In our current era of globalised stupidity it seems fitting to take a look at the folklore of fools. Pretty much every culture has them and the same tales of their stupidity often turn up in different traditions. The Turkish Hadji, the Italian Bastienelo, the Cambodian Kong, the Chinese Wang and the Arabic Djuna typify this class of heroism, which seems to be largely restricted to males. Hmm.
Numskulls, as these characters are often known, characteristically perform foolish tasks through misunderstanding a verbal communication or taking one too literally. The English Lazy Jack simply does whatever he is told, regardless of the circumstances. The Drongo is the Australian nincompoop, a heroically stupid figure who interprets whatever he is told literally. When the boss tells him to ‘hang a new gate’, the Drongo takes the gate out to the nearest tree and hangs it in a noose.
Jean Sot is a character in French and French diaspora lore. In the Louisiana French versions Jean is a fool who usually misunderstands instructions and shoots the cow instead of milking it. Or he may take what he is told literally and throw a dog named Parsley into the broth instead of the herb parsley, as his mother has requested. On other occasions Jean may remove and take with him a door he has been asked to guard and sometimes makes a fortune when he accidentally frightens off the robbers who have stolen it.
Some cultures have so many fools they have to keep them all in areas or towns designated for the purpose. In ancient Greece those who lived in the province of Boetia were treated as hopeless hayseeds and hicks. The English town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire has been the focus of numskull tales since at least the fifteenth century. One story told of the Wise men of Gotham is that twelve of them went fishing in a boat but returned in a state of great despair believing that one of them had drowned. They knew this because they could each only count eleven fishermen: each forgot to count himself.
Other fooltowns include Chelm or Helm in Poland, where even the intellectually-challenged Berel the Beadle seems like a mental giant; Altstätten in Switzerland, and Emesa in what used to be Persia. Other towns of clowns are found in Pakistan (Buneyr) and Sri Lanka, (Kadambawa), as well as in Japan, Finland and elsewhere.
In German tradition, the inhabitants of Schwarzenborn and Mutschingen are said to be foolish, as are those of the mythic German town of Schild. Here, the people were so stupid they built a council house without windows but were unable to understand why it was so dark inside. Eventually they realised that no light was able to enter the building, but instead of putting windows in, the people of Schild tried to carry beams of sunshine into the building. This did not improve the lighting and so they next took the advice of a passer-by to take the roof off, richly rewarding him for his assistance. This was fine and the people of Schild were very happy – until it rained. They had to replace the roof and consider what they might do next.
Groping around in the darkness of the council house, one of the fools noticed a small beam of daylight lancing in through a crack between roof and wall. After looking at the light for a while and giving the matter a good deal of thought, he suggested to the others that it might be possible to brighten the building by adding some windows. After considering this suggestion for quite a long while there was general agreement that it just might be worth a try.
Many of these tales are more or less affectionate and the characters in them often much loved. What is there to like about stupidity? Perhaps folk fools are reflections of ourselves. With rare exceptions, few of us are actually fools, we just sometimes do foolish things. It’s all part of being human and if we can find a way to weave an enjoyable and witty yarn around foolish deeds of trivial as well as gargantuan dimensions, we will, just as we have done for thousands of years.
What a pity that foolishness seems to have now broken out of folkloric fantasy and into reality.