Sir Terry’s Gospel of Pragmatism

“Bad spelling can be lethal. For example, the greedy Seriph of Al-Ybi was cursed by a badly-educated deity and for some days everything he touched turned to Glod, which happened to be the name of a small dwarf from a mountain community hundreds of miles away who found himself magically dragged to the kingdom and mercilessly duplicated. Some two thousand Glods later the spell wore off. These days, the people of Al-Ybi are renowned for being unusually short and bad-tempered.”
Witches Abroad

pratchett_portrait Last week we did Witches Abroad by Sir Terry Pratchett in my graduate seminar, which was both a joy and a frustration—a frustration because I only allotted one class for him. The true genius of the Discworld novels only starts to become apparent once you have read five or six or twelve of them. Which, perhaps, seems like a backhanded compliment—suggesting that a truly great author could demonstrate that greatness in a single novel. And that might be true enough, as far as it goes; but it is also representative of just one approach to fiction and, more importantly, fictional worlds. Trying to teach Pratchett is not unlike trying to teach television: a single episode of Breaking Bad might offer up interesting formal and thematic considerations, but if you only ever watch one episode you won’t come close to understanding Breaking Bad.

So it is with Discworld.

For those unfamiliar with Discworld: hie thee to the fantasy section of your closest bookstore, post haste! But if you’re reading this outside regular business hours, or have currently barricaded yourself against zombies, or can’t go out for some other reason (though really, zombie apocalypse is the only acceptable one in this instance), let me set the series up for you. The Discworld is … well, let’s let Sir Terry himself describe it for you:

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A’Tuin, bearing on his back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Exactly why this should be may never be known. Possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocity, and decided to have a bit of fun for once. (Wyrd Sisters)


I started reading Discworld three and a half years ago, and in that time have read thirty of the thirty-three Discworld novels proper (which is to distinguish them from the five young adult Discworld novels and the one illustrated adventure The Last Hero). Pratchett’s output is astounding: folding in the five young adult Discworld novels, The Last Hero, Good Omens (his collaboration with Neil Gaiman), The Long Earth and The Long War (his collaborations with Stephen Baxter), The Carpet People, Truckers, Diggers, Wings, Nation (non-Discworld young adult novels), and … well, honestly, there’s more, but at this point the count is forty-six novels since he published The Colour of Magic in 1983.

And he has a new Discworld novel, Raising Steam, coming out in a month. Ye gods.

This prolific output is one of the things that has made Sir Terry a less-than-attractive subject for scholarly and academic attention.1 Never mind the standard prejudice that obtains once an author writes this much (“If he’s written that many novels, how good can they be?”), there is also the simple difficulty in accounting for the sheer volume of his work. Again, not dissimilar to teaching television: how does one account for an entire season, never mind the entire run of a show?

Discworld is an example of what I have taken to calling an “iterative world”: a fantasy world or alternative reality whose laws, geography, science, mythology, and history are refined with each new narrative added to the collective. If you go back and read one of the earlier novels—The Colour of Magic, for example, or Equal Rites—after having read a handful of the later ones, you’ll find a familiar Discworld … though not entirely familiar, as it has somewhat more nebulous dimensions and outlines, a more embryonic version of a place that comes into increasingly sharp focus as it accrues detail and substance.2

I could talk endlessly about Discworld as an imaginative space and the theoretical implications of it when set alongside other such iterative worlds as Middle-Earth, Westeros, or collaborative worlds like Azeroth (and I will, oh yes my preciouss, in future posts I will), but what struck me yet again in returning to Witches Abroad is Terry Pratchett’s humanistic pragmatism. Like much else informing Pratchett’s fiction, the humour and occasional slapstick of the stories—to say nothing of the frequent, hilarious footnotes he offers—can obscure his broader ethical preoccupations. For the Discworld novels do comprise, among other things, an extended discourse on secular humanist ethics, rooted in the acknowledgement of human imperfection and a deep suspicion of ideological solutions.

The idea for a graduate seminar on fantasy and humanism—and the research that informs it—derived from several places, but it is fair to say that reading Sir Terry had a huge influence on it. Discworld boasts pretty much every fantasy convention imaginable: from magic and magical beings, to every imaginable fantasy species (trolls, dwarfs, orcs, goblins, vampires, golems, werewolves, dragons, and so forth), great heroes (albeit often in ironic form, such as the octogenarian Cohen the Barbarian), castles and peasantry, and enchanted forests galore. But always the stories, many of them recognizable riffs on classic fantasy (“Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards because a refusal often offends, I read somewhere”), or popular narratives (Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Phantom of the Opera in Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies, and Maskerade, respectively), or real-world concerns (cinema and Hollywood in Moving Pictures, rock and roll in Soul Music, newspapers in The Truth, Christmas in Hogfather) … always the stories, whatever their focus, proceed from a sensibility that, even as it pays homage to the subject and/or source material, is at pains to frustrate generic expectations and draw attention to fantasy’s more regressive tendencies.

By way of example: in Men at Arms, we glean that the impressive Corporal Carrot of the City Watch is the prophesied King of Ankh-Morpork, and in fact possesses the sword that identifies him as such. But he does not take his “rightful” place, because Ankh-Morpork is much better off without a king, and he’s not really interested in the job anyway. In Jingo, the inevitable march to war against an identifiably Middle-Eastern enemy is halted by Samuel Vimes, who sees negotiation and compromise as preferable to bloodshed. In Monstrous Regiment, the familiar story of a girl from an impoverished family disguising herself as a man to join the army is given a comic twist as we slowly realize that every soldier in her regiment is actually an impoverished girl in disguise.

And in Witches Abroad, familiar stories and the expectations they evoke are the story:

Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up on all the vibrations of all of all the others workings of the story that have ever been.

This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.

So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Witches Abroad is about a demented fairy godmother who is absolutely determined to give people happy endings, and who has become the effective dictator of the Discworld city of Genua (a thinly veiled New Orleans), as she orchestrates her masterwork—bringing the Princess Emberella (whose true identity is secret, as she slaves in the home of her ostensible stepsisters) together with a nobleman (the “Duc”). The three witches of the title—Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrit Garlick—make their way to Genua to foil her. Along the way they encounter a series of other familiar stories, such as a Gollum-like creature in a subterranean river (Granny Weatherwax hits him with her paddle); a village terrorized by a vampire (Magrit smacks it with her window as it attempts to enter her room in bat form, and it gets eaten by Nanny Ogg’s cat as it lies, stunned, on the ground); they also encounter a confused wolf that feels compelled to eat a grandmother, a sleeping princess in an enchanted castle, hear tell of a trio of pigs in a neighbouring village with wolf issues, and Nanny Ogg—wearing her red boots—has a farmhouse suddenly fall on her head.


Their journey to Genua is thus comically picaresque, and as they get closer they see the fairy godmother’s handiwork in the stories they stumble across (and into). But while the novel begins with the apparently benign assertion that stories are happening all the time and that the frequency of their repetition gives their outcomes a certain inevitability, this determinism takes on an increasingly pernicious character. The Red Riding Hood sequence is actually heartbreaking, as the wolf has literally become a tortured soul in being compelled to behave in singularly un-wolflike ways, and ultimately makes a plaintive appeal to Granny Weatherwax to make an end. The woodsman who does the deed reflects in surprise at how willingly the poor beast puts its head on the chopping block.

When they reach Genua, which is under the thrall of Lilith, the fairy godmother, they find a city that is bright, clean, smiling, and utterly terrified—for if the people do not step outside the boundaries of what is acceptable for their stories, they are severely punished (such as the toymaker, who is thrown in the dungeon because he does not tell charming stories to children. Protesting that he doesn’t know any stories and is, furthermore, very bad at telling them, doesn’t garner him any leniency). The previous tyrant, the Baron, was cruel and ruthless; Lilith’s rule, however, is the other end of the dystopian spectrum: the utopian vision taken to despotic extremes. As Granny Weatherwax asserts, “You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.” Or as Sam Vimes puts it in in Night Watch, “The moment you start measuring people, some people won’t measure up.”

What the texts I’m teaching in this seminar articulate—and which Sir Terry’s work pretty much exemplifies—is a tendency within some recent fantasy to reverse what we might characterize as traditional fantasy’s religious temperament, at least where power dynamics are concerned. Such transcendent imperatives as prophecy, fate, destiny, and the presence of deterministic higher powers—so crucial to authors like Tolkien and Lewis—find themselves (at the very least) complicated, challenged, critiqued, or quite simply ignored in the works of authors like Neil Gaiman, Lev Grossman, J.K. Rowling, George R.R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, or Patrick Rothfuss. In some of these works, this shift is subtle, perhaps even incidental; but what I love about Sir Terry is the way in which the Discworld novels function as specific critiques of what Jacques Derrida called “the transcendental signified,” i.e., discourse imagined as somehow innate, whose logic proceeds from something beyond the horizon of our understanding. Gods exist in Pratchett’s alternative world, but they are the product of human belief and thought rather than the other way around; magic exists, but is mostly avoided, as its use more often than not leads to more complications; and the greatest virtue practised (if not always espoused) is common sense and making allowances for human (and dwarf, and troll, etc.) failings and caprice. Indeed, the greatest conflicts in the Discworld novels arise when individuals or groups attempt to assert that this is the way things should be.

Those who have read a lot of Discworld novels will grasp what I mean when I say: there is a big, long essay to be written about Lord Vetinari in this respect.

Sir Terry makes his personal philosophy known in numerous interviews as well, in which he makes such humanistic statements as “in my religion, the building of a telescope is the building of a cathedral” or, more famously, “I would much rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.” For a sense of his wit and wisdom, this interview is one of my favourites:

I have three Discworld novels left to read, not counting the new one coming out in November. I have not yet been able to start any of them. I am reluctant to do so: a great part of me does not want to come to the end of these books, even though Sir Terry is still writing them.


1. He suffers on this front from a quadruple-whammy—first, his output; second, his popularity (he was the highest-selling pre-Rowling author in the UK in the 1990s), for which authors are always treated with suspicion in English departments; thirdly, he writes fantasy; and lastly, he is absolutely, brilliantly, uproariously hilarious. Literary scholarship has difficulty dealing with genuinely funny texts, for it starts to feel as though our lectures and essays are just explaining the jokes (unless you’re teaching the likes of Shakespeare or Jonathan Swift, in which case explaining the jokes is a necessary preamble to your lecture).

2. Discworld has also been expanded and refined by fans and collaborators as well, with The Folklore of Discworld (written by Pratchett in collaboration with Jacqueline Simpson), four volumes of The Science of Discworld (with Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen), and The Discworld Mapp, a definitive map of Discworld created by cartographer Stephen Briggs. There are other books as well, some authorized and some not, to say nothing of a Discworld Wiki page and numerous other fan sites.

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