Forms and Functions of the Trickster Figure in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water

Term Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The oral and written form of story telling expressed in the dialogs with the trickster figure

3. The role of the trickster figure

4. The intertextuality in the scenes with Coyote

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Thomas King´s novel Green Grass, Running Water distinguishes itself from most of the modern novels, above all, from the novels written by Native American authors, in its genuine form and content. Not only the synthesis of oral and written form of narrating stories makes it a valuable literary work that reveals evidence for the existence of a relatively, if not utterly unknown culture, but also the author´s effort to depict characters and stories from the mythology of the Native Americans contribute to it. The central figure among the mythological figures from the Native American culture in the novel Green Grass, Running Water is, by all means, the figure of Coyote.

A lot of research has been conducted on the importance of this figure in the Native American mythology, on its meaning in Thomas King´s novel and on the combination of these two aspects. It could be regarded that Thomas King attempts through his characters to illustrate on a larger scale the relationship between two diverse entities and their unequal position in it. This argument has been considered to a large extent by many authors and academics, among which Herb Wyile presents the following point in his article “ 'Trust Tonto' Thomas King´s subversive fictions and the politics of cultural literacy.

“Given these various elements, it might be tempting initially to describe his work as blending Western literary forms with forms from Native cultures. A more appropriate characterization, however, can be found in Kimberley Blaeser’s description of the trickster figure in Native writing as ‘[n]ot a composite, which is made up of distinct and recognizable parts, but a complex, which is one unit whose makeup is intricate and interwoven’ (“Trickster” 51). Her description applies nicely to King’s writing, since in those Native cultures (and King’s writing as an extension of them), that blending or syncretism is already there, because of the cross-fertilization historically and currently between different tribal traditions and because of the legacy of the history of colonialism, during which cultural interaction was imposed.”[1]

In the light of the opinion presented in the above written quotation this paper will concentrate on the analysis of the meaning and form of the pivotal figure in Thomas King’s novel Green Grass, Running Water – the trickster figure of Coyote and attempt to discover the intertwined intertextuality in the dialogs, in which Coyote takes part.

2. The oral and written form of story telling expressed in the dialogs with the trickster figure

The most distinctive feature of the composition of the novel Green Grass, Running Water is the unusual and quite unique manner of narrating a story. The form of the Native American oral narration is intertwined with the literary form of expression; nevertheless, not throughout the entire book, but only in the dialogs, in which Coyote plays a role and in which the story about the Judeo-Christian postulation of the creation of the world is recounted through the angle of Native American mythology.

The oral form of narrating stories is more abundant than the written one with respect to conveying nuances in the feelings and interpretations of the story. It also resorts to repetitions and pauses that help the listener to understand and follow the narration. The structure of the narration is cyclic and does not draw a clear line between the realm of reality and mythology. The use of a compact and direct language is very important in creating this imagery and establishing a bond between the narrator and the listener. The role of a narrator is played only by the persons who have a specific knowledge about story telling conventions. If it is done by unskilled narrators, it can be dangerous and because of this fact, the four old Indians do not allow Coyote to tell a story in the novel.[2]

“Okay,” said the Lone Ranger. “Whose turn is it now?”

“Well, who went last?” said Ishmael.
“You did.”

“Then it´s Robinson Crusoe´s turn”.

“What about me?” says Coyote. “ I´d like a turn.”

“That doesn´t sound like a good idea,” said Hawkeye.

“No,” said Robinson Crusoe.” That sounds like a Coyote idea.”[3]

Whereas the oral form transforms a story by inserting or removing elements in the plot and the story differs as a consequence of this process from generation to generation and even from narrator to narrator, the written form has a solid form that remains consistent throughout time. When these two forms of expression are drawn together, they complement each other, but also collide.

Brian Johnson discusses the connection between the written and oral form of narration in his article “Plastic Shaman in the Global Village: understanding media in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water”, implying a further meaning to this blend of medias:

“As the narrator attempts yet another cyclical telling of the Creation-this time featuring Old Woman-he is interrupted by Coyote’s strategic double-tracking/trouble-making which brings to light the clash between voice and letter:

“Well”, I says, “Old Woman falls into the water. So she is in that water. So she looks around and she sees-“

“I know, I know,” says Coyote. “She sees a golden calf!”

“Wrong again,” I says.

“A pillar of salt!” says Coyote.

“Nope,” I says to Coyote.

“A burning bush!” says Coyote.

“Where do you get these things?” I says.

I read a book” says Coyote.

Forget the book,” I says. “We’ve got a story to tell. And here’s how it goes.” (291; emphasis added)

It is precisely such an impossible forgetting of the book and a reclaiming of the voice that the characteristics in King’s novel must hazard in their attempts to recover from the epistemic, as well as the material, violence of the colonial encounter. By shifting the focus from the message to the medium, Coyote and the narrator begin to suggest that colonial aggression and Native resistance are played out – at least in part – in the clash of systems of mediation.”[4]

One could agree to some extent with Brian Johnson’s thorough analysis of the meaning beyond the structure of the dialogs in the novel and Thomas King´s intention to bring the sound and the letter together with the aim of bringing to light the negative effects of a dominating society. Nevertheless, one could also presume that Thomas King does not reflect only the negative effects of the impact on the “systems of mediation”, as Johnson describes them. Doubtlessly, there are also positive aspects of an interaction between these two systems, one of them the fact that Thomas King could reach far more readers and thus have a larger influence on breaking certain stereotypes by using the dominant society´s “system of mediation”. It is also an indisputable fact that the intermingling of the two systems enriched them respectively in more ways. For instance, the European invaders did not have the word “Coyote” before the encounter with the Native Americans, which, in turn, were introduced only through the Europeans to the idea of a “book”. However, Thomas King perhaps had not the intention to concentrate so much on the meaning underlying the combination of the two forms of story telling, but rather to tell a story he imagined. It is King himself that states: “The truth about stories is that that´s all we are. “You can´t understand the world without telling a story ”the Anishinabe writer Gerald Vizenor tells us”.”[5]


[1] Herb Wyile. “ “Trust Tonto” Thomas King’s subversive fictions and the politics of cultural literacy” . Canadian Literature 161/162 (1999): p.111

[2] Lecture notes. 16.06.2004

[3] Thomas King. Green Grass, Running Waster. 1993 Bantam Books: New York.1994. p.253

[4] Brian Johnson. “Plastic Shaman in the Global Village: understanding media in Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water”. Studies in Canadian Literature 24, 2 (1999): p.25

[5] Thomas King. “You´re not the Indian I had in mind.” The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative. The Massey Lecture Series. Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2003.p.32

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Forms and Functions of the Trickster Figure in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water
University of Cologne  (English Seminar)
2 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
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489 KB
Forms, Functions, Trickster, Figure, Thomas, King, Green, Grass, Running, Water
Quote paper
Aleksandra Pendarovska (Author), 2004, Forms and Functions of the Trickster Figure in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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