I was surprised and delighted to discover that in Chrétien des Troyes’ tale of Perceval, King Arthur’s fool is also a prophet. Immediately, this felt important. The fool is a prophet? Or perhaps prophets are fools?
I tried speaking briefly on this at a writing workshop, but the threads of my thoughts got tangled and knotted. All my hoped for flashes of brilliance puddled. (My apologies to all present.) Here’s my third attempt to express the significance of this story.
In the tale of Perceval, the fool prophesies that a young maid will not laugh until she sees the man destined to be supreme among knights. When this maid sees Perceval, she laughs and prophesies his greatness even though he is nothing more than a rustic Welshman wearing the canvas shirt his mother made. Sir Kay, who had been scolded by Arthur for mocking Perceval, cuffs the maid and kicks the fool into the fire.
Later the fool rightly prophesies that Perceval will silence Kay’s wicked tongue by breaking his arm and collar-bone. Chrétien says Kay would have killed the fool if he had not feared offending King Arthur. The fool is never named despite all his prophesies coming true.
I have now figured out why this story resonates with me. First, I am and have been a fool for Christ. Several times I have lost or given up jobs following what I believed to be God’s will. Was it? Or was God playing a joke on me? Maybe I fooled myself; I don’t know.
I have, some might say foolishly, pursued and poured hours of prayer into the restoration of the Church to New Testament power and holiness. I have given my heart and energy to a small church in a small town in the backwoods of Oregon. I now share with others a vision for a Rivendell for writers—a spiritual and creative refuge where the creative arts are nurtured for the glory of God. Silly stuff.
Second, like King Arthur’s fool, I am not a knight. I am an English teacher. I tell and teach the old stories. And surprisingly, like Arthur’s fool, I am at home with the prophetic. Although I make no claims to a prophetic gift, and have, in fact, spent years backing away from it, I still value prophets and prophetic ministry.
My years in Kansas City and my friendship with John Paul Jackson and others have shown me the many ways that prophets are God’s fools. In the king’s court fools lived on the edge of disaster because the wrong word could cost them their head. Prophets embrace the same vulnerability of fools. They have no protection but the king’s. And like fools of old, prophets speak words but do not fight the battles.
I have resented this. Most of my life I would have rather been Perceval—the young knight destined to win battles and find the Holy Grail. This story has haunted me, I suspect, because it spoke to me that I am the fool—full of silly stories and the prophetic visions. With no sword or armor. No kingdom or castle.
Prophets and fools, prophetic fools are stripped of pride. Yet beneath their wit and clowning, fools were often full of wisdom. As in the story of Perceval, the fool was often the one who saw people’s hearts most clearly. Loyal to the king and without ambition, the fool was free of all the pride and passion that blinded others. And by telling an old story or silly joke, the fool could help others to see too.
Here’s a good one. One day a prophet, an English teacher, and a clown walk into a church. Hilarious!