Monday 17 April 2023

Naming and Identity in Myths, Legends, Fairy Tales & Fantasy

To begin near the beginning: the name Adam was originally not a proper name at all. In his book The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, the Hebrew scholar Robert Alter remarks of Adam’s first appearance in Genesis 1.26:

The term ’adam, afterwards consistently used with a definite article, which is used both here and in the second account of the origins of humankind, is a generic term for human beings, not a proper noun. It also does not automatically suggest maleness [...]. And so the traditional rendering “man” is misleading, and an exclusively male ’adam would make nonsense of the last clause of verse 27:

And God created the human [the ’adam] in his image,

in the image of God He created him,

male and female he created them.

In case you’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a ‘him’ right there in the second line,’ Alter adds:

In the middle clause of this verse, “him”, as in the Hebrew, is grammatically but not anatomically masculine. Feminist critics have raised the question as to whether here and in the second account of human origins, in chapter 2, ’adam is to be imagined as sexually undifferentiated until the fashioning of woman, though that proposal leads to certain dizzying paradoxes in following the story.

I love this and feel it could well be true: it’s a reminder that translating a word from one language to another is often far from straightforward. In the second chapter of Genesis, God fashions the ’adam from the ’adamah (‘the human from the soil’: an etymological pun) like a potter moulding a figure out of clay. ‘A person’ in French is une personne, grammatically feminine even if the person in question is male. French la table is feminine while German der tisch is masculine, but no one thinks tables are male or female. Grammatical gender need not and often does not correspond to biological gender. In any case, a clay figure has no biological gender. Whatever it looks like, it is asexual.

Name-giving is an act of power, 'deep magic from the dawn of time'. Even to speak is to exercise that power. Few of us choose our own names; they are given by our parents when we’re so young we can have no say in the matter, and as Adam and Eve ‘ruled’ over the animals, parents hold authority over their children. No matter how benevolent the relationship, this is probably why when children go to school, they often abbreviate their names or adopt nick-names. It’s a small act of self-assertion, part of the journey towards detaching themselves from parental rule. To change your name is in some way to change yourself.

This brings me to the Old Speech in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. In the first book, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ (above, see my much-read copy of 1971) the hero Ged, whose use-name is Sparrowhawk (a true name is kept secret) arrives at the Wizards’ School on the island of Roke to be sent with seven other apprentices to the Master Namer, Kurremkarmerruk, in the Isolate Tower.

No farm or dwelling lay within miles of the Tower. Grim it stood above the northern cliffs, grey were the clouds over the seas of winter, endless the lists and ranks and rounds of names that the namer’s eight pupils must learn. Amongst them in the Tower’s high room Kurremkarmerruk sat on a high seat, writing down lists of names that must be learned before the ink faded at midnight leaving the parchment blank again.

Hard as this is, Ged does not complain. ‘He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of each place, thing and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.’ He learns that the Old Speech is the speech of the Making, ‘the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world’ and still spoken by dragons. We never learn much about Segoy, but in this origin myth it’s Segoy’s naming that brings Earthsea into existence – just as in the Book of Genesis, God brings the world into existence.

God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. [...] And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.’ And God called the vault Heavens, and it was evening and morning, second day. And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear.’ And so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of the waters He called Seas...

In Genesis 2, in contrast to the order of creation in Genesis 1, God creates animals after having created the ’adam, bringing each one of them to the human ‘to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name.’ It’s as though, having created human beings ‘in his own image’, God delegates the naming of things to them. There’s a strong hint that the naming of things – language – is an integral part of human ‘rule’ over animals.  Names, or nouns, are single-word descriptions, the beginning of categorisation and a typically human and cerebral form of knowledge. When in prehistory did spoken languages begin? Probably we’ll never know, but the Language of the Making , the Words of Creation – is a powerful myth.

In learning the true names of things, Ged gains power over them, a power that should be used sparingly and never selfishly. He finds this out the hard way when prompted by pride and anger, he summons by her name the spirit of beautiful Elfarran, a thousand years dead. And she appears.

The shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

She is glimpsed only for a moment. Then the gap Ged has opened widens and rips ‘and through the bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face’, tearing and clawing him. It costs the life of the Archmage Nemmerle to close the gap, and for the rest of the book Ged is pursued by the shadow-beast he has let loose – until at last he has the self-knowledge to claim this darkness as himself and calls it by his own name.  


Many a medieval alchemist or renaissance doctor attempted to conjure up spirits using what they conceived to be the power of holy or unholy names. Katharine Briggs in ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ appends a spell from Bodleian MS. Ashmole (1406) ‘To Call a Fairy’, parts of which run:

I.E.A call the. Elaby: Gathan: in the name of the. father. of. the. son. and of the holy ghost. And. I Adjure. the. Elaby. Gathan: Conjure. and. Straightly. charge. and Command. thee. by. Tetragrammaton: Emanuell. Messias. Sether. Panton. Cratons. Alpha et Omega. [...] And. I. Conjure thee. Elaby. by. these. holy. Names. of God. Saday. Eloy. Iskyros, Adonay. Sabaoth. that thou appear presently. meekely. and myldly. in this glasse. without. doeinge. hurt. or. daunger. unto. me. or any other. livinge. creature...

Knowledge of the fairy’s name was only half the battle: the magician clearly felt the need of divine protection when it did appear. 

An even more egregious example is given by Reginald Scot in his scathing take-down of charlatans and superstition, ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’ (1584). Of many examples, he includes a ‘prayer’ (!) for binding and commanding angels ‘throwne downe from heaven’, which runs in part:

I require thee, O Lord Jesus Christ, that thou give thy virtue and power over all thine angels which were throwne downe from heaven to deceive mankind, to draw them to me, to command them to do all they can, and that [...] they obeie me and my saiengs, and fear me. [...] and I require thee, Adonay, Amay, Horta, Vegedora, Mitai, Hel, Suranat, Ysion, Ysesy, and by all thy holie names [...] that thou enable me to congregate all thy spirits throwne down from heaven, that they may give me a true answer of all my demands, and that they satisfy all my requests, without the hurt of my bodie or soule, or anything that is mine...

The word ‘require’ in the late 1580s hadn’t the force it has today; it meant something more like ‘request’ or ‘desire’ – but this magician is clearly attempting to bend Christ to his will by the use of the various ‘holy’ names he attributes to him, and through Christ to gain magical power over (and immunity from) devils. Talk about nerve! Some of the names look very made-up. ‘Vegedora’ sounds like a brand of soft margarine, but whatever is the Norse goddess of the underworld, Hel, doing in that list?

Besides summoning, it was of course possible to banish or exorcise an evil spirit, if you knew its name. In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5, Jesus casts out an ‘unclean spirit’ from a madman who was living ‘among the tombs’ and whom no one could restrain even with chains, for he broke them all. 

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him, and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you, by God, do not torment me.’ (For Jesus had already said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’) Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’ [...] Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding, and the unclean spirits begged [Jesus], ‘Send us into the swine.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine, and the herd ... rushed down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.

In his book on the New Testament, ‘Scripting Jesus’ (2010) L. Michael White points out that ‘the demon actually tries to exorcize Jesus by saying, “I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” The word usually translated “adjure” here is the Greek orkizein (“conjure”), just as was used in demon spells.’  So, ironically, this demon tries calling on the name of God to negate Jesus’ power. It is unable to resist when Jesus demands its own name.

Given the belief that you could conjure up demons or fairies by name, it’s unsurprising that magical characters in fairy tales and folklore often keep their names secret. If they were known, others would wield power over them. In ‘The Water-Horse of Varkasaig, a folktale from Skye, the dangerous water-horse is foiled of his prey (a young maiden) when the girl’s mother threatens to ‘cry his name to the four brown boundaries of the earth’ and to prove she can do it, whispers it in his ear. On hearing it, with a terrible shriek the water-horse plunges into the river and vanishes.

Rumpelstiltskin famously tears himself in two with rage when the young woman whose straw he has spun into gold guesses his name. Variants of the story are found across Europe, and many’s the hero or heroine who manages to wriggle out of similarly unwise bargains. In his 'Teutonic Mythology' Jacob Grimm tells how King Olaf of Norway (later Saint Olaf) hired a large troll or j√łtun to build him a fine church on the agreement that once it was finished, his payment should be the sun and moon, or else Olaf himself. Olaf set conditions which he thought the troll could not possibly meet: the church should be so large that seven priests could preach in it at once without disturbing one another, and the pillars and carvings were all to be made from the hardest flint. But soon the church was almost finished, with only the roof and spire left to complete. Understandably worried, Olaf ‘wandered over hill and dale, when suddenly inside a mountain he heard a child cry and a troll-woman lulling it: “Hush, hush! Thy father, Wind-and-Weather, will come home in the morning, and bring you the sun and moon, or else Saint Olaf himself!”’ Hurrying home in delight, for ‘the power of evil beings ceases when their name is known’, Olaf found the troll just placing the spire on the roof. ‘Vind och veder!’ he cried, ‘du har dat spiran sneder’ – ‘Wind and Weather! You’ve set the spire on crooked!’ – upon which the troll fell off the roof and burst into a thousand pieces. All variants include this accidental overhearing of the supernatural helper’s name. In a Danish version, St Olaf’s role is taken by one Esbern Snare (historically, a 12th century Danish chieftain and crusader), who hears a troll woman within a hill singing:

          ‘Lie still, baby mine!

Tomorrow comes Fin, father thine,

And giveth thee Esbern Snare’s eyes and heart to play with.’

It’s possible to feel rather sorry for the trolls or imps who lose their labour (or lives!) in this way. My friend the writer Inbali Iserles has remarked of Rumpelstiltkin’ that it is ‘a story where the greedy succeed, the victim is unsympathetic, and the villain curiously wretched.’ But it’s hard to feel sorry for the gleeful little imp Tom Tit Tot, eponymous villain of the splendid Norfolk dialect version. After the Queen has failed for the second time to guess its name (‘Is that Methuselem’ – ‘Noo, t’aint that neither’), the imp

looks at her with that’s eyes like a cool o’ fire, an’ that says, “Woman, there’s only to-morrer night, an’ then yar’ll be mine!” n’ away te flew.

However the King her husband has overheard the imp’s name. Remarking casually to his wife that ‘I reckon I shorn’t ha’ to kill you’ (seeing that she’s successfully spun the skeins each night so far), he sits down to supper with her and tells how out hunting he came across a curious little black thing singing, ‘Nimmy nimmy not/My name’s Tom Tit Tot’. Next day the Queen is well prepared:  

[T]hat there little thing looked soo maliceful when he come for the flax. An’ when night came she heerd that a knockin’ agin the winder panes. She oped the winder, an’ that come right in on the ledge. That were grinnin’ from are to are, an’ Oo! tha’s tail were twirling round so fast.

          ‘What’s my name?’ that says, as that gonned her the skeins.

          ‘Is that Solomon?’ she says, pretending to be afeared.

          ‘Noo, t’ain’t,’ that says, and that come fudder inter the room.

          ‘Well is that Zebedee?’ says she agin.

          ‘Noo, t’ain’t,’ says the impet. An’ then that laughed an’ that twirled that’s tail till yew cou’n’t hardly see it. ‘Take time, woman,’ that says’ ‘next guess, an you’re mine.’ An’ that stretched out that’s black hands at her.

          Well, she backed a step or two, an’ she looked at it, an’ then she laughed out, an’ says she, a pointin’ of her finger at it –

          ‘Nimmy nimmy not,

Yar name’s Tom Tit Tot.’

Well when that hard her, that shruck awful an’ awa’ that flew into the dark, an’ she niver saw it noo more.

Characters in fairy tales are often referred to either by generic descriptions 
– ‘the king’s daughter’, ‘the boy’, ‘the maiden’, and so on – or by the common names of whatever country the tale is set in, such as Hans, Klaus, Ivan, Kate, Jack. But many fairy tale names are purely descriptive. Little Red-Cap or ‘Red Riding Hood’ is so called after her red head-wear. The faithful servant in ‘The Frog King’ is named Iron Henry because ‘he had been so unhappy when his master was changed into a frog, that he had caused three iron bars to be laid round his heart, lest it should burst with grief’. The names Snow-White and Rose Red describe the innocence and beauty of the characters, and ‘The Mastermaid’ is an apt description of the lively, clever, magic-working young woman of that Norwegian story.

Sometimes these names are insulting. Cinder-lad, Aschenputtel, Tatterhood, Dummling are given their names by families which despise them: but since fairy tales always favour the underdog, we know they’re going to succeed. The princess known as ‘Allerleihrauh’ (All Kinds of Fur) escapes from her incestuous father dressed in a cloak of, yes, all kinds of fur. ‘Coat o’ Rushes’ disguises herself in a woven reed coat after her King Lear-like father throws her out, and the princess in the Norwegian fairy tale ‘Katy Woodencloak’ wears a clattering cloak of wooden laths. All three serve as kitchenmaids in these guises, and all three restore their fortunes. The names derived from their actions come to define them: ‘real’ names, if they had any, would be superfluous. It’s all very existential.

As I’ve said above, to change your name is to change yourself.  A seven year-old boy called Setanta son of Sualtim (his true father is Lugh of the Long Hand, Irish god of light and war) kills Culain the Smith’s savage guard-dog. When Culain complains, the boy offers to train up another hound for him, until which time: ‘I myself will be your watch-dog, to guard your goods and your cattle and your house.’ Hearing this, Cathbad the Druid renames the boy.

‘I could have given no better award myself,’ said Cathbad the Druid. ‘And from this out,’ he said, ‘your name will be Cuchulain, the Hound of Culain.’ ‘I am better pleased with my own name of Setanta, son of Sualim,’ said the boy. ‘Do not say that,’ said Cathbad, ‘for all the men in the whole world will some day have the name of Cuchulain in their mouths.’ ‘If that is so, I am content to keep it,’ said the boy. And this is how he came by the name Cuchulain.

                    Cuchulain of Muirthemne tr. Lady Gregory, John Murray, 1907, 11

Cuchulain’s offer of substitution – ‘I will be your watch dog’ – and his new name ‘Hound of Culain’ suggests that from now on dogs are Cuchulain’s kindred or totem. He is laid under two geasa: never to refuse a meal offered to him by a woman and never to eat the flesh of a dog. At the end of his life, riding out to fight against Maeve’s great army, both geasa are used against him by three witches.

After a while he saw three hags, and they blind of the left eye, before him in the road, and they having a venomous hound they were cooking with charms on rods of the rowan tree. And he was going by them, for he knew it was not for his good they were there.

          But one of the hags called to him, ‘Stop a while with us, Cuchulain.’ ‘I will not stop with you,” said Cuchulain. ‘That is because we have nothing better than a dog to give you,’ said the hag. ‘If we had a grand, big cooking hearth, you would stop and visit us, but because it is only a little that we have, you will not stop.’

          …Then he went over to her, and she gave him the shoulder-blade of the hound out of her left hand, and he ate it out of his left hand. And he put it down on his left thigh, and the hand that took it was struck down, and the thigh he put it on was struck through and through, so that the strength that was in them before left them.

Like the actions of those fairy tale princesses Allerleihrauh, Katy Woodencloak and Coat o’ Rushes, Cuchulain’s boyhood decision to ‘become’ Culain the Smith’s hound triggers his renaming, and changes the course of his life. Cathbad the Druid says, ‘All the men in the whole world will some day have the name of Cuchulain in their mouths.’ Cuchulain’s future identity as a hero is somehow bound up with his acceptance of this new name.

In Ursula le Guin’s collection ‘Tales From Earthsea’ there’s a wonderful story called ‘Dragonfly’, about a young woman who travels to the Isle of Roke hoping to enter the School for Wizards. Her use-name is Dragonfly, but the Doorkeeper asks for her true name – as he asks everyone who wishes for admittance – and her true name is one she’s accepted but has never felt really comfortable with.

‘Do you know whose name you must tell me before I let you in?’

          ‘My own, sir. It is Irian.’

          ‘Is it?’ he said.

          That gave her pause. She stood silent. ‘It’s the name the witch Rose of my village on Way gave me, in the spring under Iria Hill,’ she said at last, standing up and speaking truth.

          The Doorkeeper looked at her for what seemed a long time. ‘Then it is your name,’ he said. ‘But maybe not all your name. I think you have another.’

          ‘I don’t know it, sir.’ After another long time she said, ‘Maybe I can learn it here, sir.’

Irian does not find her other true name here on Roke; but she does discover her true nature and her power: and when Thorion the Master Summoner (who is literally a dead man walking) attempts to bind her, he fails.

Slowly he raised his arms and the white staff in invocation of a spell, speaking in the tongue that all the wizards and mages of Roke had learned, the language of their art, the Language of the Making: ‘Irian, by your name I summon you and bind you to obey me!’

          She hesitated, seeming for a moment to yield, to come to him, and then cried out, ‘I am not only Irian!’

The Summoner lunges at her, running up on to Roke Knoll where all things become their true selves.

They were both on the hill now. She towered above him impossibly, fire breaking forth between them, a flare of red flame in the dusk air, a gleam of red-gold scales, of vast wings – then that was gone, and there was nothing there but the woman standing on the hill path and the tall man bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to the earth, and lying on it.

Thorion’s return to death restores the Equilibrium, although from now on there will be a new balance. Irian departs ‘beyond the west’ to find the dragons, ‘Those who will give me my name. In fire, not water. My people.’ In dragon form she springs into the air and flies, and as ‘a curl of fire, a wisp of smoke’ drifts down through the darkening air, the men stand silent, watching. ‘What now?’ asks her friend the Master Patterner. And the Doorkeeper of the Wizards’ School on Roke answers simply, ‘I think we should go to our house, and open its doors.’ 

It is the last line of the story. And the story is all about difference. Who is Irian? Is she indeed a woman? Can you be two things at once? What is her truth?

In the world of Earthsea as Ursula le Guin developed it over decades, humanity and dragons were once one kind, one kindred: the dragons were there at the beginning: the Eldest, born knowing the True Speech. Then came the Division, the separation of dragons and humans: but some still are of both kinds. Irian is not only such a one, she is also female, a woman, considered by most of the Mages of Roke as less than a man. ‘I am not only Irian!’ she cries, refusing to be limited to a single identity. So yes, the story is about difference and prejudice, about names and the changing of names and the discovering of new identities. And it asks us not to prejudge, but to accept and open our doors to those who come to us with their differences. I think it is good advice.

Picture credits:

Adam and Eve in the garden with God: Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490-1510

A Wizard of Earthsea, Penguin 1971, cover art & design Brian Hampton

Dr John Dee (1507-1608). Artist unknown, Ashmolean, Oxford, image from wikipedia

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, title page, British Library, image from wikipedia

Rumpelstiltskin: Walter Crane, 1886

Tom Tit Tot: English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, ill. John D Batten

Setanta Kills the Hound: ill. Stephen Reid, imagefrom wikipedia

Wednesday 5 April 2023

In Praise of Wise Fools and Jesters


There are fools. There are foolish fools and wise fools, and this essay will concern itself (mainly) with the wise ones. Foolish fools, in the oral tradition and in literature, are simpletons who make bad decisions. Granted three wishes, they squander their chances, wish for something as modest as a black pudding, wish it on to their partner’s nose during a marital squabble, and use up the third wish to remove it again (‘The Three Wishes’, ‘More English Fairytales’, Joseph Jacobs, 1894). Stories about them are intended as laughter-provoking demonstrations of how not to behave; yet sometimes they throw light upon the unsuspected absurdities of worldly wisdom. Wise fools on the other hand are often conscious critics and iconoclasts who, from a theoretically lowly but in fact often privileged social position, turn their wit upon their masters.

Perhaps ever since there have been rulers, there have been professional fools, jesters and comedians who have been given (or who have taken) license to expose and hold up to ridicule the kings, priests, presidents and public figures, the laws, mores, prejudices, injustices and – yes – follies of the societies in which they live.  They are a world-wide phenomenon. In her book ‘Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World’ (2001) Beatrice K. Otto chronicles court jesters not only from Europe but also Russia, India, and Imperial China. All employed the same type of impudence, requiring quick wits and strong nerves. She quotes Marais, jester to Louis XIII, remarking to his king: 

‘Il y a deux choses dans votre metier dont je ne me pourrais accommoder … De manger tout seul et de chier en compagnie.’  [‘There are two things about your job I couldn’t cope with – eating alone and shitting in company.’] 

It isn’t just a jibe: Marais strikes home to a truth about the surreal world of the court. Cocooned in stultifying ceremony, kings clearly found relief in the direct, disrespectful speech of their jesters, the only members of court permitted to speak to them man to man. Like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, Marais sees through the apparent splendour of Louis’s life, and acknowledges it as both lonely and bizarre. When Henry VIII of England was given the title ‘Defender of the Faith,’ one of his jesters is reported to have shaken his head and said to Henry (using the familiar tense), ‘Let thou and I defend one another, and let faith alone to defend itself.’ In both cases the role of jester or fool echoes that of the slave who would stand in the triumphal car directly behind a victorious Roman general and whisper in his ear from time to time, ‘Remember, thou art mortal.’ The work of these jesters was as much to keep the monarch grounded, even sane – as to keep him amused.


And a wise ruler would listen to what his fool told him. ‘King Lear’ is a play which examines folly and madness as closely as it does pride and ingratitude. Lear’s terrible folly is to relinquish power and divide his kingdom between his two elder daughters. It’s Lear’s fool who stays with him when everyone else has left him. And the fool gives good advice, as fools will.

Fool: Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?

Lear: No.

Fool: Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house.

Lear: Why?

Fool: Why, to put his head in, not to give it away to his daughter and leave his horns without a case. … If thou wert my fool, nuncle, I’d have thee beaten for being old before thy time.

Lear: How’s that?

Fool: Thou shouldst not have been old before thou wert wise.

King Lear, I, vi


It’s the Fool’s privilege to speak the truth with safety. Erasmus, in his 1509 essay The Praise of Folly, places in the mouth of the goddess Folly various criticisms of society and the church which if he hadn’t been able to pass off as a brilliant jeu d’esprit (it made Pope Leo X laugh), might well have got him into trouble. Here he comments on the folly of even asking (let alone answering) some of the burning questions of the day.

The primitive disciples were very frequent in administering the holy sacrament, breaking bread from house to house; yet should they be asked … the nature of transubstantiation? the possibility of one body being in several different places at the same time? the difference betwixt the several aspects of Christ in heaven on the cross, and in the consecrated bread? what time is required for the transubstantiating of the bread into flesh? how it can be done by a short sentence pronounced by the priest?  Were they asked, I say, these and several other confused enquiries, I do not believe they could answer so readily as our mincing school-men now-a-days take pride in doing.

The Praise of Folly, Peter Eckler Publishing, NY 1922, p 214.

These were dangerous speculations, yet Erasmus could point out with perfect truth that it was not he, but Folly, who was speaking.

It’s not quite safe to laugh at a jester, or a live comedian. We know it’s best not to sit in the front row; he or she has a mastery of words and is likely to get the better of us if we cross verbal swords with them. But the jester, dependent on his nimble wits, is only one type of wise fool. There’s another type of folly, the folly of the simpleton.

            Simpletons pose no real danger to the bystander. (If you’re thinking we’re all too civilised now to laugh at ‘the village idiot’, stop for a moment to consider what that laughter consisted of.  Didn’t it – doesn’t it – consist of finding ignorance funny? Social ignorance, lack of nous – ignorance of ‘the way things are done’? Is such laughter dead?)

            Unlike real life, in stories simple fools come up smelling of roses. Jack and the Beanstalk is the best known example. There are different versions of this old tale, but in each of them Jack is such a simpleton, such a fool, that he sells his mother’s cow for a handful of beans which (after his angry mother hurls them into the garden) grow up to touch the clouds.

As he was going along, he met a butcher, who enquired why he was driving the cow from home? Jack replied, it was his intention to sell it. The butcher held some curious beans in his hat; they were of various colours, and attracted Jack’s notice: this did not pass unnoticed by the butcher, who, knowing Jack’s easy temper, thought now was the time to take advantage of it, and … asked what was the price of the cow, offering at the same time all the beans in his hat for her. The silly boy could not [sufficiently] express his pleasure at what he supposed so great an offer: the bargain was struck instantly and the cow exchanged for a few paltry beans.


This is the first printed version of the tale, published as ‘The History of Jack and the Beanstalk’ by Benjamin Tabart in 1807. According to Iona and Peter Opie in ‘The Classic Fairytales’ it is ‘the source of all substantial retellings of the story’. It’s a very literary version which includes a long, dull piece of back-story intended to show Jack is morally justified in stealing from the Giant, who has previously murdered Jack’s father. Tabart also explains away Jack’s stupidity in accepting the beans: it was due to the magical influence of a fairy who wished to benefit him. Another literary retelling published over eighty years later by Joseph Jacobs in ‘English Fairy Tales’ similarly attempts to dilute Jack’s folly: on meeting a ‘queer little old man’ who offers him five beans for his cow, Milky-White, Jack replies with sarcasm: “Go along,” said Jack; “wouldn’t you like it?”

            The old man has to explain to him that the beans are magic and will ‘grow right up to the sky’ before Jack will accept the bargain. It’s as though Tabart and Jacobs both found the traditional Jack too foolish to be an attractive hero. But his folly is more than half the point, and these literary additions haven’t survived very well, they haven’t stuck to the story. Most of us remember Jack as a simpleton who is cheated out of a valuable cow for a handful of apparently worthless beans. It’s as though the beans gain their magical properties in response to the folly of the hero. Ultimately, Jack wins out and the con-man loses. And the moral lesson is that sharp practice doesn’t always pay, and that good fortune watches over the innocent and trustful.

            This is a lesson repeated over and over in fairytales.  It’s nearly always the third son, the younger, slightly stupid one, whose innocence gives him the edge over his worldly elder brothers. 

There was a man who had three sons, the youngest of whom was called Dummling [Simpleton], and was despised, mocked and sneered at on every occasion.

            It happened that the eldest wanted to go into the forest to hew wood, and before he went his mother gave him a beautiful sweet cake and a bottle of wine in order that he might not suffer from hunger or thirst.

            When he entered the forest he met a little grey-haired old man who bade him good-day and said, ‘Do give me a piece of cake out of your pocket, and let me have a draught of your wine; I am so hungry and thirsty.’ But the clever son answered, ‘If I give you my cake and wine, I shall have none for myself: be off with you.’

Is the clever son really so clever? We know how these things go: not so very clever after all, for –

When he began to hew down a tree, it was not long before he made a false stroke, and the axe cut him in the arm, so he had to go home and have it bound up. And this was the little grey man’s doing.

Soon it’s the second son’s turn. Characterised as ‘sensible’, he fares no better; and now it is Dummling’s chance. His mother gives him poor fare: ‘a cake made with water and baked in the cinders, and a bottle of sour beer’. But, when the little grey man appears, Dummling readily agrees to share his food:

and when he pulled out his cinder-cake, it was a fine sweet cake, and the sour beer had become good wine. So they ate and drank, and after that the little man said, ‘Since you have a good heart and are willing to divide what you have, I will give you good luck. There stands an old tree, cut it down, and you will find something at the roots.’ Then the little old man took leave of him.

            Dummling went and cut down the tree, and when it fell there was a goose sitting in the roots with feathers of pure gold. 

You will have guessed the name of this story: it is the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘The Golden Goose’ (KHM 64) – not the goose that lays the golden eggs, but the one which causes anyone who tries to steal its golden feathers to stick to it (and to each other) like glue. Dummling soon has a whole train of greedy people running after him willy-nilly. Those who covet wealth, the story says, are forced to chase after it, become stuck to it in an undignified straggle. Good-hearted Dummling, who shares what he has, is worthy to own the golden goose and marry the King’s daughter. 

             Not all fools in folktales are wise. Stories like the Grimms’ tale ‘Frederick and Catherine’ (KHM 59), set out simply to amuse the listeners with catalogues of extreme folly. In this way, even foolish fools may provide object lessons. In ‘Frederick and Catherine’ simple, literal Catherine ricochets from one domestic disaster to another.

At midday home came Frederick: ‘Now wife, what have you ready for me?’ ‘Ah, Freddy,’ she answered, ‘I was frying a sausage for you, but whilst I was drawing the beer to drink with it, the dog took it away out of the pan, and whilst I was running after the dog, all the beer ran out, and whilst I was drying up the beer with the flour, I knocked over the can as well, but be easy, the cellar is quite dry again.’

In spite of the disasters she causes, Catherine is always good tempered.  Nothing upsets her, and this is true too of stories such as the Grimms’ tale ‘Hans In Luck’ (KHM 89), in which a young man trades away his years’ wages as he journeys home, delighted with each bad bargain he makes even when he’s left with nothing but a stone. The happiness of such characters poses a sly challenge to our own material values.

            Some tales involve entire villages full of fools: people have always enjoyed poking fun at their neighbours, as the old saying ‘Yorkshire born and Yorkshire bred, Strong in the arm and thick in the head’ bears out. (Insert any place-name you like that scans.) Typical of such stories is this one:

The men of Austwick in Yorkshire had only one knife between them, so they had a habit of keeping it always under one tree when it was not in use.  If it was not there when it was wanted, the man needing it called out, ‘Whittle to the tree!’  The plan worked well until one day a party of labourers took it to a neighbouring moor to cut their bread and cheese.  At the day’s end they decided to leave the knife there for the next day, and to mark the place where it lay they stuck it into the ground in the shadow of a great black cloud.  But the next day the cloud was gone, and so was the whittle, and they never saw it again.

‘Whittle to the Tree’, ‘A Dictionary of British Folk-tales’, Katherine Briggs, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970, Part A, Vol. Two

At least one tale slyly suggests there may sometimes be method in this kind of madness. It recounts how the villagers of Gotham prevented King John from travelling over their meadows, because they believed any ground over which a king passed would thereafter become a public road (the king’s highway). The angry king sends messengers to punish this incivility, but:

The villagers … thought of an expedient to turn away his Majesty’s displeasure. … When the messengers arrived at Gotham, they found some of the inhabitants endeavouring to drown an eel in a pool of water; some were employed in dragging carts upon a large barn, to shade the wood from the sun; others were tumbling their cheeses down a hill; … and some were employed in hedging in a cuckoo… in short, they were all employed in some foolish way or other, which convinced the king’s servants that it was a village of fools, whence arose the old adage, ‘the wise men’ or ‘the fools of Gotham’!

‘The Wise Men of Gotham’, A Dictionary of British Folk-tales, Katherine Briggs, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1970, Part A, Vol. Two


Folly may be wisdom, cloaked. This story, as so often with stories about fools, asks us to dig deeper, not to accept things at face value. In the following exchange, Shakepeare’s fool Feste demonstrates the folly of his mistress the Lady Olivia:

Feste:  Good madonna, why mournest thou?

Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste:   I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste:   The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

Twelfth Night, I,v

By this neat Socratic sleight-of-hand Feste demonstrates the limitations of both philosophy and religion, applied to the human condition. For we know very well how quickly such structures can crumble under the shockwave of grief. As a believing Christian, Olivia ought not to mourn her brother who is now in heaven. If she followed the logic of the elenchos, she should rejoice. But grief doesn’t work like that and Feste knows it. On the other hand, almost a year after her brother’s death perhaps it is time Olivia was teased out of what threatens literally to become a habit of over-the-top mourning:

The element itself till seven years heat

Shall not behold her face at ample view,

But like a cloistress she will veiled walk

And water once a day her chamber round

With eye-offending brine.

Twelfth Night, I.i

What Feste begins with his fool’s wisdom, his logical-illogical wisecracking, is a process that will eventually release Olivia from her shroud of grief. She will fall in love, and life will go on.

            ‘We are fools for Christ’s sake,’ says St Paul (1 Corinthians 4:10), and again: ‘For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Perhaps this echoes Christ’s message ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.  Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter heaven.’ (Mark 10:14,15). As jesters resemble children in their undeceived clear-sightedness, so simpletons resemble children in their simplicity and innocence.  Many of the stories in ‘The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assissi’, a compilation of oral tales about the Franciscans, feature one Brother Juniper, a complete clown who might have walked straight out of a story like the ‘Wise Men of Gotham’ or ‘Frederick and Catherine’. Like Catherine he is utterly literal in his responses to requests and commands ... to an extent that is truly unsettling.

Once when he was visiting a sick brother at St Mary of the Angels he said to him all on fire with the charity of God, ‘Can I do thee any service?’ And the sick man answered, ‘Thou wouldst give me great consolation if thou couldst get me a pig’s foot to eat.’

Brother Juniper hurries into the forest with a knife, finds a herd of swine, cuts off a foot from one of them and runs back to prepare and cook it for the sick man. The angry swineherd follows and complains of his action to St Francis, who berates Brother Juniper: ‘Wherefore hast thou given this great scandal?’

At these words Brother Juniper was much amazed, wondering that anyone should have been angered at so charitable an action, for all temporal things appeared to him of no value, save in so far as they could be charitably applied to the service of our neighbour.

The Little Flowers of Saint Francis of Assissi, tr. Lady Georgina Fullerton, 1864

We miss the point if our only response is to wince on behalf of the pig. The Franciscan view of animals was a religious not a sentimental one, and animal rights lay a long, long way in the future. Whoever wrote this fable down fully expects the contemporary reader to regard Brother Juniper’s action as great folly (you don’t mutilate live pigs) and to understand St Francis’s anger. And yet we are asked to see his folly as saintly, to put aside our usual habits and enter a mindset which quite simply views all things, everything – as belonging already to God. ‘He would be a good Friar,’ said St Francis, ‘who had overcome the world as perfectly as Brother Juniper’. Brother Juniper’s single-minded concentration on God is at once ridiculous, frightening – and holy. Fools and saints are a bit frightening. They don’t operate by the normal rules. When we look at their actions we are sometimes startled into questioning our own. And that has been the purpose of fools down the ages – holding up the glass of folly to reflect back the image of what we thought was wisdom. Are you a fool? Am I?


Lear: Dost thou call me a fool, boy?

Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away. That, thou wast born with.

King Lear, I, iv


[This essay, and others on fairy tales and folklore, can be found in my book: 'Seven Miles of Steel Thistles' available on Amazon at this link.]


Picture credits

Laughing jester, c 1500, possibly Jacob Cornelisz. van Oostanen wikipedia

Miniature of David and his fool, from the psalter of Henry VIII (likenesses of Henry himself and, probably, Will Summers). British Library

King Lear and his Fool in the Storm, William Dyce, c 1851 wikipedia 

Jack and the Beanstalk, 1807 frontispiece wikimedia commons 

The Golden Goose, Walter Crane, 1886 wikimedia commons

The Mad-Men of Gotham: 16th C. chapbook

Portrait of the Ferrara court jester Gonella, Jean Fouqet 1445 wikipedia