Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Teaching "The Trickster and the Hero"

For the last three weeks, I have been teaching a January course titled "The Trickster and the Hero." I designed this course in 1990, when I was teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam. I had just been hired by the English Department at St. Olaf College to introduce Post colonial literature and the department chair asked me if I would like to design and teach a January course.

I knew right away that I would like to teach a course on the hero and the trickster. I had done my graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1980-86 and had written my doctoral dissertation on The Hero in the African Epic. Professor Harold Scheub, one of my professors and my main dissertation advisor, had sparked my interest in the hero and the trickster. 

Almost every year, for the twenty five years I have taught at St. Olaf College, I have taught my hero and trickster course. I start with Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in North American Indian Mythology. After that, I usually teach some more trickster tales from other traditions, drawn from various traditions, such as Anansi, Gizo, Nasreddin Hodja, and Hare, the ubiquitous trickster of Eastern, Central and Southern Africa. I often incorporate trickster tales from my own collection, Matengo Folktales.

After exploring oral traditional trickster tales, I move on to epics. Over the years, I have used The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Book of Dede Korkut, Gassire's Lute, Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali, and Ibonia. I then move on to works of fiction. I have used novels such as Things Fall Apart, The Guide, and The Lonely Londoners, which afford further opportunity to explore the figure of the trickster and the hero in written literature. Then we read Things Fall Apart, and we are now reading The Guide. I hope to conclude with theoretical works which deal with the hero from the perspective of formalism, psychoanalysis, and feminism.

This January, we started with Paul Radin's The Trickster, watched a recording of comedian Louis CK, went on to The Epic of Gilgamesh, Ibonia, Things Fall Apart, and The Guide. With only three days to go, I am in the process of concluding with theoretical perspectives as I have noted above.

Studying the trickster is an opportunity to reflect on a major figure in folklore and literature. So is studying the hero. I say as much in my course description:

The figure of the trickster is one of the most enduring of all the characters we encounter in literature and folklore, from the earliest times to the present. The figure of the hero is equally prevalent and engaging. In this course, we will study manifestations of these figures in the folklore and literature of various cultures and epochs. Our focus, though, will be Middle Eastern, African and Caribbean traditions. We will try to understand the social origins and functions of hero and trickster tales, using theories such as those of Paul Radin, Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Lord Raglan, and Alan Dundes. We will try also to explore the manifestations and influences of the hero and trickster archetypes in our lives. In addition to folklore stories, we will study selected literary texts, in order to understand how they appropriate the motifs and patterns of trickster and hero narratives. This is a great way to understand an important dimension of the making of literature.

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