Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Fool, The Madman and The Idiot

One of the most interesting archetypes in literature is that of the fool. The fool or the court jester is considered an idiot, a child, someone who is there only to entertain. His manner of entertainment can range from pure wit to slapstick and burlesque. Of course, due to his position in court and the fact that everyone dismisses him, the fool has been awarded a key place in literary works. He has become wise. Hence the tradition of "the wise fool," the one who understands the inner workings of people, the plots and intrigues that revolve around the king. The best example of the wise fool is the one in Shakespeare's King Lear. The fool is the one who sees the truth and who tells it over to King Lear (in one of the most fascinating interpretations, the Fool is actually Cordelia, this because Cordelia and the Fool are never onstage at the same time. I think that's an extremely creative reading.) He need not be afraid to speak for all his words can as well be dismissed as nonsense.

In literature, fools make excellent spies, assassins and detectives. Fools are dismissed by the nobility/ aristocracy and their words are considered unimportant. This is excellent, because it means that everyone underestimates the fool. An underestimated character is always fascinating; he's the one who will spring surprises upon everyone else as they look on, nonplussed.

But it is not only the fool who has a magnificent cover for his actions. The madman and the idiot (or simpleton) are also perfect disguises for one who is hiding a keen and active wit. No one pays attention to the ramblings of madmen. And the idiot is a simpleton who cannot even care for himself; surely he is no threat to anyone. You all studied Hamlet in high school. I am sure your teachers amply discussed Hamlet's madness or lack thereof with you. Madness is an excellent way to ensure that nobody takes you seriously; perhaps others even pity you and once again, underestimate you. And when it comes to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, who can forget McMurphy, who, after being told that he is probably feigning psychosis to escape the work farm, spreads his hands wide and grins, "Now, do I look like a sane man, Doc?"

Why do I bring this up now? Well, because I enjoy connecting motifs and themes to the Bible, and there is an obvious connection here. Welcome to David's feigned madness! (I love this part of Tanakh.)
    יב וַיֹּאמְרוּ עַבְדֵי אָכִישׁ, אֵלָיו, הֲלוֹא-זֶה דָוִד, מֶלֶךְ הָאָרֶץ; הֲלוֹא לָזֶה, יַעֲנוּ בַמְּחֹלוֹת לֵאמֹר, הִכָּה שָׁאוּל בַּאֲלָפָו, וְדָוִד בְּרִבְבֹתָו.

    12 And the servants of Achish said unto him: 'Is not this David the king of the land? Did they not sing one to another of him in dances, saying: Saul hath slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands?'

    יג וַיָּשֶׂם דָּוִד אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה, בִּלְבָבוֹ; וַיִּרָא מְאֹד, מִפְּנֵי אָכִישׁ מֶלֶךְ-גַּת.
    13 And David laid up these words in his heart, and was sore afraid of Achish the king of Gath.

    יד וַיְשַׁנּוֹ אֶת-טַעְמוֹ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם, וַיִּתְהֹלֵל בְּיָדָם; וַיְתָו עַל-דַּלְתוֹת הַשַּׁעַר, וַיּוֹרֶד רִירוֹ אֶל-זְקָנוֹ. {ס}

    14 And he changed his demeanour before them, and feigned himself mad in their hands, and scrabbled on the doors of the gate, and let his spittle fall down upon his beard. {S}

    טו וַיֹּאמֶר אָכִישׁ, אֶל-עֲבָדָיו: הִנֵּה תִרְאוּ אִישׁ מִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ, לָמָּה תָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֵלָי.

    15 Then said Achish unto his servants: 'Lo, when ye see a man that is mad, wherefore do ye bring him to me?

    טז חֲסַר מְשֻׁגָּעִים, אָנִי, כִּי-הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-זֶה, לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ עָלָי; הֲזֶה, יָבוֹא אֶל-בֵּיתִי. {פ}

    16 Do I lack madmen, that ye have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence? shall this fellow come into my house?' {P}

    א וַיֵּלֶךְ דָּוִד מִשָּׁם, וַיִּמָּלֵט אֶל-מְעָרַת עֲדֻלָּם; וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ אֶחָיו וְכָל-בֵּית אָבִיו, וַיֵּרְדוּ אֵלָיו שָׁמָּה.

    1 David therefore departed thence, and escaped to the cave of Adullam; and when his brethren and all his father's house heard it, they went down thither to him.

    ~Samuel I, Chapter 21: 13-16 and Chapter 22:1
This is a brilliant section, of course, and yet another reason that I love King David. His ingenuity and resourcefulness are quite wonderful (and I particularly like the idea that God creates everything in this world for a reason. King David questioned madness, the creation of the spider and one more thing, which I now forget, but all of these creations came to his aid in his time of need.)

But what I most enjoy is seeing contemporary authors make use of biblical ideas. This is precisely what Mindy L. Klasky does in The Glasswrights' Apprentice:

    Rani knew, as all the people of the City did, that Halaravilli had been the death of his mother. She had succumbed to childbed fever before the prince was one week old. The birth had been difficult for both mother and son. Halaravilli was widely rumored to be slow, and more than a little odd. According to loudly whispered tales, he had not spoken until his fifth birthday. Everyone in the City knew that the prince had never crawled- he went directly from sitting to staggering about the nursery on toddling legs, despite his nurses' best efforts to force him to his knees, to make him progress like a normal child.


    Halaravilli looked up quizzically. "Speaking to me? Speaking to me?" The prince descanted his words in a chant. "Only a Touched would be named Hal. Only a Touched or a god. Speaking to me, speaking to me, a Touched or a god."

Now compare:
    "What are you saying then? Why are you talking to me normally? What happened to your chanting?"

    He pinned her with his dark, shrewd eyes. "I don't need to play those games with you."

    "What games?"

    "And you don't need to play games with me," he chided. "I know that you're the First Pilgrim, and you've clearly been selected by the Brotherhood of Justice."

    "You know what the snakes mean!" Rani hissed despite herself, and Halaravilli nodded.

    "Aye, or at least I know enough to fear them, among all the rival powers in my father's kingdom." When Rain merely stared without comprehension, Hal smiled. "I know to fear the power, and I know to fear my brother. I know to fear the snakes, and I know to fear the fox."

    "Stop it!"

    Hal favored her with a twisted grin, but he fell silent. "I know that a chanting idiot is no threat to traitors who would murder all who stand in their way."

    "Do you realize what you're saying?"

Now, I certainly don't think that Mindy L. Klasky deliberately decided to model Prince Hal on King David. I do not think she chose to put a royal prince in a position where he must hide and pretend to be mad in order to save his life from traitors and the intrigues of court in order to imitate the biblical king. But I find it interesting that she has written a character in the tradition of both the wise fool that has always existed in literature and the heir to the crown/ member of royalty who is in danger. She seems to have combined the literary tradition with the biblical tradition and it is that amalgam that fascinates me.

Indeed, it would be quite interesting to track the development of the wise fool/ madman/ idiot through the ages. We could incorporate so many works of literature, everything from King Lear to Hamlet to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest to Robin Hobb's books (The Farseer Trilogy, The Tawny Man) to The Glasswright's Apprentice. And many more, I am certain.

A man must be "wise enough to play the fool." (Twelfth Night, Act 3, Scene 1)


Erachet said...

Great, great post! I love the fool. I think he has a great part in any story. Sometimes it's wise not to let on you know so much about things, even in our every-day, normal lives. You have to play your cards right. That's what the fool does. He stands back so he can see the whole picture and then knows when to speak and what to say. It's awesome.

I'd never make a good fool. I'm too blunt and tactless. A fool has to be much more sly in order to pull it off the right way.

Scraps said...

The wise fool is usually one of my favorite characters. Don't we all play that part at times, or at least try? Who hasn't been in a position where it is better to seem ignorant and pass unobserved than to be noticed?

Also, now I have to add that series to my reading list...

Anonymous said...

Another brilliant post.

If you're interested, you've been tagged.

M.R. said...

Third thing: the wasp.
(When David raided Shaul's camp [for a spear and water-jug], Avner rolled over, trapping David. Then a wasp came and stang Avner's leg, so he moved again.)

yitz said...

There's a book called Hamlet's Mill that traces these kind of archetypes throughout the development of literature etc. here's a link to it on amazon: Hamlet's Mill