All real enjoyment is as good, from the point of view of energy production and conservation, as suffering. —J.G. Bennett


My place is where I am, and your place is where you are. Not only have I got to bear my own situation, I have to bear your situation also. First of all I have to bear the truth about myself and little by little I have to bear all truths —J.G. Bennett


Tim White

The Fool, a Modern Prometheus

You see them every spring. Although these days it seems that they are all older and more careworn than last year, they’re still out there, gamely putting on the show, the tradition known as Morris dancing. You’ll hear them before you see them. Country tunes played on Melodeons, tabors, and fiddles; the jingle of bells tied to the legs of the dancers; the singing of bawdy songs, sticks cracking together; and, on rare occasions, the sound of clashing swords may waft your way.

 Come closer and you will see the handkerchiefs waving in the air, the even lines of men moving back and forth, leaping in unison and tracing out strange and wonderful patterns on the earth with their feet. Look carefully and you will see an odd figure weaving in and around the other dancers. Sometimes he moves among them in sync and in time, at other times he seems to move without regard to their pattern or rhythm. All the while he is mocking and jeering them on. He is the Fool, the most important of all the characters in the whole of the Morris tradition.

 The Fool did not originate with the Morris tradition. He is an ancient and archetypal character that turns up in all kinds of stories and living traditions. The Fool makes himself at home wherever goes, providing wit and wisdom.  He brings an essential spark, amusing all from kings and queens to the people in the common spaces of quaint country villages.  

The Fool is renowned as a highly skilled storyteller. Lend an ear and he will tell you of the history, meaning and purpose of the Morris tradition. He will answer the one question that people always seem to ask about the Morris tradition, “Why do they do it?” 

In response, the Fool replies:  “When mankind first began to cultivate crops and keep flocks of animals, the balance of nature was forever changed. At that point it was understood that mankind would need to take an active role in the unfolding of the seasons. And so began the long tradition and practice of performing rituals dances in the spring to awaken the earth and bring good luck and fertility for the crops and the flocks and to the people of the villages. Although many different ritual dances have been performed over the years to fulfill this obligation, in the present day it has come down to the Cotswold’s Morris tradition to do what must be done. These rituals have always been regarded as a sacred obligation that mankind must never fail to perform each and every year. It is said that if we should ever fail, even once, to fulfill this obligation at the appointed time in the spring that “the sun will cease to rise.”

 And why should we believe the Fool when he says this?  Who is he to know and speak of such things?  Who is he to threaten us with such dire consequences?  He is a fool after all. Reason would suggest that there is nothing that man could do, or neglect to do for that matter, that would prevent the sun from rising tomorrow. To all of this, the Fool replies, “You never want to listen to reason. Better to go back to a time when you could rely on belief as much as you now rely on reason.”  To understand what he means by this, it will be helpful to look at some images of the Fool as he appears in some other stories and traditions.

 For example, Prometheus was a Fool. In Greek mythology, he was a Titan, one of the gods who ruled the earth before the gods of Olympus. Prometheus created all the creatures of the earth, including his favorite, mankind. When man came into being, Prometheus gave him the gift of fire. Later, as the result of a dispute between them concerning mankind, Zeus took revenge on Prometheus by taking fire away from mankind. Prometheus did not wish for his quarrel with Zeus to be the cause of suffering for man, his beloved creation. To correct this, he went to Olympus, created a diversion and stole fire from the gods, allowing him to restore his gift to mankind. With fire restored, mankind was able to resume the practice of offering a portion of each animal sacrifice as a burnt offering to the gods. In this story we find the three qualities of the Fool. The first is that he is able to move between worlds. The second is that he brings a gift from one world to another. The third is that the gift that he brings is manifested allowing an exchange that benefits both worlds.

In order to make the connection between Prometheus and the Fool of the Morris tradition, we take up the story of yet another Fool. Peter Pan is the main character in the stage play based on the book by J. M. Barrie: Peter and Wendy.   In the play, Peter becomes the Fool to save a dying Tinkerbell.  He reaches out of the world of the play into the world of the audience, bridging the gap between two.

 The gift that Peter brings to the audience is belief.  Belief in faeries is something that most in the audience once had – after all, we were born believing in such things – but that we lost when we grew up. Peter gives belief back to the audience, if only for the moment, so that they can save Tinkerbell by clapping their hands to show that they still believe in faeries. In this case, the gift of fire from one world to another is belief. As in the Prometheus myth, belief is a quality that we are born with, but is taken from us as we “grow up.” It is restored to us by the Fool, Peter Pan. When belief is restored for us, we are able to manifest in such a way as to affect a situation in the world on the stage. Tinkerbell is restored to life.

In the Morris tradition, that other world is nature. The task of the Fool in the Morris tradition is to bring belief in nature back to all of the participants; musician, dancers and audience alike. It the task of the Fool to bring the spark that will allow people to believe, if only for a moment, that the world of nature is real and exists all around them. In that moment, when we begin to see nature once again, it becomes possible for us to participate in the ritual of awakening the earth in the spring and renewing the seasons of nature.

It must be understood that it is not so simple to take on the role of the Fool in any arena. It is not enough to stand on the stage and speak the lines. In order to bring belief to others, the Fool himself must not only believe in, but understand the reality of the world that he is showing to the audience. The Fool of the Morris tradition will only be able to bring the spark of belief that will create the connection between the earth, the dancers and the audience when he himself truly believes, understands, and is – at least in the moment – a part of the world of nature himself. Only then will he be able to help to create the conduit for the exchange of energies that is required to allow the sun to continue to rise.

Ritual dances have been performed every spring for thousands and thousands of years. These ritual dances have taken many different forms over time.  Some, like the Morris tradition, are still with us, while many others are lost. Over time, our traditions seem to be reduced to a kind of stage play in which the players recite their lines, hit their marks and take their bows at the end. Nevertheless, it seems that each spring a Fool who did indeed have an understanding of what was required was able to help mankind fulfill its role and purpose. After all, the sun did rise this morning, did it not?

In the world in which we live, people are becoming more and more separated from nature and more and more distanced from “belief” in nature. The question that we are facing now is:  Are we going to find a way to transmit the inner meaning of the Morris tradition along with the outer form or is the Fool going to just stand there and let Tinkerbell die?