Friday, 26 August 2016

More than just Comic Relief

I shared another version of this post on my own blog some time ago. I thought I'd share it here too.

What are your feelings toward the characters whose role seems to be mostly to provide comic relief? In older times, they would have been known as jesters, clowns and fools. Nowadays, they tend to be laughed off, when readers say something like, 'He was good for a few moments of light distraction, but the hero was far more complex.' Well, today I want to suggest that these guys and girls provide far more than we ever give them credit for.

Late last year, I read a YA philosophical novel by Jostein Gaarder, entited, The Solitaire Mystery. As part of the fantasy element, an island populated by a deck of cards comes to life. Members of the four suits tend to stick together and automatically assume the roles they're born to fulfill, such as baker, confectioner, gardener or silversmith. Only the joker stands apart, wandering around the island freely, since he doesn't really belong anywhere specific. This guy is one of the sharpest and most admirable characters in the story. He doesn't really fit in to his society, but decides he wouldn't really want to anyway. He would have to sacrifice his freedom of observation, and give up his habit of forming his own conclusions about the nature of the world, and that would be too high a price for him to pay.

Being treated with contempt or brushed off by others is something the joker has learned to just shrug off as part of the deal. In the part of the story that takes place in the normal world, the young hero's Dad collects jokers from decks of cards. In several instances, he taps random card players on the shoulders and asks if they'd mind giving him their jokers. In many cases, they say, 'Sure,' and hand them over without another thought, as they're deemed fairly worthless. Hans Thomas' Dad flips through his impressive collection and tells his son, 'You do get people thinking you're weird, but it's well worth it.' Then Hans Thomas realises that his intelligent, philosophical and original Dad identifies with the joker in the card decks. He decides, 'I want to be a joker too.'

As I read the book, I realised I've probably always known this deep down. Shakespeare knew it too, as his variety of jesters and fools show. There's Falstaff, Touchstone, Puck, Costard, Feste, and the list goes on. Even though other characters in the plays disparage and insult them, it's clear that their wit is sharp as knives and they see things others miss.

The day I finished reading 'The Solitaire Mystery', I was watching the Adelaide Christmas Pageant on TV with my youngest son. As I switched my attention between the TV screen and the book, the behaviour of the clowns stood out to me with fresh significance. They rush around, weaving between floats, having fun and generally making people smile. The kids in the audience grin at them, but probably don't get the significance of the ancient tradition the clowns are part of. Those guys are free to roam along the length of the pageant course, taking in more sights than other story book characters who are stuck with their own floats. They are just like the joker on the island. Their weird get-up, the bright, frizzy hair, floppy shoes and painted faces no doubt originally set them aside as weirdos and non-conformists. The fact that it's become their universally recognised uniform may show that deep down, we all hanker for their free spirited lives.

Now that my eyes were opened for it, I came across more blasts from popular culture, emphasing all this. Think of the lyrics of John Lennon's 'Fool on the Hill'. It says, 'Nobody wants to know him, but the fool on the hill, sees the sun going down, and the eyes in his head, see the world spinning round.'

For anyone who wants to get serious about studying their Bible, it doesn't take long to figure out that many of the Old Testament prophets were regarded by others as jesters, clowns and fools. Think of Ezekiel, lying on his side and cooking over his coals of dung, or Jeremiah, buying real-estate in a doomed city and writing prophecies the king burned without a thought. Since they knew that was how they were regarded, it doesn't seem sacrilegious to compare them to the other fools I've been talking about. In fact, mentioning them might even bring a sort of holy dignity to the role others have held in the centuries since.

When he was 16 years old, I took my oldest son to an appointment with his allergist at the hospital, and a couple of free-roaming clowns from the Starlight Foundation decided to make a spectacle of him in the waiting room. While he face-palmed, they went through the motions of writing out a little postcard for him.

'Now, how do you spell Logan?'

'Just the usual way,' he mumbled.

They shouted out across the huge waiting room, 'Hey, is anyone else here called Logan? Are there any Xs or Zs or Qs in it? We know he's a teenager, and teenagers are smarter than us, so we've got to get it right.'

In the end, even he had to laugh.

So here's to smart fellows like them, who are not really fools at all, but astute and far-sighted, often with more real insight and wisdom than the average person. I enjoy it when authors are smart enough to weave them into their plots. I wouldn't mind being a joker either.

Free image courtesy of Pixabay

Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, you may like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review where she also interviews other authors.



  1. Such an interesting post, Paula! I could hear your voice as I read it and remembered being at one or two workshops of yours when your own lovely, wry sense of humour peeped through lots of times. So, yes--you are a good, gentle, perceptive joker!

    1. Hi Jo-Anne,
      Wow, I'm pleased that you'd say so :) I doubt whether I'll make it to catch up with you all in Sydney this year, which saddens me, but I'm not entirely ruling it out until October.

  2. Sorry, I'm late in reading. But I think people who are seen as eccentric also fall into this category. They are often disregarded as not being fully aware, but that could be a great advantage to them. Like the clowns, how many people put their guard down around these free spirited people? I think they often get the inside information - see what others may not.

    1. Hi Rose,
      I love eccentrics. Especially the way they disregard social pressures. There's a lot anyone can learn from them. Maybe jesters and eccentrics do have quite a bit in common.