What Makes Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Novels So Captivating?

This is an essay that I wrote last year for school, known as the EPQ, or Extended Project Qualification. The reasoning behind me publishing it upon my blog is more due to the fact that my cousin, who is a great Terry Pratchett fan, showed a desire to read it. My thought process took me to the point where I thought it was worth showing to the community as a whole, in case anyone else was interested in reading about my own interpretations of Pratchett’s writings. So, Enjoy!

Note: I never said my interpretations were particularly thought provoking or impressive.

 

What Makes Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Novels So Captivating?

 

The Introduction (Great A’Tuin the Turtle Comes)

     Many of Terry Pratchett’s regular readers believe that he is a genius when it comes to blending together a mixture of humour and yet outstanding literature (there are even some who go as far as to believe that his genius is bordering on insanity – but that is beside the point). His Discworld Novel Series is eccentric to say the least, full of life and colour. This series has brought joy mixed in with a touch of confusion to many a reader. However, what many of these avid readers have thought about, and debated among friends, is what actually makes this phenomenal writer’s work so captivating and enjoyable to read? Surely this odd, highly illogical (or extremely logical, depending on how you look at it) series of books required a certain degree of madness to be festering inside Pratchett – so maybe the readers can relate easily to him? Or perhaps, the reason is that the fantasy genre has become a form of escapism for many a reader, and as Pratchett’s writing is possibly one of the most fantastic fantasies out there, the reader can indulge to her heart’s content? Whatever it may be, this is what this essay plans to address, and hopefully find an answer to. At the very least, this essay should provide an inkling into how his fantastic, and highly bemusing, brain works.

Background Information of Pratchett (Prologue of an Erratic Mind)

     The Discworld Novels series can be split into a variety of mini-series, each with a main character (or group of characters) that Pratchett decides to focus on. There are: The Rincewind Books, following a cowardly wizard-hero called Rincewind; The Witches Book, which contain Granny Weatherwax and other witches; The Death Books, which are also about Death (naturally) and later on Death’s Granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit; The City-Watch Books, which follow the Watchmen of Anhk-Morpork; The Post Office Books, which feature the Anhk-Morpork Postal Service; and The Wee Free Men Books, which is the Discworld’s more child-friendly mini-series (as the rest of the Discworld Novels tend to contain some explicit material).[1] There are also a few stand-alone books which are still Discworld stories, yet feature characters who do not usually take centre stage. This collection of interlinked mini-series is key to understanding and analysing why and how his work is so captivating, as each ‘mini-series’ seems to tackle and explore different aspects of life.

     Sir Terry Pratchett was born on the 28th of April 1948 in Buckinghamshire. His first successful short story called The Hades Business was published in the school magazine when he was 13. Two years later, it was published commercially in Science Fantasy. Pratchett’s first official book was published in 1971 and was entitled The Carpet People.

     The first Discworld Novel Book The Colour of Magic was published in 1983 when Pratchett was working for CEGB (the Central Electricity Generating Board). After numerous people showed an interest in the book (which actually comprised four short stories), Pratchett wrote the second book The Light Fantastic. Both books received high-praising reviews, but it was the third book Equal Rites that made the big difference. Colin Smythe, who was and still is Pratchett’s agent, was told that “no book had generated so much reaction from readers”. Pratchett continued to write and write, focusing both on The Discworld as well other books (these other books will not be discussed in this essay as the plan is to focus solely on the Discworld Novels).

     There are currently 40 Discworld books, the most recent having been released on the 7th November, 2013. There are also numerous other books which relate to The Discworld, including a quiz book (The Unseen University Challenge, 1996), a recipe book (Nanny Ogg’s Cookbook, 1999) and several Companion Guides and numerous Graphic Novels.[2]

Use of Humour to Convey Issues/Debates (Concurrent Comedy Used to Confabulate Views)

     The first point about Pratchett’s writing that will be discussed is his use of humour. Sir Pratchett utilises various different forms of comedy or humour throughout his novels. Obviously some of this humour is to entice the reader into finding the books entertaining and to suffer a want to read more. However, he also seems to use his humour to expand and educate his readers (particularly in the children’s books he has written). In the main body of his Discworld Novels, however, he uses comedy in order to get his views across. Without this comedy, he might seem opinionated and people would disregard his works, but the humour makes serious views comedic, and gives the reader the ability to continue reading without judging Pratchett too much (of course, everyone does judge his weird sense of humour anyway, but not in the same way). For example, Pratchett conveys his views about politicians in Equal Rites, comparing a person who cannot outright lie, so they just tell proto-lies or bend the truth slightly, to a politician.    

Expanding on this, Terry Pratchett discusses his views on feminism in the book Equal Rites (which is all about equal rights between females and males when it comes to becoming wizards), and the main character Esk – a female made a wizard by mistake – struggles to understand the reasons why she cannot be a wizard. Her mentor, a witch by the name of Granny Weatherwax, who believes that women can only be witches and not wizards (this is something she struggles to grasp all through the book), refuses to accept her as a wizard, and attempts to send her down the path of witchery. How he presents Granny Weatherwax, as a stubborn and obnoxious old woman, gives a comedic edge to the writing. He is intentionally displaying her as senile and unwilling to listen or even hear what views Esk has.

Equal Rites is the first book in the Witches mini-series within the Discworld. It is also considered to be a stand-alone book, which doesn’t especially tie in with the other Witches books, except that it introduces the key protagonist, Granny Weatherwax. This is the mini-series which probably deals with the more serious debates within the world, which Pratchett feels strongly enough about to base a story on. Yet his stories never take a morbid turn. This mini-series is always light-hearted and just as wacky as the rest, but the reader always feels a little nagging at the back of his mind, telling them him it is very openly supporting women. Due to almost all the main characters being witches, and therefore female, its main focal point is feminism. The title is an obvious source to express this. The fight for equal rights for men and women is a war that has been going on, since the late 19th century when The Suffragettes came about. The play on words, changing ‘rights’ to ‘rites’ is a reference to the magical element within the story. But what about within the book? The most notable section where it is apparent what Pratchett is trying to get across is the conversation Esk has with Amschat B’Hal of the Zoon family, after running away from Granny Weatherwax:

‘”Yes, it’s mine,” he said, determined to regain the initiative. “And what are you doing on it, I would like to know? Running away from home, yesno? If you were a boy I’d say are you going to seek your fortune?”

“Can’t girls seek their fortune?”

“I think they’re supposed to seek a boy with a fortune,” said the man, and gave a 200-carat grin.”[3]

There is a lot of background information about Amschat that Pratchett drops in throughout the Zoons part in the story which depict him as bordering on sexist. The first being that Zoons cannot lie. This ability to bend the truth, but no more, means that when asked his opinion about something, such as girls seeking their fortunes, he must speak his mind and not even attempt to appease the questioner. Despite the fact this character is only very minor within this story, Pratchett uses him well to take the issue of sexism to a whole new level. In a way, the very fact that he is a minor character, and only appears briefly, gets Pratchett’s point across more acutely. However, the story is positively brimming with sexism and discrimination against women. The Unseen University, the school for wizards, is populated solely by males. The wizards are all depicted as power-hungry men, who will do anything to reach the top, which usually involves killing the man positioned above them in the hierarchy (murder by magic, is strictly frowned upon though, of course). The only two possible candidates who can be exempt from being labelled as sexist are: the Librarian (who is, in fact, an orang-utan, and so cannot really be counted) and Rincewind, the reluctant hero.

     Another belief Pratchett makes prominent within his writing are his views on religion. Throughout all his novels, the Gods always seem to play some key role in the journey of mortals to abide upon the Discworld. Yet despite this, Pratchett’s novels are all rather atheistic in truth, as well as humanistic. Although the Gods are formed in order to appear to have a physical manifest, they really aren’t anything more than a metaphor to be toyed with by Pratchett. This is most notable within the book Small Gods, as in order to survive, the Gods require human belief to survive, thrive and to become visual (shown through the use of the “Great” God Om and his desperate attempt to cling onto a single believer, despite having the physical manifest of a tortoise thrust upon him). Without this belief, they turn back to their original form, which are powerless microscopic spirits. The very idea of a God being brought to life through the power of belief is utterly ridiculous and laughable at first, yet the reader soon comes to realise that even though it is all shown in a way positively brimming with humour, Pratchett is making a serious point: without belief, Gods that exist in our time would be forgotten and become non-existent. Referring to Small Gods, it appears that the Gods’ only roles are to act as a symbol for organised religion, suggesting that the worshippers are actually the key to notable religion. Of course, Pratchett’s portrayal of the Gods is done in a comical manner, yet, he does portray them as being selfless people, who see the lives of mortals like a gigantic and prolonged game of chess. Even Pratchett’s own views about God amalgamate seamlessly within his stories. During an interview with the Daily Mail, Pratchett was quoted saying “By the time I was 14 I was too smart for my own God”[4]. None of the major characters (Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Carrot) have any sort of religious motivation, or show any sign of believing in a higher authority (save that of Rincewind, who lives in fear of wizards actually capable of performing magic).

     Pratchett’s attitudes towards and about death are displayed openly within the Discworld Novels, for the reader to interpret in his or her own way. The subject of death is one very close to Pratchett’s heart, made ever more pertinent due to him being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He has admitted to fearing death, yet still believes that he would rather die on his own terms than succumb to Alzheimer’s disease and completely change. In a personal documentary, Pratchett said “I live in hope that I can jump before I am pushed”[5]. In the documentary, he goes on a journey to Switzerland to witness firsthand the procedures set out for assisted death. Returning to typical Pratchett fashion, Pratchett himself has dedicated an entire mini-series to the character Death. The fictionalisation of ‘the end’ is necessarily going to be morbidly humorous. Comprising of five books dedicated entirely to Death, Pratchett depicts this Death character as any normal human (possibly a little bit more callous than the normal person – as you’d have to be in his line of work), who basically gets fed up of being the soul-reaper. In a way, Pratchett is attempting to prepare the reader for death, making them view it in a slightly less frightened fashion, contrary to his own views, as he’s admitted to being petrified of death. There even exists a sort of business (organised by the Auditors of Reality, who makes sure everyone follow The Rules) with which Death must play his part in, shown in Reaper Man, showing that even Death himself is just an everyday worker. There are many Deaths spread out across the universe (as one might expect), and each Death “looks after” a particularly realm of the universe. However, they all answer to the Death of Universes, Azrael. His comical (if not slightly tedious) way of speaking like THIS make him (or it?) obviously overly powerful, yet at the same time give him an almost human edge, shown by the fact that he/it feels a certain need to speak with authority within his/its voice.

Pratchett uses humour in different ways in each of the mini-series, in order to express issues and beliefs that he feels are very close to his heart. This makes the whole collection of novels more captivating in general, as the mini-series’ are interspersed within one another, so the reader does not suffer a nagging sensation that the author is trying, a bit too hard, to heavily inflict a certain view or point upon his reader.

Character Creation (Peculiar Portrayals of People)  

Throughout the novels, Pratchett creates a wide variety of characters, all with eccentric mannerisms and beliefs. One of the first characters mentioned, Rincewind, is probably the most important character to Pratchett. Pratchett’s depiction of Rincewind, and the significance of how he has been created, play a big part in understanding the mind of Sir Pratchett. Rincewind is the iconic image of the Discworld, being the main character in the first book, The Colour of Magic and then making frequent appearances throughout the rest of the novels. He is a failed magician – his magical ability described as “the magical equivalent of the number zero”[6] – who somehow manages to save the day frequently, despite being a coward who spends the majority of his time running (usually from something). However, Pratchett himself counters this point, stating that “his [Rincewind’s] job is to meet more interesting people.”[7] Even if Pratchett intended the reader to imagine his irregular wizard as such, the readers themselves began to see Rincewind in a different way, viewing him as the star character within the Discworld, and thus the most important (at least in their eyes).

Within everyone, there is a certain degree of heroism, as well as copious amounts of cowardice. The creation of a reluctant hero such as Rincewind, makes the reader feel able to relate to the character. No one is going to be overjoyed if they find themselves suddenly thrust into a world where they must be the hero, with no other choice than to save the day. Therefore, the character of Rincewind gives the reader the ability to connect with the wizard on an emotional level and understand his reluctance to venture out into the big, bad world. His ineptitude at performing magic, despite always professing that he is in fact a wizard (his inability to spell the word ‘wizard’, instead spelling it ‘wizzard’ doesn’t help his situation), also leaves a small part of the reader feeling sorry for Rincewind. This could contribute to what makes The Discworld Novels so captivating.

Another character Pratchett manages to make the reader connect with is Magrat Garlick. Magrat (pronounced Magg-Rat), is the junior witch, first introduced in Wyrd Sisters. Her story continues throughout the Witches mini-series, finally ending when she renounces witchcraft, getting married in Carpe Jugulum, and not making an appearance in the Witches book Maskerade. Magrat finds herself thrown into the world of witchery, being mentored (if you can call it that) by the far older and stubborn Granny Weatherwax, as well as the fairly old but kind-hearted Nanny Ogg. The three make up the Lancre Coven, a parody of the three witches from Macbeth (in fact, upon further research and deduction, the whole story of Wyrd Sisters parodies Macbeth). Magrat spends most of her time at the start of the novel learning and being scolded by the older two witches, before finally coming into her own late on within the book and saving the day.

Readers are able to relate to Magrat due to her all-consuming innocence. The three witches are sometimes referred to as Maiden, Mother and Crone (another parody of Pratchett’s, this one of the Triple Goddess, made notorious by Robert Graves) – Magrat being the Maiden of the three. Everyone in their life has felt out of their depth, surrounded by people who think they are righteous and attempting to impart some form of knowledge upon them. This is precisely what happens to Magrat throughout her appearance in the novels. She acts as a minor protagonist, always contrasting to Granny Weatherwax, who is seen as the biggest protagonist within the Discworld series.

 

Adaptations of Famously Historical Iconic Icons (A Play on Words)

People like knowing and understanding certain things. Though the latter is not particularly possible whilst reading The Discworld Novels, Pratchett does enjoy making use of already well-known people or stories and parodying them within his own writing. Almost all of his characters are a parody of some famous figure. As was stated earlier, Wyrd Sisters is a general parody of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, with extracts of King Lear and Hamlet thrown in. Pratchett also takes the iconic quotes and turns them comical, making them into a ‘play on words’ which people seem to find highly entertaining. He makes use of the famous line “When shall we three meet again?” from Macbeth, to which the correct response is “In thunder, lightening, or in rain?”, yet Pratchett, being the genius of quips that he is, simply changes it to “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”[8] This twist makes the quote much more anti-climatic and surprises the reader, adding to the enjoyment readers will find in this reference. Furthermore, readers find it more interesting if there’s an unexpected turn or surprise within a story. If a story follows a strict pattern that is easily guessed, then the reader loses interest. This is exactly what Pratchett aims to do with his parodies of well known moments: he leads the reader into a false sense of security, then switches it all up. Expanding upon Equal Rites, Pratchett brings in a Shakespearian type character with an unusual twist. Firstly, his name is actually spelt Hwel (a close synonym of Will). Secondly, he happens to be a dwarf. Avid fans of Shakespeare’s work, or even people who have been forced to study him at school (such as myself), will soon realise that this entire novel is an agglomeration of different aspects of Shakespeare’s life and works.

Take Pratchett’s first notable parody (in terms of the reading order of the novels) in The Light Fantastic. He introduces a skinny old man, with a beard hanging down to his loincloth. His stories tell of rescuing maidens, destroying the mad high priests and so on. He is Cohen the Barbarian. Obviously a parallel of Conan the Barbarian from Pulp magazine, he is depicted as this once brave and noble hero, who is now no more than a well-trained old man with an aging back. The character of Cohen has been described as a cross between his parody, Conan, and Genghis Khan. Even if people are not familiar with the story of Conan, or the history of Khan, they will have undoubtedly have heard of at least one of them. For people who do know about these two heroic figures, they will know that they are formidable men. Yet Pratchett doesn’t necessarily show Cohen as formidable. True, he’s still a great warrior, but he has now become more amiable. Linking back to Pratchett’s character depictions, this gives the reader the ability to connect with him further, which in turn, captivates the reader and makes them read on.

 

Another example of an eminent parody: Leonardo Da Vinci (or to give him his full name: Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci). Everyone is almost guaranteed to have heard of this historic painter turned inventor. This is what Pratchett was banking on, when he created the character Leonard of Quirm. For people who know about Da Vinci’s work, Pratchett mirrors some of Leonardo’s more famous paintings. Paintings such as Lady With Ermine and Mona Lisa have become Woman Holding Ferret and Mona Ogg (the second being the Mona Lisa, but with Nana Ogg as the woman painted). Pratchett likes the idea of taking two famous characters and mashing them together, one being an obvious connection, the other being more obscure. For example, with Cohen, Conan the Barbarian is the obvious connection. Then he brings in certain attributes and mannerisms of Genghis Khan to complete his character. In terms of Leonard of Quirm, he is obviously part Leonardo Da Vinci. Yet then certain hobbies and likes reflect those of Nikola Tesla, the controversial electrical engineer, who was known to have a love for pigeons; which Leonard of Quirm also has an unfathomable love for. Combine this with both inventors’ incredible gift for giving lousy names to their inventions, you eventually get to Pratchett’s Leonard of Quirm. The reason for these crossovers (apart from copyright reasons) must be that Pratchett believes it makes the characters more interesting in general. It also tests the reader, challenging the more knowledgeable (in terms of knowledge of famous figures) to work out who the second anonymous figure is. The reader spends the rest of the book hooked, trying to find small clues and hints.

Everyone secretly, even adults, has a great fondness for fairy tales. Pumpkin coaches, fairy godmothers, magic wands and all the rest of the iconic fairy tale objects, make any and everyone, regardless of age, feel happy. In Witches Abroad, Pratchett draws upon this and creates his own version of a fairytale, with a twist (obviously). In this story, the witches, along with Magrat – who has just become a fairy godmother – have got to stop a prince from marrying a servant girl. An evil fairy godmother (see? An unexpected twist) is behind all of this, with unknown intentions until later in the book. This twisted fairy tale entrances the reader, confusing him or her, yet at the same time captivating them. Of course, for every villain, there has to be a counterpart: a hero. This is why in Pratchett’s own twisted fairytale, fairy godmothers come in pairs. After complicated circumstances, which neither Nanny Ogg nor Granny Weatherwax are happy about, Magrat inherits the wand of the previous fairy godmother, Desiderata Hollows, making her a reluctant hero, an apparent, recurring theme throughout Pratchett’s writing.

Mostly, this story mirrors that of the famous fairytale Cinderella: There are the two evil stepsisters (who now believe they are snakes… That’s Pratchett for you!); the pumpkin carriage confusion; and the fairy godmother (times two this time). There is also an element of the Frog Princess, yet obviously with a twist: instead of the princess being the frog, the prince is a human frog. The evil fairy godmother also happens to be Granny Weatherwax’s sister (Oh, spoilers…).

Obviously, through the use of well known fairytales, Pratchett makes the story accessible to the reader, of any age, as youngsters will have been read the tales, whilst adults will have had to have read them. Drawing upon the iconic moments and characters (evil stepsisters) and giving them a possibly even more terrifying personas (believing they are snakes), Pratchett manages to entrance the reader and makes the book impossible to put down.

 

External Influences/Similarities From The Creator of Fantasy (J.R.R Tolkien)

Over the years, there have been many great fantasy writers: Pratchett (obviously), George R.R Martin (Game of Thrones), Ursula Le Guin (The Wizard of Earthsea) and C.S Lewis (The Narnia Chronicles) are just a few. Yet all of these show similarities to someone who is regarded as the fantasy writer: J.R.R Tolkien. C.S Lewis’ books are going to seem similar, as he and Tolkien were good friends and even formed an informal literary discussion group called The Inklings in a pub in Oxford (Tolkien and Lewis’ relationship is more confusing than that, as they fell out and then refused to note each other as influences).[9] Yet the other authors, who weren’t around during Tolkien’s lifetime, often seem to bear many parallels to his work, such as J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series: the resemblances between Sauron (Tolkien’s antagonist) and Voldemort (Rowling’s antagonist) are far too great for comfort. Naturally, all fantasy authors seek to avoid appearing too similar to Tolkien. However, as Tolkienian scholar Tom Shippey says: “No modern writer of epic fantasy has managed to escape the mark of Tolkien, no matter how hard many of them have tried.”[10] Due to this, as long as the reader has read other fantasy books (reading Pratchett’s fantasy novels as a first-time fantasy reader would be a bit ambitious), he or she will be able to connect more easily with the settings; they’d view previous fantasy worlds as preparation for Pratchett’s more perplexing one. Pratchett draws upon this, knowing how obscure his world is and therefore leaves little clues about other fantasies within his writing – much like a treasure hunt.

Obviously Pratchett’s work is going to bear some similarities to Tolkien – as Pratchett borrows and adapts ideas from all well-known stories – yet he has never actually mentioned Tolkien as an influence. Whether he needs to or not is an interesting question, to which there is no correct answer. Saying that though, Pratchett does pay homage to Tolkien within his book, Witches Abroad. He talks about a grey, gangly creature, floating down river on a log. He then proceeds to hop onto the witches’ boats and claims that it is his “birthday(s)”. Of course, the witches shrug him off by pitching him off the boat with one of the oars, yet the point still stands: that his creature is an obvious mirror of Tolkien’s Gollum. Pratchett never states whether or not this reference is deliberate, but for anyone who has read the Lord of the Rings, or indeed the Hobbit, they will surely make the connection. It’s such a minor occurrence, as it merely covers a few lines as most and bears no relevance to the rest of the plot, yet Pratchett’s writings are full of these quirky anecdotes, hidden within his writing, as if he’s challenging the reader to find and spot them all.

Any fantasy world is going to appear to be branch-off of Tolkien’s. He more or less created the basics of a fantasy world: the eccentric new races. Every single fantasy world out there has similar races. You have Goblins, Elves, Dwarves and more. All changed slightly, yet all originate from Tolkien’s Middle-earth (by this, it is meant that the iconic images of Dwarves and Elves: Dwarves having long beards, and Elves being tall and slender and having pointy ears originated from Tolkien). Notably within Pratchett’s writing, in the book Equal Rites, he has created a character called Hwel (mentioned earlier – The Shakespearian Dwarf). Yet this dwarf is also, again, a reference to Tolkien. Notably he is firstly a dwarf, a species moulded by Tolkien for his Lord of the Rings novels. But secondly, a point that any avid fan of Tolkien would notice, is the fact the dwarf has written a play called “The King Under The Mountain“. Fans of the Hobbit will immediately think of Thorin Oakenshield (or Smaug, if they enjoy empathising the evil characters), who are both referred to as ‘The King Under The Mountain’. Thorin even refers to himself with the title in the Hobbit.[11] Again, all this could just be coincidence, yet Pratchett seems to have purposefully made a connection to Tolkien, letting the reader work it out for themselves and search the rest of the book for any other references, as well as all the other books within his series.

The Conclusion (And Great A’Tuin the Turtle Swims Away)

     So, what does make Pratchett’s writing so captivating? Is it his eccentric portrayal of his characters, or his parodied versions of already existing stories? Perhaps the reader feels familiar with his writings, due to the familiarity of the stories which have been moulded into his own ideas? The truth is: there is no answer. He is regarded as eccentric beyond belief, and all of his ideas are his own. Even if he bases them upon an already existing story, he still adapts the idea into his own, always in a more outlandish fashion than its origin, only referring back with glimpses of familiarity. It will never be possible to comprehend this man’s brain, or how the ideas form inside his head. You could say that his writing is so satisfying solely because of the gargantuan amount of humour inside of it. Yet you would be wrong. There is more to the humour, more to the way his characters are created, sculpted into something which Pratchett was aiming for all along; something more in-depth than just a few laughs. He integrates beliefs and values into his humour that somehow make the reader take the views on board more than if they were conveyed seriously. So if a reason had to be chosen, it would be that: that he expresses subjects that he feels strongly about through his writing, particularly his humour. However, the reason for why his Discworld Novels are so captivating cannot be put down solely to that. Everything connects together within his writing to give us his highly amusing and wacky Discworld Novels.

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