Friday, February 19, 2016

The Importance of Jesters, Clowns and Fools

File:Court jester stockholm.jpg
These guys and girls provide far more than the mere comic relief we may assume is their only role.

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 found myself nodding with the sudden impact that it's all true, and I've probably always known it 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. Since the kids have grown older, I prefer staying home to getting up early to drive down into the city and elbow our way through the thick crowds. Anyway, 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 clowns are free to roam along the length of the pageant course, taking in more sights along the way 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. I was glad the pageant coincided with me reading this book.

Now that my eyes were opened for it, I came across more blasts from the past 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.

File:"The Court Jester" (4540421737).jpgWhen 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 wouldn't mind being a joker either.


  1. You not ony made me think about the function and persona of jokers ( in life as well as in literature) but you made me want to read the Solitaire Mystery! And I've not been attracted to Gaarder's work previously.

    1. Hi Rhonda,
      Now that you mention it, it's really the only book of his that stands out for me. I've read 'Sophie's World' but it's a bit long, dry and text-booky at times. And I've started a few others which I've been unable to finish. But 'The Solitaire Mystery' had just the blend of philosophy and fun, and it kept moving.