An exploration of the Trickster inside Avatar: The Last Airbender and Gravity Falls
Carl Jung. The guy that often takes second place to your mother-loving Freud. His work in psychoanalysis is well known to anyone who finagled a liberal arts degree, but what can he teach us about how some of our favorite stories work?
Let’s examine this by turning to an unexpected medium: children’s cartoons.
The Trickster: A Primary Character in Some of Your Favorite Shows
Those of you who have seen Gravity Falls probably remember Bill Cipher.
He’s a cheeky little demon who tricks the kids — Dipper and Mabel — into unleashing Weirdmageddon, which is like Armageddon but with a twisted sense of humor.
Bill is also a classic trickster: he’s a master of deception and disguise. He disregards convention. He’s also evil — but in a fun way, while also being the catalyst for dramatic change, even if it’s apocalyptic.
These traits are also shared by another beloved cartoon character: Avatar Aang, from Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Aang is the embodiment of wholesome goodness. He loves animals, is a spiritual monk, and saves the world. However… he also deceives, disguises, disrupts, and is the catalyst for volatile change — all while trying to turn every giant monster her meets into his own private rodeo show.
Classic trickster stuff.
While Bill and Aang are opposites on the good vs. evil scale, they each embody the trickster archetype, which gives us an insight into how archetypal literary criticism can be used to analyze your favorite cartoons or any other forms of fiction.
(Cartoons happen to just be the most fun.) Let’s dig in.
What Is Archetypal Literary Criticism?
Archetypes are based on the idea of a universal collective unconscious.
Carl Jung, a student of Freud, is the pioneering scholar on this subject. He defined a series of archetypes that he believed to be universal and innate to all humans. It’s a pretty big score for the school of essentialism.
One of the main things Jung looked at when defining his archetypes were ancient myths. Ancient cultures had little to no contact with each other, but they still share a number of common narratives. This led Jung to conclude that we’re born with these narratives and within those narratives are archetypes.
Archetypes can be thought of as character blueprints. Jungian archetypes include the hero, the mother, the sage, and, of course, the trickster. These reoccurring characters serve similar purposes in stories all over the world.
Jung was a psychoanalyst, so he was interested in using his ideas to uncover essential truths about our shared psychology.
When you apply his archetypes to reading fiction instead of the mind, you get archetypal literary criticism.
Something to keep in mind when diving into any type of psychoanalysis — it’s important not to be too literal.
This is something that many people find frustrating about psychoanalysis. There are no hard answers, only loose interpretations that are often argued over by men sporting very bushy beards.
This is also what makes it a fun lens to look at books and movies through. It can be a bit like a scavenger hunt searching for clues to the collective unconscious. And it’s freeing to know that you can’t be wrong. As long as you can back up your argument you’re golden.
But What Is the Trickster?
This brings us to the matter at hand: two children’s cartoons that have used Jung’s trickster archetype to enhance their narrative. But what exactly is a trickster?
Jung said this of the trickster archetype:
“…his fondness for sly jokes and malicious pranks, his powers as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures, and — last but not least — his approximation to the ﬁgure of a savior.”
Some characters who are considered tricksters don’t have all of these qualities, some do. What’s most important to me when I look for The Trickster is the mischievous spirit. Even when doing evil deeds, The Trickster retains a lighthearted sense of humor that endears the audience to him. Sometimes this is an element of the danger.
It’s also important to note that The Trickster is not inherently good or evil. He’s not like The Hero or The Villain. The Trickster can be both, or often neither. Some of the delight of this archetype is how it plays with ambiguity.
With that out of the way, let’s dig into some traits a trickster typically has, starting with:
Masters of Disguise
The disguise doesn’t need to be literal. Like all things with psychoanalysis, a healthy amount of metaphor is welcomed.
Bill deceives about his true nature. He doesn’t wear a literal disguise. Pretty much every time we see him he’s a triangle with an eye, but he doesn’t carefully manipulate the way he represents himself. He also takes over Dipper’s body at one point, using Dipper as his disguise.
When we first meet Aang, he’s hiding his true identity as the Avatar. Throughout the series, he hides this identity through various techniques. He wears hats and grows out his hair to cover his tattoo, a physical manifestation of his identity. He also has a slew of aliases. This is in stark contrast to Sokka who couldn’t think up a fake name when training with Master Piandao. (Dude totally knew he was water tribe right away.)
A key difference between the trickster and another archetype who is wearing a disguise is the mastery that the trickster demonstrates. The trickster is able to take on different looks or identity flawlessly. Also, he has fun with it. This is exactly what we see when we compare Aang to Sokka.
Ties to the Unconscious
Jung believed that there is a trickster within all of us teetering on the edge of our consciousness. Perhaps it’s the impish version of yourself that can’t help but tap someone on the opposite shoulder as you pass. Either way, the trickster is deeply associated with our unconscious. We can see this association with the unconscious play out with both Bill and Aang.
Bill’s home is the Nightmare Realm, a physical embodiment of chaos and the consciousness, and he uses people’s mindscape to communicate. Since Bill is unable to come into the real world he has to wait for humans to become unconscious and then enter their mindscape.
Through his mastery of the mindscape, Bill is able to tap into people’s unconscious fears and desires and use those to manipulate people.
These two realms are where we’re introduced to Bill and they’re both representatives of the unconscious.
Aang’s ties to the unconscious are represented by his past lives. As Avatar, he is the reincarnation of all of the previous Avatars. He is able to communicate with his former selves for advice, wisdom, and to share their skills and power.
For Aang, this is mostly a positive association, unlike Bill. His past selves are masters of the elements who want to help him. He communicates with Avatar Roku the most, as his most recent past life. Roku provides key information for Aang about how the war started. Through that understanding, Aang is better able to stop the war.
However, the unconscious is unpredictable. Aang’s Avatar-state protects him and saves his life at the cost of cutting him off from his conscious self. When in the Avatar-state he no longer recognizes his friends or himself. His capacity of destruction reigns unchecked.
This also comes with:
Problems With Authority
This is often where the tricks or magic come in, but tricksters also disrupt with general disobedience. This is really where the spirit of the trickster shows itself.
In Gravity Falls, authority is human rule. Bill is in constant conflict with humanity. His ultimate goal is to subjugate the world and replace human authority with himself and his demon friends.
On a smaller scale, Bill is in direct conflict with Stanley Pines, Dipper and Mabel’s authority figure. Stanley is an adult in charge of our protagonists, the kind of authority that we first become familiar with as children. Disrupting Stanley’s authority is a more intimate disobedience than the general mayhem.
Sure, messing up the world sucks. But messing with Grunkle Stan is personal.
In Avatar, Aang constantly disrupts authority.
The authority in Avatar is the Fire Nation. They conquered the other nations and placed themselves as supreme rulers. (Maybe they got the memo from Bill.) Aang’s goal is to free the world from Fire Nation rule. This rewrites the highest authority in the Avatar universe.
On a personal level, authority to Aang is the good people pressuring him to kill the fire lord. These people are his friends and even himself — through his own past lives. However, Aang refuses because he doesn’t believe in killing and he doesn’t believe in doing as he’s told.
As Dumbledore once said, “It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
So, in the ultimate upset, Aang learns the lost art of energy bending and uses it to render the Fire Lord harmless. He finds a creative solution to his problem and disrupts what everyone knows of the world. It’s a touch of deus ex machina, but it’s also representative of the nature of the trickster — to change what you think you know. In Aang’s case, this meant ending the fire lord his own way, despite what everyone else was telling him.
This is in addition to every time an adult ever asked Aang to sit still, and he said, “Hell no, I’m going to airbend pies at people instead.” For Aang, his trickster spirit has no ends, though much of it is cheeky instead of evil like Bill.
This brings us to the core of it all. Tricksters, for better or worse, are:
Being Catalyst for Change
The trickster is not necessarily good or evil. He’s most often an amoral little sprite causing mischief. However, he often causes change that is either good or evil (there’s rarely a truly grey spot here, especially in cartoons). It is the trickster’s nature to disrupt authority and advocate for chaos, so it rationally follows that radical change follows in his wake.
Bill Cipher unleashes Weirdmageddon. Demons pour in from the Nightmare Realm and subject humanity to their rule. His own selfish desires lead to the end of the world and then his own destruction.
While Bill represents what a trickster working for evil can do, Aang shows us what a trickster with good intentions can achieve.
Aang defeats the Fire Nation. He’s twelve and he ends a world-wide oppressive regime. Then he travels the world helping to rebuild and heal. That’s some serious change.
In both Avatar and Gravity Falls, the worlds are irrevocably altered by the trickster. There would be no plot without them.
What Does It All Mean?
All archetypes can be found in a variety of fiction — that’s the nature of our shared unconscious. Television and movies are particularly great places to look for archetypes because they are collective projects that feed on the input of so many people. The more minds contributing to an art piece the stronger the argument for collective unconscious, right?
Some other contemporary examples of The Trickster include:
- Bugs Bunny
- The Joker
- Jack Sparrow
- Mushu in Mulan
Some of these characters might not tick every box off, or they might represent the key elements of The Trickster in unexpected ways. This is the nature of the trickster and also of archetypes in general.
Characters within the same archetype are not carbon copies of each other. No two Tricksters are the same, but they each channel the same mischievous spirit and add the key narrative element of chaos that keep their stories going.
Once you understand the qualities that make up the trickster, or any archetype, it’s easy to identify these archetypes in other books, movies, myths, and television. Let us know who your favorite trickster is!
Andie lives with two black cats that simultaneously terrorize and delight her. She went to school for books and now eats chocolate for a living.