One of the most important, if overlooked, stock characters in fiction — in particular, fantasy fiction — is “the fool.”
Shakespeare created perhaps the most well-known fool of all time in Falstaff, a character who appears in King Henry IV, Part One and Two, and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff is a bumbling, fat, immoral, boastful ass.
Falstaff is ridiculous — even his name is a joke, a pun about sexual impotence. But his presence reinforces an uncomfortable truth: much of life is ridiculous.
Falstaff may be the most famous fool in literature, but he is far from alone.
For contemporary fantasy fans, perhaps the most well-known fool is Xena: Warrior Princess’s hapless Joxer.
Like Falstaff, Joxer has an incredibly high opinion of himself, seeing himself as a fierce and powerful warrior, when in reality he is klutzy and inept. He even famously sings his own theme song, “Joxer, the Mighty,” since no one else is singing it for him.
When we first meet him, he is trying to serve the evil Callisto, but quickly realizes he isn’t meant for evil, and thus afterward vows to only fight for good at Xena’s side, provided she allow him to do so.
Joxer is a fool, to be sure, but as an audience, we love him for all his endearing ineptitude, and sympathize with him for being a normal person at the side of extraordinary heroes, which is a feeling we all have in our lives at one point or another.
But like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Joxer is very much more than just a clown: he is a fully fleshed-out character with feelings, and ultimately exhibits true heroism (at least on some occasions!).
Furthermore, for much of the series, he is in love with Gabrielle, Xena’s companion, and as often is the case in these tales, this love is unrequited. Instead of being yet another barb to use against him, the storyline is handled sensitively, and we as an audience feel that sting of unreturned affection.
In other words, when the jokes finally stop, Joxer performs one of the fool’s most important, and most classic, functions: to speak the truth — for, after all, it is Joxer who sees long before anyone else the most fundamental theme of the series, the depth of the love Xena and Gabrielle share.
Often it is only the fool who can speak the truth — for he is the only character unencumbered by social mores and has no status to lose. Furthermore, when words of true wisdom come from a character that the audience has previously dismissed, they have that much more of an impact.
No matter how many times we’ve seen the character of the fool, and no matter how many times we’ve previously dismissed him only to be surprised by his sudden truth-telling, we’re almost always surprised when it happens again.
Now that is a powerful archetype!
Another contemporary fool is Xander from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who for seven seasons was one of the few characters not to obtain superhuman powers, instead providing mostly mortal-strength punches during fights, and the always well-timed wise-crack before and after — often very wise wise-cracks.
In the seventh season, the evil priest Caleb notes that it is Xander who is “the one that sees everything,” who sees the strengths and weaknesses of all his friends, simply because no one is looking at him. When Dawn hears this, she even suggests this might be his long-searched-for superpower.
And when the character’s storyline darkened to the point where he could no longer be plausibly considered a fool, the series served up another clear-cut fool in the character of Andrew.
Andrew Wells (who was kind enough to lend his expertise to one of our Deadliest Fantasy Warrior articles) began as one of the more inept villains on Buffy known as the Trio, a group of three nerds determined to bring down Buffy.
But after his defeat as a villain, he joins the ranks of the good guys, even though he mostly serves as comic relief, a whiny wimp who would have been overshadowed in the presence of such heroism had it not been for his silly way of seeing the world.
Andrew is also sort on an inside joke: a dork who was obsessed with sci-fi and fantasy, one who could quote Star Wars or Lord of the Rings flawlessly at the drop of a hat, a devoted superfan of the sort that the show Buffy itself inspires.
But like Falstaff, Joxer, and Xander, Andrew could also possess a surprising degree of wisdom, usually at the most unexpected of times. When Anya dies, Andrew, who annoys people with his ridiculous lies, tells Xander a whopper: that she died saving his life (she didn’t). But in this case, it’s not ridiculous at all. In fact, it’s the perfect thing to say, lending comfort to a devastated lover.
The fool has been a constant of fantasy fiction for centuries, and all signs show that the archetype is not going anywhere. The fool can take many forms: a jester, a clown, a bombastically arrogant old man, or even a young gay super-nerd (and can I just say? A female fool or a “fool of color” would be nice to see for a change.)
So go ahead and laugh at that foolish person on the stage or the television. You’re supposed to. And why not? The fool is ridiculous.
But you just might feel a little foolish yourself when the laughter stops and you realize once again that the character you’d so quickly written off was ultimately the only one willing to tell you the truth.
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- Deadliest Fantasy Warrior: Xena vs. Buffy
- Ted Raimi Interview: “We’re Living in a Golden Age of Fantasy Movies and TV”
- Review: BUFFY Season 8, Issue #28: Who Needs Magic When You’ve Got…Farming?