Cunning Old Foxes I: Steed as Liminal Figure

Sing to me, O Muse, of the man of twists and turns….  
— Homer, The Odyssey, after the translation by Robert Fagles

The first in an occasional series about Steed as trickster.

The trickster of myth and legend is first and foremost a liminal figure. He does not inhabit the real social world, although he frequently visits it in order to employ his cunning and manipulate a situation to his own ends. (NB: I am using the masculine pronoun because tricksters most often present as male.) This requires a great deal of social flexibility, a flexibility that is born not only of an ability to playact and shapeshift, but also of a deep knowledge of the intricacies of social conventions, mores, gender roles, and other important frameworks within human cultures and societies. By using this cunning and flexibility, the trickster is able to cross a threshold – in Latin, the limen, the word from which “liminal” is derived – into the social world and to navigate other boundaries within the social spaces he chooses to visit (and disrupt).

Like the trickster of old, John Steed frequently operates as a liminal figure. In “Build a Better Mousetrap” he does this in a particularly subtle and elegant way, playing a game of identity that allows him to cross boundaries and inhabit liminal spaces with respect to the group of young bikers. (There are also some interesting liminal things happening with the Colonel and Caroline, but for now I’m just going to talk about the bikers.) Steed does this by taking advantage of conceptions of outgroup vs ingroup. Acknowledging his outsider status makes it possible to interact with them in a way that ultimately serves his own purposes. Even though he gains the bikers’ trust, at no time does he ever truly inhabit their world.

Cathy also crosses boundaries so that she can join the group of bikers, but unlike Steed she does not need to play off issues of class, gender, position relative to the patriarchy, or other aspects of identity as much as he does. Cathy can inhabit both the adult world on the one hand, and that of the young bikers on the other without having to negotiate the same kinds of boundaries that Steed must do in order to gain their trust and cooperation. Further, Cathy occupies an additional liminal space in that while she has been granted full membership in the bikers’ club, she also exists within Steed’s world as his assistant with his case.

Steed and the Bikers

The bikers have finished their ride for the day and are having a party in a barn that is connected to the pub where Steed and Cathy are staying during the case. Steed needs to find out what the bikers have been experiencing with respect to the weird electrical and mechanical failures in the neighborhood, and he suspects he’ll need their help later on. But he’s not part of the bikers’ world: he’s old enough to be a father to most of them, he’s not into motorcycling and jukeboxes and soda pop, he doesn’t dress or speak like them.

Steed, in his conservative tweeds and bowler hat, appears to represent “the establishment” – conventional society, the patriarchy, law and order, and the adult world – which the bikers see as antipathetic towards them and which, in this episode, is also represented by the Colonel in his persona as a retired army officer. Steed knows how the bikers see him, and he knows that barging in and making demands – which is what the bikers will expect from a representative of conventional adult patriarchy – will shut them up tighter than clams. He also knows that pretending to be like them is just as wrong-headed: that likely would be met with ridicule at best or seen as disrespectful at worst, and Steed can’t afford to lose their respect. He needs to find some way for them to accept him just enough that they’ll be willing to talk to him.

cunningoldfoxes-01-mousetrap-01Here, Steed places himself quite literally on the limen: he dances on the threshold to the barn, crossing and recrossing it with his umbrella, but not actually entering, himself. His goal in dancing is to draw attention to himself by emphasizing the incongruity between his persona as a very proper bowler-hatted gentleman and his attempt to boogie down to the music being played on the jukebox inside. Steed politely occupies a physical threshold, by waiting in the doorway for permission to enter. However, at the same time he transgresses a social threshold, by making it look like he’s trying to crash the party.

cunningoldfoxes-01-mousetrap-02The distraction proves effective. Dave, the leader of the gang, notices Steed and tells him politely that he’ll have to leave, since the party is for members only. Steed doesn’t leave, but he doesn’t protest, either. Instead he engages Dave in a conversation about motorcycles, and when Steed announces that he’s good friends with Tommy Mercer, a motorcycle designer Dave admires, Dave lets him in wiith a good will.

Steed now has crossed the physical threshold of the barn, but he still continues to inhabit a liminal space socially: he might have joined the party, but this does not grant him membership in the bikers’ club. Compared to the other bikers and to Cathy, Steed’s entree to the party is on entirely different – and, with respect to Steed’s friendship with Mercer, very likely fabricated – terms.

Although Steed uses a trickster’s guile to gain access to the bikers, he nevertheless treats them with the utmost courtesy, including showing his gratitude for being allowed to join them by springing for a round of drinks. Steed does not make assumptions about the bikers’ behavior or motives, but instead gets to know them himself and trusts Cathy to give him any additional information he might need. Because Steed continues to embrace his outsider status and neither bosses the bikers around nor condescends to them, he wins their respect.

cunningoldfoxes-01-mousetrap-03Even after he has this respect, Steed doesn’t presume upon it. When he needs their help, he acknowledges their competence by presenting his request as a challenge for their skill – which he sweetens with  a cash prize – not as a demand he could both rightly make and also force them to fulfill in his capacity as an agent for the Ministry.

By continuing to embrace his surface persona as a member of the establishment while at the same time treating the bikers with decency and respect for their skill and intelligence, Steed manages to successfully inhabit a liminal space between both those worlds. But perhaps more interestingly, Steed’s ability to persuade the bikers to help him draws them into Steed’s own present liminality, the space between the establishment – represented by the Ministry and national security – and the world of the motorcycle gang.

Cathy and the Bikers

cunningoldfoxes-01-mousetrap-04When the episode opens, we see Cathy and her new friends riding their motorcycles through the English countryside. They stop at a millhouse to ask directions of the two old ladies who live there. The old ladies shoo them away, threatening to put a spell on the young people. As a mature adult, Cathy might have shrugged and taken this in stride, but as a member of the biker gang, she shows that she is just as disappointed as they are. She doesn’t play reasonable grownup and try to mollify them, either.

cunningoldfoxes-01-mousetrap-05The motorcyclists give up on having the ride they wanted, and repair to the barn to dance and have something to drink. We see that Cathy is an accepted member of the group when one of the bikers hands her a drink. Steed watches her interact with the young people with delight and amusement.

Later we find out how Cathy came to be accepted as a member of this group. The gang has a motorcycling test called the “ton plus five.” They tell Steed that normally they wouldn’t have accepted someone Cathy’s age (she’s old enough to be mother to many if not all of them), except she aced the test and then some by doing the “ton plus ten,” and therefore is supremely qualified to ride with them.

Unlike Steed, who keeps his outsider status even as he uses it to his advantage, Cathy uses her qualities to actually join the group. Although according to the bikers’ ideas about age she practically has one foot in the grave, she dresses in leathers like they do, and she is a superb motorcyclist. In this way she can cross the threshold into their confidence in a way that is barred to Steed, who has no motorcycling skill and instead must convince the young people to overlook the way he presents as a member of the patriarchal establishment.

Cathy therefore occupies two liminal spaces with respect to the bikers, one based on age difference, and one based on her relationship to Steed, since on the one hand she is a full member of the club while belonging to the adult world, and on the other simultaneously inhabits Steed’s world and that of the bikers. In both cases, however, she has insider status in both worlds on an honest basis, whereas Steed cannot fully cross the bikers’ threshold and must employ a trickster’s skill to interact with them.

Originally posted on

A bibliographical whatnot: Charles LaSure, “What is Liminality?” (18 October 2005)

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