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Terry Pratchett: A 101 to the Discworld

Heather Wallace

If you haven’t read a Terry Pratchett novel, you are very lucky.

I wish I could swap places with you because now you have decades’ worth of books waiting for you to discover, all written by one of the greatest story tellers that has existed.

Sir Terry Pratchett’s death last Thursday hit a few of us at HerCanberra extremely hard. We shared memories of the first Pratchett novel we’d read and why the flat fantasy world he created on the backs of four giant elephants standing on an immense turtle in the sky meant so much to us.

With a description like that, Discworld could only be a fantasy. It has been an enduring fantasy though, and has spanned decades, almost at the rate of one book a year. Originally meant as a gentle parody on Dungeons and Dragons and featuring Rincewind – a magical practitioner so incompetent that WIZZARD is emblazoned across his pointy hat – the first few novels became the bedrock of a universe so appealing that millions in this world have flocked to it.

As you’d expect for a series that has run for over 30 years, Discworld has grown and evolved, the wizards that it once featured becoming side characters as others elbowed them out of the way.

There is a world of difference in the comic writing of Colour of Magic, published in 1983 and Night Watch from 2002 that imbues revolutionary politics with betrayal and disillusionment.

While ostensibly comedies, the Discworld novels are in fact a master class in moral philosophy and humanism. Race relations, politics, religion and feminism are all examined through an imp-driven lens of fantasy. If you want a demonstration of ethics and civic responsibility, turn to Discworld. Never is this clearer than when the Discworld’s most powerful witch, Granny Weatherwax, says “’I don’t know about good or evil. I just know right from wrong.’” Sir Terry Pratchett’s humanism is simple, enduring and, best of all, so funny your stomach will hurt from laughing.

So what’s the best way to start reading Discworld? You could start at the beginning with Colour of Magic and work your way through to Raising Steam, the last in the series. One of the reasons why the series is so enduring though is that it branches out into themes, with certain characters in their own genre novels.

Broadly these are the City Watch; the Witches of Lancre; the Wizards of Unseen University; the murky mercantile goings on of Ankh Morpork, Discworld’s greatest city; and showing that even the best families have skeletons in the closet, the world of Death.

Death and Discworld 

That last one sounds a bit alarming so let’s start there. Death in the Discworld is an anthropomorphic being that stalks around in a black-cowled cape, carrying a scythe and speaking in ‘DREAD CAPITALS’. He also rides a white horse called Binky, is fond of cats and loves his granddaughter Susan. He does not cause death, he is simply there to ceremoniously swing his scythe and ferry souls to their next stage. What that is though is up to each character and to the reader. Far from being a fearsome creature he takes a benign interest in humanity that often gets him into trouble with other ancient and cosmic forces. To date he has invented rock music, stepped into the shoes of the Discworld’s Santa Claus and once led the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse (one left before they were famous!)

Death appears in almost all the Discworld novels, except for those written primarily for children. There is a strand of novels that feature him as a major character, including: Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, The Hogfather, and Thief of Time.

The City Watch

Essentially crime novels of Discworld, that started out as a tribute to the unnamed castle guards in fantasy books and films that rush in to attack the hero one by one and get trounced for their troubles. Once a despised and downtrodden group of misfits in the great and corrupt city of Ankh Morpork, the City Watch has grown into a police force that regularly ‘prods buttock’!

Leading the Watch is Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, now a Duke and the richest man in the city who at heart remains a street copper raging against injustice. As the ruler of Ankh Morpork, Lord Vetinari has commented to him, “Commander, I always used to consider that you had a definite anti-authoritarian streak in you…It seems that you have managed to retain this even though you are authority…That’s practically zen.”

The City Watch novels include Guard, Guards, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo, Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, and Snuff.

The Wizards of Unseen University

Long before Hogwarts existed in print, Unseen University was a place for trainee wizards to learn dark arts and grow their beards. Their first books dealt with invasions from demon dimensions and other supernatural incursions, but since the ascendency of Mustrum Ridcully to the Head of the University, they’ve directed their energies primarily into enjoying lavish lunches followed by even more lavish dinners. They do though still find time to pass on important lessons to their students, “The unofficial entrance to the University has always been known only to students. What most students failed to remember was that the senior members of the faculty had also been students once and also liked to get out and about after the official shutting of the gates. This naturally led to a certain amount of embarrassment and diplomacy on dark evenings.”

They now tend to be supporting characters in other stories, adding comic relief to any scenes they appear in. This is particular try of the Librarian, a wizard who suffered a strange transformation and became an orangutan. He has no plans to turn himself back as this new shape makes it easier to swing around his beloved library.

The wizards’ novels include: Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic, Reaper Man, Moving Pictures, Soul Music, Hog Father, Lost Continent, and Unseen Academicals.

Ankh Morpork – “the city that never sleeps (mainly because of the flea)”

Many of the stories take place in Ankh Morpork and its here that we see magic in full swing. Not through great battles or ancient rites involving complex spells, no in Discworld magic powers their equivalent of an industrial revolution. If you want to snap a photo in Ankh Morpork, you can buy a cheap camera housing a tiny imp that paints you an iconograph as a memento.

The city is a sprawling, growing entity, where the river Ankh is so clogged up with silt it’s possible to draw a chalk etching if anyone drowns. It is beset by power struggles and rivalries, but always keeps on working regardless of whatever political crisis is looming. The ruler of Ankh Morpork is Lord Havelock Vetinari, a man urbane and enigmatic who makes Machiavelli look like a first year political science student.

Around him operate the various guilds like the Assassins, Thieves and Beggars, and reformed conman Moist von Lipwick whose punishment for fraud is to run the Post Office, Mint and train service. Vetinari knows how to make the punishment fit the crime!

The Ankh Morpork novels include: The Truth, Going Postal, Making Money, Raising Steam.

The Witches of Lancre

If there’s going to be wizards it’s only fair there are witches too. Far less showy than the wizards, the witches are practical, hardworking members of rural communities who do everything from birthing babies, tending to aches and pains and easing the final days of those dying. And they can do magic, but they do it sparingly as there is always a cost. And after all why turn someone into a frog when it is much more amusing to just make them think they’re a frog.

Witches are respected rather than loved, but are the first ones their neighbours turn to in a crisis. They could rule the world if they wanted to, but fortunately they spend their considerable talent squabbling amongst themselves. In the Discworld the collective noun for witches isn’t a ‘coven’, it’s ‘an argument’! “Your average witch is not by nature, a social animal as far as other witches are concerned. There’s a conflict of dominant personalities. There’s a group of ringleaders without a ring.”

The witches’ stories will take popular fairy tales, musicals, Shakespearean tragedies and turns them on their heads, making you see them completely anew. The last mini-series of the witches novels have been the Tiffany Aching series, about a young girl who fights supernatural phenomenon aided by the Nac Mac Feegle, tiny tartan and woad wearing creatures that were kicked out of fairyland for being too raucous. They are pictsies, who are more interested in spiriting away your whisky than your teeth!

The Witches novels include: Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade, Carpe Jugulum, and the Tiffany Aching books: The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight.

And now, some good news for those of us mourning Sir Terry Pratchett, a fifth and final Tiffany Aching novel will be published posthumously, titled The Shepherd’s Crown. It is expected to be published in September 2015.

This is a 101 to the Discworld, but Sir Terry was a prolific author who created other worlds. His first novel was The Carpet People, published in 1971 and followed by Dark Side of the Moon and Strata. The Johnny books might seem to be written for children but have his trademark wit, humour and humanity and make then a must read for adults. His collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, came about as a result of a long friendship between the two, and is a wonderful parody on the 1970s Hollywood horror genre. The Long Earth series was another collaboration, later in his career with Stephen Baxter, three published to date and a fourth to follow.

Sir Terry Pratchett’s death was announced in a fitting way by his family, his daughter posting three short tweets via his Twitter account, featuring that staple of the Discworld, Death.

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”

“Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”

“The End”

I and other HerCanberra writers comforted each last week by asking which book we’d re-read first in tribute. At first I didn’t want to read anything with the cowled character of Death, because I was so angry with him.

But then I remembered it wasn’t his fault, he was just very, very good at his job and is ever present in our lives. Just as, thanks to his wonderful stories, Sir Terry Pratchett is.

What’s your favourite Terry Pratchett novel?

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Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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