The Wisdom of Fools

These are plenty of stories about "Noodleheads, knuckleheads, nincompoops, numskulls, mooncalfs, softheads, boobies, ninnyhammers, gawkies," and assorted "oafs and thickwits" - but don't call them "stupids" or "dummies" - which have such negative and demeaning connotations. There is some kind of twisted logic to noodlehead stories. Who is really the fool? They reveal a silliness that resides in all of us which often emerges at our most awkward moments. They enable us to laugh at ourselves. And that is why the stories must not told to ridicule or make fun of others.

Some of these fools are wise. These noodleheads might be named Jack in England - (though at some point Jack must have immigrated to Appalachian America), Ivan in Russia, or Boots in Norway, or Guifà in Sicily, but just as often they have no names at all. They may be the wise men of Chelm in Poland, or the merry men of Gotham in England. They may be pranksters and jesters like Tyl or Nesreddin who seem very much the fool, but whose pranks often just expose the foolishness of those who think themselves wiser. They may even be cartoon characters who take everything literally and yet never fall because they just don't know gravity exists. But these same characters are often caricatures which have lent themselves to much further development by writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholem Aleichem in their Yiddish stories. The stories are very old - Tyl stories go back to before 1515, Gotham to before 1540, Hodja to before the 1300's. But these Medieval "urban legends" are as frequently told today and as fresh and revealing as they were before.

The Noodlehead stories are usually simple and brief - some little more than proverbs. They are almost always humorous and entertaining. Though often told for younger children, they still appeal to all ages. Many have been turned into Picture Books. The stories themselves are easily transported from one cultural context to another - tales originating with Tyl Ulinspiegel or the Hodja can often be found in American folklore. Plus there are other fools whose very names make listeners smile in anticipation of their antics: Giufà in Sicily, Guno and Koya in Java. These are good stories for storytellers to start with. Most collections of folktales contain at least one or two noodlehead stories. Besides Gotham and Chelm, there are also other foolish towns: Belmont and Meiringen in Switzerland; Hums in Iran; Lagos in Mexico; Masi in the Solomon Islands; Montieri in Italy; Schilda or Schildburg in Germany; Kampen in the Netherlands; Bemböle (or Hölmölä) in Finland; Tälje in Sweden; and Mols in Denmark.

Neppe Pettersson, who has a special interest in the stories of the noodleheaded people from the Finnish village of Bemböle (Hölmölä in Finnish) suggests a distinction between numskulls. In the index of Aarne & Thompsen, the numskull stories are found from AT 1200 to AT 1349. "These are the stories of a special place, or a village, where everyone is a numskull. The community of numskulls is a happy bunch of people. They are hardworking and kind people. They just don't know any basic natural law. They do not know about light and darkness - that is why a numskull can try to carry light in his hands into a dark room. They can't draw any conclusions or see any consequences - that is why you can put a man in the hole of the mill stone to guard the stone while rolling it down the hill so the stone won't get lost. There aren't any wise among these fools, no wise fool is ever found in these stories nor any tricksters. No person is ever mentioned by his or her name, either. But the stories told about the townspeople of Gotham or Chelm are not put into that category of stories." She says: "They are much too clever in Chelm." In the Aarne-Thompsen index there is a collection of anecdotes and humorous stories found by the numbers AT 1350 to AT 1874 - there we can find the wise fools or tricksters, folk like Tyl and Hodja. "In many of these stories, people are mentioned by their real names. Or stories are about real, existing villages."

This page surveys some of the many origins and resources available for finding tales about noodleheads and their many kin. Books are linked to Used books can also be searched for at ABEBooks. Links with stories are in red.

Contents: The resources on this page include:

Noodlehead Stories

  • Noodlehead Stories from around the World, Moritz Jagendorf (1948)
  • Noodlehead Stories : World Tales Kids Can Read & Tell by Martha Hamilton and Mitch Weiss - an excellent collection with telling hints and activities.
  • The Twelve Clever Brothers and Other Fools: Folktales from Russia by Mirra Ginsburg. See also her The Lazies: Tales of the Peoples of Russia
  • Noodles, Nitwits and Numskulls by Maria Leach
  • The Book of Noodles: Stories of Simpletons or Fools and Their Follies by William A. Clouston (1888)
  • All of Our Noses are Here and Other Noodle Tales and There is a Carrot in My ear and Other Noodle Tales, by Alvin Schwartz (Easy Read books with several stories)
  • Books of Nine Lives:Tales of Tricksters (Vol. 1), Tales of Nonsense & Tomfoolery (Vol. 2) and Tales of Wisdom & Justice (Vol. 3) by Pleasant Despain (formerly published as Pleasant Journeys) all have quite a few Noodlehead stories.
  • The Stupids Die , The Stupids Have a Ball, The Stupids Step Out and The Stupids Take Off by Harry Allard for Ages 4-8.
  • The Dumb Bunnies, The Dumb Bunnies Go to the Zoo , The Dumb Bunnies' Easter , Make Way for Dumb Bunnies by Sue Denim and The Silly Gooses by Dav Pilkey are also aimed at readers ages 4-8.
  • For more on the Appalachian Jack stories see my page on American Tall Tales

    Moritz Jagendorf (1888-1981) was the author of Noodlehead Stories from around the World (1950), The Wise men of Gotham (1957), and Tyll Ulenspigel's Merry Pranks (1938). He was born in Austria on August 24, 1888, but at the age of fifteen moved to New York to live with his father. After study at Yale Law School and a D. D. S. at Columbia University (1916), during the 1920s and 1930s, he devoted most of his time to writing plays, puppet shows, and pantomimes for children including titles such as Fairyland and Footlights (1925), Pantomimes for Children's Theatre (1926), Pie and the Tart (1930), and Plays for Club, School, and Camp (1935), but when Jagendorf heard his first American folktale, he lost interest in plays. He began to concentrate on the retelling of popular legends and folk stories for children. He began to concentrate on the retelling of popular legends and folk stories for children. His first collection of folktales was Tyll Ulenspigel's Merry Pranks (1938). This led to many more collections of European and American folklore including compilations of regional legends such as New England Bean-Pot (1948); Upstate Downstate (1949), many collections of tales from the Middle Atlantic states; from New York's Catskills region; the Midwest and the South. M. A. Jagendorf died in 1981. He was the author of over 40 books.

    The Foolish Men of Gotham

    Three wise men of Gotham went to sea in a bowl;
    If the bowl had been stronger My song had been longer.
    - Mother Goose

    The Wise Men of Gotham, in English legend, were wise fools, the villagers of Gotham, Nottinghamshire, England. The story is that, threatened by a visit from King John (reigned 1199-1216), they decided to feign stupidity and avoid the expense entailed by the residence of the court. Royal messengers found them engaged in ridiculous tasks, such as trying to drown an eel and joining hands around a thorn bush to shut in a cuckoo. Hence, the king determined to stay elsewhere. The "wise men" of the village cunningly remarked, "We ween there are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it." The "foles of Gotham" are mentioned in the 15th-century Wakefield plays. Andrew Boyde, a native of Gotham, wrote Merrie Tales of the Mad-Men of Gottam, a collection of twenty-four of their jests, founded on a commission signed by Henry VIII -- it was published in 1540. The name "Gotham" for all you Batman fans, was first applied to New York City by Washington Irving in 1807. Even though the original story was actually about a kind of twisted cleverness. Washington Irving thought this just the name to give to a city which he believed was inhabited by fools.

    Published Material on Gotham

    Online resources: The Merry Men of Gotham

    The Wise Men of Chelm

    Those who leave Chelm . . . End up in Chelm.
    Those who remain in Chelm . . . Are certainly in Chelm.
    All roads lead to Chelm. . . All the world is one big Chelm.
    Isaac Bashevis Singer

    The city of Chelm is in eastern Poland, about 25 km from the Ukrainian border. The "wise men" of Chelm and their foolish acts are featured in many Yiddish folktales, giving the city a reputation similar to the one enjoyed (or suffered) by the towns and regions of Mols in Denmark, Schilda in Germany, Gotham in England, and Biella in Italy, to mention but a few examples. Just imagine town where everyone is a fool. The foolish characters encountered in the stories have have inspired many stories both for children and for older readers. Both Isaac Bashevis Singer and Solomon J. Rabinowitz (aka Sholem Aleichem) have penned stories set in this Eastern European context. Singer's "Shlemiel" has been turned into a musical play, his "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy" became the movie with Barbara Streisand: and Rabinowitz wrote the stories of "Tevye the Milkman" and his daughters that became the hit musical and film: The Fiddler on the Roof.

    Published Material relating to Chelm

    Online Resources on Chelm

    Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991) Singer's father was a Hasidic rabbi, his mother also came from a family of rabbis. "The East European Jewish-mystical Hasidism combined Talmud doctrine and a fidelity to scripture and rites - which often merged into prudery and strict adherence to the law - with a lively and sensually candid earthiness that seemed familiar with all human experience. Its world, which the reader encounters in Singer's stories, is a very Jewish but also a very human world." Born in a tiny village in Poland, he became a proofreader for a magazine his brother Joshua was writing for in Warsaw. He wrote stories of his own, too, about Jewish witches, devils and prostitutes, and from the beginning critics and editors kept nagging, why didn't he write about nice Jews? He followed his brother to New York in 1935 where he continued as a journalist and writer. He has written many novels and collections of stories. He got the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978. Stories for Children by Isaac Bashevis Singer contains most of his children's stories, many of which are set in Chelm. The Fools of Chelm and Their History recounts the village at war and in revolt and revolution. Naftali the Storyteller and His Horse, When Shlemiel Went to Warsaw and Other Stories, and Gimpel the Fool : And Other Storiesall have Chelm stories. See also The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer as well as his many other works.

    Solomon Rabinowitz ( pen-name: Sholem Aleichem) "Sholom Aleichem" in Hebrew means "Peace be with you." It is also the pen-name of Solomon J. Rabinowitz (1859-1916) a Russian-born Yiddish humorist, whose stories formed the basis for the musical "Fiddler on the Roof." His writings are filledwith the pathos of Jeremiah, but also a fine sense of humor....which is one way of handling pathos and tragedy. He says: "....Asyou know, I'm a great believer. I never have any complaints against the Almighty. Whatever he does is good. As Scripture says,`Trust in the Lord'--put your faith in God and he'll see to it that you lie six feet under, bake bagels and still thank him....I say that we have a great God and a good God but, nevertheless, I say, I would like a blessing for every time God does something the likes of which should happen to our enemies." Sholem Aleichem's books include Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories (Library of Yiddish Classics), Tevye's Daughters: Collected Stories of Sholom Aleichem and Adventures of Mottel: The Cantor's Son

    Howard Schwartz is a well known American author of various collections of Jewish stories for children. His Reimagining the Bible :The Storytelling of the Rabbis has a dozen essays reflecting on the ways in which each successive phase of Jewish literature has drawn upon and reimagined the previous ones. Collections of Jewish Folktales by Howard Schwartz include Adam's Soul : The Collected Tales of Howard Schwartz, as well as The Diamond Tree : Jewish Tales from Around the World , Gabriel's Palace : Jewish Mystical Tales, Elijah's Violin & Other Jewish Fairy Tales, Miriam's Tambourine : Jewish Folktales from Around the World, The Day the Rabbi Disappeared : Jewish Holiday Tales of Magic, and Lilith's Cave : Jewish Tales of the Supernatural

    More Collections of Yiddish Tales

    Eulenspiegel, Till

    All those born with a nimble wit and a love for merry pranks and joyful life are Tylls.
    And the more Tylls there are born in this world, the happier it will be.
    -- Moritz Jagendorf

    [Ger.,=owl-mirror, hence English Owlglass], a north German or Dutch peasant clown of the 14th century who was immortalized in chapbooks describing his practical jokes on clerics and townsfolk -- his name reveals him as "the man who holds up mirrors for owls to look into". The first Till chapbook (c.1510) was probably in Saxon in a book by H. Bote, but the story it told spread all over Europe and North Britain. He allegedly was born in Kneitlingen (Braunschweig/ Lower Saxony) and died in 1350 in Moelln (Schleswig-Holstein). Till is the hero of a tone poem by Richard Strauss and of many novels, poems, and stories. Tyll Ulenspiegel is one of the variant spellings

    Published Resources on Tyl Eulenspeigel

    The Mulla Nessudin Hodja - Wise Fool Tales from Turkey

    Many say: I wanted to learn, but here I have found only madness.
    Yet, should they seek deep wisdom elsewhere, they may not find it
    - From Teachings of Nasrudin, 1617

    Probably the oldest and biggest collection of wise fool stories are those of the Mullah Nesreddin Hodja. Tales of Hodja extend from Albania in the west to Western China in the East, and from Siberia to the Sahara, though Turkey claims to be his homeland. Hodja is often pictured riding backwards on a donkey, so he can see where he has been. Wit, common sense, ingenuousness, ridicule... and the kind of humor that reflects human psychology, exposes the shortcomings of a society, criticizes even are the elements which together create a special kind of logic, the Nasreddin Hodja logic. It is not an exaggeration to consider him one of the main building blocks of folk thought, and his humor, one of the best in the world. According to certain stories, Hodja was a contemporary of Tamerlane, who invaded Anatolia at the beginning of the 15th century, and according to the others, he lived either before or after the age of Tamerlane some suggest he died about 1284 -1285. Many stories and sayings have been attributed to the Hodja.

    In Albanian the name would be spelled Naxhrudin Hoxha and pronounced NAZHJ-rue-deen HO-zhah. Hoxha is a common surname in Albania, a province of the Ottoman Empire for about 450 years. In the Arab world, the name is pronounced Naser-a-Din, The "Na" is pronounced with depth, something between "Na" and "Nu". The "Di" is a little bit prolonged and emphasised. The whole name is said in one breath, don't stop untill you get to the "i".Hodja in Arabic is "Haj" when the "H" is a letter that does not exist in English, and it is pronounced from the throut like the dutch pronounce "jj". and Eldrbarry's Bookshop
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