Funkiest Monkey That Ever Popped!

16th November 1979


The trolling spirit is inseparable from the sacred and its forms and history. As we’ve seen, perhaps its earliest links are with the cosmological form of chaos itself – chaos as originary, productive, natural, inevitable and necessary and as a force of anti-order, continually locked with its opposite into a cycle of making and unmaking. But another way trolling is kinked to these traditions is through the mythological figure of the ‘trickster’. The links are well-established, but they’re worth pursuing here within the broader context of the relationship between chaos and the sacred, helping to further elucidate the character of the troll. And they also provide a wonderful excuse to talk about Monkey.

‘Tricksters’ are spirits or deities (such as the Native American coyote or raven spirits, or the Nordic god, Loki) who are part of the pantheon of the sacred but who simultaneously work against the gods and their order, rules and conventions through their trickery or thievery. They are forces of chaos and disorder or rebellion who play an important role in the moral lessons of many, largely-oral religions. Tales in which their behaviour backfires teach one moral lesson; tales in which they succeed through their wits teach another. Trickster figures are especially prominent in Native American and African beliefs, but also appear in the folklore and myths of Europeans, Asians, Pacific Islanders and the Aborigines of Australia.

Tricksters are usually highly-intelligent, anthropomorphized animal spirits, or shape-changers who can take on animal forms. They operate outside the divinely-established order and the framework of right and wrong, refusing to recognise the rules of society. Their personalities are changeable: they are childish, selfish, egotistical, lustful, nasty, as well as clever, cunning and wise. They joke, conspire, plot, plan and survive – sometimes even death itself. More than anything tricksters are mischievous. They push at authorities, rules, and order, and win more than they lose. As such the trickster is an admired – even an aspirational – figure: it is one we love; one whose pitfalls and successes we revel in; one whose cleverness and defiance of the gods we secretly enjoy.

The most famous discussion of the trickster is Lewis Hyde’s 1998 study Trickster Makes This World. As figures of chaos, standing apart from the traditional, settled order, tricksters are ‘lords of in-between’, Hyde says. They do not live near the hearth or home but remain always moving – always ‘on the road’; a road that is as much spiritual as physical, as the spirit moves easily between heaven and earth and the living and the dead. In short, Hyde says, as befits one simultaneously existing within order and as its antithesis, ‘trickster is a boundary-crosser’. He moves across borders, distinctions, categories and modes of being and ordering such that it may be easier to say that ‘the boundary is where he will be found’. For Hyde, therefore, ‘Trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox’.

Once again, chaos here is positive and progenitive. As Hyde remarks, ‘in spite of all their disruptive behaviour, tricksters are regularly honored as the creators of culture’. Like tricky Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods to give to man, the trickster is a shaper of culture, helping make this world inhabitable for human life. Trickster is a ‘culture hero’ whose seemingly a-social actions actually help the world and life to continue. Hence, Hyde says, the apparent paradox ‘that the origins, liveliness and durability of cultures require that there be space for figures whose function is to uncover and disrupt the very things that cultures are based on’.

Such an argument is already familiar to those who’ve followed the cosmological roots of chaos: of a force that both begins the world and that, in its repeated eruption and overcoming also helps renew and remake it again. Confirming what we already know, Hyde explicitly distinguishes the trickster from Satan. He is a figure of chaos not evil: ‘trickster is amoral not immoral’. He belongs to a polytheistic world, not to the single morality of a single order. He lies and steals, but he does so not to get rich or benefit himself but rather ‘to disturb the established categories of truth and property and, by so doing, open the road to possible new worlds’. The trickster creates new experiences: he reveals the possible within seemingly fixed and moral orders.

What we can add to Hyde’s account now is the fact that what the trickster reveals is the continued existence of the element of chaos. The cosmogonies make it clear that all existence comes from the overcoming of an originary chaos, and that the continuance of that order and life requires the re-enactment of this chaoskampf by heroic gods. The trickster myths, however, show that this chaos survives all around us. Here it sheds its dangerous, anguine form to manifest itself instead in the everyday animals with whom we pit our wiles – the birds, coyotes, rabbits and foxes with whom we compete for life, land and game. These are never finally defeated, but use their cunning and wit to evade our traps and play their own tricks back on us. These minor spirits frustrate us in life but we respect them for their survival: we admire their defiance and tell stories of their games. Most importantly we have a respect for the trickster and laugh along with their antics.

To illustrate this we can take one example – that of Sun Wukong, the ‘Monkey King’, a leading character in Wu Cheng’en’s classic 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. Based on the real-life journey of the Chinese Buddhist monk Xuanzang from 626-645 CE as recorded in his Great Tang Records on the Western Regions, the novel tells the story of the monk Tripitaka’s journey from China to India to bring back sacred Buddhist texts. Journey to the West, however, is a very different text to Xuanzang’s: part comic folklore, part Buddhist tract, it tells the story too of the spirit-gods who help the monk on his way – the banished heavenly spirits Zhu Bajie (or ‘Pigsy’), Sha Wujing (‘Sandy’) and Sun Wukong (‘Monkey’) – beginning with the story of how Monkey was subdued and forced to aid Tripitaka’s quest.

Journey to the West opens with a rock that, under the influence of heaven and earth and sunshine and moonlight, becomes magically pregnant, giving birth to a stone egg that develops into a stone monkey ‘complete with every organ and limb’. For his bravery in finding them a cave home, the other monkeys proclaim him ‘Handsome Monkey King’ but this isn’t enough. Desiring to cheat death he travels to find a master from whom he learns the secret of immortality and the seventy two transformations. Growing in magical power his actions – including striking out his own name in the file carried by the servants of death – angers the Jade Emperor of Heaven who commands his presence. When informed of this request Monkey replies ‘That’s very convenient, I have been thinking lately of making a little trip to heaven!’

The Emperor tries to make the impudent Monkey behave by giving him a job in heaven, but Monkey rejects the menial rank of stable-groom and returns home. The Emperor tries to have him arrested but Monkey fights off the Emperor’s emissaries until the Emperor agrees to award him the title he wants – ‘Great Sage, Equal of Heaven’. ‘I hope we shall have no more nonsense’, the Emperor says afterwards, whilst those appointed to attend him in his newly-built heavenly offices beg him not ‘to get in any way excited or start again on his pranks’. Monkey, inevitably, wreaks havoc in heaven. Appointed by the Emperor to look after his peach garden he helps himself to the magical peaches, absorbing all their powers, then he gatecrashes a banquet to which he hadn’t been invited, drugs the attendants, and drinks all the Emperor’s wine. Hiding in the house of Lao Tzu he steals and drinks his elixir, ‘the highest treasure of the immortals’, before fleeing heaven for his home cave.

Enraged, the Emperor cordons off the mountain and orders Monkey be captured. Monkey, ‘all alone, cudgel in hand’, fights off successive waves of heaven’s forces, much to the Emperor’s annoyance: ‘This is preposterous! Am I to believe that a single monkey-spirit is so powerful that a hundred thousand heavenly troops cannot deal with him?’ Captured, finally, by Lao Tzu’s snare, the attempted execution fails, as does Lao Tzu’s attempt to reduce him in his crucible. Instead the immortal Monkey flees and, armed again with his cudgel, runs amok in heaven. Eventually Buddha manages to trick Monkey and buries him under a mountain for 500 years, releasing him only when he agrees to help Tripitaka in his quest. The rest of the book tells the story of the journey of Tripitaka, Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy and their successful return of the scriptures to China. At the end, for his embrace of the great faith, for overcoming monsters and demons on the journey and for overcoming his selfishness Monkey is rewarded by Buddha by being made ‘the Buddha victorious in strife’.

This is how the book ends but I didn’t learn about Monkey from the book. I first learned about him at 6pm on 16th November 1979 when BBC2 broadcast the first episode of Monkey, a Japanese TV adaptation, made by Nippon TV from 1978-80 and dubbed into English by the BBC with dialogue written by David Weir. The opening credits remain seared into the minds of a generation. A voice-over tells the story of the birth of Monkey from a stone egg, excitedly exclaiming ‘the nature of monkey was … irrepressible!’ as a man in a bad monkey suit bursts from it, to hang in mid-air. A disco theme-song then explodes over a fast-cut montage of clips introducing the main characters:

Born from an egg on a mountain top,

Funkiest Monkey that ever popped,

He knew every magic trick under the sun,

Tease the Gods and everyone can have some fun.

Monkey magic, Monkey magic,

Monkey magic, Monkey magic,

Monkey magic, Monkey magic ooh!


What followed was a remarkable, formulaic nightmarish concoction of a show, following an unpalatable group of heroes on an endless journey fighting hideous monsters and demons, the whole accompanied by huge 1970s sideburns, badly-dubbed ‘oriental’ accents, poor special effects and a voice-over delivering inscrutable cod-philosophical wisdom of dubious provenance as a weekly moral lesson. What captured the audience’s heart, however, was the regular dose of frenetically-choreographed martial arts. A generation too young for Bruce Lee thrilled to the sight of Monkey’s twirling staff, all to the disco-beat of ‘Monkey Magic’. As a lecturer in media I’m now aware of the fact that audience reception is contextual and complex and that there’s no causal link between screen violence, for example, and violence enacted by those who’ve seen it, but the simple fact is that the moment I saw Monkey I picked up a broom handle and proceeded to whirl it at and whack anything and anyone I could find.

It is unlikely, of course, that this was the effect Wu Cheng’en was aiming for when he wrote Journey to the West. It was designed as a Buddhist text, to show the error of Monkey’s egotistical, stupid ways, the superiority of Buddha, and the importance of following the true way, but this isn’t what we get from the book at all. For most readers the moral lesson fails when confronted with the sheer delight of Monkey and his antics. Indeed, subsequent translations and adaptations (such as Arthur Waley’s 1942 English edition and Nippon TV’s show) demonstrate how much the Buddhist morality has been eclipsed, in ignoring the journey and its enlightenment and simply renaming the text after Sun Wukong himself. For it is Monkey that is the real hero of the book.

Though this, perhaps, does him a disservice. In late 1970s pop culture I had no shortage of ‘heroes’ to root for: whether in UK shows like Dr Who and Blake’s 7, the cast of Battle, Action and 2000AD comics, or US TV imports such as The Man From Atlantis, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Incredible Hulk and Star Trek. It hadn’t been long since Star Wars had hit my local cinema and cast the shadow of its dualistic cosmic war between the dark side and light over every other film and TV show. But Monkey was different. Monkey wasn’t a hero. Even his help wasn’t voluntary, being enforced by Tripitaka using a pain-inducing golden head-band. The trickster Monkey wasn’t a moral agent of good: he was an amoral agent of chaos and this is why we loved him.

In Chinese thought the idea that the hierarchy in heaven was a replica of the government on earth was widely accepted, hence Monkey’s enduring appeal as a folk-hero. Monkey is anti-order: he is anti-authoritarian and anti-bureaucratic. He defies heaven, pricks its pomposity, refuses its appointments and duties, ignores its rules, steals its treasures, inflates his own status and position, implicitly mocking the titles of the officials and gods, and finally faces down its entire armies and might. It is Monkey we root for when we read the book or watch the show, not the Jade Emperor, Buddha or Tripitaka. We care little for the quest, or about the journey to enlightenment or the moral lessons along the way. All we care about are the pranks, the tricks, the fighting, the joking, the arrogance, the impudence, the anarchy of Monkey.

Hence what the trickster tales ultimately reveal is not simply the continued existence of the element of our chaos, but our desire for it. For all our obedience to authorities and their hierarchy we enjoy their tail being tweaked more; for all our own conformity to power we love to see its commandments flouted; for all the respect we show to its post-holders we revel in their humiliation and public derision; for all our fear at any break in the natural order of the world we take huge pleasure in disruption and disorder. Thus the trickster is significant not just for what it tells us about the character of the troll, but, more importantly, for what it tells us about ourselves. Because the point is we love the trickster. Our pleasure at their jokes and antics and our identification with them against the forces of authority shows that, truth be told, we’re on the side of the trickster. For all the moral outrage – and press campaigns – the established and invested authorities can whip up against those who misbehave and those who challenge the dominant values and order, we should never forget that it is these figures whose life we sing in our most favoured tales. Because the trickster is our secret soul. It is who we really would most like to be and if we can’t be them then we’ll watch them and laugh along with them. For theirs is the fundamental ability to play with power and make us smile; a talent perhaps never better expressed than in the disposable pop of the ‘Monkey Magic’ theme-tune: ‘Tease the gods and everyone can have some fun’.






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