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The discussion and analysis presented after these translated stanzas is our opinion.  Read the translations for yourself and our analysis, but also seek out varied sources and come to your own conclusions.


Auden & Taylor:

The fool thinks that those who laugh
At him are all his friends:
When he comes to the Thing and calls for support,
Few spokesmen he finds


The foolish man | for friends all those
Who laugh at him will hold;
But the truth when he comes | to the council he learns,
That few in his favor will speak.

Bellow's Note:  The first two lines are abbreviated in the manuscript, but are doubtless identical with the first two lines of stanza 24.


The unwise man weens all who smile
and flatter him are his friends;
but when he shall come into court he shall find
there are few to defend his cause.


The unwise man thinks
that all who laugh at him are friends.
But when he is at the thing
he finds few spokesmen.


The unwise man weens that all
that laugh with him like him too;
but then he finds, when to the Thing he comes,
few spokesman to speed his cause.


The foolish man thinks everyone his friend
who laughs when he does;
then he sees that few will take his side
when his case comes to court.


A foolish man
thinks all who speak him fair
to be his friends;
but he will find,
if into court he comes,
that he has few advocates.


(The first two lines of Stanza 25 are the same as the first two lines of Stanza 24, though they were abbreviated in the text, as noted by Bellows)

At first reading, several of these translations (Auden & Taylor, Bellows, and Chisholm) make it sound like the foolish man thinks that all who "laugh at him are his friends." And, this makes it sort of sound like people are laughing at him...or making fun of him. But, I think Bray, Hollander, Terry, and Thorpe translations are closer to the intended meaning, when they suggest that the fool believes that everyone who laughs with him is his friend. Everyone who "laughs when he does." Bray attempts to make this as clear as possible by putting, "all who smile and flatter him."

Essentially, lines 1 and 2 say that the Fool believes that everyone who is nice to him is his friend. Everyone who glad-hands him. Everyone who laughs at his jokes. Everyone who smiles when he walks in a room. The fool takes these rather shallow indications...as indications of friendship with others.

Lines 3 and 4 suggest that he may think all of these folks who flatter him are his friends, but when he appears in court or at Thing, no one will speak for him or take his side.  Among our ancestors, it was important to have people who would speak for you.  If you had a dispute with another farmer, and brought the dispute to Thing...you would both put forward men to speak for you.  Men to vouch for you.  Men to say that you were right, and the other man was wrong.  If a man went to Thing with a dispute or was brought up in a dispute at Thing, and had no one to speak for him...then he was going to lose. 

In our modern world, lines 3 and 4 can easily be taken more generally.  When the fool runs into hardships and trouble, those "friends" he thought he had will be no where to be found.  We all need an advocate at times.  We all need someone to champion our cause.  We all need someone to pick us up when we fall, brush us off, and march along with us.  Our true friends do this for us, knowing that we will also do it for them.  But, the fool misidentifies two-faced fakes and flakes as his friends...and when he falls, they are very far away.

The wise man is a better judge of his friends...a better judge of reality.  The wise man has a good idea of who will stand with him and who will be missing when hardships are encountered.  The wise man works hard to earn and deserve the sorts of friends that will stand with him. 

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