Thus far, I’ve written a number of articles on George R. R. Martin’s horrendously boring A Song of Ice and Fire series. Among these were two in which I analyzed some of the many poorly-written shells that pass for characters in Martin’s world. In this article, however, I will discuss the villain of the first few volumes, King Joffrey. Joffrey is the only well-written character in A Song of Ice and Fire, mostly because he’s the only character who’s internally consistent.
Joffrey is unlike the other characters in this story in that he can actually be called a character. He has a personality that can be summed up without mentioning his parentage or what colour doublet he’s wearing, which is more than I can say for Jon Snow. Joffrey is a sadistic sociopath and a slave to his temper. He’s stupid, impulsive, and always blames his problems on those around him. Pretty much all his actions reinforce that this is his personality, as opposed to just being whatever the author needs at any given time.
Throughout his time in the story, the twelve-year-old King Joffrey kills, tortures, and maims his way through scores of his own subjects, relishing in their suffering. He’s also a misogynist who kills puppies. Plot-wise there really isn’t any point to any of his actions except to show that he’s evil, but that’s no less the case with any of the others, and at least Joffrey doesn’t constantly break character in order to deliver Martin’s pretentious exposition about how bleak he thinks the world is. Joffrey is consistently evil. He also has a childish obsession with his… er… “name day.”
What Is a Name Day?
Alright; let’s get “name days” out of the way right here, because this just proves how little research George R. R. Martin did when he was writing this story. It baffles me that he decided to use the term “name day” when what it refers to in his story is clearly a birthday, because the two are most certainly not the same thing.
Let’s start with what a “name day” is in the real world; in certain countries in Europe, a person might celebrate a day of the year that has a connection to their given name, usually the day a saint of the same name died. The custom was quite popular among Christians in the Middle Ages because celebrating one’s birthday was what pagans did. If your name was Karl, for instance, your name day would be the anniversary of Charlemagne’s death, regardless what day you were born.
In the world of Martin’s stories, however, they just say “name day” instead of “birthday” for some incomprehensible reason. The explanation for this is that the people of Westeros celebrate the day you were given a name, but they always name their children on the day they’re born anyway, so “name day” here is just a dumb way to say “birthday”!
I can’t imagine why Martin chose to call birthdays “name days,” because it can only make things confusing for anyone reading his books. Readers from countries that don’t celebrate name days are going to be confused because they’ll have no idea what a “name day” is, and readers from countries that do celebrate them will likely be even more confused because what the characters call a “name day” is actually something completely different. I can only assume that Martin saw the term while skimming a history textbook and didn’t take the time to find out what a name day actually is. If he did know what a name day is but made a conscious decision to use the day of a character’s birth instead then the question remains: why on earth didn’t he just call them birthdays? That’s what they bloody are!
Needs More Contrast
In a better story, I’m sure a character like Joffrey would make a great villain, and interactions with other characters would be interesting if there were any other interesting characters. This is A Song of Ice and Fire, however, so that’s little more than a pipe-dream. Few, if any, of the people around him have much more sense of right and wrong than he; virtually all of them are rapists!
You know, there’s this great “new” literary device called a foil. It means that two characters’ traits contrast, each highlighting the traits of the other character. In other words, each of the two characters acts as a foil to the other. A perfect example of this is Théoden and Denethor from The Lord of the Rings. The two characters react each to their strikingly similar situations in utterly different ways. Although neither character is without weaknesses, Denethor’s horrifying attempt to immolate his remaining child along with himself serves to accentuate just how good a person Théoden is; inversely, Théoden’s willingness to sacrifice himself for what little family he has left makes Denethor’s actions all the more disturbing.
No Foil For Joffrey
Joffrey, however, has no foil; there’s no light to his darkness (no Théoden to his Denethor, if you will). He’s no different from any of the other characters so actions on his part that should be shocking come across as no more so than the standard fare. In other words, there’s no contrast! Not only is there no reason to care about any of the characters we’re meant to like; there isn’t even any reason to hate Joffrey, and I just ended up resenting all the other characters because I was expected to like them for absolutely no reason.
Then, halfway through the third volume (I refuse to call it a “book” when it was so clearly written for television), we come to Joffrey’s wedding. Of course he abuses everyone around him like the uniquely consistent monster that he is; he even reveals that he was behind an assassination attempt from the first volume that no one cares about at this point. This is yet another big problem with Martin’s writing: Martin seldom reveals a plot-twist until it’s no longer relevant, not that anything’s ever relevant in a plotless story like this one.
And Now He’s Dead!
Just as Joffrey’s abusing his uncle, he gets poisoned and dies. Well, I guess that means the story’s over. I mean, the only remotely interesting character has just been killed; when Harry Potter reached this point there were only a few chapters left, after all. What? There’s more of this trite soap-opera garbage?
Ironically, in spite of his status as the closest thing A Song of Ice and Fire has to a well-written character, among fans of the series Joffrey is the most hated. Season after season, script after script, fans eagerly awaited the day Joffrey would die and be gone from the series forever. Yet a whole world of evil characters, from serial rapists to mass-murderers of children, was mourned by fans with each passing death. Reasons such people cited included, among other things, that Joffrey was “a flat, one-note character,” something that can be said for pretty much all Martin’s creations.
The Only Consistent Character
The only thing that sets Joffrey apart is that he doesn’t break character. All the other characters are, as previously stated, one-dimensional blank slates whose personalities often make sudden U-turns for shock value; they either become inexplicably civil after seasons of savagery or commit the one evil Martin thought fans would never expect. None of these actions ever emerged from actual character development, probably because then it would have been less shocking, and that’s all Martin cares about. Fans of these stories seem to like that the other characters are unpredictable, but they’re only unpredictable because they’re inconsistent.
As I said, a twelve-year-old despot inspired by Caligula could have made a really good villain. But you need to contrast such a villain with characters who aren’t sociopaths; otherwise the villain is wasted. If your villain has no one to kill but other psychopaths, then there’s no reason to hate them, and when they die there’s no reason to rejoice—especially when that villain is the only interesting character in a world of boring ones.