Discworld: An Introduction to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Masterwork

17 May

Great A’Tuin carries the Discworld

Probably the best-known fantasy setting is Middle-Earth. It’s formed the basis for nearly every fantasy world since, from Narnia to Alagaesia.

But there is another world, and a mirror of worlds, as it is described.

The Discworld is the brainchild of Sir Terry Pratchett. It is, per the name, a world with continents and oceans and cities, but it lies on a Disc. And the Disc moves through the universe, followed by its own circling sun and moon, on the backs of four elephants. The elephants in turn ride on the back of a vast star turtle, Great A’Tuin.

Now, when this was first explained to me, I regarded it with skepticism. It sounded like a serious stretch of willing suspension of disbelief in the pursuit of the silliest common denominator.

This is a perfect illustration of the principle ‘never judge a book by its cover.’ The Discworld series is one of the funniest, wisest and enjoyable series I’ve ever read. And happily, there’s plenty of it. As of 2012, the books number 39. Besides which, the Disc exists as a place for Pratchett to tell his brand of story, but its actual nature hardly ever enters into the story, so disbelief is hardly an issue at all. Discworld is called a ‘mirror of worlds’ because each book parks itself in a particular genre, be it High Fantasy, Fairy Tales or even Detective Story, and then proceeds to hold up a mirror to all the conventions and tropes of those stories to see which ones hold up and which ones scream and run away.

Fantasy is no stranger to long-running arcs, though it’s been said that few of them maintain their quality. I’ve never had the energy to embark on such multivolume epics as Wheel of Time or Dark Tower. Discworld novels, though more numerous, are a different animal though. Rather than be a single, epic arc following the same set of characters, Discworld has multiple arcs, multiple groups of characters in multiple parts of the world – although many have the adventure city setting of Ankh-Morpork and its quirky and subtle ruler, Lord Vetinari, in common

Find here a rundown of the various arcs of the Discworld.

Rincewind the ‘Wizzard:’ Failed wizard Rincewind is an archetypal Hero of epic – up to a point. He is forever being confronted with quests that take him from edge to edge of the Disc and into the greatest of perils, no matter how hard he tries to run in the other direction. Rincewind was introduced in the first novel, the Colour of Magic, and has subsequently appeared in the Light Fantastic, Interesting Times and the Last Continent, plus the occasional cameo. His books are usually sendups of the Hero’s Journey and other aspects of High Fantasy. He also serves as a kind of Arthur Dent figure, and what he learns the audience learns about the Discworld. Having said all that, I find him the least interesting character in the stories I’ve read that feature him, and while his cowardly nature is funny, it makes him sufficiently unlikeable to put me off his stories.

The Lancre Witches: Beginning with Equal Rites, and continuing through Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum, the Kingdom of Lancre is a land populated by all the elements of classic fairy tales. This being Sir Terry, when somebody’s going gooey-eyed at the dreary notion of ‘happily ever after,’ there’s somebody on station to smack them around the head. Her name is Esme ‘Granny’ Weatherwax, a good witch with a wicked wit. Witches are respected in Lancre as healers and midwives, and Granny is among the best. She’s also cold, abrasive, and a master of manipulation (or, as she calls it, ‘headology’). Along with her lifelong friend and headache, the jovial, bawdy Gytha ‘Nanny’ Ogg, their adventures deal with the balance between the value of a good story and real life. While I find the plot can be hard to follow in the Witches stories – they tend to be the most densely written Discworld novels – the wit and wisdom and the repartee of Granny and Nanny make it worthwhile. They’re the definition of healthy cynicism, and you’ll come away with at least one good comeback to keep in reserve the next time you’re having an argument.

Death and Susan:  The character of Death has been with Discworld from the word go. He turns up at least once in nearly all the books, usually to collect a character who didn’t make it through the story. There has also been an arc of novels that focus on him, including Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather, and Thief of Time. Starting with Soul Music Death stars alongside Susan, his estranged granddaughter-by-adoption, who is committed to living a normal life despite the very nature of her family and the Disc. Though Death has existed alongside life from the very beginning, humanity is something a puzzle to him, which he tries to decipher while he and Susan are defending its very existence from the callous and bureaucratic Auditors of Reality, and various other sinister powers. Death, despite his job, is weirdly compassionate, quite friendly and fundamentally a tragic figure. His unique insight into how life works and his coldly rational mind make him the source of some of Sir Terry’s most profound pearls of wisdom, and Hogfather is probably my favourite Discworld novel. Anyone who’s ever ground their teeth in frustration at the unfairness in life and society will get satisfaction out of the teachings of Pratchett’s Death.

The City Watch: My favourite Discworld arc, consisting of Guards! Guards! Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, the Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Jingo, Thud! And, most recently, Snuff. Commander Sam Vimes and his ragtag corps of officers are the Watch. They try to keep the peace in the organized mayhem that is the bustling city of Ankh-Morpork. While Granny Weatherwax represents cynicism that counters foolishness, Vimes stands for idealism in the face of the worst and most frustrating sides of humanity. As you might imagine, the Watch novels tend to involve crimes, and include elements of the detective story along with everything else. Vimes’ character arc has been the most noticeable of all Discworld protagonists. That and the ensemble cast means this is arc is best appreciated read in sequence, whereas you can get away without doing so with a lot of them. Vimes and the Watch also frequently cameo in other books set in Ankh-Morpork.

Moist von Lipwig: Recently, Sir Terry found he was running out of stories to tell in Ankh-Morpork because any conflict would naturally bring the Watch in, whereupon they’d take over the tale. He set out to produce a character who would actively avoid the Watch in the pursuit of his goal, and thus was born Moist von Lipwig, so far featured in Going Postal and Making Money, with a third book in the pipeline. Moist is a con artist, swindler and forger, facing execution. Instead, he is conscripted by Lord Vetinari to resurrect the city Post Office, in competition with the semaphore company that is currently bleeding the city’s economy for all it’s worth. In Making Money Vetinari transfers him to running the Ankh-Morpork Royal Bank, deteriorating under the weight of class snobbery and irresponsible management. Moist is not what someone would expect from a hero, but his flair, hilarious and devious internal monologue, and heartwarming character arc make him a great addition to the Discworld canon, and the kind of enemies he opposes in the stories gives them a lot of contemporary resonance.

Tiffany Aching: The newest addition to Discworld, Tiffany Aching inhabits a line of young adult novels, so far consisting of the Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight. Personally, apart from the protagonist being a kid, I can’t see much difference, although the dirty-joke index is noticeably reduced. Meet Tiffany Aching, a young farm girl with the land of her home in her very bones, an observational turn of mind, and a great aptitude for making butter. She discovers, to her satisfaction, that she has the potential to be a witch, and almost right away she finds that potential being tested when her baby brother is kidnapped by the fairy queen. But luckily she has the support of the Nac Mac Feegles, the little, blue, kilt-wearing and enthusiastically violent ‘Pictsies’ who live in the barrow-mounds around Tiffany’s home. I’ve only read the first book so far, but it’s classic Pratchett, both funny and wise, and functions as a junior version of the Granny Weatherwax style of stories – Granny even cameos in Wee Free Men. Besides that, the setting is strongly based on the downs of Wiltshire, where Sir Terry lives, and his deep-abiding love for the landscape is something he and I share in common. I look forward to reading Tiffany’s further exploits.

Standalones: Several Discworld books don’t connect specifically to any of the above character groups, dealing with other microcosms of Discworld. They include, among others, Monstrous Regiment, a study in the comedy and the drama of girls dressing up as boys to go to war, Pyramids, where Teppic has to leave school in Ankh-Morpork to assume his role as king of Djelibeybi, and bring a modern, Ankh-Morpork way of thinking to his dangerously traditional homeland, and the Truth, where the self-exiled nobleman’s son William de Worde meets the operators of the first printing press ever set up in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Practically by accident he founds the Ankh-Morpork Times, its first newspaper. A conspiracy to overthrow the tyrant Lord Vetinari is, as usual, underway, and William gets caught up in the plot as he investigates its more obvious manifestations for his newspaper.

As Douglas Adams got humour out of the tropes of science fiction, so Sir Terry gets it from the tropes of fantasy, and they both have a similarly sardonic view of humanity and skill at wordplay. That said, Sir Terry’s outlook is much brighter and even his most grim books leave me with an uplifted feeling. Sir Terry’s humanist spirit gives you a warm feeling inside. I suppose that the political statements that come through in the Moist novels and some of the Watch books may be off-putting for some, it just so happens that Sir Terry’s views and mine line up reasonably well. The plot of his earlier books particularly can get a little hard to follow in places, especially in the Witches and Rincewind novels. There’s a certain density to the writing that causes me to realize I haven’t taken in a single thing for the past few pages. Most of the other arcs don’t have this problem so badly, and it clears up pretty well after the first one or two books in an arc, once Sir Terry hits his stride.

Discworld is humour, first and foremost, but is a well-rounded experience for a reader and the richness and extent of the setting makes it very immersive. Sir Terry’s range of knowledge (which is immense) lends the stories a lot of substance, and the fact that one man has managed to sustain a series this complex for this long with, arguably, quality going nowhere but up, makes it worth checking out.

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Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Book


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