I first encounted the Discworld – via (perhaps inevitably) The Colour of Magic – when I was eight years old. I remember being fascinated and delighted by the descriptions of the city of Ankh Morpork and fell in love immediately (I was a strange eight year old). I have been reading (and, perhaps more to the point, re-reading) the entire series ever since. As such I was one of literally millions of people who were at least mildly put out earlier this month when it was announced that Terry Pratchett had gone for a long walk with one of his best loved characters. What follows are a few disorganised thoughts.
1. The most important and most beguiling thing about the Discworld is that it grew exponentially in its author’s head more or less off its own initiative or at least its own logic. This combined with Pratchett’s skill as a creator of character and a writer of dialogue to make a fantasy world that felt real. The obvious parallel here is with Tolkien,* and this is where things get slightly ironic and very interesting. Early on in the life of the series, Pratchett was convinced that the Discworld was very different to Middle Earth; that that was a fantasy world in which every acre was mapped and every weather system understood by its author, while the Discworld as just a place where stories happened. The ironic bit is that the Discworld subsequently (and very rapidly) developed its own dense web of fact and information and even its own internal laws and logic. The interesting bit is that Middle Earth only appears so perfectly formed in the published version of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s fantasy universe (as we know from the reams of drafts and notes published by his son) was also one of continual expansion and alteration. Anyway, overactive imaginations are wonderful things.
2. The books are seriously, seriously funny. I’m dubious of the idea of analysing humour (remembering Norman Davies’s observation about a hypothetic serious scholar who writes learned tomes on the nature of humour but who never tells a joke himself), so I won’t go much further on this point. But this was an author capable of creating public embarrassment for anyone bold enough to read one of his books in a place of authorised quiet.
3. But they could also be very serious. An autodidact’s autodidact, Pratchett’s interests were extensive and ecclectic, and (particularly as the series developed) these interests found their way into the heart of his work. Often this was (as many obituaries have rightly pointed out) generous and open minded – Pratchett was (amongst other things) a convinced athiest fascinated by belief and religion, a determinedly practical man with an interest in philosophy, a man of the countryside who wrote perceptively about the city, and a tragically less-than-entirely numerate one fascinated by science and technology – but he could also be sharp. And this was not a bad thing: for instance, Jingo (arguably his finest novel) is one of the most brilliantly effective critiques of militarism, xenophobia, nationalism and the insanity of geopolitics that I have ever read, while Going Postal says certain very important things about contemporary business practices and the degradation of the idea of public service in its wake.
4. But, again, the books are seriously funny even when they’re being seriously serious. I remember reading Good Omens (co-written with Neil Gaiman) while seriously ill in hospital. While in some respects this may have been an error given the various tubes attached to me at the time, psychologically it was certainly not.
5. A word about genre perhaps? I’d rather not. A good book is a good book is a good book, no matter whether the hero lives in London or in Lancre. All fiction is fictional, all of it the product of imagination. Pretending otherwise is silly and snobbish. And on that note, this post finishes.**
*Another would be Diana Wynne Jones, who also shared Pratchett’s interest in parodying the genre that she herself tended to write in. If you don’t own a copy of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland then your bookshelf is, frankly, deficient.
**6. I also love the footnotes. How could anyone not? This (from Thud) is one of my favourites:
“Vimes had never got on with any game more complex than darts. Chess in particular had always annoyed him. It was the dumb way the pawns went off and slaughtered their fellow pawns while the kings lounged about doing nothing that always got to him; if only the pawns united, maybe talked the rooks round, the whole board could have been a republic in a dozen moves.”