Two dead men.
Long ago, the first tried to kill the second with a horrible torture but was killed by an act of a god.
The second lived a long, fruitful and productive live and, then, in the normal course of things, died.
Now, the second finds the first at the edge of the black desert that must be crossed to Judgement. For decades, the first has been at this spot, curled up inside himself, as he had been in life, unable to move.
Now, the second sees him, takes pity and picks him up to carry (once again, as he had in life) through the desert, no longer alone.
If that sounds like a religious parable, well, yeah.
Although not exactly what a Discworld reader expects from Terry Pratchett who tells this story in his 1992 novel Small Gods.
Here is the core of all great religions: We are in this together, and we need to help each other out.
Pratchett, a writer of wit, kick and clear-eyed insight, is not your usual devotional author. And, really, Small Gods isn’t so much devotional (since it rips organized religion up and down) as it is spiritual.
And while the book’s strong focus on the cause and effect of human belief is unusual, anyone who’s read many of Pratchett’s other Discworld novels is aware that he was a man deeply intrigued by the idea of faith. He wrote often that a god, like an idea, grows in power and strength as more and more people believe and, similarly, shrinks as people stop believing.
That, in fact, is the problem for one of the central characters in Small Gods, a god named Om who has been so forgotten that he is now just the humblest of tortoises with the once-long roster of his believers reduced not to — one, a rather awkward monk named Brutha.
Pratchett’s own beliefs, it seems to me, are expressed about 70 pages into this novel when a character named General Iam Fri’it, newly dead, is about to take that walk across the black desert. (During the 279 pages of Small Gods, many characters take that walk.)
What have I always believed?
That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.
You couldn’t get that on a banner. But the desert looked better already.
Or, as a blind philosopher says at another point in response to a question about what is true:
“The way I see it is, after that, everything tends toward guesswork.”
That’s what makes Pratchett and his stories so richly delightful and satisfying. He’s able to live with chaos and ambiguity and “guesswork” and to trust in decency and honesty and accept, not election to some paradise, but things turning out okay, “more or less.”
All of the evil stuff in this novel — and there’s a lot of torture and cruelty, cruelly inflicted — is rooted in organized religion, specifically one ambitious priest named Vorbis, the sort of monomaniacal fanatic who is willing to kill people to save them. History is replete with these guys.
And with the Average Joes who work for them.
Early in Small Gods, Pratchett offers a scene in which he describes the palace cellar where Vorbis’s orders for torture are carried out by a group of men called inquisitors.
There are many aspects of their workspace (aside, of course, from those machines for inflicting escalating levels of pain) that is like the workspace of pretty much most clusters of employees:
The mugs, for example. The inquisitors stopped work twice a day for coffee. Their mugs, which each man had brought from home, were grouped around the kettle on the hearth of the central furnace which incidentally heated the irons and knives.
They had legends on them like A Present from the Holy Grotto of Ossory, or To the World’s Greatest Daddy. Most of them were chipped, and no two of them were the same.
There were postcards on the wall and a letter from a former co-worker, giving thanks for the great retirement party his friends threw for him.
And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.
For a writer of humorous fantasy, Pratchett can be profoundly sobering.
Pratchett, who died in 2015, was a jokester. He was endlessly delighted at the sheer ridiculousness of life and the way human beings lived it.
Here, he gives his readers a heartfelt and very serious book — yet, also, often, one that is very funny (consider how Vorbis ends up…well, I mean, when and if you read the book) — and he gives a warning.
It comes in one of the final pages, and it comes as a message from the gods, all of them:
I. This is Not a Game.
II. Here and Now. You Are Alive.
Patrick T. Reardon