Created By: Tick on October 31, 2012 Last Edited By: Tick on September 19, 2014

The Wise Fool

The character that seems the most foolish, but knows or understands more than everyone else.

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There may be varying opinions on what to think of them, but everyone shrugs off their opinions and fails to take them seriously. They may be - at least in others' viewpoints - a ditz, immature, silly, ignorant, stupid, paranoid, crazy, or simply fail to understand where they ever got their conclusion from (and thus question their thinking in general). However, in reality, the Wise Fool is the most aware or understanding of what's happening, or going to happen, or how to feel about it. They can often be Genre Savvy, but don't have to be.

The result is that all other characters ignore the Wise Fool's claims, even if the Wise Fool persistently tries to persuade said characters of the same point, and usually are hit by misfortune or make the mistake they were already warned of - only, perhaps, realizing the fool was right all along too late. The Wise Fool may also be a way of making a serious point or argument through a character or person the audience wouldn't typically take seriously.

Compare with Smarter Than You Look, where the character has certain behaviors that make them look less intelligent than they are, but doesn't necessarily know better about the situation (have more wisdom, in a sense), or point out, notice, or recognize things the other characters don't, and may have a better chance of being listened to in the plot. Contrast with its opposite Seemingly Profound Fool, where a character is nearly worshiped and assumed to be very profound and intelligent when they are actually The Fool.

Examples:

  • Marty in Cabin in the Woods - whose role in the movie is essentially this.
  • There are lots of these in Shakespeare, like The Fool in King Lear, and Feste in Twelfth Night.
  • Gooboo Steve in Ty The Tasmanian Tiger. In number 2, he seems like a crazy man who keeps talking about Them and gooboo juice. In number 3 you realize that They are the Quinkan and Goobooo Steve defeated them before with the Shadowrangs.
Community Feedback Replies: 33
  • October 31, 2012
    HeartOfAnAstronaut
    I thought we had this but the closest thing I could find was The Jester, which actually seemed pretty different.

    There are lots of these in Shakespeare, like The Fool in King Lear, and Feste in Twelfth Night.
  • October 31, 2012
    CarrieVS
    Are we sure this doesn't come under Smarter Than You Look? If not, perhaps the description should point out the difference.

    Could also mention that it's an opposite trope of Seemingly Profound Fool
  • October 31, 2012
    Tick
    Carrie VS. It's surely similar, but I feel it may still not quite count. The character is smarter than they look, but not necessarily more aware of the situation or conflict (nor do they have more special insight) than everyone else (according to the description). Especially if that smart character is genuinely unobservant, and would -never- catch on to the situation like the wise fool should.

    Although he never seems stupid, Holden (in Cabin in the Woods) -is- very intelligent and doesn't catch on or apply to this trope like Marty does (whose entire role applies to this trope completely - even within the movie, in a way) the wise fool is (almost?) always used as a tool for things like lampshade hanging (pointing out the situation when everyone else fails to catch on - Marty does this), or foreshadowing, pointing out the problems everyone is failing to notice or intentionally ignoring, pointing out the mistakes or foolishness of another (while seeming foolish to, or being unnoticed by, them), etc. It isn't just that they're smarter than they look, it's that the way -others- think in comparison, and others look at them (and thus totally ignore them - making certain plot points, tensions, etc. usually). The wise fool doesn't even have to be the smartest of the bunch, they just have to -know- better than everyone else (or be willing to recognize something no one else will). Usually, no one else but them realizes this, or only realize too late (which, again, doesn't seem required for the other trope).

    I think a good comparison of difference would be any fiction where the conspiracy theorist (for anything) turns out to be correct - more so that (stereotypical/cliche?) messy and unclean, ignorant/uneducated and/or homeless person fanatically saying the "End is Nigh" on the streets (in the case that they actually have some sort of awareness or reasoning, and it's not just luck that they're right). They're not necessarily smarter than they look, but they -do- understand the situation better than everyone else and are right about their claims, and are being utterly ignored (or even scorned and mocked) by everyone else.

    It's a trope that seems very common throughout history, as Heart Of An Astronaut pointed out, it's often in Shakespeare - I'm not sure if it's due to the contradiction, to the opportunity to play with the assumptions or prejudices of society (even being "immature" can be enough to get everyone to ignore an opinion - no matter how valid), tradition/familiarity, or something else.

    I agree that it seems to be an opposite of Seemingly Profound Fool. Anyone that's listened to by many but doesn't actually know much or is very, very wrong would fit well as such.
  • October 31, 2012
    Tick
    (My apologies for the double-post:) I wanted to note that I've edited the description, though I'm not positive it is fitting enough now - it was suggested to point out the difference, so I did my best to do so briefly.
  • October 31, 2012
    CarrieVS
    You're the one who knows what you were thinking of, so make the description fit that. I was only making a suggestion.
  • October 31, 2012
    MasterheartsXIII
    Gooboo Steve in Ty The Tasmanian Tiger. In number 2, he seems like a crazy man who keeps talking about Them and gooboo juice. In number 3 you realize that They are the Quinkan and Goobooo Steve defeated them before with the Shadowrangs.
  • October 31, 2012
    nielas
    How does this compare to The Cassandra?
  • October 31, 2012
    CarrieVS
    Sounds to me like The Cassandra is a Wise Fool with a long track record. If I understand right (do I?), the wise fool needn't have been right about anything before.

    So far, my understanding is: Wise Fool: is right about this, but no-one believes them. The Cassandra: is usually right, but no-one ever believes them. Smarter Than You Look: is intelligent, but has no special insight or knowledge.

  • October 31, 2012
    HeartOfAnAstronaut
    I think that The Cassandra gives advice (e.g. "the storm is going to be worse than you think, we need to prepare!") that is ignored and everyone thinks they're crazy. Whereas The Wise Fool speaks freely and no one expects the truth from them because of their role/reputation as The Fool?

    Sorry if I'm wrong, I really don't want to read about The Cabin In The Woods and spoil it for myself.
  • October 31, 2012
    StarSword
    Literature
    • The Fool in Robin Hobb's Realm Of The Elderlings universe at first appears to be just the king's slightly insane albino jester. He eventually turns out to be an intelligent, highly educated Mad Oracle and fiercely loyal to his country and the royal family.
  • November 21, 2012
    CarrieVS
    What would this trope's relation be to The Cuckoolander Was Right?
  • November 21, 2012
    DRCEQ
    Also overlaps with both Genius Ditz and Ditzy Genius.
  • November 21, 2012
    WeAreAllKosh
    Live-Action TV

    Zathras from Babylon 5 is sort of one of these, and at one point lampshades it:
    Zathras: "No-one ever listens to Zathras. Quite mad, they say. It is good that Zathras does not mind. He's even grown to like it. Oh yes."

  • November 22, 2012
    Tuomas
    It seems there's a lot of overlap between this and The Cuckoolander Was Right, with many of the examples from that page being mentioned here too. If you think a separate trope page is warranted, you need to make extra clear how this trope is different from that one. The only difference I can see is that Wise Fool can also include people who are viewed as "fools" for other reasons than being a Cloud Cuckoolander, but then you'll have to exclude all The Cuckoolander Was Right examples from this page.
  • November 22, 2012
    WeAreAllKosh
    My Zathras example would be someone who is thought by others as a "fool" due to his odd mannerisms and unsophisticated speech, but clearly is proficient at (at least) his specialty--he's not a "stopped clock which is right twice a day". I guess the question is, is the trope aiming for people who merely appear to be fools but aren't; or is it aiming for people who are generally fools, but occasionally have a flash of insight or lucidity, are Too Dumb To Fool (where others are deceived), or happen to be correct about something by mere coincidence ("stopped clock correct twice a day")?
  • May 29, 2013
    Noaqiyeum
    Bump! I'm working on new trope pages for GK Chesterton, who loves this trope and uses all kinds of variations on it, and was kind of surprised that this page doesn't exist. Innocent Smith, Basil Grant, Mr. Pond...

    The obvious difference between the Wise Fool and The Cuckoolander Was Right is that the latter can be, and often is, a single incident - the paranoiac whose conspiracy theory turns out to have some loose connection to the truth, but it doesn't mean we start believing everything they say.

    The Wise Fool, on the other hand, is correct quite often. And yet people are always surprised.

    The Mad Oracle is a subtrope, or at least related.
  • May 29, 2013
    WeAreAllKosh
    ^ Sounds like Zathras fits then.
  • May 31, 2013
    TrueShadow1
    Obfuscating Stupidity? Seems a lot like it
  • June 1, 2013
    Melkior
    This trope should be named The Foolish Wise One. This is because many readers of Lord Of The Rings would understand "Wise Fool" as being someone who thinks that they're doing the wise thing when they're actually being extremely foolish.

    This is from Gandalf's "wise fool" comment referring to Saruman's attempts to "gnaw at the ends of his old plots" instead of helping the Fellowship, following the Ent attack at Isengard.

    And anyway, "wise fool" does sound to me like someone who thinks they're wise and is actually foolish.

    Edit: Is this the same as Crazy Like A Fox (not the TV series which the phrase links to)? If so, Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter stories qualifies.
  • June 5, 2013
    oneuglybunny
    Methinks this has substantial overlap with Almighty Janitor: a lowly character routinely under-estimated, but who is often Dangerously Genre Savvy.
  • July 29, 2014
    bejjinks
    Actually, Wise Fool is a trope that's older than television but it has a more specific definition than what the description here says. The Wise Fool specifically is someone who doesn't care about what most people care about and his wisdom comes specifically from the fact that he cares about other, more important matters. For example, a guy who doesn't care about sports because he's too busy caring about the children of the community or a woman who doesn't care about fashion because she's too busy caring for the environment. Typically, the wise fool arrives on the scene in time to help everyone with a crisis and then leaves as soon as the crisis is cleared up.

    In fiction, people don't assume that the wise fool is stupid. People recognize that the Wise Fool is wise but the Wise Fool gets ostracized anyway, not because people think he's stupid but because he just doesn't fit the mold.

    Bob: What did you think of the game last night. Pretty awesome, eh?

    Wise Fool: There was a game last night? I guess I missed it. I was helping your son with his math homework.

    Mary Poppins is an example of a Wise Fool and so is her friend Bert.
  • July 29, 2014
    DAN004
    Uh, I believe Smarter Than You Look already covers this. That distinction in the description is negligible. We also have The Cuckoolander Was Right and Eccentric Mentor.
  • July 29, 2014
    randomsurfer
    The title character in The Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill" spends his days seeing the sun going up and down and the world spinning around. Others don't like him and don't talk to him, but he knows that they're the real fools.
  • July 29, 2014
    bejjinks
    No it is not Smarter Than You Look. The Wise Fool is almost the exact opposite. The Wise Fool is never the ditzy cheerleader, the Absent Minded Professor, the Seemingly Profound Fool, or the Genius Ditz.

    The Wise Fool may overlap with Almighty Janitor, Crazy Like A Fox, Obfuscating Stupidity, Cassandra, Mad Oracle, Ditzy Genius, Too Dumb To Fool, or cuckoolander but only on occasion and usually as an attempt to fool other people. (The Wise Fool is not a fool himself but cleverly and surprisingly points out the foolishness in people who think they are wise).

    The Wise Fool is closer to being like the Jester or the Eccentric Mentor. The Wise Fool is not characterized as being a fool but is characterized as being eccentric and doing the unexpected but his eccentricity comes from his wisdom and isn't just random eccentricity.

    Another good example and may even be the trope namer is from The Emperors New Clothes. Everyone wants to appear wise so they all claim to see the beautiful clothing the emperor is wearing. But a little girl plays the wise fool by not going along with the crowd. Instead, she let's herself be seen as the fool and blatantly tells everyone that the king is naked. Thus the king and all the crowd realize that by trying to seem wise, they had actually been the fools. The Wise Fool always flips the distinction of who is wise and who is foolish. In the presence of a Wise Fool, the wise always learns how foolish he is.

    Not going along with the crowd is the distinction of the Wise Fool. To quote the Wikipedia article: "Though the fool is in a position separated from normal society which can cause them to be subjected to deriding acts and contemptuous treatment, it has also at times caused them to be regarded with respect and reverence" and "Since the fool is only guided by their natural instincts, because they do not understand social conventions, they are not culpable for breaches of those rules."

    As far as intelligence, the Wise Fool may be stupid or may be a genius but that is not the distinction of the Wise Fool. How intelligent a person is doesn't determine whether he's a Wise Fool or not.

    In many ancient societies, the mentally ill were protected and considered holy because they received wisdom from the gods. In the Bible, King David took advantage of this by pretending to be insane in order to escape from the Philistines. In a television series called Shogun, the protagonist also pretended to be insane in order to help the emperor escape an ambush. There's also a movie I don't know the name of in which one of the female PO Ws pretended to be insane throughout the film to help protect her friends. At one point, one of her friends faced a firing squad and she brazenly walked out in front of their rifles and started stripping like a mad woman. This caused everyone to forget all about executing her friend.

    So it isn't that the Wise Fool is right occasionally. It's that the Wise Fool, like the jester, can get away with things no one else can and can therefore save the day.

    The Bible speaks of the Wise Fool when it says, "using the foolish things to confound the wise."
  • July 29, 2014
    DAN004
    Then title shouldn't be Wise Fool.
  • August 10, 2014
    bejjinks
    No, it should be called the Wise Fool because the Wise Fool is a trope that originated in the Middle Ages. If Thieves' Cant gets to keep it's ancient name than Wise Fool should to.

    I will take over if there are no objections since it's pretty clear I have a better understanding of this trope and it's history than most people.
  • August 10, 2014
    DAN004
    ^ tell me how this isn't Eccentric Mentor, again?

    We also have The Wonka.
  • August 10, 2014
    bejjinks
    I would say that the Wise Fool is the super-trope to The Jester, Eccentric Mentor, The Wonka, Trickster Mentor, and Cloud Cuckoo Lander and possibly a few other similar tropes.
  • August 11, 2014
    AgProv
    Harry Solomon in Third Rock From The Sun fits here.
  • September 19, 2014
    Philosophazer
    bejinks hit the nail on the head, I think. Personally I think of the movie Wit, in which a brilliant young doctor fails abysmally to understand the non-physical needs and fears of his patient, while the less well-educated and probably less intelligent nurse both understands and affords the patient dignity and care, and it is the latter character who ultimately understands life and death more.
  • September 19, 2014
    bejjinks
    I was wondering if this was going to pop it's head up again. There's a new ykttw called Wise Fool that is better and closer to being published.
  • September 19, 2014
    bitemytail
  • September 19, 2014
    DAN004
    ^ Seconded
http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/discussion.php?id=fjqvbtqhrsot98xo6uhnv3nj