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


1 comment:

  1. The analogy about the oyster and its shell and the snail and its house is a powerful one.

    Especially if we consider that the oyster's job is to leave its shell

    whereas the snail leaves its house only under great penalty.

    Adelaide Dupont