The Fool as Hero

Bill Moyers:  Why are there so many stories of the hero in mythology?

Joseph Campbell:  Because that’s what’s worth writing about. 

The Power of Myth


Parzival leaving home to become a knight.  (Edmund von Wörndle)

Once upon a time, there lived a king and his three sons, the two eldest of whom were proud, handsome young princes, who thundered through the countryside on their fiery steeds and did many heroic deeds, but the youngest was regarded a fool and though he had a name, no one remembered it.  Everyone simply called him “Fool.” 

In Tarot and the Journey of the Hero, Hajo Banzhaf asks the question “Isn’t it strange that of all people The Fool should be the hero who succeeds in the great journey?” and we are forced to wonder.  After all, the Fool is a fool; he is the one who does everything wrong, the one who everyone scorns, and why shouldn’t they?  His brothers appear to be gods incarnate: tall, strong, proud, handsome, noble, courageous.  They are the living heirs to such a line of heroes as includes Samson, Heracles, Gilgamesh, Thor, Beowulf, and King Arthur.  We look up to them; they inspire confidence in us; we know that they will succeed in their quest, for they are fearless and, we believe, incapable of failure due to their physical prowess.  The fool, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of hero: he sets out on the back of an ass or an old nag that he purchased for all the money he had on him; what’s more, he is seated backward, waving good naturedly at the people who line the way to laugh and jeer at him.  He doesn’t know any better, and no one believes that he will be the one to redeem the kingdom.  Yet, it was the innocent fool, Perceval, who stumbled upon the Grail Castle, and it was the stone that the builders rejected that became the cornerstone; [1] Jesus taught that unless we become like children, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven; [2] and the alchemist knows he cannot create the tincture or Philosopher’s Stone without the Prima Materia, a substance which most people deem worthless and despise. 

The Fool is, Andrei Sinyavsky writes, “a variant of the worst and most worthless person on earth….  [He] occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder and the human ladder in general.” [3]      It is a harsh assessment, but then Sinyavsky was referencing Russian folktales in which the fools are, frequently, genuine halfwits who cannot be entrusted with the slightest of tasks without bringing ruin to their families; imbeciles unable to wipe their own noses so must rely on others to perform even this service for them; or incurably lazy simpletons who want nothing more from life but to lie upon the shelf over the stove while others labor from morning to night to keep the fire burning and food on the table.  Emelya is the most famous of these truly worthless individuals; he wails and protests that he is being horribly abused when his sisters-in-law demand he take a bucket to the stream and fetch water for the evening meal.  He is utterly irredeemable, primarily because he does not care to be redeemed; nor does he, through the course of the entire story, think of anyone other than himself, yet by the tale’s end, he has somehow married the princess and come to rule a prosperous kingdom.

A Russian friend who knew I was interested in folktales once asked me what he was supposed to tell his two young sons about Emelya, who prospers despite doing nothing whatsoever to earn that good fortune, who is so popular in Russia that there are pictures and sculptures all over depicting him lying on his stove.  My answer did not satisfy him in the least: Emelya’s purpose is to turn everything on its head.  There is no logic to his prosperity, nor can there be, for he stands counterpoint to society’s values; he is part of a cultural, collective shadow, the dark balance to the conscious attitude.  When living conditions are so severe that every member of the community must work him- or herself to the bone each and every day in order to survive, folktale characters like Emelya are inevitable.  The stories have a healing effect, for such lazy fool stories allow the people listening to embrace, for a moment at least, the absurd amidst the harshness of their lives.

This is one kind of fool, and we have a soft spot for him when we read about him in stories: we laugh at his misfortunes, which he invariably brings upon himself, delight in his foolish antics and idiosyncrasies, are entertained by the havoc he wreaks, and love that in the end, everything works out in his favor, for he is really not such a bad sort – he is an imbecile, to be sure, but he has a heart of gold, and he never meant harm to anyone.  However, when we encounter the fool in our daily lives, we judge him far more harshly: we do not find his incompetence charming, especially if we are the ones who have to follow after him, cleaning up all his messes.  He frays our nerves, and we don’t care that his heart is golden or that he never intended to cause problems.  When we have to deal with this type of fool, we have far more in common with the other characters in the fairytale than, perhaps, we care to admit, for we find we cannot tolerate him for long and our greatest desire is that he be gone.

However, fools need not be so wretched; there is another sort of fool entirely: he is not a buffoon or imbecile; he is an innocent, or someone who is out-of-step with everyone else, a person who cannot, for whatever reason, conform to the appearances and modes of behavior that their communities deem normal, and is consequently judged foolish because he does not fit it, for though we cultivate the myth that ours is a society of inclusion in which individuality is a quality to be celebrated, the truth is we far prefer conformity; we like square pegs for our square holes, and we mistrust or ridicule those who would try to force their undisciplined contours upon us and who say that if they do not fit in, it is because the predetermined and time-honored shapes of those holes are wrong.

While what I wrote at the start of this introduction does not come from any specific fairytale, it represents a typical kind of opening in which the storyteller actually provides us with a great deal of information and lets us know what to expect.  1st, there are four characters in the beginning of the tale.  Four is a complete number; the characters form what Jungians call a quaternity, which is an archetype of wholeness: a year consists of four seasons; there are four cardinal directions on a compass; and four classical elements which made up all the things of the world (earth, water, air, and fire) to name just a few from a very long list.  However, while this quaternity is numerically complete, it is also incomplete in that it is lacking feminine representation, without which there is no hope for a future, no chance at regeneration; in short, even though it may appear healthy, this set-up is sterile, so we can be certain that in some way, the main action of the tale to follow will concern redemption of the missing feminine.  2nd, we can also be certain that it is the youngest prince, the “fool,” who will ultimately bring about the revitalization of the kingdom and inherit the throne.

The two elder sons are described as “proud, “handsome,” and “heroic.”  Descriptions of these kinds are code for the fact that these young men embody prevailing cultural values and attitudes, and are everything the king and the realm could possibly want in two princes; they are perfectly adapted to their world.  The problem is their world is no longer viable, so neither of these two brothers is likely to bring about the much-needed renewal.  The youngest son, however, is the one who does not fit in.  In a way, he is like the black dot in the white half of this yang-yin symbol, or the white dot in the black half.

As we look at this symbol, frozen in a specific moment, we see that though the white (yang) area contains a small circle of black (yin), and the black area a corresponding bit of white, the remainder of each field enjoys a harmonious conformity.  Thus, we can also imagine from our own experiences that the spots are regarded as intrusive and disruptive elements which threaten the continuity so enormously comfortable to those who dwell within, and this kind of an interruption naturally provokes in the community feelings of resentment which can make the spots (and any who dwell within them) targets of ridicule and scorn – after all, something must be wrong with them, for they do not know how to behave like everyone else, how to dress like everyone else, how to disappear into the otherwise universal consonance.

However, we know from a study of the Yi Jing, or Chinese Book of Change, that these dots are not merely incongruous annoyances but ought to be regarded as seeds of transformation, for the only constant is change.  In his wonderful introductory text, Understanding the I Ching, Cyrille Javary presents a graphic depiction of “the Great Reversion.”

The problem with the original image is that it provides us merely a snapshot of a process, a stage along the way, which, without the preceding and ensuing images, we might misunderstand as a complete representation (we have no way of knowing that anything came before or that anything different is going to follow the original state).  In the second image, we gain a more extensive sense of a continuing evolutionary process. [4]

One day it happened that the king summoned his sons to him and told them they must go out into the world and find themselves wives, and the prince who returns with the worthiest bride will become heir to the throne.  Though he had no expectations that his youngest son would bring back anything more than a rusty nail, the king did not object when the fool declared he would go as well.

Here again, we have a familiar plot line.  We know that the two elder princes will succeed in their quest to find wives, but their brides will be unsuitable in some way.  Perhaps they will return with the first farm girls they meet, or they may win the hand of a princess who is spoiled and cares not a whit for the kingdom or its subjects.  With so much at stake, it seems incomprehensible that these two princes would be so careless, but the point of this narrative is the princes are so much a part of the status quo, they cannot appreciate the gravity of the situation.  They assume that what they do will be acceptable because they are so perfectly adapted to the way things are and have always been that they have succeeded in every effort all their lives while receiving nothing but praise from the people; and they give no thought to what the fool might do.

Why does the fool succeed when “better” candidates fail?  Many times it is because he is open to possibilities to which his brothers are not.  The three start out on the same path, with the Fool backward astride his ass lagging far behind.  He encounters an old man, old woman, or beggar – someone who simply does not matter in the hierarchy of society – stops and shares his meager provisions, and this no-account rewards the fool’s generosity with a bit of advice or a magical amulet – something which will aid him in his quest.  His brothers also met this wretch but spared not a glance as they raced past.  They could not imagine a person of such little social merit himself would have anything of value to offer them. 

This is a common motif worldwide, and I am reminded of the story of how Fu Xi, the legendary first sage-emperor of China and culture hero who taught such skills as hunting, fishing, domestication of animals, cooking, and writing to his subjects, discovered the Eight Trigrams, which are the basis of the Yi Jing, inscribed on the shell of a dragon horse or turtle.  According to the myth, Fu Xi observed the strange markings when the turtle emerged from the Luo River.  What he saw looked like this:

Related image

Whether Fu Xi was an actual person is a question of some debate.  The turtle upon whose shell the trigrams were inscribed almost certainly did not exist; however, to dismiss this story from serious consideration as just a charming myth is to miss the point entirely, which is that the wisdom contained in the Yi Jing does not originate in the mind but comes out of the world and is available only to those who are not limited by their expectations but live their lives with open eyes.

We can say we do not believe this story.  I have seen during my lifetime several dozen turtles, have held many of these in my hands.  I have always been interested in turtles, and whenever I see one, I stop to look if I have the opportunity, but I have never seen a turtle with trigrams inscribed into its shell, or seen a turtle bearing any other message; however, if I am truthful with myself, I must admit to never having looked for messages inscribed into their shells either.  It may be I held in my hands Fu Xi’s turtle at some time in my life and never noticed the markings, for it never occurred to me to look for meaning there.

We expect revelations to come to us as they came to Moses, for instance, the voice of God speaking from a burning bush or atop Mount Sinai, when His divine presence was heralded with lightning and thunder and the shaking of the ground.  We expect divine messages to be delivered by angels or to come in awesome visions that send us to our knees.  We expect wise men to live far from the rest of us, in mountain sanctuaries, where they can spend their days contemplating the great mysteries of the world. 

Had Fu Xi been waiting for thunderous revelation, he might never have noticed the turtle.  It might have walked along the river banks a few moments, then disappeared back into the silent waters, never to enter the consciousness of men.  If Fu Xi had believed only in burning bushes and the appearance of angels, he might have noticed the markings on the turtle’s shell, thought them an interesting design, and just as quickly forgotten them, but the Yi Jing exists because he did notice them, realized their significance, and brought them into the world of men.

Every tale begins with a fool.  Those considered to be the wisest of us tend to live within the boundaries defined by social convention.  Theirs is a wisdom agreed upon by the majority, and were we all to subscribe to their prudence, there would be no stories, for no one would have done anything worth writing about or speaking of.  Safety makes for a dull tale. 

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Henry David Thoreau so famously wrote over one hundred and fifty years ago.  Very little has changed.  “If I repent of anything,” Thoreau goes on, “it is very likely to be my good behavior.  What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?”  This is a question the fool need never ask himself.

We can put off, with the innumerable distractions this modern world offers us, the existential angst that has been our constant companion since that fateful day when we were banished from the paradisaical garden of our infancy and forbidden to ever return, but eventually we find ourselves lying awake in our beds in the pre-dawn silence, and the familiar panic sets it.  Every passing hour brings us that much closer to the end of our days, and in these moments a reckoning is demanded of us: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7 NIV).   For his unwavering conviction, Timothy was stoned to death.  Though few of us would willingly accept his fate, there comes a time for all of us when we must measure ourselves against his words.

“Follow your bliss,” Joseph Campbell taught his students; do not lead inauthentic lives.  This is also the message of the fool.  He does not care a whit how others judge him.  He does not always end up well, but he is not inauthentic; he does not submit to convention and what the consensus has determined is the proper course for his life.  It can be a lonely existence.  “I had rather be any kind o’ thing than a fool,” says King Lear’s court jester, for, he tells us, “they’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying; and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace” – “any kind o’ thing” except the king himself who proves, during the course of the play, an even greater fool than his jester.  (Shakespeare, King Lear Act 1, Scene 4)

Of all the trumps, I find the Fool to be the most compelling.  He is the most diverse figure, casting off various guises from deck to deck while remaining true to his nature.  Though I use the masculine pronoun in writing of him, the Fool moves from gender to gender, depending upon which deck we choose, and sometimes he/she is caught mid-transition, and even that suits his/her purposes in the moment.  In Waite-Smith, he is an ethereal youth, “a prince of the other world on his travels through this one,” as A. E. Waite writes; in the Tarot de Marseille type-I decks, he is Le Fou, which we can translate into English as “the fool,” though this is not really accurate, for fou really means crazy, so Le Fou would more properly be rendered into English as the mad man (referencing both insanity and anger) or the crazy or demented one; he is also a fool because his lunacy has robbed him of his intelligence or common sense.  In later Tarot de Marseille Type-II decks, he is Le Mat, which we can render into English as “the dull one,” in the sense of lacking shine, like a matte color, though this seems to me to be misleading, for Le Mat wears brightly colored and garish clothing; he stands apart from everyone else; he announces his approach with jingling bells hanging from his coxcomb, shoulders, and belt; he turns our world on its head with his antics; and if we are truly honest with ourselves, he shows us to be the dull ones, while he, himself, is full of life.  Yet he is also a tragic figure, portrayed as a bearded, middle-aged man wandering a world in which he has lost his place: at the time when these tarot decks were being created, the tradition of the court jester was coming to an end all over Europe; by the 18th century, they had largely disappeared.  In Italian traditions, Il Matto is the madman, often pictured as a social outcast; and in the Gringonneur deck, the fool is truly a fool, perhaps retarded, a young man still wearing a diaper, playing with the children of the village.

The word “fool” comes from the Latin follis, which meant a bellows or windbag, and could also, by extension, refer to an empty-headed person.  But a court jester had to be anything but a fool in that respect.  He was quick-witted and possessed many talents to keep the king and his royal guests entertained.  He sang, played musical instruments, juggled, performed feats of magic.  But perhaps most importantly he was the one who could speak truths no one else dared utter.  In 1340, at the start of what became known as the Hundred Years War, in the Battle of Sluys, the English fleet, though greatly outnumbered, annihilated the French fleet and gained supremacy over the English Channel.  Phillippe VI’s jester gave the French king the news, reportedly telling him that the English seamen “didn’t even have the guts to jump into the water like our brave French sailors.” 

The Fool is who we see him to be, and in nearly every deck, we see him to be a wanderer who carries what meager possessions he has in a sack or wallet fastened to a stick over his shoulder.  He has no permanent residence; we do not know where we will find him from moment to moment.  We might catch a glimpse of him, but he is only passing through.  His function is to provoke a response, upset the balance we strive to maintain, tear our structures down, so that we are forced to begin anew over and over, to fend off stagnation, to keep the cycle forever cycling.

Our highest truths are but half-truths;

Think not to settle down for ever

in any truth.

Make use of it as a tent in which to pass

a summer’s night,

But build no house of it, or it will be your tomb.

When you first have an inkling of its insufficiency

And begin to descry a dim counter-truth

looming up beyond,

Then weep not, but give thanks:

It is the Lord’s voice whispering,

‘Take up thy bed and walk.’

                                                                        (Earl Balfour)


[1]     Psalm 118:22

[2]     Matthew 18:3

[3]     Sinyavsky, Andrei.  Ivan the Fool: Russian Folk Belief: a Cultural History.  Glas, 2007.

[4]      Many Tarot philosophers attempt to work various mystical systems into their commentaries for the cards, including the Yi Jing.  I have not found any of these “synchronicities” to be convincing.  When, for instance, some attempt to assign hexagrams to the Tarot, the mathematics simply do not work out: there are 64 hexagrams but 78 cards, meaning either some of the cards do not get hexagrams assigned to them (but which ones?) or some hexagrams must be pressed into double duty.  Also although some pairings of hexagrams and trumps appear provocative, most quite simply are not, leading me to conclude that this attempt to bring the two together is the product of mental acrobatics that will not hold up to closer scrutiny rather than the result of any true insight.  I believe the same is true of all the correspondences “discovered” between Tarot and the Hebrew alphabet, Tarot and astrology, Tarot and numerology, etc.  Our capacity for cleverness, artifice, and, quite frankly, pulling the wool over our own eyes as we get caught up in the excitement of our work, is boundless.  Oftentimes we are not even aware of the dishonesty as we bring to the foreground those correlations that are most compelling and bury in the background everything that suggests our best evidence consists of exceptions rather than examples which highlight the rule.  My introduction to the Yi Jing, therefore, is not a prelude to my effort to bring these very disparate systems together but ought to be taken solely as a way of analogy, for there will always be parallels in true wisdom.

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