From Mischief to Hero: Examining Kancil’s Role as a Trickster

Si Kancil is a beloved folklore character that is described by H. Kernone of the many Dutch scholars in literature who studied Kancilas the trickster of the Javanese (Danandjaja, 1984, p. 88). Si Kancil exists as a verbal folklore, something that Sims & Stephens (2011) describes as “any kind of lore involving words, whether set to music, organized in chronological story form, or simply labeling an activity or expressing a belief with a word or phrase” (p. 12). As a prominent verbal folklore belonging to the Javanese folk group, Si Kancil has flourished for centuries among the Javanese society, and hopefully will remain relevant to them in the future. 

The reason why we found Si Kancil tales exciting is mainly due to the baffling, multilayered nature of the trickster character. The trickster character could contain a compendium of oppositesthat is, being both ”simultaneously an omniscient creator and an innocent fool, a malicious destroyer and a childlike prankster” (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017), at the same time. However, these ambivalent characteristics that are ever-present in Si Kancil contain the possibility of communicating mixed values to its readerthe most conspicuous being the mixing up of morality and immorality, whose boundaries are often blurred throughout the various versions of the story. There are instances where the Si Kancil lores are perceived as heavy with moral lessons that are often pedagogic despite the titular character itself encompassing grey morality; committing crimes such as stealing, lying, and tricking other animals, and oftentimes betraying his allies. We will see how Si Kancil conveys these mixed values to its readerseither as the moral agent Hero or the immoral Mischiefand how that reflects the Javanese society.

Si Kancil’s Duality as Both Mischief and Hero 

Here are two Kancil stories in which he established himself as the Mischief and the Hero:

  1. The Mousedeer Steals Cucumbers: Kancil as the Mischief 
 

This particular story could be considered as the most iconic Kancil story among the Javanese. Despite being a popular version, here he does not play his role as the “moral agent” but instead exhibits his prominent characteristics as a prankster. This story highlights his wit and deceit as he tries to get out of his act of theft. The story goes like this: 

A troubled farmer, whose cucumber field is wrecked by an unknown animal, puts up a scarecrow coated by glue to catch the cucumber thief. The trap manages to catch the cucumber thief, who is none other than Kancil, and Kancil ends up being caged in the farmer’s house. Afterwards, he devised a plan to break through the farmer’s cage, that is, by utilizing the farmer’s dogs’ slow wit. 

 

Figure 1: Screenshot by author from Educa Studio (2019).

The next part is written by Surasdi (1985) and translated by Carpenter (1992) in her journal: 

“The next morning, the farmer came and put the Kancil into a cage. Later, the farmer’s dog came to taunt the Kancil, but the Kancil took the offensive. “Hey, dummy” he said. “Have you noticed all the goings on around this house lately?” “No,” the dog said. 

“No? How could you not notice? Great preparations are being made for a grand feast, because tomorrow I am to be married to the farmer’s daughter. He’s keeping me in this special house to meditate before the ceremony. Don’t you wish you could marry with the farmer’s daughter? There will be great feasting and festivities.” 

“Yes, I wish I could marry with the farmer’s daughter” said the dog, enviously. “Well, all you have to do is trade places with me” said the Kancil helpfully. “When the farmer comes here tomorrow, he’ll marry you to his daughter instead of me.” So, of course, the dog opens the cage and gets inside, and the Kancil escapes.” (Carpenter, 1997, p. 113-114) 

This particular story highlights Kancil’s individuality as a prankster; that is, he will not hesitate to betray others for his own gain. He acts alone and his egotistical nature allows him to not put other animals’ or humans’ situations into consideration. The story ends with Kancil, as powerless as he is, managing to overpower the authority symbolized by the farmer and the dog; and by doing that, establishing himself as a rebel icon.

  1. The Mousedeer and the Fable of the Crocodile and the Buffalo: Kancil as the Omniscient Hero 
 

In contrast to the previous story, which portrays the Kancil as a clever yet powerless animal, this story embodies the Kancil’s characteristic as the wise animal equipped with authority. These kinds of stories are more suitable for teaching moral values since Kancil here has the power to “punish” the evil animal for their misbehavior while also standing up for the wronged animal as their Hero. The story, which is also written by Surasdi (1985) and translated by Carpenter (1997), goes like this:

Figure 2: Screenshot by author from Les Copaque (2019) 

“It’s a really hot day. Crocodile takes shelter under a shady tree. Crocodile falls asleep because he is overtaken with exhaustion. Suddenly a strong wind comes up. The shady tree falls down. The crocodile’s body is pinned down by the tree. The crocodile moans in pain. The crocodile cries. The crocodile tries to call for help. Luckily, a water buffalo passes by. The crocodile asks the buffalo for help. The buffalo feels sorry seeing the crocodile. The buffalo lifts the tree from the body of the crocodile. The crocodile can breathe freely. The body of the crocodile feels light again. The crocodile doesn’t express any thanks. In fact, the crocodile asks for more help from the water buffalo. The crocodile wants to be carried across to the other side of the river. The buffalo is ready to help the crocodile again. The buffalo carries the crocodile. The buffalo crosses the river. Suddenly, the buffalo is stunned. The buffalo’s back is being bitten by the crocodile! The buffalo squeals for help. Luckily, a mouse-deer comes along. The mouse-deer wants to see a re-enactment of events. So, the crocodile goes back to the first place. The crocodile is carried to the fallen tree. The fallen tree is placed on top of the crocodile’s body again. The crocodile complains about bearing this burden. Mouse-deer lets the crocodile be squashed by the fallen tree. The water buffalo is allowed to witness it. The buffalo is not allowed to help again. Mouse-deer points to the crocodile. That is the result of the scheming crocodile’s deeds. The crocodile who doesn’t know how to return a favor (Surasdi 1985b)” (Carpenter, 1997, p.122-123)

In this story, Kancil is the symbol of authority, intelligence, and order. Carpenter (1997) points out how his existence is magnified into some sort of omniscience: “He “just happens” to come along when the crocodile and the buffalo need someone to settle their dispute.” (p. 125). The moral values are pretty explicit: justice will be served, good will prevail and evil deeds will not go unpunished eventually.

Interpreting the Values Projected by the Javanese Folks to Kancil 

It was perhaps the uncontrollable situation around Kancil that forced him to be his amoral self. In a jungle full of danger at every turn, Kancil has no choice but to survive using his guile and artifice. In a way, he is the symbol of the Javanese man: Carpenter (1997) pointed out that Kancil is the “little man” caught up in forces he cannot control (p. 114). We know that it is not completely Kancil’s fault that he ended up in the situations that he was involved in, and wish that harmony and peace returns to his universe at the end of the story—because we identify with him, and seeing him getting back to his enemies is our revenge fantasy. There’s a reason that however unjustifiable and immoral Kancil’s action might be, he is rarely portrayed as “evil” or “the villain”—because he is the weak man trying to defy authority, and we see reflections of ourselves within him.

Any folklore is, to some extent, a reflection of the folk group that created it. Kancil is not an exception. Carpenter (1997) explains that although the characteristics that the Kancil exhibit is oftentimes unsavory to members of other cultures (stealing, betraying, lying, etc), there are always alternative interpretations to them that represent traditional values: “Kancil is always in control, he never runs amuck, he never creates chaos inadvertently. He is the master of the “surgical strike”-he carefully plots his revenge on tiger or crocodile, and directs the effects to them alone, not dragging in other animals inadvertently.” (p. 114-115). These are the characteristics Kancil encompass that the Javanese people happen to deem as noble. However, we may notice that Kancil is mellower and often portrayed as the moral agent nowadays; a phenomenon that Carpenter (1997) attributes to its “Pancasilacization” (p. 119). Kancil is chosen to be the protagonist of moral stories because he is popular—adults figured out that children would be more likely to listen to a character with a “naughty charm”—but recent stories ended up downplaying some of Kancil’s traits that are amoral; for example, Kancil’s bragging, betrayal, deceit, stealing, and etc will be either be modified or eliminated from the story. We ended up projecting our need for moral education in him, but we still can’t ever forget the existence of the ‘bad’ kancil, the one who truly reflects our true selves. That is why the Kancil in The Mousedeer Steals Cucumber is the most memorable for us. Kancil’s multifaceted nature adds to the depth and flavor of his stories, and if we take it away from him, he will become a bland moral police—something that we don’t generally enjoy. 

References 

Carpenter, K. (1992). Kancil: From Mischief to Moral Education. Western Folklore, 51(2), 111-127. doi:10.2307/1499360 

Danandjaja, J. (1984). Folklor Indonesia: ilmu gosip, dongeng, dan lain-lain. Jakarta: Pustaka Grafiti Pers. 

Educa Studio. (2019). Kancil dan Pak Tani | Dongeng Anak Bahasa Indonesia Sebelum Tidur | Cerita Rakyat Dongeng Nusantara [Screenshot by author]. Retrieved December 28, 2020 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=BlicXnuECUc

Les Copaque. (2013). Pada Zaman Dahulu: Sang Kancil & Kerbau [Screenshot by author]. Retrieved December 28, 2020 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLUXjUbNgQKnkdrt7yBxMNvJ-9T15Zujqp&v= A0QZbID29eo 

Sims, M. C., & Stephens, M. (2011). Living folklore: An introduction to the study of people and their traditions (2nd ed.). Logan, UT: Utah State University Press. 

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2017, June 21). Trickster tale. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved December 28, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/art/trickster-tale 

Van Duin, L. (2007). Anansi as Classical Hero. Journal of Caribbean Literatures, 5(1), 33-42. Retrieved December 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40986316

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