As a memorial to the loss of my favorite voice in fiction, I’ve been doing a Sir Terry Pratchett Discworld memorial read. I’d been planning to read the Witches novels again anyway, so I did that and then went on to read the Rincewind novels. Now I’m working my way through the rest in chronological order. I just finished Hogfather.
This time, as I go, I’m leaving tape flags behind to mark bits I especially liked and plan to share (and record) here. Part of what is so engaging about the Discworld novels is how intelligent and perceptive the writing is. Pratchett was a brilliant writer. After reading these books many times I’m still learning to appreciate his genius.
Today I thought I’d share some of those flagged bits with you.
What follows is from Hogfather, the 20th Discworld novel. In terms of its characters, it’s something of a sequel to Soul Music, one of my favorites (see the post Sunday Soul Music). Both novels involve the Wizards of the Unseen University and one of Pratchett’s most beloved characters: (the avatar of) Death.
It also involves Death’s granddaughter, Susan. (Death, in an attempt to understand humans, adopts a daughter. He later takes on an apprentice. In classic ‘hate at first sight’ manner, the two ultimately fall in love, marry, and have a daughter. That story is told in the novel Mort.)
Each Discworld novel has an underlying primary theme. Pratchett weaves secondary themes throughout the series — for example, the nature of belief. Hogfather is about childhood and the value of childish belief. It’s also about the true meaning of Christmas (or, as it is called on the Discworld, Hogwatch).
For a summary of the plot, read the linked Wiki article, Hogfather.
One thing you need to know is that Death speaks Like this. His words just appear in your head (with no messy quotes). Those familiar with typography will recognize the style as small caps.
Without further ado, a bit of Pratchett that says it all — a conversation between Death and his granddaughter, Susan:
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
The sun would not have risen.
She turned on him.
“It’s been a long night, Grandfather! I’m tired and I need a bath! I don’t need silliness!”
The sun would not have risen.
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.
They walked in silence for a moment.
“Ah,” said Susan dully. “Trickery with words. I would have thought you’d have been more literal-minded than that.”
I am nothing if not literal-minded. Trickery with words is where humans live.
“All right, ” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.
“They’re not the same at all!”
You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet— Death waved a hand. And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
My point exactly.
It’s a pretty interesting way to look at it, and it touches on some key points regarding the human condition. We imagine; we dream. And then we build our dreams!
And you may recognize Death’s argument as one used in many places when talking about reductionism versus emergent behavior. That’s the thing about Pratchett: He brings so much into the work.
(You really want to use The Annotated Pratchett to help you catch as much as you can. The amazing thing is how much sheer fun the books are even when you catch none of the references.)
Shortly after that conversation with Susan, Death is contemplating some wallpaper…
It seemed to be pictures of rabbits in waistcoats, among other fauna. […] He wouldn’t have expected waistcoats. At least, he wouldn’t have expected waistcoats if he hadn’t had some experience of the way humans portrayed the universe. As it was, it was only a blessing they hadn’t been given gold watches and top hats as well.
Humans liked dancing pigs, too. And lambs in hats. As far as Death was aware, the sole reason for any human association with pigs and lambs was as a prelude to chops and sausages. Quite why they should dress up for children’s wallpaper as well was a mystery. Hello, little folk, this is what you’re going to eat… He felt that if only he could find the key to it, he’d know a lot more about human beings.
That is pure Pratchett! It’s exactly why he’s my favorite author. It’s exactly why a full set of his novels would be my “desert island” take. It’s exactly why I’m up to at least five readings (or more) of these books. There is so much to them.
Very early in the novel was a cute bit I flagged just because it was such a delightful turn of phrase and metaphor (a hallmark of Sir Pterry):
Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.
There’s a metaphor that’ll stick with ya!
I’ll leave you with this:
One secondary theme sounded several times in Discworld is that fairy tales don’t tell kids about monsters. Kids already know there are monsters in the world. What fairy tales do is tell kids that monsters can be killed.
And that is as important lesson as any a child can learn.
Millenium hand. And shrimp.
 If the text “LIKE THIS” actually looked “Like this” your system isn’t respecting (or maybe can’t display) the CSS
font-variant: small-caps; property setting. See the linked Wiki page, small caps, for details. Note that small caps is a typographic style, not a specific font.
 An reference to a well-known rabbit with a gold watch and top hat!
 As he is fondly known to fans. It makes great sense once you’ve read his Discworld novel Pyramids.
 Kinda like herpes.