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Free Spirits

by Cathrin Hagey

If you are too busy to laugh, you are too busy, goes the proverb. One might add: if you can’t laugh, you’ve lost your way. But laughter is two-pronged. On the one hand, it’s a joyous outburst; on the other, it can be cruel and exclusive. It’s an emotional expression as complicated as we are. Naturally, in the realm of story—myth, folklore, fairy tale, or modern narrative—laughter is the province of what is perhaps the most enigmatic of archetypal characters: the free spirit.

None of us is ever completely free, even the free spirit. Every life, fictional and otherwise, is bound to the web of creation, which in the case of a fictional being is the narrative structure, including setting, plot, and all other characters. However, the free spirit subverts the constraints by being larger than life—more egotistic, more energetic, more impulsive, irrepressible. This creates disharmony, sometimes chaos, from which something new is born. Free spirits come in different guises, one of which is trickster.

Trickster gleefully punctures all pretensions of gentility, all attempts to live in the mind and not the flesh; he is a creature of the body, of impulse and desire; he contains all the flaws of humankind writ large…1

One of the most well known fairy tale tricksters is the cat, Puss-in-Boots, who has spent his life hunting granary mice and rats. When the miller dies, he leaves his youngest son (of three, as per the norm for fairy tales) nothing but the lowly feline. The young man laments that he must eat the cat for his supper, use the skin for a muff, and starve thereafter. The wily creature says, “Do not thus afflict yourself, my good master. You have nothing else to do but to give me a bag and get a pair of boots made for me that I may scamper through the dirt and the brambles, and you shall see that you have not so bad a portion in me as you imagine.”2

In true trickster form, the cat is a risk taker, catching rabbits and pheasants in his handy bag and giving them to the king on behalf of his master, making a show of it with excessive humility, and contriving the false title Marquis of Calabas for the miller’s son. Each time the king is deluded, the cat becomes bolder. Eventually, it tricks a wealthy ogre into shape-shifting into a mouse, kills and eats it, and presents its castle as his master’s abode. The miller’s son marries the princess, and Puss-in-Boots lives a lordly life from then on. As is always the case, the trickster’s good deeds were done for his betterment.

Fairy tales abound with free spirits, but even more so with a subset of the type: the fool. Fools can be arranged into wise fools and simpletons, the latter being the dominant fairy tale archetype. Wise fools, known in the West as jesters since the middle ages, are a worldwide phenomenon:

Perhaps the earliest antecedents of the European court jester were the comic actors of ancient Rome. Several Latin terms used in medieval references to jesters (including numerous church condemnations of them), such as scurrae, mimi, or histriones, originally referred either to amusing hangers-on or to the comic actors and entertainers of Rome. Just as there is now no clear distinction between the terms for “actor” and “jester” in Chinese, so the Latin terms could merge the two…With periodic imperial purges against actors for their outspokenness, many of them took to the road and fanned out across the empire in search of new audiences and greater freedom. Successive waves of such wandering comics may well have laid the foundations for medieval and Renaissance jesterdom…3

The knife-edge wit of the wise fool places him or her in constant fear of danger; so, too, are they to be feared, for their mocking may leave one’s ego in a bruised and battered state. Fairy tales, with their uplifting endings, are more often the milieu of the simpleton, whose folly is often painful to witness.

According to Katherine Langrish, in Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales, in the earliest versions of “Jack and the Beanstalk” the boy trades his cow for a handful of ordinary beans. In later editions, they become magic beans, as though his reckless stupidity is too much for us to bear—“And yet his folly is more than half the point…It’s as if the beans gain their magical properties in response to the innocence and folly of the hero.”4

A common fairy tale character is the youngest of three sons, the less worldly brother, whose naivety carries him through life and deposits him into the arms of good fortune.

In “The Tale of Little Fool Ivan,”5 outside a sprawling, bawdy city lives a shrewd but poor old man. Every now and again he speaks with the devil, goading that vile being into sharing deep secrets so that the old man seems a wizard to his neighbors who come to him for all sorts of spells. This man has three sons, none of whom have his admiration. But the youngest, in particular, “…was a fool, quite a natural in fact, who couldn’t count up to three, but could only eat and drink and sleep and lie on the stove.” Ivan is not only idle and stupid, he is also kind and generous: “If you asked him for his girdle, he would give you his caftan also; if you took away his gloves, he would beg you to accept his cap into the bargain.” He is the very definition of simpleton.

When the old man is near death, he commands his sons to visit his tomb, in turn, beginning with the eldest. Each must stay for a single night. On the first night, the eldest son successfully manipulates the youngest into taking his place by the grave, for which the ghost of the old man praises a sleeping Ivan. On the second night, the middle son does the same, with a similar outcome. On the the third night, the old man’s ghost rewards Ivan for his devotion with a magical horse. Ivan is oblivious.

“And so they went on living together, the elder brothers like wise men, the younger like a fool. Thus they lived on and on, day by day, and just as a woman rolls thread into a ball, so their days rolled on till it came to their turn to be rolled.” Far and wide was the Tsar’s wish proclaimed: to find a brave, strong, intelligent, handsome husband for the beautiful Tsarevna who had rejected every suitor ever brought before her.

According to the Tsarevna’s instructions, a thirty-two story tower was built, with a small window at the top. She declared, “…whoever leaps up as high as my little window on his fiery steed and exchanges rings with me, he shall be my bridegroom.”

We know, of course, who wins her hand. And we are completely satisfied with the outcome because, in the realm of the fairy tale, things are turned upside down and inside out, becoming more pure, more true, in the process. “It is, in the final analysis, love which transforms even ugly things into something beautiful.”6 Similarly, our own journey takes us from innocence to experience, naivety to wisdom, with laughter and foolishness often lighting the way.


Image Credit: johnhain at Pixabay.com

  1. Windling, Terri. “Trickster Tales,” accessed May 8, 2018, http://www.terriwindling.com/folklore/tricksters.html
  2. Heiner, Heidi Anne. “The Annotated Puss in Boots,” accessed May 8, 2018, http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/pussboots/index.html
  3. Otto, Beatrice K. Fools are Everywhere (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), excerpt accessed May 8, 2018, http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/640914.html
  4. Langrish, Katherine. Seven Miles of Steel Thistles: Reflections on Fairy Tales (south east England: Greystones Press, 2016), Kindle edition
  5. Bain, R. Nisbet. Russian Fairy Tales from the Russian of Polevoi (New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co., 1915), accessed May 8, 2018, http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/russian-fairytales-1915
  6. Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (New York: Random House, 1989), 110.

A bit about the columnist:

Cathrin Hagey is a writer and editor based in western Canada. Visit author page