Boris Johnson as a figure in the folklore traditions of tricksters and unfortunate bargains

7th July 2021

Once upon a time my blog had a different name, and that name was Jack of Kent.

This was somewhat odd, as my name is not Jack and I am not from Kent (though I lived there at the time).

But in those days to give your blog a name was then a fashionable thing to do, like it once was to give yourself a calling name when CB radio was popular.

The Jack of Kent after whom the blog was named is a figure in the folklore of Wales and the west midlands counties.

You can read about the chap here.

In essence: he was was a figure who outwitted the devil by having careful regard to the actual wording of texts.

And so it seemed a good name for a legal blog.

Jack of Kent in turn was part of the folk tradition – and certainly not only in England and Wales – of stories about people caught in diabolical deals.

The tradition that had provided stories as diverse as Faust, Dorian Gray and Robert Johnson.

The unfortunate bargain is a staple of folklores and legends – with those entering into the bargains either suffering or, as in the case of Jack of Kent, irking the devil by holding the devil to its exact terms.


Another staple, of course, is the trickster – a figure who is in many (if not most) of the traditions around the world – Loki, Puck, Anansi, and so on.

Their trickery is, of course, general – and it is not limited to reneging on obligations.

But what is uncommon – at least to my knowledge – is a story when it is the trickster who unwittingly has got himself or herself into a bad bargain.

Frankly: it is usually the trickster – in devil form – who is the one enticing a gullible or ambitious victim into a deal.

So there may be little guidance in folklore for what would happen when it is the trickster themselves seeking to get out of the deal.

But now we have a real-life example, to make good the possible paucity of folklore versions.

We have the unfolding story of the trickster Boris Johnson and the Brexit agreement.

Of course, Johnson did not realise what he was getting into.

Fo him, a deal – ‘oven-ready’, as he boasted – was the casual tool for other trickery.

Tricks he played on the Conservative MPs whose votes he needed and on the Democratic Unionists, whose voted he realised he did not.

And a trick he played to gain an overall majority in December 2019, with his solemn promise to get Brexit done.

Any problems about this deal were then safely in the future.

But those problems are here now – and they cannot be escaped with his usual bluster and evasions.

An international agreement was signed, and mere trickery will not get him out of it.


What now?

A Loki may be able to change their nature – at least according to current retellings – but it is doubtful that a Boris Johnson can.

The best scenario is that the trickster fails and is seen to fail – and the story of Brexit can become in part an uplifting morality story about the futility of facile politics.

But there are other possibilities: that the trickster responds with ever-greater tricks – more diversions and misdirections, more lies – creating something that lends itself to a tragedy, or an epic – and not to a mere quaint folklore tale.

Brace, brace.


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22 thoughts on “Boris Johnson as a figure in the folklore traditions of tricksters and unfortunate bargains”

  1. Perhaps the end result of Johnson’s Brexit trickery will be a very literal Brexit.

    Brexit = Britain Exits… from the pantheon of the world’s nations.

    Once the Scots have been driven to independence by this Tory government’s antics, there will no longer be such thing as ‘Britain’ in terms of a political entity.

    Brexit then really would mean Brexit – a cautionary tale indeed.

    Still, at least they all knew what they were voting for.

  2. There are numerous stories of similar form to Rumpelstiltskin, which are another parallel to Johnson. R offers to achieve the impossible – spin straw into gold – like J offers to get Brexit done. But it goes wrong when try to take their reward. R thinks he has tied up the bargain to his advantage, but discovers it wasn’t such a clever trick after all. Just like J.

    Loki came to a bad end too.

      1. (Though I suppose we should be grateful for the small mercy that we are being ruled by Crumplestiltskin rather than Trumplestiltskin.)

    1. If you remember, one of the catches in the story of Rumpelstiltskin was that the young girl had to guess his name.

      It roughly translates into English as “Crinkly foreskin”.

      1. This suggestion seems to come from a similar box to the mythical “Captain Pugwash” characters, as “Rumpelstiltskin” is an Anglicisation of the German “Rumpelstilzchen” and

        Wikipedia says it may be something to do with rattling sticks, and the OED suggests it is possibly a reference to a club-footed person – rumpeln+Stülz

        But perhaps you can find entry in a German dictionary to prove any kind of connection with foreskins?

        1. Spoilsport!

          Alas, what you describe is the conventional story behind the name. I have seen somewhere that “Stiltskin” was — or could have been — street argot for foreskin, but I’m not really sure if this is correct.

          Apologies DAG, for this childish and very off-topic diversion.

      2. It’s just occurred to me that the tale of Rumpelstiltskin might have been an influence on the Christmas episode of Father Ted, wherein Mrs Doyle has to guess the name of a mysterious priest who turns up at the parochial house. (After an hour of random names she eventually correctly guesses at ‘Todd Unctious’, although in the end it transpires he’s a fraudster of unknown name who was playing the priests along.)

        Sorry, that was completely off-topic. Anyway, I’m off now to watch the footie*

        (*Craggy Island vs. Rugged Island)

  3. Stating the obvious, the trickster Johnson will try to resist with all his might the bringing forward of the Covid enquiry (I digress). Should the pressure for him to do so continue (Labour are you listening?) and what’s more succeed, then the best ever scenario will follow. His failure and all his failings will be visible to all. Perhaps even himself.

  4. The trickster has by definition to have innocents to trick (in the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the first time it was the rats, but the second time it was their children). Given the Tories / Johnson’s lead in the polls it seems there are still plenty of voters willing to be gulled again. You can fool some of the people all of the time…
    However, in your analogy surely it is the EU which represents Jack of Kent who will “irk the devil” by making Johnson stick to the letter of the NIP.

  5. One common problem for the trickster in folk tales is that eventually they meet someone even trickier, with disastrous consequences for them. Since Johnson has shown no sign of being able to make the ropes of sand that he promised, there’s every possibility that this won’t end well for him.

    And (spoiler alert) the Norse tales didn’t end well for Loki.

    1. And, without spoiler alerts, like how in Breaking Bad each successive bad character is startlingly even more evil than the one before.

  6. When you have ambition beyond you competence, you are usualy found out befor you do too much damage but, for a journalist responsible for providing entertaining comments, the truth is the first victim of many as his jokes become popular. Is Johnson also guilty of believing his own stories which served so well as propaganda? He now has to change before he is changed as PM otherwise his legacy will be more memorable than he wanted. The bad are always are first rembered, Jack the Ripper, Billy the Kid, Henry Tudor, King John, Nero. Who remembers St Abibus of Samosata, he is a saint, and must have done some good along with 1000’s of his colleagues

  7. That ‘devil may care’ attitude will be the death of many of the small people. It cannot be unreasonable to hope for a day of reckoning for Johnson and his journeymen.

  8. I fear Lord of the Flies is a better mythic guide to Brexit than Anansi the Spider. The scapegoat mechanism has been set in motion. Fancy assisting an asylum-seeker, anyone?

  9. The definition of tragedy is, of course, a tale of a ‘hero’ brought low by his own character flaws. At its best it is a hero brought low by what many would term virtues, but virtues that become destructive in particular circumstances.

    Johnson’s flaws are manifest but what are his virtues? I struggle with this, but I suppose he has a certain (if limited) creativity and ambition can be a virtue if it drives one to excellence. And these virtues do indeed drive a tragedy: his creativity is devoted to lies in the service of his ambition, his ambition is solely focussed on his own position and status with no vision to create or build something positive or lasting.

    Unfortunately this is a tragedy not just for Johnson but the nation as a whole.

  10. The question is what will Boris and supporters want to do next – and what will they be able to do.

    The Covid ‘let it rip’ strategy has been trawled many times among the rightists. Possibly the ‘granny count’ will not be too bad but UK numbers are headed opposite to France/Germany. That spells trouble. Probably leading to a ‘Oh well, write off 2021, it will all right by Spring 2022’. Boris may hope for better weather in 2022, Boris proposes, Covid disposes. A hostage to fortune.

    Economically the sunny uplands etc look a bit far off. Very slow burn. The direction of travel seems to be reducing UK labour costs and making conditions more onerous. I am thinking private sector provided Council Houses for rent. A Britain divided by economic position. Think Miss Marple’s England. Think 1930s.

  11. I fear that neither Boris, nor Frost, will seek a solution. They have engineered a situation in which enforcement of the EU single market is in the hands of the UK government. If people start sending unfrozen sausages (et al) to Northern Ireland, and thence to Eire, what can the EU do about it, if the UK government merely shrugs its shoulders? The end game could possibly be either a United Ireland, or a gradual erosion of the integrity of the Single Market. Would Boris – or Frost – or much of the Conservative Party – care? Could either of those outcomes actually be their objective?

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