The Fool

I started working on a tarot deck project last year – I think that this year I’m ready to start showing people that deck. This probably won’t ever be printed, but it’ll be interesting to talk about.

The idea of the deck was to depict a wider variety of people that better reflected the people in the world around me. I wanted to include people that were marginalised – people you didn’t normally see in tarot. I wanted a deck that didn’t feel so incredibly blinkered to the state of the world outside. Don’t get me wrong – I adore old decks. But sometimes, I don’t want to read with a deck that shows nothing but white people from hundreds of years ago.

I think this is going to be tough to write about, because the language around marginalised groups is constantly changing, and it’s difficult to keep up with. So, I’m going to do my best. If I screw up, please call me out. I’ll try to fix it.

So, let’s get started!

The Fool is traditionally depicted as a young adult male, carrying a bindle over his shoulder, usually dressed in a garish jester-like costume, usually accompanied by a yapping dog, usually unaware he’s about to fall off a cliff (there are always exceptions). The card traditionally represents things like new beginnings, naivete and innocence, travel, and freedom.

I find that the traditional image is a bit off. Even the name of the card is a little problematic.

If the character is dressed as a jester or a minstrel, it implies that he’s neither naive nor innocent. You need a great deal of wit to be a good jester. A jester needs the ability to discern when they should make that funny but scathing remark, and when they should refrain for their own safety, or for the sake of their employer. Jesters need to know about the things that are uncomfortable for their audiences to hear – they need to know about things that are considered risque. Worldliness is definitely a valuable trait in a jester, because that provides them with fun anecdotes and personal experiences they can weave into unique stories. Knowledge of history, folk tales, and legends is a must. None of this fits the traditional meaning.

If we ignore the character’s outfit (or if he’s dressed another way), there are still problems. The man on the RWS can’t be much older than his mid-twenties, nor much younger than his late teens – in 1910 when the deck was published, that was more than enough time to have lost any spark of innocence or youthful naivete. There was a great deal of hardship in the early 1900’s, particularly for the lower classes, and the Fool rarely looks like he’s wealthy. Different decks show people of different age ranges – Many old Marseilles style decks show the Fool as a bearded man, well out of puberty. Not a child. The Fool is very rarely depicted as a child.

So why is he associated with innocence and naivete? I suspect that it’s because the word ‘fool’ doesn’t exclusively refer to jesters. It came to refer to people with disability or who were neuroatypical. People read the word ‘fool’ and didn’t only associate it with jesters, but also people who were ‘simple,’ so when they were determining the meaning of the card, they added the traits they associated with those types of disability. This concept of naivete potentially stems from ableism. Unfortunately, there’s not really any way to verify this – so take it with a grain of salt.

And now, to run off on a different tangent and contradict myself – if the image were more literal, and depicted a much younger person, or child, it still wouldn’t fully capture the concepts of innocence and naivete.

Tiny children are often far wiser than we give them credit for. To be truly innocent and naive, it would have to be a baby. A baby would fit the idea of a new beginning… but there’s no freedom there. Babies are completely dependent on their parents for food and shelter.

To contradict myself further – often we forget that being older doesn’t necessarily make you wiser. People who live lives sheltered from hardship don’t learn what it’s like to suffer. People who never interact with cultures outside their own don’t learn about the amazing diversity of the world. You can be naive in some parts of your life, but wise in others. The Fool is in all of us, all the time. To paraphrase Plato badly – the truly wise know that they know nothing for certain.

The concept of ‘new beginnings’ comes into the card because the character appears to be on a journey somewhere – perhaps to start a new life – but that leaves questions of the life he’s chosen to leave behind (especially in cases where the card depicts the Fool being chased by an angry dog rather than accompanied by a friendly dog). Was it a hard life? Was he disgraced, or otherwise forced to leave? Is he fleeing responsibility? Did he suffer a tragedy, and now has nothing left to tie him to the place of his birth? Or, is he just visiting his aunt in the next town over? Is he a nomad that wanders from place to place, and so this journey isn’t really anything ‘new’?

How do you even depict the concept of a new beginning?

It’s such a broad concept, and every symbol of ‘new beginnings’ has an implied history – an acorn fell from an oak that grew from another acorn – how old was the older oak? Is the older oak still alive? If it is, and this acorn has landed under it’s boughs, chances are the acorn won’t become a tree because it won’t get enough sunlight. An egg was laid by a bird (or lizard, or platypus, or… something) that lived – perhaps wild, perhaps in captivity, perhaps the egg is infertile, or was left to get cold and die. These ‘new’ things can’t be disentangled from their histories. Like wisdom and naivete, old and new are inseparable.

The concept of freedom is addressed fairly well by the traditional image – a young man carrying all his worldly possessions in a little bindle, travelling alone, looking skyward as he walks freely, unburdened by age or illness. He’s an excellent embodiment of the archetype of human freedom. But he’s not free like a bird. Not even as free as a man on a horse. His freedom of movement is limited to the ground, and no faster than a human sprint. He’s further constrained by oceans, rivers, even fences. If he reaches a city wall, he can’t necessarily just go in. He’s unarmed, so he’s not free to wander into territory that is dangerous or hostile. He’s not free from the need to eat or sleep. If the weather gets bad, he doesn’t have any shelter. So, what do we even mean by ‘freedom’ when we say the man is free?

As you can see, examining these concepts in conjunction with the traditional imagery on the card results in more questions than answers. I think those questions are vital to the interpretation of the card, but I think they’re often missed in writings on tarot because they’re unsatisfying when you’re looking for a fixed and definite meaning.

I chose to make the character on my card an older person, and there are a lot of reasons for it. I’m tired of the assumption that young people are ‘less than’ because they’re not yet old people. Sure, the Fool isn’t a card that just says ‘you’re stupid and you suck,’ but it does associate youth (as in, people under 30) with innocence and naivete. I’m tired of the assumption that age equals wisdom. I’m tired of a world that idolises the aesthetic of youth, desperately trying to erase the appearance of age, yet demonises the young and their decisions. I’m tired of all the older people who refuse to acknowledge that they built the world that young people have to live in. They collectively built the economy, the laws, the culture. They built the trap. And now the young are doing their best to work out how to excel in this world that they didn’t build, and that wasn’t built for them.

I wanted to address the folly of the old – the naivete that assumes that young people can just ‘get jobs’ like they did 60 years ago. The failure to recognise that the world has changed. The naively stubborn refusal that some have to learning how technology works. The folly of people who reason that; if you’ve lived to become old with what you know already, you shouldn’t need to learn new tricks, right?

I wanted to make people think about the new journeys that many older people embark on to live in modern society. The ‘innocence’ of the old when it comes to the perils of new technologies. Their sense of wonder at the amazing technological marvels that appear every year. The freedoms they have today that they wouldn’t have had even 50 years ago – the advances in medicine – pacemakers, hearing aids, audio books, mobility scooters, mobile phones, hip replacements, laser eye surgery – then there’s the access to foods they never had as children, international TV and movies, video calls across the world – things that younger people take for granted, but older people can still be amazed by.

As time passes, the young become the old, and the challenges they will face will be different. Now, with the pace of technology, there’s unlikely to be a generation that doesn’t find itself surprised by the advent of things unheard of in their youth. The youth will always seem unappreciative of these new things, because the young grew up with it all and it seems familiar to them, but the old spent a great deal of their lives without those new things, so they will always be slightly strange, slightly alien.

Then, there’s retirement. Not all the old people of the world have the luxury of retirement. Many find themselves unemployable, and in poverty. But, for those that can retire, there’s freedom from the need to work. Freedom to chase hobbies, or to travel, even if it’s not far. For some, there’s also freedom from caring what others think. Not everyone reaches that point, but I’ve met plenty of wonderfully sassy old people who will say what they think because they’re done playing nice.

I wanted to express the social innocence of the old – this doesn’t apply to all elderly folk, but those like my grandmother endeavoured to retain the stringent social standards of their youth by refusing to curse or speak on certain topics. She used to use the word ‘bugger’ as a replacement for cursing because she’d seen it on daytime TV and thus assumed it was a non-curse… until she found out what it meant. She was mortified at what she’d been saying. She didn’t find out sooner because she refused to speak about things like that – while she’d had children, from the way she spoke you might assume they were all virgin births. She struggled to keep up with how young women dressed and acted because she was isolated from young people that were outside her immediate family, and after a time gave up on it. She came to assume that whatever young Torin was doing was probably what all young women were doing. I didn’t really have the heart to tell her I was a gigantic weirdo, and because of that I directly contributed to her lack of experience.

I wanted to show the beauty of the old – as an artist, I get bored of drawing young, ‘perfect’ faces, but the Fool is so often young and perfect. I love the depth of character in the faces of the old. I love the way that wrinkles form, and show us echoes of the lives lead up to that point. I love the crinkle of skin around the eyes that appears on those that laughed a lot in life, the permanent furrow of the brow on those that worried. I love to see the way the creases and wrinkles change between smiles and frowns.

I wanted to break the cardboard cut-out of a stereotype that claims the elderly are a certain way, and takes away their humanity by enforcing a set of exclusive traits that separate them from other types of people. Certainly, assumed wisdom might seem like a positive trait, but it restricts growth and individuality. It becomes a point of shame if someone lacks the wisdom their age implies due to the stereotype, and someone who is old and wise can’t be considered truly unique because the stereotype says ‘all old people are wise.’

The fact that my Fool is old is a statement that every day is a new beginning, that every stage of a person’s life is a new endeavour. That everyone has something to learn, and something to do. Every new thing has a history that it can’t be separated from, and that no matter how long that history is, it can still spawn something new. Nobody’s life is over until they’re in the ground, and even that is another journey somewhere new.

My elderly Fool is on a beach, by a cafe – accompanied by the traditional white dog. She leans on her walker, which offers her freedom of movement that age has endeavoured to take away. A gull swoops down from above, seeking scraps, freer than she, but still constrained by the needs of the living. She carries a shopping bag with fresh produce for her dinner – she has all the things she needs. She stands at the precipice of a set of stairs – seemingly unaware. She may be about to take a tumble to her doom – even a short fall could break her fragile old bones. But here, perspective may be hiding a ramp from us.

This card echoes the traditional imagery of the tarot quite closely, possibly the most out of the entire deck, and where it diverges, I am trying to dislodge static ideas about what things like freedom, innocence, and newness mean, so that we can more fully explore the wider depths of these concepts. Free in comparison to what? New how? Naive in what way? Innocent of what? Travelling where? I want to ask questions with this card. I want to push back on dogma and tradition. I want to shake people and say ‘Hey, think again!’

Until next time, may the cards fall in your favour –

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