ICYMI-Pratchett’s Discworld: An Appreciation

Terry Pratchett.  1948-2015.
Terry Pratchett. 1948-2015.

Neil Gaiman recently wrote an essay about his good friend and one-time collaborator, Terry Pratchett.  Gaiman’s thesis was that, no matter how much Pratchett looked like a jolly Santa Claus in photos, and he often did, he was actually not a jolly man.  He was an angry man, and it was this anger that drove his writing.

On the surface, this does not make much sense.  Pratchett’s work was often filled with silly comedy, where ineptitude was probably the true force of the universe, and confusion the rule.  If we take his Discworld works, a series with 41 individual novels (the last one due this summer), plus numerous short stories and even an atlas, how could anyone construe anger from this man?

In retrospect, though, it makes perfect sense.  Pratchett’s work was satirical.  Satire requires holding a mirror up to humanity and society, pointing out what’s wrong with the image in the mirror, and then hoping against hope that society decides to do better as a result.  I think a certain amount of anger is highly appropriate for anyone taking up such a task.

Pratchett’s Discworld looks like a comedic rewriting of the standard fantasy setting.  There’s a good deal of humor derived just from fantasy tropes.  All dwarves, for example, are burly-looking individuals who wear chain mail and carry axes.  Oh, and they all have beards.  It’s hard to tell the male dwarves from the female dwarves.  The joke is even the dwarves have trouble.  Dwarf courtship, they explain, is a long process where first the dwarves have to very delicately make sure both dwarves involved are in fact the preferred gender.  That can take months.

Trolls, on the other hand, seem to be made out of animate stone.  They tend to be rather dumb, but it looks like that has mostly to do with being out in the sun.  Troll intelligence fluctuates depending on their temperature.  One troll, Detritus, almost came up with mathematical proof for the universe while locked in a freezer.

These are examples of the sort of humor Pratchett engaged in on a most basic level.  But really, the work here is satire.  The average citizen of Discworld is not very bright.  Most institutions are downright inept.  The Wizards of the Unseen University spend more time debating how to do things than actually doing things.  Witches are effective because they practice “headology” and psyche people out rather than actually casting spells and curses on their enemies.  The major city-state of Ankh-Morpork is run by a tyrant.  He’s not an evil tyrant.  He’s just efficient, and having himself declared king would probably make things worse.

The most competent person in Discworld is probably the Unseen University’s Librarian, and he got himself turned into an orangutan and prefers to keep himself that way.

Fanart found on Deviantart.
Fanart found on Deviantart.

The bottom line seems to be:  we can always be better.  A con man is needed to reform the mint and the post office.  Just doing a job correctly makes things better.  People are people.  One reoccurring storyline is finding some other fantasy species and integrating it into Discworld by showing, hey, we’re all people.  Discworld is made up of humans, trolls, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, golems, Igors, gnomes, carnivorous luggage, orcs, goblins, and anthropomorphic representations.  And they’re all basically screwed up people trying to get by.

The one character that appears in all the books is Death.  Looking like the Grim Reaper, Death may only get a line or two, but he’ll show up somewhere.  Death speaks in ALL CAPS.  He takes his job seriously, but he once tried to get an apprentice.

Yes, the apprentice was named "Mort".
Yes, the apprentice was named “Mort”.

He also has a human granddaughter.  She played his chest like a xylophone as a little girl.

Death had this to say once:

discworld__s_death_by_mad42sam-d47za4r
Sociable fellow.

Coming from anything other than Death, that’s a pretty cynical thing to say.  To Death, that’s his job.

But this didn’t come from Death.  In a sense, it came from Pratchett.  Pratchett at his most philosophical was downright depressing.

Rock on, Reaperman!
Rock on, Reaperman!

But in the end, good would triumph over evil, no matter how incompetent good was by comparison.  People would use good sense, and the Discworld became a little better than it used to be.  Pratchett’s anger might have led him to want to make the world a better place through satire, but Pratchett presented an ultimately optimistic world where people could improve.  Like Kurt Vonnegut, the ridiculousness masked the idea that people could be better.  If people were better, there was no reason for people like Pratchett to be angry, and that would have been fine, even if it deprived us of some damn fine and damn funny works.

But people aren’t better, so we’ll have to settle for the entertainment.

Rest in peace, Mr. Pratchett.

 

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