Death Has the Last Laugh: Fools in Game of Thrones

Posted: June 20, 2017 by patricksponaugle in Game of Thrones, TV
Tags: , , , , , ,

We’re getting very close to the next season of Game of Thrones! This post will be touching upon plot points of previous seasons (with a few bits pulled out of the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, for discussion.) If you’re not caught up with the show – how dare you – then I guarantee this post will spoil some plot elements.

Spoiler Alert: Ser Dontos the Fool ends up on the Iron Throne in Season Eight. (I jest, I jest!)

Game of Thrones features lords and ladies, kings and queens, heroes and villains, squires, rangers, wizards, and spies.

And fools.

I don’t mean fool as in “only a fool would trust Littlefinger” or “that man was an honorable fool.” I mean fool as a profession. Jester. Merrymaker.

The television show has really only given us one named person (please correct me if I’m wrong) who truly counts as a fool-by-profession: the unlucky Ser Dontos who displeased King Joffrey by showing up drunk to the young king’s name-day melee entertainment.

Meryn Trant: Dontos! You’re drunk! Explain yourself!
Dontos: Can I sober up first? Is this a trick question?

Joffrey ordered the man’s death, not happy with him being a drunken fool (the unprofessional kind) but Sansa Stark managed to commute Dontos’ death sentence by convincing Joffrey to order Ser Dontos to be his fool (required-to-entertain-the-court type of fool.)

Ser Dontos is occasionally seen in the background exercising his poor juggling skills, but he played a significant part in the fourth season by getting poison gemstones within Lady Olenna Tyrell’s grasp by convincing Sansa Stark to wear unexpectedly (to her) deadly (to Joffrey) jewelry to the wedding and reception.

Sansa: You’re intruding on my personal space, my lady.
Olenna: Just wait until Season Five, little one.

As Joffrey lay convulsing and dying (and accusing his uncle Tyrion), Ser Dontos spirited Sansa away from the wedding to the docks and out into the bay to rendezvous with Lord Baelish’s waiting ship. Dontos had expected a reward for his service of weaponizing Sansa and for extracting her. In exchange for his pains, he received a fatal crossbow bolt to ensure his silence.

It seems ironic for a court jester to be involved in an assassination attempt and then be betrayed and murdered for his part in the plot, but fools and death occasionally have an association. In some old Tarot decks, the major arcana card of Death has the grim reaper wearing motley, communicating that it is Death who has the last laugh.

The books provide examples of more traditional court jesters: Moon Boy is often found entertaining the court at King’s Landing (book readers will recall Tyrion angrily and facetiously making allegations about Moon Boy and whom he is entertaining) and Olenna Martell likes having the fool Butterbumps about, not only for his entertainment value but for his ability to provide loud distractions while she has sensitive discussions in public.

Neither are particularly associated with Death (that I know of) but one fool makes up for that in spades. Patchface, the jester and companion to Princess Shireen Baratheon.

Patchface did not make it into the show, but he is represented symbolically by the song Princess Shireen sings in Season Three.

It’s always summer, under the sea
I know, I know, oh, oh, oh
The birds have scales, and the fish take wing
I know, I know, oh, oh, oh
The rain is dry, and the snow falls up
I know, I know, oh, oh, oh
The stones crack open, the water burns
The shadows come to dance, my love
The shadows come to play
The shadows come to dance, my love
The shadows come to stay

Shireen might be the one singing this ominous song on HBO’s Game of Thrones, but what she’s singing is an homage to book-Patchface’s prophetic ditties, which are often about what it’s like under the waves. Because he knows. Oh, oh, oh.

Patchface was the only survivor of a shipwreck in Stormbreaker Bay, a tragedy that claimed the lives of Robert Baratheon’s parents. Lord Steffon Baratheon had been overseas with his wife on a diplomatic voyage, and while in Volantis they’d observed a witty and talented slave. They purchased and freed the slave, offering him employment as the jester for Storm’s End.

The Baratheon ship was lost in a terrible storm in the bay near Storm’s End, and days later the former slave Patchface (so named for the tattoos on his face) was found ashore, reportedly drowned and cold to the touch. Soon after discovery, he expelled the water from his lungs and proved to be alive.

Alive, but not right at all.

This somewhat traumatized Patchface ended up a rather grim and creepy fool, not at all like the descriptions Lord Steffon had sent in letters to the maester at Storm’s End. Years later,  Patchface proved a serviceable companion to the otherwise friendless and greyscale-stricken Princess Shireen.

Melisandre of Asshai, who might be crap at interpreting visions but does have supernatural powers, views Patchface with suspicion and dread. She’s seen disturbing visions of Patchface surrounded by skulls, with blood-covered lips.

(I trust you’ll allow me this indulgence of including my favorite murderous clown, for atmosphere.)

Even in Westeros where entertainment options can be few and far between, clowns can be evil.

Okay, I’m probably insulting court jesters by calling them clowns. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Shireen is dead on the show, so the omission of her jester-companion probably wasn’t that big a deal. Her story is done. But combined with Shireen’s death on the show and book-Melisandre getting this death vibe from Patchface, I think book readers have some clue as to what’s going to happen to our remaining Shireen. Or at least who will be involved in her death. So many deaths on Game of Thrones or in A Song of Ice and Fire can be blamed on the involvement of close associates.

Patchface, I have a suspicious eye on you.

Great Fools and Great Knights

Not all fools are involved in assassination plots or shrouded in death-symbolism of course. (I can’t speak to the lethality of Butterbumps’ gas-passing.) Some fools even have heroic stories told about them, like the legendary Ser Florian the Fool.

Florian, a mythical knight in motley-patterned iron armor, is famous for his romance with the lovely Lady Jonquil.

Wait, Florian? Jonquil? I hear you show watchers ask. Yes, yes, this is book stuff, but it’s not so bad or spoilery, even if you want to go back and read the books one day.

We all know how Sansa’s worldview was shaped by the romantic stories of dashing knights and heroic deeds. (If you don’t know this, you haven’t been paying attention.) Ser Dontos, the drunken knight-turned-fool fit easily into a dynamic she understood from the old tales of Ser Florian.

Okay, this wasn’t played up at all on the show, in the books Ser Dontos had the occasional meeting with Sansa where he would reassure her that he was working on a plan to get her out of the city. He was her Ser Florian, in a way.

Dontos: Lady Sansa, we have to escape now!
Sansa: Say my name properly.
Dontos: Uh, “SAHN-sa”? Is that the right pronunciation?
Sansa: Ser Florian… say my proper name in the storytelling context that my traumatized brain has fled to.
Dontos: Oh! Lady Jonquil, we have to escape.
Sansa: Hells yes we do.

Of course, he was really just keeping tabs on her for Littlefinger, who was the one actually working on a plan to extract her from the clutches of the Lannisters. For his own purposes.

The idea of a fool who happens to be a great knight seems somewhat contradictory; the only non-legendary example of a martial jester in A Song of Ice and Fire is Shagwell the Fool,  one of the horrendous Bloody Mummers mercenaries who didn’t quite make it into the show. (Shagwell and the rest of the Bloody Mummers, I mean.)

But we shouldn’t be too dismissive of the idea. The equivalent of jesters in feudal Japan, the taikomochi, were expected in wartime to fight alongside the daimyo whom they served.

English and Scottish jesters were reported to owning estates;  Charles I’s dwarf jester Sir Jeffrey Hudson fought in the English Civil War. (Sir Jeffrey has a fascinating biography, including being exiled for killing a man in a duel and spending decades as a captive of the Barbary Pirates in North Africa.)

The role of jesters in A Song of Ice and Fire features the more foolish aspects of the profession, but the historical term “jester” is closely associated with minstrel or storyteller, which feels like a more positive spin to court entertainers, and not quite limiting them to clownish activities.

(Time for a reminder that Game of Thrones is not historical fiction, but it certainly feels that way some times.)

But hey, I’m straying away from the nebulous connection I was playing around with, an association with fools and Death. So I should either get back on track or wrap this up.

I noticed a random similarity of crossbows being employed to dispatch fools (and fool-adjacent characters) throughout the story.

  • When Ser Dontos the fool delivers Sansa to Littlefinger, the stingy Baelish repays him with a crossbow bolt to the heart.
  • Yoren, a black brother who Tyrion refers to as the only member of the Night’s Watch with a sense of humor (as a counter to Benjen Stark’s accusation that Tyrion sees the Night’s Watch as an army of jesters) is wounded by a crossbow quarrel before being killed by Ser Amory Lorch’s men.
  • Tywin Lannister, who represents a humorless Anti-Fool for his unsmiling reputation and repudiation of his father’s frivolous behavior, is bolted by his dwarf son Tyrion in the privy.

Of course, I’m totally guilty of cherry picking these examples since there doesn’t seem to be any foolishness related to Sam killing the Thenn warg at Castle Black, or Ros being killed by Joffrey (which are the only other crossbow actions that I can recall from the show.) But I like these three deaths as symbolic of another reason Death has been portrayed at times as a courtly fool.

Allegedly, fools were given permission to speak their minds and to mock and humble the members of the court with hard truths. (We’ll allow that most fools were probably not foolish enough to satirize the sitting monarch, specifically.)

But Death is the ultimate jester, and humbles commoners (like Yoren) and lords (like Tywin) alike and indiscriminately.

Death is represented by the Stranger in the Faith of the Seven, who is often presented with other-than-human features. This doesn’t necessarily sound like a fool to me, but it would be interesting if in some of the septs in Westeros (the septs had regional variations in how the Stranger was presented) if the depiction of the Stanger had his head bearing some motley fools-headgear.

The show didn’t make Jaqen H’ghar’s hair quite as dramatic as in the books, but his two toned hair had a sort of motley, trickstery vibe. And his Many Faced God is Death.

A man knows many jokes. All with the same silent punchline.

It’s possible that the Northmen unconsciously understand this association between fools and Death better than the south does. There doesn’t seem to be any employment of fools and jesters up North.

“They say it grows so cold up here in winter that a man’s laughter freezes in his throat and chokes him to death,” Ned said evenly. “Perhaps that is why the Starks have so little humor.”

Regardless of the king’s promises, Death had that last laugh.

(Comments are always welcome. Super welcome! But if you want to talk spoilery Game of Thrones talk with me (also welcome) I’d invite you to visit my Safe Spoilers page on my backup blog. That way my non-book-reading friends won’t be shocked with foreknowledge.)

Images from HBO’s Game of Thrones (obviously.) Well most of them.

The image of the Joker is property of DC Comics, from the graphic novel The Killing Joke. Image showing a puppet show presentation of the story of Florian and Jonquil is from the graphic novel The Hedge Knight.

The image of Patchface is artwork used in The Game of Thrones Boardgame, as well as other card based Game of Thrones games.

The image of Jaqen H’ghar is from his entry in the wiki.

I make no claim to the images, but some claims to the text. So there.

If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.

© Patrick Sponaugle 2017 Some Rights Reserved

  1. writingjems says:

    Interesting post! There’s definitely a connection between the Fool and Death, as far as tarot goes. The Fool represents the beginning, and Death represents the end of one cycle and the beginning of another. In that figurative sense, your analysis works as well. Although Dantos does help to physically bring death to Joffrey, he also brings a symbolic death to the Lannister regime. It’s through his actions that Tywin deies and his strong grip on Westeros fades, and that the weak king Tommen allows the empire to crumble beneath him.

    Although it doesn’t tie in with fools, there are interesting cases of Death bringing about literal and metaphorical changes. Jon Snow dies to become Jon “Stark,” King in the North. Berric Dondarion dies to become a champion for the commonfolk. And (in the books), Catelyn dies to become a walking instrument of revenge. You could even include the White Walkers bringing death to humans, only for them to rise anew as wights.

    I don’t (or haven’t yet, anyway), read the books, but I’ll be looking to see how Patchface figures in. Your theory about him being the instrument of Shireen’s demise is an interesting one. I wonder how that would play out? Either way, he’s an enigma I want to see solved, because he definitely seems to be a very strong case of Death disguised as a Fool. And, as you say, Death gets the last laugh.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great piece. I would´ve loved to whatch patchface and his prophesies in the show.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Me too! But it is probably for the best. Book readers would be all up to date on Patchface, but I think show-watchers would be less intrigued by Patchface, and more bewildered.

      I don’t know how the show could even give his backstory organically.


  3. Court jesters are the perfect example of the comedic concept of “punching up” where the lowly mock the high as opposed to “punching down,” the inverse. I can’t claim to be an expert on comedy, but being able to punch up is a necessary catharsis where your words might sting noble pride, but it doesn’t really do harm in terms of the status quo. Conversely, punching down only serves to remind the lowly that not only are they under someone else’s heel, but they have to submit to be mocked for it. It’s like throwing salt into a wound. One of the best explanations I’ve heard for why it’s okay for the person in the bad situation to use black humor is when you’re the one on the gallows, mocking your own situation is a way for you to cope, but if the audience makes fun at your expense, it’s just cruel. Humor is so much more complicated than just telling a joke 🙂

    Martin continues to impress me with how he uses, but still subtle subverts common motifs. The evil jester one is really common re: the Joker of course, but with Patchface, we still don’t have solid proof that he is evil or even how evil he might be. There’s something creepy about him or course, and it’s almost more frightening that he hasn’t yet done anything to show *why* The suspense!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the solid commentary!

      I appreciate you talking about the punching up, punching down difference, and how jesters are the classical punch uppers.

      Great feedback 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • When I read about the “punching up/down” concept, something just fell into place, and I understood another aspect of humor. You wouldn’t intuitively think that comedy would need a theory, but there’s always a way to break down everything, even things that seem entirely random!

        Thanks! It’s an excellent post. GRRM doesn’t do anything without a reason. I can’t imagine what that man’s notes must look like o.O

        Liked by 1 person

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