Writing Discworld has taken thirty years of Terry Pratchett’s life. Reading it has taken thirty months of mine. It’s the first time I’ve read thirty-nine novels by the same author, so it seems appropriate to take a look back at the series. In 2012 as part of my fiftyfiftyme challenge, I wrote up almost every book I read, including eleven of the Discworld series. I read the last ten books of the series in the first five weeks of 2013, finishing with Snuff.
As a long-time fan of all things HHGTTG, I enjoyed the Adams-lite feel to the first few books in the Discworld series. Starting with The Colour of Magic, I was struck by the similarity in style to that of Douglas Adams. Rincewind and his psychopathic luggage are very entertaining characters, and the introduction of the witches in the hilarious Shakespeare-skewering Wyrd Sisters was a portent of better things to come.
If the young Pratchett of the early books was to some extent still looking for his own voice, he found it when he started speaking in SMALL CAPS. Pratchett’s Death is one of my favourite literary characters, and his attempts to understand the psyche of humans, who gave him form, are touching, thoughtful and very, very funny. His fondness for humans and his battles on their behalf with the Auditors of Reality make the Death series my favourite. Even in the most serious of the novels, Death’s cameos can be counted on to lighten the mood. Death’s granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit is another favourite character, and the TV adaptation of Hogfather imprinted its cast as the characters in my mind.
The biggest series arc within Discworld is the City Watch series. It is the vehicle Pratchett uses to most openly and loudly expound his own political and social views. It also features his two most interesting and complex characters, Sam Vimes, Commander of the Watch (and eventually Duke of Ankh-Morpork) and Havelock Vetinari, Patrician (tyrant) of Ankh-Morpork.
Vimes is a street kid made good, and Vetinari is a Machiavelli-type politician with a humorous edge, as in his name, a play on the Medicis. The interplay between Vimes and Vetinari, and their development of an edgy symbiosis, is the real strength of the City Watch series. The common social message of the novels is the focus on equal rights and tolerance, represented by the Watch hiring officers from all the various species of the Discworld. The political targets of the series include nationalism and patriotism (in Jingo, one of my favourites) and the role of the police in a “free” state (Night Watch).
As the City Watch books became more overtly political and serious, Pratchett’s humour found more frequent expression in books he wrote with younger readers in mind. The Amazing Maurice was a revelation, a thoroughly enjoyable read that at times scared me, even though I’m outside the target audience by three decades or so. The most truly horrific and frightening thing about the book was the afterword that revealed the hideous truth behind the story’s central “villain”. That made me squirm with shame and revulsion. The Tiffany Aching series that starts with The Wee Free Men is not just an excellently constructed look at growing up, and what it means for a young person to have to assume adult responsibilities prematurely, it’s also very funny. The Nac Mac Feegle are hilarious, and it was great to once again laugh out loud a lot, something which the later Watch novels provide less opportunity for doing.
My Personal Favourite
After thirty-nine books that amused, entertained and educated me, my favourite remains the one that directly challenged Faith. A thought-provoking and often funny look at religion and belief, and the way the former can suck the life out of the latter. “Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Last the Godde Dies. Ande this maye notte be noticed.” Religion and belief have been responsible for horrible atrocities on this world and on Discworld, but throughout the series, Pratchett celebrates belief, and especially the power of belief, even when mocking or teasing it. It’s a theme he comes back to again and again, the idea that “Humans need fantasy to *be* human” and that “You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become? ” He lauds belief as a wonder of the human imagination, the same miracle factory that produced boredom: “Human beings make life so interesting. Do you know, that in a universe so full of wonders, they have managed to invent boredom.”
The one thing I haven’t touched on is how wonderfully well-written most of the books are. Pratchett writes deft literary zingers with real skill, and draws from all sorts of inspirations. In I Shall Wear Midnight, I laughed out loud when I realised that he’d paid homage to P.G. Wodehouse with the main antagonist’s back story. His humorous explanations of everything from folklore to physics are clearly the product of careful research and the way he often sneaks them in shows that he loves learning and trying to infuse the same delight in others. The novels featuring The Sweeper are great examples of this, but almost every Discworld story puts a broad range of human knowledge to work entertaining its readers. I know that I’ve laughed out loud at things that many others would not find funny, and I am certain that I totally missed laugh lines that others would have found hilarious.
Hilariously funny, bitterly angry, poignantly scary, eruditely entertaining, and thought-provoking – Discworld is all these things and more, with lashings of puns and other clever wordplay on the side. From a raven called Quoth who warns people not to say the “N” word, to the multiverse’s most interesting Librarian, the Discworld is filled with characters that will make you think while they make you laugh. If just one person reads this and decides to look past the “fantasy” genre label and visit Discworld, then I shall have given Sir Terry at least a grain of the thanks I owe him. Ook!