On Christmas Eve, a lot of little kids all over the world are, as we speak, awaiting the arrival of the Jolly Old Elf, himself, to descend down their chimneys and place toys in their stockings and under their trees. As much as we enjoy the mythology of Kris Kringle/Saint Nick, at the end of the day, he’s kiiiiiiinda breaking and entering. I’m not saying that to be a Grinch or anything, but there’s a reason we like Santa so much, I think. When we consider all of his magic and wonder and strange choice of home-base (with apologies to aurora borealis), he only gets one night to make a miracle. He’s gotta do it fast. And people gotta believe in him and set out the “cookies ‘n s***” to the only myth/man/legend who does a year’s worth of work in one day. He’s got helpers and a sweet ride and a doting wife, and despite all the screaming children sitting in his lap in the mall, I don’t really know anybody who’s got actual beef with Santa. Sure, his methods are unorthodox but, hey, they work. And century after century, characters like a “mischievous,” bearded dude dropping off toys down a chimney endure, because at the end of the day, what other day in the year can compare to the glamour of Christmas Eve—anticipation, moral desert, and family values all seem to be at their best and even super grumpy over-worked people usually don’t try to ruin the experience for a kid. Except for Jimmy Kimmel.
I have long been interested in the trickster archetype in folklore and mythology. I especially enjoy spotting a trickster in contemporary narratives without Pan’s pipes, Robin Goodfellow’s potions, the red and black of Papa Legba, or the toothy grin of Br’er Rabbit. They’re my favorite kinds of stories to hear—a characters who gives the “good guys” a reason to wake up in the morning. Alan Watts’s phrase “the element of irreducible rascality” is definitely a favorite from his lectures—this element is essentially a Salt Bae’s pinch of salt in the stew of life. Too much and it’s ruined. Too little and it’s tasteless. The cosmos literally couldn’t function without this quality. Rascality is ingenuity, inspiration, a jazz riff, a blue note, the secret ingredient Big Mama will take to her grave, the governing principle of “Enso” as best summed up in the seminal film, The Forbidden Kingdom: ”Learn the form but seek the formless.” This guy’s definition is actually really quite good on the matter…
There’s a reason why films like Suicide Squad are increasingly popular. We send the bad guys to go after the badder guys, you know why? Bad guys have a savagery and sense of humor to help us collectively let off some steam. We are identifying more with that irreducible element of rascality increasingly in this first quarter of the 21st century, I think, because we’ve tried it the Baby Boomer way. We’ve gotten our degrees and we’re gainfully employed and we’ve got just enough to do, just enough to bitch about, and our lives are increasingly dull when we’re not on. Even social media is just part of the periwinkle blue wallpaper now, so when we crave a bit of solar-system formation in our lives, we turn to the tricksters. They’re the guys (and gals) we can’t take our eyes off of because we never know what they’ll do or show up as next—tricksters are also usually lightweight shapeshifters—the Doctor of course, Merlin, Tam Lin, Nanny McPhee or Mary Poppins, Doc Holliday, The Dude, Sherlock Holmes, Willy Wonka, Loki, Gonzo, the Goblin King, Tumnus, Riddick, Anansi, genies, leprechauns…and of course, Bad Santa. I could make cases for a whole bunch more.
The guy I’m currently very interested in isn’t so much a guy as it is a moon. Meet Umbriel.
He’s a particularly dark moon, one of Uranus’s 27, and in true trickster offbeat fashion, he’s the only one named after a character not found in Shakespeare’s works. Nobody knows why Umbriel is so dark. They named it Umbriel in keeping with the Latin word, “umbra” which equates to “shadow,” after a “dusky, melancholy” sprite in Alexander Pope’s (very odd) satirical poem, “The Rape of the Lock.” They even named his craters, which at the top, they call that one Wunda (named after a shade in aboriginal mythology), and no one really knows why that particular is so glowed up. Also, Umbriel always faces his dad, so he’s also called Uranus II. Umbriel spends 42 years in complete darkness in his orbit and then 42 in complete light. He’s about as wonky a moon you could have and yet, he’s still considered one of Uranus’s major five moons.
It’s no small wonder I gravitate (heh) towards a wise-guy moon like Umbriel. The first character I ever fell in love with wasn’t Aslan. It was Mister Tumnus. And who found him? A curious girl who couldn’t resist peeking into a slightly ajar door. And in some way, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Umbriels in my life—the people who keep me guessing, who manage to surprise me or catch me off guard in palatable doses (very hard to do, mind you), people who I can’t entirely read or predict, whose company I enjoy because I know it’s most likely going to be memorable. And story-junkie that I am, I can’t resist that whiff of memorable about a person. I had a complicated relationship with a guy off and on in my early twenties (as you do) who, when I asked why he never seemed to really settle down with anybody (obvs, now I know a lot more about the mating habits of Libras, lol), he shrugged and said he didn’t want to be the guy that women grew to hate or become disappointed in. He wanted to be the guy who they thought back to when they were with their boring-ass boyfriends and husbands one day and speculate, “Yeah. That guy was alright. He wasn’t always around but when he was, he was fun.”
I mean, I guess it takes all kinds right? And thinking back now, it’s like, well yeah. Mission accomplished. That’s exactly how I think of him. He still answers to the pet name I gave him. I still have the S.W.A.T. knife he sent me off to my first stint of grad school with and showed me how to use it. I still quote him in poems. And he remains the only former love interest who’s now a friend who texts me on my birthday, every. Year. He never forgets. And if I still want to ask him about zombie apocalypse prepping or pop into town and get a hug and a shoulder-squeeze because I need to know somewhere in the world somebody still makes sense, he’s probably one of those rare fixed points in time in my life that I’ll never, ever, ever regret.
And yet, he’s a monarch trapped beneath archival glass in my mind. The same exigency that keeps it preserved is the very thing that robs it of its butterfly-ness—life.
The one thing, paradoxically, that I think folks love best about the irreducible rascals in our lives is that they are as much fixtures as the good guys. We can always depend on their wonky orbit to mix things up for us. I mean…Umbriel is one of Uranus’s major five planets. He always faces Dad. They basically named him, Junior. What is Neverland without Pan? What is Narnia without Tumnus? What is Wonderland without the Hatter? Oz without the Wizard? LOTR without Gollum? Arthur without Merlin?
Maybe I’m romanticizing those characters too much because there are plenty who just show up with a bag full of crazy instead of toys, but all I know is that we’d miss them if they were gone, the not knowing if what they’ve got to say or do is gonna cure us or kill us…because somewhere in each of us, we’ve got a rascal inside too that’s down to find out.