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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif J2100-J2119

Remedies worse than the disease.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

III – The Simple Tale

1. Jests and Anecdotes

B. Fools and Numskulls

A surprisingly large number of simple tales told by unlettered men everywhere concern fools and their absurdities. This is true just as much of primitive peoples who love to see their culture heroes play the parts of buffoons [295] as it is of an older generation of British or Danish peasants who tell of the actions of the Men of Gotham or the Fools of Molbo. [296] Every generation has its new supply of such stories, though many old ones, sometimes familiar to the Egyptians or the ancient Greeks, are dressed in strange new trappings, and pass for new inventions.

Out of the large body of anecdotes based upon absurd misunderstanding there may be mentioned three which have attained considerable popularity in various folk traditions. One of these tales belongs to the general class of objects with mistaken identity (J1750-J1809). A numskull is convinced that the pumpkin which he is sitting upon is an ass's egg which he has hatched out. He believes that the rabbit which runs by is the colt (J1772.1; Type 1319). This anecdote not only appears in Turkish jestbooks, but is told all over Europe, in much of Asia, and among the mountain whites of Virginia Similar stories tell of the servant who is sent to bring in the cows and spend the whole day trying to round up the rabbits (J1757), or about the peasant who first sees a steamship and thinks it is the devil (J1781.1; Type 1315*) Such anecdotes are probably more widespread than collections would indicate. The second of these, for example, was recorded in Virginia only a year or so ago; otherwise we would probably have concluded that the tale was not known outside of Finland.

A second kind of misunderstanding may result in inappropriate and absurd actions on the part of the numskull (J1820-J1849). Best known of such stories is that of the landlubber peasants who go to visit the sea. When they see waving flax-field, they think it is the sea and jump in to swim (J1821; Type 1290). Not so well known, but surprisingly popular for such a foolish tale, [p. 191] is the account of the fool who sees his cow chewing her cud and kills her because he thinks she is mimicking him (J1835*; Type 1211). Though this anecdote has its main popularity in the Baltic countries, it is known as far afield as India.

The fool lives in a mental world of his own, and he may endow objects or animals with any qualities that suit his passing fancy (J1850-J1909). In some of the more complex tales [297] we have seen the fool throwing money to the frogs, so that they can count it, or selling goods to animals or to a statue. Usually the subject of an independent anecdote is the numskull who feeds meat to cabbages which he imagines must be hungry (J1856.1; Type 1386). This story is very old, going back to early Buddhistic literature. Another compassionate fool fills the cracks in the ground with butter (J1871; Type 1291), or puts a cloak around a stone to keep it warm (J1873.2). Of all the anecdotes about objects or animals which are expected to go alone, the most popular is that of the numskull who lets one cheese roll down a hill, and then sends another to bring it back (J1881.1.2; Type 1291).

A much more interesting tale of this general type is The Ox as Mayor (J1882.2; Type 1675). The story consists of the strange results which happen when a peasant is persuaded to send his ox to school to learn to read. The man who is to teach the ox slaughters it, and tells the peasant that it has gone to the city and has become mayor. The peasants go to visit him, meet a man named Peter Ox, or the like, and greet him. He acknowledges the acquaintance and inherits their money. This is primarily a literary anecdote appearing in such Oriental collections as the Thousand and One Nights and the jests of Hodscha Nasreddin. As an oral tale it is popular only in northern Europe, though it has been recorded elsewhere all the way from France to India.

The ascribing of human characteristics to the ox is one example of the widespread misunderstanding which fools are supposed to have concerning the nature of animals. Most of such anecdotes (J1900-J1909) are purely literary, though the tale of the man who takes his cow to graze on the roof (J1904.1; Type 1210) is widely recounted in Europe, and has been heard in America. The numskull usually ties the rope to his leg as the tethered cow grazes on the roof. Of course, she falls down and drags him after.

Our proverb about hunting for a needle in a haystack probably refers to a tale of a fool who did this. For there are many stories of just such vain searches for lost objects. Best known of all such anecdotes is that about the foolish sailors who lose an object from their boat and mark the place on the boat rail to indicate where it fell, so that they can hunt for it later (J1922.1; Type 1278). This anecdote appears in Chinese Buddhistic literature and is told occasionally by people who live as far apart as England, the United States, and Indonesia. [p. 192]

As a part of his general disregard for reality, the fool may overlook elementary natural laws. To the peasant story-teller, some of the most interesting of these have to do with his unsuccessful attempt to grow crops (J1932 and its subdivisions; Type 1200). The fool sometimes sows cooked grain or salt, hoping to produce more of the same. Or he sows cheese to bring forth a cow, or plants an animal tail in order to produce young animals. Most tales of this general type of absurdity seem to be literary, though they have occasional oral versions. This is true of the numskull who tries to dig up a well and take it home, or the one who digs a hole so as to have a place to throw the earth from the excavation he is making, or of the man who stands before the mirror with his eyes shut to see how he looks in his sleep (J1930-J1959). One anecdote reported from widely separated areas must be relatively recent, since it depends upon a modern invention. The fool's son, who is living in a distant city, writes his father requesting a pair of boots. A rascal persuades him that he can save time by sending them by telegraph. The father leaves them hanging on a telegraph pole, but they come into the hands of the trickster rather than the son. [298]

The essential nature of the ego has not only puzzled the great philosophers but has troubled the thinking of fools. Sometimes a man may not know himself because in his sleep his beard has been cut off or his garments have been changed, or he has been smeared with tar and feathers (J2012 and sub-divisions; Type 1383). Or he may be sitting with other fools and they get their legs mixed up, so that they cannot tell whose is whose (J2021; Type 1288). To such persons counting is always a trial. One fool concludes that a member of their party is drowned because he fails to count himself (J2031; Type 1287). The difficulty is sometimes solved by the whole group sticking their noses into the sand, and then counting the holes. Such stories of absurd calculations are essentially literary, though one or another of them is occasionally found in all parts of Europe, in India, and even in European tradition in America.

Any logical arrangement of the activities of numskulls continually breaks down, since their absurdity is not confined to sensible bounds. One can only say that some fools are primarily ignorant and some primarily absent-minded. In this way it is easy to find a group whose chief failing is shortsightedness (J2050-J2199). Two well-known tales are concerned with absurd plans made by such simple souls. One of these has to do with the man and his wife who make plans for the future and eventually quarrel over the details, so that they destroy the very things they are counting on to bring them their wealth. In excitement or under the stress of other emotion, the fool breaks the jar of honey, the basket of glassware, or the eggs he is to sell, or the milkmaid tosses her head and spills her milk (J2060.1, J2061; Type 1430). These tales [193] are very popular in Oriental and medieval literature; and they have been reported with fair frequency by folklore collectors in many parts of Europe and Asia. An Oriental literary origin would seem likely.

Much more popular as an oral tale is the story of Clever Elsie (J2063; Type 1450), who is sent to the cellar to get wine to serve her suitor. She sees the axe above her and begins weeping over the troubles she might have if she married the suitor and had a child who might come down just as the axe falls. Her foolish parents join her and, meanwhile, the suitor goes home. For a simple anecdote, this tale has received a remarkably wide oral distribution. It is probably Oriental and literary in origin.

In a world of shrewd business men, it is remarkable that more stories of foolish bargains have not been told than actually exist. Sometimes, of course, such bargains find their main interest in the sharp dealings of the trickster rather than the stupid actions of the dupe. [299] There is one well-known story, however, where the foolish man plays the leading role (J2081.1; Type 1415). He trades off his horse for a cow, his cow for a hog, and so on with ever smaller results until he has nothing left. But the story-teller does not leave him in defeat. In one way or another luck comes to his rescue. Sometimes he retrieves himself by a series of lucky bargains, but most often he is brought back to prosperity by wagering that his wife will not be angry. She continues to praise his good judgment throughout, and he thus wins back more than he ever lost. Of course, the stupid seller is not always given a last-minute rescue. No help comes to the woman who sells her cows and gets one of them back as a pledge for the unpaid purchase price (J2086; Type 1385).

A favorite theme in the literary jestbooks which is occasionally found in European oral tales is foolish acts in which the remedy is worse than the disease to be cured (J2100-J2119). Fools burn a house down in order to get rid of a cat or of insects, or they chase a rabbit on horseback and ruin the crops they are hoping to protect. Such tales have not often entered the oral tradition, and the same thing is true of the numerous stories of the fool who needlessly risks his life (J2130-J2159). Only two of such seem to be widely told, and both of them certainly go back to Oriental literary sources. One of these is about the fool who cuts off the tree limb on which he sits, and the other about the men who hang down in a chain until the top man spits on his hands and they all fall [300] (J2133.4 and J2133.5; Types 1240 and 1250).

Jestbooks record many another shortsighted act, and most of them have been heard now and again by collectors of folklore. [301] Such is the account of the man who tries to jump into his breeches, pulling on both legs at once; of the people who carry a millstone uphill so that they may roll it down; of [p. 194] those who do not mend the roof when it is fair weather and cannot when it rains; or of the schoolmaster who whips his pupils beforehand to keep them out of mischief. One tale of this kind is well known as an oral anecdote: that of the fool who lets the wine run in the cellar while he falls into a deep study or sometimes while he chases a dog. In the sequel he usually tries to dry up the spilled wine by pouring meal on it (J2176; Type 1387).

A frequent theme in jestbooks is the tale of the man who believes that he is dead (J2311 and subdivisions). Most frequently this is the result of a deception practiced by the wife (Type 1406). In one particular variety of this tale she lies to him and tells him that a certain pot of preserves has been poisoned. He decides to kill himself, and eats the preserves. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, he thinks himself poisoned and lies down for dead (Type 1313). Similar tales, primarily literary and seldom of interest to the unlettered story-teller, tell of how a naked person is made to believe that he is clothed, a layman that he is a monk, a well man that he is sick. One of these tales has, however, received some oral currency, that of the parson who is made to believe that he will bear a calf. The doctor makes a mistake and examines a cow's urine instead of the man's and predicts the birth of a calf. The man is later persuaded that he has actually borne a calf (J2321.1; Type 1739).

As a part of stories concerning the saints or gods who wander on earth, we frequently find a foolish mortal attempting unsuccessfully to perform a miracle in imitation of these supernatural beings. [302] Tales of foolish imitation on a purely human level are also very popular in jestbooks and collections of medieval tales. There is, for example the anecdote about the doctor's son who has heard his father tell his patient that he has eaten too much chicken. The son wonders how the diagnosis was made, and the father tells him that as he rode up he had observed chicken feathers and had made his conclusions. The son tries the same method and sees an ass's saddle in front of a house. He diagnoses the ailment as due to the eating of ass's flesh. Another literary tale of this class, occasionally told by story-tellers, is that of the two presents to the king. A farmer takes an extraordinarily large beet as a present to the king and receives a reward. His companion is eager for an even larger reward and leads a handsome steed to the palace. The king presents him with the huge beet. Though these two tales [303] are certainly literary, one anecdote of foolish imitation has had wide acceptance both as a popular tale and, especially in English-speaking countries, as a folk ballad. A husband is scornful of his wife's labors and, at her suggestion, agrees to exchange tasks. While she succeeds with his work in the fields, he makes an utter failure in his attempt at housekeeping (J2431; Type 1408). The details of his awkwardness furnish the amusement for the story, and these may be expanded at will. [p. 195]

The fool is frequently so literal-minded that he follows instructions even in the most inappropriate situations. The best-known tale of this kind has to do with the mother who tells her son what he should do in various circumstances (J2461 and subdivisions; Type 1696). For instance, he has tried to send a pig home alone. His mother tells him that he should have led it by a string. The next time he drags the bacon home by a string. Or he has killed a sparrow by his stupidity and has been told that he should have carried it in his hand. Accordingly, on the next trip he carries a harrow in his hand. These details are multiplied with considerable ingenuity. The story seems to go back to a Chinese Buddhistic source and appears in a number of Renaissance jestbooks. It has been collected not only all over Europe, where it appears in more than two hundred versions, but also in Indonesia, Japan, and all parts of Africa. In America it is told by the Indians of Nova Scotia and Ontario and by the French of Missouri.

What is really a somewhat specialized form of this same anecdote concerns the foolish bridegroom who follows his instructions to the letter. He is told, for example, that he should cast sheep's eyes at his bride. He buys some at the butcher shop and throws them at her. When he is told to put parsley in the soup, he throws in his dog, who happens to be named Parsley. When he is to clear out the room, he throws out all the furniture. In the end, of course, the bride becomes disgusted and leaves, but not before she has put a goat as substitute in the bed (J2462, J2465.5, K1223.1; Type 1685). Though this tale has a rather wide currency in Europe and has been found in the British tradition of Virginia, it is certainly literary in origin. Its earliest known telling is by Hienrich Bebel in his jestbook at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Only one of the frequent literary tales of foolish extremes has become very popular in folklore. This is The Silence Wager (J2511; Type 1351). A man and his wife make a wager as to who shall speak first. They both hold out for a long time but finally the wife makes the husband so jealous that he cannot forbear scolding her, and loses the wager. This story, which depends upon a literary Buddhistic source, has been the subject of literary jests and of popular comedies and ballads. As an oral tale it is nowhere very popular, but it has been occasionally collected all the way from England to Japan.

Perhaps no peoples have been so interested in anecdotes of fools and their actions as the countries around the Baltic. Scores of other tales than those suggested here are well known in this area. In Finland, particularly, a favorite cycle of stories concerns a bungling fool who has a succession of accidents. When he goes to get a midwife, he accidentally strikes the dog dead, drowns the midwife, and kills the child (J2661.2; Type 1680). In another tale he foolishly kills his horse, and throws his axe into the lake to hit a duck. When he undresses to recover the axe, his clothes are stolen. [p. 196] Then when he goes into a barrel of tar to hide, he gets covered with tar and feathers (J2661.4; Type 1681). [304]

In general, it will be noticed that while a number of stories of numskulls are handed down by tradition, either as anecdotes or as songs, they flourish most in written collections of jests. In the Middle Ages these were included in books of exempla, but beginning with the Renaissance there has been an unbroken series of literary jestbooks containing hundreds of such anecdotes. The jokes in these books may appear to be new, but they are nearly always constructed on some ancient pattern. With jests and anecdotes much more than with the serious folktale, the literary collections have directly influenced traditional story-tellers and ballad singers. This close relation between literature and folklore is nowhere better seen than in numskull tales such as those we have just noticed.

[295] For these trickster tales, see p. 319, below.

[296] An excellent recent treatment of these stories is Christensen's Molboernes Vise Gerninger. For such tales in another quarter of the world, see Coster-Wijsman, Uilespiegel-Verhalen in Indonesië.

[297] Especially Type 1642.

[298] J1935.1; Type 1710*. It is reported in only a single version from Livonia, but I have heard of it as current in Span, Italy, Lithuania, and Russia.

[299] For such deceptive bargains, see K100-K299, below.

[300] There is also a similar animal tale known over much of Europe about wolves who climb on top of one another to a tree, and when the lowest runs away all fall (J2133.6; Type 121).

[301] For this group of stories, see J2160-J2198.

[302] See Types 531 and 753.


121, 531, 753, 1200, 1210, 1211, 1240, 1250, 1278, 1287, 1288, 1290, 1291, 1313, 1315*, 1319, 1351, 1383, 1385, 1386, 1387, 1406, 1408, 1415, 1430, 1450, 1642, 1675, 1680, 1681, 1685, 1696, 1710*, 1739


J1750-J1809, J1757, J1772.1, J1781.1, J1820-J1849, J1821, J1835*, J1850-J1909, J1856.1, J1871, J1873.2, J1881.1.2, J1882.2, J1900-J1909, J1904.1, J1922.1, J1930-J1959, J1932, J1935.1, J2012, J2021, J2031, J2050-J2199, J2060.1, J2061, J2063, J2081.1, J2086, J2100-J2119, J2133.4, J2133.5, J2133.6, J2160-J2198, J2176, J2311, J2321.1, J2431, J2461, J2462, J2465.5, J2511, J2661.2, J2661.4, K100-K299, K1223.1