Each tarot card carries a huge variety of meanings and nuances, and the card’s message can change depending on the question, the context of the other cards in the spread, and the moods and perceptions of the querent and reader. We’ll talk more about that later, and get into how to tell which meaning is active when. For now, let’s focus on some different meanings the Fool can take on, and what kind of imagery the card calls up.
One of the best ways to internalize the tarot cards is to associate them with stories, quotes, lyrics, and real-life references that you already know well. I’ll be sharing a lot of my favorite references in these Faces & Facets posts, and looking at instances where each card surfaces in literature, theatre, cinema and pop culture.
You already know The Fool, whether you know it or not, from the Young Jack of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, to the Joker in your playing cards; from Parsifal, the Holy Fool, to Emmet in The Lego Movie. This much-loved character pops up everywhere and is on a tear today. Awww, look out!
A charming but naive young kid, his older brothers mock him, his parents don’t know what to do with him, and he doesn’t know a damn thing about the world, can’t even tell gold from beans, yet somehow when he goes off to seek his fortune, he comes out on top every time. He’s the one who wins the princess’s hand because he’s the only one who can make her laugh, or who makes off with a King’s ransom by some strange twist of fate, and without telling a single lie. He can leap over fire just for kicks without getting burned.
How does he do it? For starters, our folk tales like to show the exalted getting humbled and the humbled getting exalted. For another thing, our stories love to take a random, talentless white guy, call him “the chosen one,” and make sure he gets the girl by the end. But let’s not overlook the Fool’s approach to life . . .
The Fool is so open and naive that he sees the world from different angles, so he catches opportunities others miss all together. He’ll take a leap of faith and tread where smarter folks dare not go. He’s not hung up on needing or caring about the stuff everyone else is so obsessed with, which frees him up to allow love, riches, and adventure to flow straight to him. His carefree, loving nature gives him a personal magnetism and a mystic heart, and Fortuna answers with favor and protection.
For those unfamiliar, Animaniacs was an afternoon cartoon on Kid’s WB in the ‘90s. One of their regular segments was called Buttons and Mindy, and it brutally spoofed Lassie. Mindy was this cute little girl, who’d wander off into ridiculously dangerous scenes of the falling piano and open construction site persuasion while Buttons, her faithful dog, chased after to rescue her, falling through open manhole covers and off canyon ledges along the way.
The Fool is often depicted on the edge of a cliff with an animal companion, usually a dog, by her side. This totally reminds me of Buttons and Mindy. The Fool is so young and so innocent, she doesn’t always recognize danger when she wanders up to it, and she doesn’t care to. The dog at her side can be seen as a kindred spirit and companion, or as a protector, sent to warn and guide the Fool. When we see the dog and the Fool as one, we understand that while the conscious mind of this character may ring mute, her intuition and instinct is sharp as a knife and always sees her through. She can teeter along that ledge time and again and never fall.
Shakespeare loved fools, from Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Nights’ Dream, to Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, to the aptly named Fool in King Lear. The Shakespearean fool is notorious for his cleverness and depths of wisdom, hidden just below the surface. Because of his lowly status, his wit, and his entertainment value, the Fool can get away with speaking truths that no one else would voice for fear of their lives. He can say things, even to the King, that would get any other character chucked out of the kingdom or punched in the face.
Think of John Leguizamo’s portrayal of Toulouse Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. In some ways a sad clown figure, he’s also the only character who “only speaks the truth.” And we know Baz Luhrmann digs Shakespeare.
Also check out the 1956 screwball musical comedy, The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye and Angela Lansbury. A mild-mannered comrade of the trickster hero, The Black Fox, impersonates a court jester to get inside the castle and help overthrow the evil false King.
With tropes like these we see the Fool as a trickster and a carrier of hidden wisdom, misjudged by the outer world, to society’s detriment and the Fool’s triumph.
I think of travelers, train-hoppers, carnies, and beatniks. I think of Jack Kerouac and the Dharma Bums, chasing philosophy and juggling inspiration and truly bad ideas in equal measure.
I think of traveling blues men and women, legends like Robert Johnson, old wandering folk songs, and Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith, and a host of other musicians. This is a wonderful card for musicians, performers, and other artists whose work and lifestyle takes them on the road.
These are difficult lifestyles, where comfort, certainty, and safety are traded for freedom and experience. These lifestyles are not always actively, consciously chosen - sometimes yes, sometimes no - and yet there’s value and beauty in them.
In many older tarot decks, the Fool is rendered grotesquely. Il Matto - the madman, the beggar - a vagabond. From the comfort of the dominant culture, tucked up in our homes, the Fool can be a challenging and even frightening figure. We question her motives and her sanity. We walk right past her and try not to think too hard.
To wander from the bounds of mainstream society and explore is a dangerous game. It opens us up to others’ judgement. We might not be able to return to where came from, and we will certainly return changed if we try. The Fool speaks to those on the fringes. She says “go on, jump. You know you want to. The grass really is greener over here and the air is clear.”
As for the dominant culture, it needs voices from the fringes desperately. It needs the art, the challenges, the cautionary tales, and the wisdom. When enlightenment calls, it often calls from the fringes.
Lady Bracknell: I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?
Jack: I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.
Lady Bracknell: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.
The Importance of Being Earnest
In the context of this play, The Importance of Being Earnest, the above passage is purely comedic. Lady Bracknell is a pompous, aristocratic windbag, and though she’s quite clever herself, she approves of others’ “natural ignorance” because it upholds her cushy lifestyle.
This scene points to a wider truth, however, that the wisest people claim to know little. A sophomoric person will brag about how much they’ve learned and all that they know. A wiser person hold awareness of all that they don’t know and understand.
Jack here is trying to impress Lady Bracknell so he can marry her daughter. He may not have been waxing philosophical about it, but it was still very wise of him to claim he knows nothing.
Recognizing what we don’t know leads us to new questions and explorations, and clears room in our hearts and minds for new truths to enter. When we express wisdom by embracing all that we don’t know, we channel the Fool.