By Ashly Moore Sheldon • March 31, 2022
Happy April Fool's Day! To celebrate, we're exploring the role of fools in literature. Shakespeare made special use of the fool as a key player in his stories, establishing this archetype as a staple in literature. These characters took a variety of forms, from blustering and silly to wise and inscrutable. Here are some of our favorite literary fools.
The doddering, self-appointed knight at the center of Miguel de Cervantes's eponymous novel veers wildly between comedy and tragedy. The aging, minor nobleman stumbles through a series of absurd misadventures, "tilting at windmills" and imagining the pastoral Spanish countryside as a dangerous battlefield.
Many of the terrifically eccentric characters from Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons could be included here. We've chosen the reclusive matriarch who constantly threatens her progeny with one of her fits if they ever leave the farm. Her much-repeated justification: "I saw something nasty in the woodshed."
The central figure in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole has been called a modern-day Don Quixote. The slovenly thirty-year-old lives with his mother in 1960s New Orleans and struggles to find a job, encountering colorful characters along the way. He is eccentric, idealistic, and creative—sometimes to the point of delusion.
From Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this hilariously odd character is a cousin of Ford Prefect and comes from a planet in the vicinity of Betelgeuse. He has two heads and three arms, explaining that he got the third arm fitted recently "to help improve his ski-boxing."
In 1995, author Helen Fielding started publishing a weekly column lampooning the stereotypical single woman's obsession with romance and marriage. Written as a series of confessional diary entries from a chronically unlucky-in-love 32-year-old, the column was an instant hit with readers and Fielding went on to write Bridget Jones's Diary.
Named Major Major Major as a joke by his father, he then gets promoted to the rank of Major after joining the army. Another running joke in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 is Major Major's uncanny resemblance to actor Henry Fonda. Character Captain Black, maintains that he really is Henry Fonda, but "too chickenshit to admit it."
After she gets a concussion, Cara can't keep her thoughts or opinions to herself. This creates discord when she begins spilling all the family secrets at a gathering of her husband's extended clan. As everything unravels in Grown Ups by Marian Keyes, each family member finds themselves reevaluating things.
In our opinion, the fool from True Grit by Charles Portis could just as easily be the charismatic, drunken Rooster Cogburn. But the dogged, dandified Texas Ranger is an amusing foil for the rough-and-tumble marshall. Together they deliver plenty of hilarity as they join forces with teenaged Mattie to hunt down her father's killer.
The youngest of the hobbits who set out with Frodo and the One Ring in The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien, Pippin is curious and impulsive. His comical antics are entertaining, but he often stirs up trouble, like when he drops a stone down a hole in the tunnels of Moria. The racket awakens the evil forces within and Gandalf memorably calls him "a fool of a Took."
As Tolkien's classic memorably states, "Not all those who wander are lost." Although they are subjects of amusement and even ridicule, it is often the fool who sees the world most clearly and represents the voice of truth and wisdom in many stories. Who are some of your favorite literary fools?
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