The Fool in the Major Arcana

Welcome to another Expanded Universe column where I feature essays from authors and editors of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, as well as from established readers and reviewers. This is a continuation of my series on archetypes.

As Shakespeare will tell you, there are two kinds of fools: silly fools, and wise fools.

Well, anyone who tells you that there’s only two kinds of anything in this world is probably more than a little foolish themselves. But as I don’t want to be caught calling Shakespeare a fool, let’s just take the Bardic definition for granted.

Silly fools have no idea what they’re doing. They might be a bit dim-witted or just exceedingly ignorant, but they make dumb mistakes. This is Jack in the forest trading his cow for a handful of magic beans, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Xander falling for his sexy demon teacher, or anything that Forrest Gump does. The archetype of the silly fool communicates that we are human. We all do stupid, senseless things at times … out of ignorance, desire, or ego.

But as these examples show, silly fools are also often lucky. Their own innocence protects them. Most of the time, this isn’t an archetype about shame. The fool may reap the consequences of his own poor judgment but, often as not, he gets away with it[1]. Call it luck, serendipity, or, as traditional tarot interpretation suggests, the universe looking out for us. As Will Riker puts it in the TNG episode “Contagion,” “Fate protects fools, little children, and ships named Enterprise.”

The other kind of fool — the wise fool — isn’t really foolish at all. Instead, they have the deepest understanding of what’s going on around them … but, for some reason, others tend to discount their opinions until they are proven right time and time again. In fairy-tales and folklore, this character is often a prophet, a shaman, or an oracle — but always on the outside of society. But their very outside status allows them to speak the truth when others are too afraid. And all too often their strange ramblings and obscure jests are significant, even crucial, to solving the conflict.

Shakespeare made this archetype iconic in King Lear and Twelfth Night, but we see it all over SFF as well. The Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland may be mad but he is also profoundly aware: “We’re all mad here.” Yoda from Star Wars lives on a swamp planet—a literal backwater—and speaks in riddles, but he’s powerful Jedi who trains Luke Skywalker to channel the Force. The Lovegoods in HARRY POTTER espouse some crazy crackpot theories … some of which turn out to be not only true, but necessary for Harry to complete his mission.

Fools of both kinds can function as sidekicks, comic relief, and consciences. And our FanLit team has come together to provide examples of our favorite fools in SFF:

Ryan says:

The best fools, in my humble opinion, are smart enough to talk themselves out of a tight spot, but they somehow always find themselves in trouble anyway. My favorite SFF fool, at least according to this definition, might be Jack Vance‘s Cugel the Clever. Runners up? How about Moist, Rincewind, and the Wee Free Men from Terry Pratchett‘s DISCWORLD books?

Tim says:

Let’s see… Brandon Sanderson has a universe-hopping dispenser of wit and wisdom called Hoid. For a more ghoulish example, Snyder’s run on Batman situated the Joker as Batman’s “faithful court jester,” seeing himself as the Dark Knight’s friend who could say (and do) the things Batman could not to keep their weird, antagonistic relationship going. In terms of comic relief sidekicks, we’ve got Mat from Robert Jordan‘s WHEEL OF TIME and Eddie from Stephen King‘s DARK TOWER. It’s a wrench to admit it, but Tasslehoff Burrfoot probably applies as well. Ryan’s already mentioned Discworld, but I have to give a shout-out to Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, because I love them so much. My absolute favorites, though, are still Fred and George Weasley.

Kat says:

Robin Hobb‘s Fool is one of the most enigmatic creatures in fantasy literature. In Assassin’s Apprentice, the first of Hobb’s ELDERLINGS novels, the Fool appears to be a white-skinned boy in motley, but throughout the series all of our assumptions about him are shattered as we see him in different contexts and meet his different aspects. At this point, 21 years after the publication of that first book, we still don’t know who/what he (?) is, and neither does his best friend, FitzChivalry Farseer.

And Bill says:

Besides seconding Hobb’s Fool, in the “obvious” category I’d add the Harlequin from Harlan Ellison‘s “Repent Harlequin Said the Tick-Tock Man” less as a favorite character but more as a classic one and an early one. Tehol from Steven Erikson‘s MALAZAN series is perhaps my favorite wise character who plays the fool, both for his intelligence, his compassion, and his all-in attitude toward playing the fool. And just because we’ve been introducing our teen son to Firefly, I’ve got to mention Jane, who is absolutely one of my favorites and relatively unique for his combination of foolishness and deadliness.

Enjoy the first day of April and embrace your inner fool in all their wit, silliness, wisdom, and innocence!

[1] Most of the lucky, silly fools I can think of are male. The female counterpoint to this archetype is the ditz, but in many examples, she is punished for her foolishness, either through actual consequences (i.e. every dumb blonde joke I learned in middle school, which all end in the dumb blonde’s totally-avoidable death) or social shaming. The one possible exception is Dori from Finding Nemo. I welcome examples to the contrary.

Readers, who is your favorite foolish character in SFF? One lucky commenter will receive a book from our Stacks.


  • Kate Lechler

    KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.