjects cross what is normally considered an impenetrable class boundary: from unattractive to beautiful, from fat to thin, and in the case of transsexuals, from male to female, or from female to male.[…]
Coming face-to-face with an individual who has crossed class barriers of gender or attractiveness can help us recognize the extent to which our own biases, assumptions, 118/803 and stereotypes create those class systems in the first place. But rather than question our own value judgments or notice the ways that we treat people differently based on their size, beauty, or gender, most of us reflexively react to these situations in a way that reinforces class boundaries: We focus on the presumed “artificiality” of the transformation the subject has undergone. Playing up the “artificial” aspects of the transformation process gives one the impression that the class barrier itself is “natural,” one that could not have been crossed if it were not for modern medical technology. Of course, it is true that plastic surgeries and sex reassignments are “artificial,” but then again so are the exercise bikes we work out on, the antiwrinkle moisturizers we smear on our faces, the dyes we use to color our hair, the clothes we buy to complement our figures, and the TV shows, movies, magazines, and billboards that bombard us with “ideal” images of gender, size, 119/803 and beauty that set the standards that we try to live up to in the first place. The class systems based on attractiveness and gender are extraordinarily “artificial”—yet only those practices that seem to subvert those classes (rather than reaffirm them) are ever characterized as such.
Julia Serano, Whipping Girl
Very occasionally in folklore you’ll come across a female trickster:
The seductive, deceptive foxes of Korea and Japan can be female. Note that ‘seduction‘ is a specifically feminine attribute that doesn’t seem to work for male tricksters in quite the same way, even though this Southeast Asian fox is seductive even when he is gendered male. This plays on the culturally dominant idea that men do the choosing, but if women want a part in choosing their own partners they must go about it in ‘underhanded’ ways (‘seduction’). In European tradition, the fox is gendered male — a handsome, smooth-talking knave.
There’s a wise-cracking Baubo in Greek Eleusinian myth. The modern Crabby Road cartoons featuring the wise-cracking old woman who loves wine is a descendent of Baubo. (My mother and aunties often share them on social media.)
In African-American culture there is clever Aunt Nancy. In A Long Way From Chicago, Richard Peck creates a clever trickster grandmother who is a joy to read.
The Hopi and Tewa Native American tribes feature a female coyote.
In children’s literature,Pippi Longstocking is the ‘tomboy’ equivalent of Tom Sawyer. (See also Anne Shirley and others.) These girl tricksters are very common in children’s stories being published today, as these characters have agency, and are therefore often referred to as ‘strong female characters’. Female tricksters are equally popular among adult readers, as Maria Tatar points out below. Notice also the extra burden heaped upon female tricksters compared to the original male version:
Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic.Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.
– Maria Tatar
In modern culture we now have:
I Love Lucy
Hyacinth Bucket— Hyacinth comes from a low income family and pretends to the world that she is a respectable upper-middle class lady. It’s a full-time job tricking other middle class people into thinking she’s from respectable roots.
Roseanne— has a mischievousness about her
Madonna— plays the part of a trickster in some of her music videos
Rihanna— see the music video for “Bitch Better Have My Money” for instance
Sarah— from Orphan Black shows us that she’s a trickster from the pilot, pretending to be her doppelganger in order to solve the mystery of her origin. A number of her clones are also trickster types, especially the soccer mom.
Gabby— from Desperate Housewives is appealing because she’s constantly tricking her husband. This is a couple who are a constant state of oneupmanship. Roald Dahl’s Twits are this kind of couple, as are Vera and Jack Duckworth of Coronation Street.
Nicolette Grant— is the trickiest housewife in the Hendrickson family, but following in her footsteps is Rhonda Volmer, for whom everything backfires terribly. The compound women in Big Love learn trickery as a survival measure — it’s the only power they get. The trickster characters are all punished, but punishment of death is reserved for a different character altogether.
There are a number of Rhonda Volmer archetypes in pop culture — they’re not usually the star of the story: teenage girls who present as sweet but who are liars and thieves. These girls are uniformly pretty, and like Rhonda they might be able to sing beautifully or something like that. They are often the opponent in a middle grade story, where the heroine is adorably straight-up, mostly lacking in guile. Ramona Quimby is lacking in guile, and her nemesis Susan is pretty but sly. This dynamic, set up by Beverly Cleary, has been repeated over and over in middle grade stories for and about girls.
Meanwhile, think of any female entertainer who is known as a ‘bitch’ and she probably has trickster attributes.
WHY SO FEW FEMALE TRICKSTERS?
Most stories come from patriarchal cultures, where both hero and opponent are male.
It’s possible (and very likely) that stories about female tricksters once existed but have since been lost because they haven’t been considered worthy of recording
The female trickster may take a different form entirely, in which case we don’t consider her the female analogue of the same thing
There might be something about the trickster archetype that cultures see as primarily male. In this case, even in a hypothetical matriarchal culture, the trickster would be gendered male.
I posit that voters have higher expectations of female politicians just as audiences have higher expectations of female tricksters. This has a very real effect upon who makes it into office. Hillary Clinton is often described as ‘wily’, for instance, whereas the same behaviours from a man would be considered ‘clever’.
One comic strip, considered ahead of its time in some ways, is the Nancy cartoons, recently rebooted. Though Nancy’s aunt was heavily sexualised by her original creator, Nancy was a bit of a standout heroine for her times because she has always been most definitely a trickster, with a dark, punitive side to her.
The Trickster As Story Genre
As well as referring to a character, the trickster is also a type of tale.
The Biter Bit
A subcategory of the trickster tale is the ‘biter bit’.
Biter bit is an editorial term used to describe a story about aggression, in which the aggressor becomes the victim.
The Biter Bit is an 1899 British short black-and-white silent comedy film featuring a boy playing a practical joke on a gardener by grasping his hose to stop the water flow and then letting go again when the gardener looks down it to check.
A biter bit story is usually told from the point of view of the eventual victim, who throughout the major part of the story seems to be the perpetrator of the joke, swindle, etc.
At the close of the story another biter-bit might begin, creating a circular plot.
At the story’s close, both sides might find themselves undone by another party even shrewder than they are.
The biter bit has two component parts:
a fairly original situation in which one character is doing dirty on another
an ingenious reversal whereby the dirt is done the doer.
Probably about half of all jokes that do the rounds are biter-bit stories. Essentially, the biter-bit is an extended joke or anecdote. Just as in so many jokes, there is the non-malicious aggression and then the sudden setback for that aggressor. As in the joke, too, the story first sets up a taut situation and then explosively loosens it with an unexpected reversal. As with a successful joke, also, the good biter-bit must have a spark.
A good biter-bit story rests entirely on how good the switch is.
The morality of a biter bit is inherently conservative— people who seek to trick others get their own back.
Roald Dahl was a fan of the biter bit. The Twits is an extended biter bit comedy. Many of his short stories for adults end with a trickster getting tricked back.
Roald Dahl’s most famous biter-bit short stories were actually other people’s plots, executed well by Dahl. “Lamb To The Slaughter” is one. Dahl got his strongest plots from a less-remembered author called John Collier. See Collier’s short story “Back For Christmas” for a classic biter-bit plot. In my post, I go into how Collier sets it up perfectly.
Dahl, in turn was heavily influenced by other writers crafting biter bits. John Collier was one of them. See: “Back for Christmas“.
In movies, the 1980s film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is another classic biter-bit plot. These days the horribly ableist ideology is evident, but I do remember watching that over and over as a kid. The movie remains a successful biter-bit plot, in part because we don’t expect a pretty, blonde woman to be a trickster herself. This is the exact same reason why Killing Eve is so successful in 2019.
By the way, who is the trickster in Road Runner? Wile E. Coyote has an ironically symbolic name— the road runner always ends up playing a better trick.
The Socially Aspiring Woman is a popular British archetype and part of the reason she works is because she is trying to trick those around her, and the mask always comes off, resulting in humiliation for her, and therefore comedy for the audience.
With that, it feels somehow wrong to launch into a blog post about witch stories.
Which I usually love.
So let me first make a distinction between (1) real life hocus pocus which causes real harm to real women in various parts of the world, and (2) the witches of pure fantasy — the Wizard of Oz type characters around whom a good story is inevitable, since magical abilities lend much to a fantasy. There seems to be a third option in there: Some women are embracing Wicca as a lifestyle/religion and are perfectly okay with it. I consider this more like an interest in fortune telling and astrology than like the very serious supernatural fears in other and earlier cultures.
Good vs. Evil
Witch storylines, and that clear delineation between good and evil, are so solid that these storylines are still regularly used even when the thing in question isn’t actually your typical witch. It might be Smurfette, for example:
In the follow-up, we get a new origin story for Smurfette, voiced again by Katy Perry. You see, she’s a got a dark past and it is revealed that within her Smurfness resides some pretty Smurfin’ great power. And she must choose whether to use her Smurf-powers for the purposes of good, as Papa Smurf has taught her, or fall under the dark spell of the evil wizard Gargamel.
But There Aren’t All That Many Other Roles For Women (Outside Mother, Daughter, Sister)
Here’s a bit about witches, in a chapter about the limited roles of women, from Marjery Hourihan’s book Deconstructing The Hero:
The text book of the witch hunters, the Malleus Maleficarum (“Hammer of the Witches’), the work of two German divines, Heinrich Kramer and Jakob Sprenger, was first published in 1486. Although there had been witch hunts in the earlier years of the fifteenth century it was this work, endorsed by Pope Innocent VIII, which fuelled the craze and established the definitive concept of the ‘witch’. It proclaimed magisterially that:
It must not be omitted that certain wicked women perverted by Satan and seduced by the illusions and phantasms of devils, believe and profess that they ride in the night hours on certain beasts with Diana, the heathen goddess, or with Herodias, and with a countless number of women, and that in the untimely silence of teh night they travel over great distances of land.
(Malleus Maleficarum, in Otten 1986:108)
Although the authors insist that the witches’ claims to fly and consort with Diana are ‘altogether false’ (p. 108), illusions perpetrated by Satan, the image persisted in the popular imagination, along with claims that witches had sexual intercourse with devils. One William West of the Inner Temple in a work called Symbolaeographic  said of witches that they:
shake the air with lightning and thunder, to cause Hail and tempests, to remove green corn and trees to an other place, to be carried of her familiar which hath taken upon him the deceitful shape of a goat, swine, or calf etc. into some mountain…And sometimes to fly upon a staff or fork, or some other instrument.
(Quoted in Bradbrook 1951)
Here is the witch of children’s literature, flying on her broomstick, casting spells, and accompanied by her black cat. It is her sexuality, her irrationality, her links with nature and with the powers of evil that make her the binary opposite of the hero in a range of traditional and modern stories. The power of satires and stereotypes is evident in the fact that during the two hundred years from the late fifteenth to the late seventeenth century in Europe and Britain thousands of women were tortured, burned or hanged as witches, and many thousands more were persecuted and brought to trial though they escaped execution.
The witch is a traditionally monstrous female character featured both in contemporary (adult) horror stories and in children’s fairy tales.
Children During The Witch Craze Were Not Sheltered From Witches In Their Stories
The illustration above is from an 1831 picture book of “The Three Bears” written by Eleanor Mure as a gift for her nephew. This is the first written version we have of that story. ‘Goldilocks’ was an old woman before she was a little girl.
Though witch burning was no longer happening in England in 1831, children were obviously schooled up on what witches were supposed to do and be. Their grandparents were certainly old enough to remember actual witch burnings, and grandparents have always passed stories down to their children.
How many young contemporary readers could look at that illustration and know that because the old woman floats, that means she’s a witch? Our witch trope has evolved over the 19th and 29th centuries, and continues to do so. Now, fictional witches are far more likely to be empowered.
Witches = Bad Mothers
Joseph Campbell argues that women were first attributed with magical powers because of their mysterious abilities to create life.
Barbara Creed argues that woman was perceived as the source of an especially powerful form of magic during pregnancy.
A woman’s curse was thought to be far more dangerous than a man’s. A mother’s curse meant certain death.
In the 14th century the Catholic church deemed witchcraft heresy. Services performed by witches, including midwifery, were labeled as crimes. Many of their crimes were allegedly sexual in nature. (Copulating with the devil, causing male impotence, stealing men’s penises etc.)
Women were thought to be less intelligent, less spiritual, more like children and therefore more prone to being witches.
A witch is antithetical to the symbolic order. She unsettles boundaries between the rational and irrational.
Evil witches are associated with abjection, cannibalism, castration — the embodiment of the ‘bad breast’.
Whenever woman is represented as monstrous it is almost always in relation to her mothering and reproductive functions.
The threat she exudes is usually related to consumption. She will threaten to devour her victims, consume or destroy them. (Metaphorical castration.) For example, the witch in Hansel and Gretel has cannibalistic desires. (The Grimms version is a much watered down of Wilhelm’s earlier one.) The food the witch gives the children is sweet and rich (standing in for breast milk.)
Lady Monsters Are Always Single
From witches to gorgons, the scary ladies of literature are usually dried up old spinsters. Or they’re single and sexual, but too sexual, and they’re going to use their womanly wiles to devour men whole. Or they’re going to prey on children, because any woman without children of her own is apparently a threat to the entire concept. Even the wicked stepmother only shows her true colors once her husband is out of the picture. What makes these ladies terrifying is not merely that they’re sharp-toothed or half-dead or evil, it’s that they’re living outside the cultural norm. A woman functioning without male supervision is, it seems, the scariest thing of all.
We may think that our fear of the traditional witch archetype is safely in the past, and yet single, older women in possession of cats are still fair game for public derision. Childless women and queer women and gender non-conforming people who have “failed” to “find a man” still face judgment for living outside of the norm. The dried up witch-woman and her sister, the sultry siren, are still alive, lurking around in the back of our minds, where they’ve managed to survive for the last several thousand years.
The literary home of the wicked witch is the fairy tale of which the simple story ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is typical. As in most hero tales the opposition between home and the wilderness, or the forest, is central but in this story home is not safe for the young hero and his sister because it is dominated by their wicked stepmother whose alter ego is the witch who lives in the forest. The children are abandoned in the forest because their stepmother insists there is not enough food to feed them, and after wandering for three days, facing death by starvation, they are led by a white bird to the house of the witch. This house is made of bread, cake and clear sugar, so they are able to satisfy their hunger. The witch takes them in, pretending to be loving and benevolent, a representative of the safe domestic world. She provides them with a delicious meal and comfortable beds but then reveals her true aim which is to eat them both. They eventually escape when Gretel is able to push the witch into the oven, and they fill their pockets with the jewels they find in the house. On their homeward journey they are assisted by a white duck who bears them across a river on her back, and they are finally welcomed by their father who had never been a willing participant in their abandonment. The stepmother has died, so father and children are able to live happily and prosperously on the proceeds of the jewels.
Hourihan points out the way in which Browne depicts the stepmother as a witch, with the dark gap between the curtains forming a witch’s hat for the stepmother’s shadow.
The story itself invites this conflation insofar as the deaths of the witch and the stepmother coincide and both try to bring about the children’s deaths. Like most fairy tales, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ has several layers of signficance, but the witch and her malevolence is crucial to all of them.
2. MIDDLE GRADE FICTION: THE WITCHES BY ROALD DAHL
When my standard one (year 3) teacher read this book to us I was sitting on the mat with all my classmates and I still remember the mischievous look on Mrs Baker’s face as she described what a witch looks like according to Roald Dahl: blue spit, gloves, square toes, an itchy scalp due to wearing a wig… “Who knows, maybe your teacher might even be a witch,” she read. I’m sure I wasn’t the only child at that moment scrutinising my teacher for signs of witchery. I concluded that she couldn’t be a witch, because our teacher didn’t wear gloves. She should totally have worn gloves that day, and eaten a blue gobstopper beforehand.
I read this book over and over again as a child and it only seemed to improve upon subsequent readings. I grew up before the film version, and when that came out of course it didn’t seem to live up to the story which had been playing in my head. So many people say this about film adaptations of their favourite stories, but I will acknowledge that the film is very well done. It just wasn’t my version of The Witches. In my head, the atmosphere is far more sinister and dark.
Looking back with my feminist-tinted glasses on, I really do wonder how Roald Dahl felt about women.
To change the topic entirely, I’m reminded of something said about a far more recent film with witches in it. Oz (2013) is not something I intend on paying good money to sit through — I have read too many negative reviews from people I trust — but one problem feminist reviewers have pointed out with the storyline is that in Oz, nobody knows who the witch is, and so therefore every woman is possibly a witch.
This very same thing could also be said about Roald Dahl’s The Witches. The story scared the bejeesus out of me, in the most spine-chilling, delightful kind of way imaginable, but I DID go through several months of my childhood thinking that any slightly odd woman might be a witch, especially if she looked to be wearing a wig.
I’m not quite sure how I feel about that. I’m still processing it.
3. PICTUREBOOK: ROOM ON THE BROOM BY JULIA DONALDSON
This is one of about five picturebooks which my four-year-old requests over and over again, and one of an even smaller select groups which I don’t mind reading. Julia Donaldson really is a master of craft when it comes to rhyme, repetition and cohesive storytelling. The illustrations by Axel Scheffler are great.
4. ANIMATED FILM: KIKI’S DELIVERY SERVICE
It’s so wonderful that teams of Japanese men can produce kids’ films starring girl protagonists, based on a book about a girl — a book which was in turn written by a woman — without compromising their masculinity… or something. I know, I’m beginning to sound like a broken record but Hollywood really does have a lot it could learn from Studio Ghibli.
Kiki is a thirteen-year-old girl who sets off on her own to spend a year away from her parents learning the art of witchcraft. Like several others of the Studio Ghibli films (Porco Rosso springs to mind) this one is set in a Japanese inspired post-war sort of utopian village with bread shops and steam trains and dirigibles and attics, in which the characters kind of look Japanese but don’t bow to one another. So it’s set in an entirely fantastical alternative reality. Unlike Porco Rosso, Western audiences can enjoy this Japanese film without feeling as if we’re in a completely foreign land. At least, no more than the Japanese themselves would feel.
It must be tricky to convey adolescence in film. That’s my conclusion, because so often it’s done badly. I don’t think it’s helpful to pretend that adolescent kids are asexual, but Hollywood errs on the side of hypersexualisation when depicting characters still young enough to be enjoying their childhood. A romantic subplot is not always necessary. In this case, Kiki’s subplot is around the relationship between Kiki and the pregnant owner of the bread shop. (Another feminist triumph: a pregnant woman, pregnant just because people are sometimes pregnant, not because some harrowing birth scene is about to become important to the storyline.)
Even in American children’s films I really enjoy, such as Monster House and the producers feel compelled to include a love interest. This is almost always two boys — one the relatable protagonist, the other a friend who offers comedic lines and slapstick — with a girl arriving on the scene, in which case the comedian friend will fall haplessly in love with the girl, but the girl ends up with the protagonist.
When the girl is the protagonist, this tired old plot naturally takes a different turn. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, she makes a friend, who happens to be a boy, but his interest isn’t in Kiki per se — he has an existing passion of his own: turning his bicycle into a flying machine, and his interest in Kiki is because she is already able to fly, on her broomstick, and he feels he has something to learn. Boys jeer from the other side of the street, reading more into the relationship than exists, and it would be easy for audiences to do the same. If this were a Hollywood plot, the rather geeky boy would prove himself a man by eventually helping the strong female character out of difficulty. But in this case it’s Kiki who rescues the boy from falling. She is far better on her broomstick than he is in midair, and it’s only fitting that the girl helps the boy. For a non-Hollywoodified audience, this is satisfying, fitting and sufficient. I feel that both Kiki and Tombo (Japanese for ‘dragonfly’) are wonderful characters and that Tombo would make a great friend. That’s all we really need in the way of ‘romantic subplot’ in kids’ films. At the risk of overlapping with the fundamentalist Christian community, I feel that in films we should let kids be kids. Those who are looking for a romantic story will see the potential. Otherwise, we don’t need outward expressions of ‘whoas’ and ‘Ooh, she likes yous’ in a story for adolescent and pre-adolescent children. The resident four-year-old loves this film, and I’m just a little bit in love with it too.
See also my lengthy post about ParaNorman, which heavily features witches, linking them to young, intelligent, modern-day feminists.
In short, this is one of the best witch stories for children, because the witch is presented as a kind, well-rounded human being. A good antidote to the common trope.
MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA BY URSULA LE GUIN (1968)
I haven’t read this. According to Hourihan this story ‘conforms to the type in that she is dark-haired and deceitful, but she is a more subtle creation than most of her kind. The text hints that, although she has given herself tot he service of evil as a means to power, she has done so only because she can see no other way for a woman to achieve self-realization. All the wizards in Earthsea are men. Le Guin’s imaginary world is similar to mediaeval Europe in many ways including the exclusion of women from access to higher learning and Serret’s situation mirrors that of many actual women in former times who turned to witchcraft as the only source of knowledge accessible tot hem. Although women are marginalized in this tale, as in most hero stories, simplistic stereotyping is avoided, and the reader is invited to share the pity which the hero, Ged, the focalizing character, feels for Sereet’s lonely exile in her enchanted castle.
MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL: I AM SUSANNAH BY LIBBY GLEESON (1987)
This book is showing its age, and will probably feel to the modern reader what it felt like reading The Pigman by Paul Zindel in 1992: Retro. This is not a story about a witch; rather it’s a good kicking-off point to start thinking about the witch archetype and how fiction can train us to regard a certain sort of woman (unmarried, grey, untamed hair, untidy clothing). This is an 80s feminist book with the message for adolescent girls that you don’t have to kiss boys at parties to be liked; you don’t have to get married. You can stay single and follow your artistic dreams if you like, and you won’t actually go mad.
Lilith is a female demonfrom Jewish mythology. She has her own opitins, passions and desires. She’s sexually dominant, unafraid to protect her interests and is the mother of all kinds of reatures which are dangerous because they are independent and free-thinking.