When is a Fool not an utter fool? When he’s given a mission, obviously, regardless of his readiness to undertake it. In the annals of tarot’s “creation myth,” the Fool was a stereotype of the medieval court jester, a madman in motley and bells. I sometimes wonder how many of those historical fools had a type of Tourette’s Syndrome, (coprolalia, the utterance of obscene words or socially inappropriate and derogatory remarks), making them ideally suited to the King’s purpose. Granted favor by the monarch’s indulgence so he could say things other courtiers were afraid to express, he was literally, in the words of Yoav Ben-Doav, allowed “total freedom: from the laws of reason, from worldly obligations and from caring about others’ opinions.” Beyond the rather perverse entertainment value, the metaphysical intent seems to have been to give the King and his court a humbling sense of human frailty, as in “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
With the “psychologizing” of tarot, the Fool became the poster child for incipient individuation, and was given a noble calling: the pursuit of “integration of the psyche, a transformation, whereby the personal and collective unconscious are brought into consciousness, to be assimilated into the whole personality.” A tall order for a clueless simpleton. In literature, the figure of Parsifal (Fal Parsi, nominally meaning “pure fool”) was linked to the initiation of a lofty spiritual quest. In the Book of Thoth, Aleister Crowley likened Parsifal (from the King Arthur legend and Richard Wagner’s opera) to the “Holy Fool” of the tarot. Metaphorically, the Holy Grail of the Fool is the attainment of self-awareness and, ultimately, self-mastery by dint of a symbolic odyssey that slowly transforms him from a callow neophyte into a wise and seasoned adept.
“I’m on a vision quest!” (Brian Williams’ Fool card from the Post-Modern Tarot)
In modern terms, this card is generally interpreted as predicting a new beginning or fresh start, in which all preconceptions and past associations are cast aside in favor of setting out for a completely unknown destination. In the throes of this ecstasy of self-discovery, intelligence (shown by the small dog) takes a back seat to the Fool’s heedless adventurousness, and is relegated to leaping at his heels in warning. The Fool is carefree, traveling light and unencumbered by material possessions, but also careless in that he isn’t paying attention to where he’s putting his feet. The gist of this card is to trust one’s instincts and spiritual clarity of vision (“second sight”) to point the way safely along the cliff’s edge. It shows the need for absolute faith in one’s sense of balance and self-confidence in confronting an uncertain future. To falter at the very edge of enlightenment is to fall into error. In practical matters, however, it can imply naivety and foolhardy risk-taking; it doesn’t favor any kind of high-stakes gamble involving one’s livelihood, because critical details are likely to be overlooked in the rush to reinvent oneself. There can be an urge to act now and think later, letting the chips fall where they may. The Fool is an exemplar of the aphorism “It’s often easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
Much has been made of the Fool as an expression of the “Hero’s Journey” popularized in mythological language by Joseph Campbell and others. Here is a Wikipedia synopsis:
In narratology and comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
The study of hero myth narratives started in 1871 with anthropologist Edward Taylor’s observations of common patterns in plots of hero’s journeys. Later on, others introduced various theories on hero myth narratives such as Otto Rank and his Freudian psychoanalytic approach to myth, Lord Raglan’s unification of myth and rituals, and eventually hero myth pattern studies were popularized by Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by Carl Jung’s view of myth. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
Campbell and other scholars, such as Erich Neumann, describe narratives of Gautama Buddha, Moses, and Christ in terms of the monomyth. While others, such as Otto Rank and Lord Raglan, describe hero narrative patterns in terms of Freudian psychoanalysis and ritualistic senses. Critics argue that the concept is too broad or general to be of much usefulness in comparative mythology. Others say that the hero’s journey is only a part of the monomyth; the other part is a sort of different form, or color, of the hero’s journey.