The Colour of Magic

I’ve spent the last two weekends (and many weekday evenings) with an old, dear friend in a magical place. I can no longer remember how I found the place or how I was introduced to my friend. I do know that this year marks the 30-year anniversary of its founding. I think I’ve been here since the beginning. If not, it wasn’t long after.

So I’ve known and loved this place, and my friend, for long time. Remarkably, the charm has never left it. For three decades (or so) it has delighted me, impressed me, moved me and made me laugh out loud. It is for me the finest of the finest, my favorite favorite. There is none better and very few that come close.

I’m speaking of Terry Pratchett‘s wonderful Discworld books.

Imagine a flat world, oceans forever spilling past its round rim. This world rests on the backs of four continent-sized elephants (Berilia, Tubul, T’Phon and Jerakeen). They, in turn, stand upon the back of the great space turtle, Great A’Tuin (Chelys galactica), who has eyes the size of oceans and who swims through space to a Destination only he knows.

Such a place can only be magical and mythical. It is the Discworld, with its teeming population going about their lives. And here that population includes trolls and dwarves and vampires and werewolves and zombies (and gargoyles and banshees and golems and Igors and wee people and the occasional dragon).

And of course wizards and witches, although you want to be very, very careful when it comes to practicing magic. You can never be quite sure what will happen. (You also need to be enrolled in the Unseen University. Wizards take an especially dim view of unauthorized use of magic!)

There is the great city of Ankh-Morpork, ruled by the benevolent tyrant Lord Vetinari. Under his velvet-shod iron fist, the greatest city of Discworld ticks over as smoothly as possible for a city that is a true melting pot of people (for an extremely inclusive definition of “people”).

One example of how the city runs so smoothly is the Thieves’ Guild, which insures that all thieving is done by authorized thieves according to a strictly laid-out schedule. Smart folks pay a small fee to the Guild to avoid the bother of actual (albeit authorized and scheduled) theft. Unauthorized thieves don’t last long (and it can be so difficult for the family when they can’t find the body).

There are many other Guilds in Ankh-Morpork; just about every profession has one. The Assassins’ Guild has an excellent school for young men from the genteel classes, although few go on to become trained assassins. The Fools’ Guild trains future clowns (mimes are prohibited under pain of torture and death). And there is the Seamstress’s Guild for young women (over 99% of the young women interviewed in Ankh-Morpork’s dock area were found to belong to the Seamstress’s Guild).

The city runs so well because it is run with a keen awareness of the true nature of people and their needs, desires and behaviors. And that is the hallmark of the books’ author, Terry Pratchett. The stories show a deep, usually satirical, insight into humanity. Pratchett, through the vehicle of silly, reveals True Things about people and society.

They’re also very funny and wonderful adventures with some great characters. They’d be fun reads even without all the wossname… looking in… no, like looking in… oh, yeah: insight.

If you enjoyed Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or the Robert Asprin MythAdventure books, you’d love Discworld. (And I’d say Discworld is much better. It’s Star Trek compared to Star Wars, or better yet, Doctor Who compared to all other TV SF.)

[Weird fact: Asprin died of a heart attack in 2008. A Terry Pratchett novel and his reading glasses were found next to him.]

There are 39 Discworld novels (and a number of related works). The novels do follow a chronological timeline, so one way to read them is in the order published. However, winding through those 39 novels are a number of distinct threads involving specific characters. Another way to read the novels is to follow those threads. You can click on the image to the left for a reading guide, but here is a quick look at a few of the main threads:

Sam Vimes and the City Watch. These stories mostly take place in the city of Ankh-Morpork and center on the police of the city: the City Watch. The first novel finds the Watch largely a non-player in the city. In particular, the Night Watch is down to three men of less than sterling character. Their leader is Samuel Vimes, a natural-born cop if there ever was one.

Over the course of the novels, the City Watch becomes a real police force whose makeup reflects the city’s population. There are dwarf cops (one of which is a CSI!), troll cops (you do not mess with trolls!), at least one zombie, a female werewolf, and a human raised by dwarves (who therefore considers himself an extremely tall dwarf).  That last one is widely believed to be the true lost king, but he’d rather be a cop, and no one really wants kings anymore.

For many readers, Sam Vimes is their favorite character. He’s definitely one of mine.

The Witches. These stories follow a coven of three witches: Granny Weatherwax (the stern), Nanny Ogg (the bawdy) and Magrat Garlick (the innocent).  It’s the standard maiden, mother, crone configuration necessary for any coven. Witches tend to use “headology” more than outright magic, but make no mistake, you do not mess with witches!

Granny Weatherwax is my other favorite character. She’s got an edge you could chop wood with—a no nonsense woman if there ever was one. I believe that Granny and Sam Vimes are two of Pratchett’s main voices. They usually seem to reflect the general sensibility of the books and of, I assume, Pratchett.

The thing about Discworld for me is that Terry Prachett and I seem to have very similar values. When reading his books I don’t feel so alone in my views about the world and its people. In these stories I find that others see what I see, feel what I feel.

[One of the great moments for me is when one character says that it's hard to define morality. Granny Weatherwax say, no, it's easy: it's when you start treating people like objects. I'm hard-pressed to find a better definition.]

DEATH. Naturally, the avatar of Death is a real character on Discworld. He appears, at least briefly, in nearly every novel (save two), showing up when a character dies. But several novels feature Death as the main character.

A series of events has resulted in a separate character, the Death of Rats (think rat skeleton in a black robe and cowl complete with tiny scythe). Death also turns out to have a grand-daughter, Susan, who is the main character in one of the favored novels, Hogfather.

There is also a thread that follows the Wizards of the Unseen University and, in particular, a hapless wizard named Rincewind.  Another thread, the Industrial Revolution, contains stories of the new “moving pictures” industry, the new “news paper” industry (the invention of the printing press), the revival of the Post Office, the invention of paper money, and the idea of women in combat.

You see, each Discworld novel tends to be three things: a damned good and very funny adventure; an insightful commentary of society; and a treatise on a particular aspect of society. I just mentioned a number of such topics. Racial diversity is a common theme, as you might imagine in a place such as Discworld. Pratchett also frequently takes on religion and politics.

If any of this strikes your interest, I urge you to read the Wiki entries for more details. (Also see LSpace.org and the LSpace Wiki.) I’m not being hyperbolic when I say these are my favorite favorites. These would be my “desert island” books. These are books I read over and over for the sheer joy of them.

And there is something a little bit magical for me about the way Pratchett wraps up a story. As I finish the last paragraph, I get this rush of frisson, every single time! The arc of the tale comes to this perfect conclusion that leaves me speechless and grinning.

Millennium hand and shrimp! I told ‘em. I told ‘em!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

13 responses to “The Colour of Magic

  • reocochran

    Did you get your Wyrd Smythe from the Wyrd sisters? I know it is a pun or play on the “word.” I think these books look very interesting and exciting but sadly, I am not so much into fantasy any more. I loved the whole Merlin and have mentioned, The Once and Future King by T.H. White. I guess I am different in my reading and intellect, less imaginative! You are still full of intellect and imagination, my friend! Glad you found an escape! Do you follow any of the fantasy or sci/fi blogs? I get peeks from them at me and I look also at them.
    This was an outstanding post that should attract so many readers!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      No, not really. They’re stressing the “weird” pronunciation, whereas I, as you say, am stressing the “word” pronunciation. Prachett and I got the idea from the same source; the “‘y’” is ‘i’ sometimes” thing that’s common in old English.

      There does seem to be a very definite line between people who thrive on science fiction and fantasy and those who just don’t get into it. I’ve learned that, if a person hasn’t gotten into science fiction by adulthood, there is zero chance of “turning them on to it.” What I can’t figure out is whether that means you have to come upon it young, or if some folks just plain aren’t into it. I think it’s so wonderful that it’s hard for me to imagine the latter could be true, but I’m beginning to think it’s the real reason.

      I have not yet found any SF/Fantasy blogs that grab me, but I think that’s more for not having seen many yet.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      p.s. Thanks for the compliment! We’ll see any Terry Pratchett fans turn up. (Only a fan will recognize the last lines!) Or, really better yet, if any SF fans who’ve not discovered Discworld yet can now find this magical world.

  • heysugarsugar

    Well mister ( whoops I nearly typed you real name then ! gheeze watch my fingers!) anyway I digress…well mister this kept me quiet as I was on a long train journey yesterday and took my Samsung tab, and I read this gripped whilst the train trundled along. great write up babe, I am impressed. funnily enough I was looking at his books for my kindle a few weeks ago…as I am a sucker for this type of stuff. did you ever read ‘His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman?

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I know of the series by Pullman, but have only seen the movie they made, The Golden Compass.

      I’m glad you liked the write up, thank you! I do think you would love his books. They’re funny, irreverent, satirical, insightful and just plain fun. The Colour of Magic is the very first one he wrote, back in 1983. I might recommend Going Postal as a good first one, though. It’s a more recent one, so you get Pratchett at the top of this game, but it introduces a new character, so a lack of back history wouldn’t be a major issue. It might even be interesting to meet some of those folks first through the new character’s eyes, and then go back and get to know them.

      You will find the Reading Guide I linked to invaluable in sorting out the various threads. You DO want to read the threads in order if at all possible. Each book stands alone, but the characters’ lives evolve over time.

  • heysugarsugar

    Oky doky I’m on a mission then. X

  • =Tamar

    I am a long-time Pratchett fan. (Hi!) I am not a Pullman fan. Thank you for the write-up; sometimes it seems that not many people appreciate the endings.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thanks for dropping by! I think I can see the effect of his Alzheimer’s in his writing. The endings of the Discworld books, most of which I’ve read many times, still give me that rush after reading the last paragraph…. except for that most react four or five novels. They’re great stories, but there is something ineffable that seems missing. It could simply be a kind of fatigue — over 30 books. That could happen to any author.

  • Alex Autin

    I’m completely unfamiliar with Discworld. Thanks for the recommendation. But…really?! Better than Hitchhikers?!!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, to some extent “better” is based on taste, so your mileage may vary. You and I do diverge in some things (Groundhog Day, for example :)), so you may not find them as excellent as I do.

      I will say that Pratchett seems to me a keener observer of the human condition. And I would say the Discworld saga has much greater range and depth. Each Discworld book is a tale on its own with an underlying theme and statement. Combined they form a unique tapestry of a very singular man’s vision (and a delightful, magical vision it is). Over the course of the canon, the main characters evolve and grow.

      Put it this way: HHGttG is a supernova of unparalleled brightness. A genuine classic. On some level it outshines anything else. But Discworld is a whole galaxy of delightful, wonderful stars.

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