By Allyson Trainor
Trickster gods and heroes have been exerting a considerable influence on people throughout history. Although they may not be real entities, their stories and characters have been passed down through generations, evolving and affecting entire cultures in different ways. Whether it be in the form of Gwydion, the Celtic trickster who brought poetry back from the Underworld, Robin Hood, the classic outlaw hero, or Walter Tracey, a highwayman who was executed in 1634, people seem to love creating stories around the idea of a clever, albeit morally ambiguous hero. Walter Tracey reflects the trickster god and outlaw hero tradition in folklore and literature as a highwayman; how his life is recounted in The Newgate Calendar illustrates a continuing fascination with the outlaw hero in the 18th century. Possible reasons for this fascination allow us to form tentative conclusions about the sociocultural context in which these people—the criminals, as well as their biographers—were living.
By the time the 18th century was getting into full swing, people would have been steeped in the lore of trickster gods and outlaw heroes. While Christianity was the major religion of the times, there was still an awareness of pagan traditions, especially considering both the classical focus on Greek and Roman societies of the Renaissance, and the Celtic and Irish heritages that many people in England had ties to. We can see this in the numerous references to pagan characters in the literature of the times. By looking at literature by Shakespeare, Jonson, and Behn, to give three examples from many, one can see the heavy influence of classical Roman and Greek religious characters in the cultural consciousness of the times before and during the 18th century. As well, there is considerable borrowing from Celtic folklore. For example, in Irish folklore, the pooka was a trickster spirit that would do “great hurt to benighted travellers”, but could also be friendly, and help with work in certain circumstances. This myth is said to have inspired the English “puck” (and everyone’s favourite fairy from A Midsummer Night’s Dream).
As well as knowledge of the ancient trickster gods, there were also more recent interpretations of the trickster themes in outlaw hero stories such as those of Robin Hood. While the ballads of Robin Hood would have been around for some time by the 18th century, they continued to be elaborated on and published in chapbooks and broadsides throughout the 18th century. The Robin Hood tales would have been integrated as part of the cultural consciousness, with the idea of an outlaw hero as an opposition to a courtly one being well-known.
These tricksters and outlaw heroes share similar characteristics. They use shape-shifting or disguises, they can sometimes teach moral lessons unconventionally, and they are often charming and highly intelligent. These are all characteristics have been attributed to highwaymen in the 18th century.
The highwayman, also known as a “knight” or “gentleman of the road,” was more than a common thief; he was practically an aristocrat. The highwayman was highly romanticized in the 18th century imagination. He was a man of adventure, someone who had rebelled against the conventions of society and the necessary way of life. He was a wit, a man who would rob you blind, but say “please” first. It isn’t a far stretch to say that the highwayman, for someone of the 18th century, embodied the same elements that made tricksters and outlaw heroes so salient to those in earlier times.
As far as highwaymen go, Walter Tracey’s story seems to be the embodiment of the trickster/outlaw hero character in the 18th century. His story is rife with trickster elements: he is a clever, morally ambiguous character, filled with duplicity and the seemingly opposing characteristics that make a trickster so interesting.
Tracey was born into a rich family and expected to work in the Church. He went to Oxford, and promptly “joined in extravagancies which far exceeded his income.” He and his friends became highwaymen as a way of bringing in more money, and were kicked out of the university as a result. Tracey then went to the Cheshire countryside to work for a wealthy farmer. He quickly gained popularity as an attractive, intelligent, and charismatic young man whose “friendship was courted by every one.” As well, he was an incredible fiddler; Charles Johnson describes in The History of the Lives and Action of Most Famous Highwaymen how “he was a great proficient in music and singing; and often, after the toils of the day, would the villagers assemble at his master’s door, and measure their gay steps to the sound of his violin.” Tracey was also credited with prophetic powers while in Cheshire when he correctly guessed which young lady in a group of eight was no longer a virgin. While in Cheshire, Tracey married a wealthy farmer’s daughter, but soon “decamped,” leaving her with child and taking his newly acquired riches with him to London.
In London, Tracey stayed at the Rose and Crown Inn. When he entered the inn, “he observed more than a usual stillness,” and discovered three people quarrelling when he went upstairs to explore. The story is recounted here (halfway down the page), and results in Tracey teaching the three a lesson using somewhat morally ambiguous means. The way in which he goes outside the law to solve a quarrel is reflective of the outlaw hero.
Another adventure involving Tracey describes how he is duped by a young student who realizes Tracey’s profession while they are traveling together, which can be read here. The tricking of a trickster is actually quite common in trickster lore, and can also be seen in Robin Hood, as when, in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne, Robin is tricked by Guy into believing that Guy is
another forester (87).
The final adventure related in The Newgate Calendar about Tracey is when he robs Ben Jonson, a famous poet and playwright of the time. Upon the robbery, Jonson is alleged to have suddenly composed poetry at his attacker, saying,
Fly, villain, hence, or by thy coat of steel
I’ll make thy heart my leaden bullet feel,
And send that thrice as thievish soul of thine
To Hell, to wean the devil’s valentine.
Jonson wasn’t expecting Tracey to reply, but Tracey quoted right back at him:
Art thou great Ben? or the revived ghost
Of famous Shakespeare? or some drunken host
Who, being tipsy with thy muddy beer,
Dost think thy rhymes will daunt my soul with fear?
Nay, know, base slave, that I am one of those
Can take a purse, as well in verse, as prose,
And when thou art dead write this upon thy hearse,
‘ Here lies a poet who was robbed in verse.’
This really shows the trickster side of Tracey, who defeats Jonson at his own game and succeeds in robbing him of not only his money, but also his pride. Tracey is revealed to be a great wit who doesn’t appear in the text to turn to violence, just to words. The idea that Tracey could be smarter than his learned counterpart is definitely one to consider in the face of the 18th century culture.
The point of all this comparison is not that Walter Tracey really was a reincarnation of some Irish trickster god, or the embodiment of Gwydion, or the pooka, or a Roman or Greek god. In fact, it’s quite dubious that half the things accredited to Tracey actually happened in such dramatic detail. The point is that Tracey’s story has been portrayed, in the Newgate Calendar and in other publications around that era detailing his trial, as such: the account is less of a look at a criminal that has been punished, and more of a story about a clever man. The story is portrayed as a cohesive, sometimes humorous, and overall entertaining story of an outlaw hero. Tracey is a trickster who has been caught, but not before teaching morally questionable lessons (with the people at the inn), donning disguises (with the young student), and showing opposing characteristics (with his wife and the people in the countryside). Tracey’s capture and execution is mentioned in only one or two lines in every one of the publications that mention him. This really shows how the emphasis is on Tracey’s life; his crimes are made to seem like adventures, and since they take up so much more space, there doesn’t seem to be any real punishment for what he’s done.
Realizing this, we’re left with a question: how is the way Walter Tracey’s life was documented reflective of the spirit of the 18th century?
The 18th century was a time of adventure, exploration, and a plethora of new ideas. Science, art, and literature were exploding into new areas. Colonization was beginning. People everywhere were trying to innovate. Although Tracey goes about his endeavours in a morally ambiguous way, he is still a creative, intelligent, and adventurous man. His undertakings were dangerous, they were unconventional, and they represented the path not taken. Presenting them as such allowed for an escape into another life, one of invention, not convention. The trickster was a way of representing the creative side of the 18th century mindset, the one that was willing to buck tradition and pursue adventure.
As well as being a time of adventure, the 18th century was also a time of great class distinction, especially around Tracey’s time. In London, the poor and the rich were highly stratified, but because of the layout of the city, they were often quite close together. The idea of constructing Tracey as an outlaw hero, someone who can escape the rigid laws of society and still be a “gentleman,” who is smart enough to outwit Jonson, but yet will listen (somewhat) to a young man’s plea that he will have no money for school, seems to show how constructing Tracey as a trickster/outlaw hero works in relation to the society in which he was written.
Whether or not Tracey really did have any of the adventures that we read about in The Newgate Calendar, the way that they were documented is telling of the society in which he was written. The notion of Tracey as a trickster allows us to find the elements in the 18th century culture that support the characteristics of the trickster archetype. By looking at the construction of one man’s life story, we can explore an entire society.
For more information: