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Friday, April 1, 2011

The Briar Patch

“What are your favorite stories?” I ask my daughter.

Without hesitation the answer always comes back, “Anansi stories.”

Anansi the Spider is a trickster in hundreds of tales from Africa. The trickster figure appears in story traditions the world over, be it Loki or Coyote or Hare or Bre’r Rabbit or Clever Jack. This is the character who succeeds through wits and wiles. My own favorite stories that fit this model were the travels of Odysseus, celebrated by Homer for his cunning


– the creator of the Trojan Horse, the escape artist and blinder of the dreaded Cyclops, inventor of one clever plan after another. Loved and protected by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, Odysseus survives the Trojan War and the journey back to Ithaka by using his intellect.
One of the things I find fascinating about Trickster tales is that almost as often as the Trickster succeeds, the Trickster fails. “Hoist with his own petard,” was the Shakespeare quote my family pulled out in conversation again and again (it basically means getting caught when your brilliant plan backfires). Sometimes the trickster gets out of the frying pan only to land in the fire. It seems that clever plans that are self-protective succeed; clever plans that exploit others often fail. “You can boil me in a pot of water but please whatever you do, don’t throw me in the briar patch!” saves Bre’r Rabbit’s life. Tricking the lion and stealing his skin in order to get the baboons to wait on him gets Hare into big trouble in a traditional tale from Botswana.

These stories are great, juicy fun. As I see it, however, there is a subtle danger in framing intellectual dexterity as “trickery.” The physical prowess of heroes who vanquish their enemies by might and main is generally celebrated as bravery. The intellectual prowess of heroes who vanquish their enemies with brainpower is labeled trickery. Somehow, the invisible weapons and armor that our imagination provides have been less praiseworthy than the visible sword and muscles of the knight. This sets up the prickly antagonism between brains and brawn that we continue to see played out today: geeks vs. jocks.  Do we really want to favor physical courage over all the other six types of courage?

FYI: this is NOT the path to intellectual courage
I say no.  It has to be okay to be smart. Innovative problem-solving can no longer be the tool reserved for the trickster alone. Today, we live in a world that resembles less and less the world of knights and tests of strength; today we need the nimble mind of Bre’r Rabbit, the resourcefulness of Coyote, the creativity of Anansi. I choose cunning Odysseus over mighty Achilles. I want to encourage the trickiness of creative intellect, and not with standardized testing. If the trickster tales tell us anything, it is that the thorniest problems don’t appear with multiple choice answers on the page: the multiple choices must all arise in the mind of the hero.  Developing our children's intellectual courage may be just what we need to solve the problems of tomorrow.

Go here for some tips on how to tell a story, such as a trickster story, to your child.

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