trickster

Cunning Old Foxes IV: Hiding in Plain Sight

But famed Odysseus’ men already crouched in hiding —
in the heart of Troy’s assembly — dark in that horse
the Trojans dragged themselves to the city heights.
Now it stood there, looming …
— Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles

Another in an occasional series about Steed as trickster.


Going under cover is one of the most important things that Steed does in his quest to capture the bad guys. Sometimes he goes under relatively deep cover, assuming an entire identity complete with back story and profession, sometimes even with an assumed name. He does this kind of cover most frequently during the Cathy Gale era, for example in “Death a la Carte,” where he poses as chef Sebastian Stonemarten in order to prevent the assassination of a Middle Eastern Emir, or in “Mission to Montreal,” where he pretends to be a steward called “Jim” on a cruise line while trying to stop the transfer of top secret material to the opposition. Most of the time, however, he goes under his own name, even if he is pretending to be something other than an agent of the Ministry, as he does in “Surfeit of H2O,” where he assumes the persona of a loopy, extravagantly gallant wine merchant in order to gain access to the baddies’ lair.

In cases like “Death a la Carte,” Steed doesn’t want to give away anything about his own true identity. Protecting the Emir depends on Steed staying well under cover, so he uses an assumed name and behaves entirely as though he were a normal chef. In other instances, as in “Surfeit of H2O,” it’s unclear the degree to which he wants to misdirect the baddies: his behavior in that particular instance is odd enough to make the secretary a bit suspicious, but it’s hard to tell whether or not Steed wants her to wonder what he’s really up to.

And then there are the episodes where he is working in a grey area between being under cover and tipping off the bad guys that he’s on to them, places where he hides in plain sight. Steed seems to have more than one reason for doing this: partly it’s just fun to tweak the villains’ noses and watch them flail as they try to figure out what he’s really after; but also he’s dropping hints along the way that he’s on to them, that their schemes are about to be exposed, thus giving them an opportunity to stop their bad activities and turn themselves in before he has to actively fight with them. Of course they never do stop, they never do turn themselves in, and I doubt very much that Steed expects them to even if on some level he hopes that they will.

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Cunning Old Foxes II: Vamping Steed

She’ll mix you a potion, lace the brew with drugs, but she’ll be powerless to bewitch you, even so.
– Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles

Another in an occasional series about Steed as trickster.


John Steed is a master trickster who well knows the efficacy of flirtation and sex appeal in dealing with the women he encounters when working a case. Sometimes he’s frank and friendly with them, at other times ridiculously gallant, inhabiting a character drawn with broad strokes.  Whichever persona he decides to employ, his behavior is always calibrated to the particular situation and the person with whom he is interacting. Because of his skill as an actor, and because he is usually able to correctly read his audience, he is often successful in getting the information he wants.

But what happens when Steed is the one being vamped? What happens when the master trickster is the intended victim of flirtation combined with deception and assumed identity?

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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).

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