Fifteen years ago, I interviewed Terry Pratchett for the Chicago Tribune about his new novel The Fifth Elephant. It was the 24th of his Discworld books, and it had to do with dwarfs, trolls, gnomes, humans, vampires, zombies and werewolves.
We met in the lobby of a hotel a few steps from Tribune Tower, and he was, as I wrote, “a short man who, with his bald head and grizzled white beard, looks a bit gnomish himself.” He spoke in a thin, high voice with an engaging lisp. He was 51 at the time.
Over a period of a decade or so, I interviewed a lot of writers for the Tribune. It was an exhilarating experience, a sort of super-graduate-level course in the art of writing. I’d read whatever new book the author had produced, and then we’d sit down together and talk. Often, after reading one work, I’d get ahold of one or more of the authors other works.
With Pratchett, though, it was different. After reading The Fifth Elephant — the title is the pun on a popular sci-fi movie of the time The Fifth Element — I went back to the beginning of the Discworld series and read all of the earlier 23. Then, I waited, like all of his hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide, for the next book and the next and the next.
Pratchett died on March 12. His final Discworld novel The Shepherd’s Crown is being published on September 1. I have my order in already.
In my Tribune profile, I wrote:
As a writer, Pratchett is a smart aleck who loves puns and silliness and verbal surprises. (Think of Monty Python and Benny Hill.)
But, in an understated way, he also has used his novels as means to think about and write about religious faith.
Actually, as I read the other Discworld books, I saw that Pratchett used his giddy foolishness to look at a lot of important social issues. Religion, though — the idea of belief and what belief brings about — was always there somewhere in his writing. “The nature of religion and belief runs through all of the Discworld series, either explicitly or implicitly,” he told me.
“The Time of Mating”
And so it is in the first Discworld novel The Colour of Magic.
But, first, let’s deal with a little silliness.
As Pratchett writes on the first two pages, “the disc of the World” rests upon the backs of four giant elephants (Berilia, Tubul, Grate T’Phon and Jerakeen), who themselves stand upon the “huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters” of Great A’Tuin, a turtle “swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf.”
Ah, but what is the turtle’s sex? Although no one knew, speculation abounded because the future of the “disc of the World” might depend upon it.
There was, for example, the theory that A’Tuin had come from nowhere and would continue at a uniform crawl, or steady gait, into nowhere, for all time. This theory was popular among academics.
An alternative, favored by those of a religious persuasion, was that A’Tuin was crawling from the Birth place to the Time of Mating, as were all the stars in the sky which were, obviously, also carried by giant turtles. When they arrived they would briefly and passionately mate, for the first and only time, and from that fiery union new turtles would be born to carry a new pattern or worlds. This was known as the Big Bang hypothesis.
Okay, if you find that long, long lead-up to a particularly groan-worthy pun funny, even hilarious, you probably have been reading Pratchett for as long as I have. If not, well,….Pratchett is an acquired taste, like sauerkraut — although his stories are never bitter, and he’s no German.
“A small shoal of silver fish”
You want more silliness? How about a structure that has been built along the edge of the “disc of the World” — the Circumfence? Yes, it’s a kind of a fence used to stop things from tumbling over the edge until an official scavenger comes to salvage anything useful.
Pratchett’s humor, though, isn’t just rooted in wordplay. Consider his description of a sea troll who is one of those Circumfence scavengers:
It wasn’t that the troll was horrifying. Instead of the rotting betentacled monstrosity he had been expecting Rincewind found himself looking at a rather squat but not particularly ugly old man who would quite easily have passed for normal on any city street, always provided that other people on the street were used to seeing old men who were apparently composed of water and very little else. It was as if the ocean had decided to create life without going through all the tedious business of evolution, and had simply formed a part of itself into a biped and sent it walking squishily up the beach. The troll was a pleasant translucent blue colour. As Rincewind stared a small shoal of silver fish flashed across its chest.
“Not so much worshipped”
Pratchett has fun, too, with the gods of Discworld who, he writes, “are not so much worshipped as blamed.” In another place, he notes:
There are only two gods, however, who were really terrifying. The rest of the gods were usually only sort of largescale humans, fond of wine and war and whoring. But Fate and the Lady were chilling.
The Lady is a goddess who won’t come near anyone who mentions her name. A lot of gamblers try to invoke her, and Frank Sinatra had a song about wanting her “to be a lady tonight.”
Like the gods of Greek mythology, Fate and the Lady are in the background of a lot of the action in The Colour of Magic as Rincewind, a failed wizard, and his friend Twoflower, the first tourist, struggle to stay alive while being pursued by an evil dragon lady, an evil snake, an evil archdeacon and various evil entrepreneurs in Ankh-Morpork, the oldest city on the disc. (There’s also the Luggage which has dozens of tiny legs and follows Rincewind and Twoflower like a trusty hound, but that’s a whole other subject.)
“I obey, lord”
With such irreverence for the gods, it’s probably not a surprise that Pratchett wasn’t a churchgoer. “I am a Victorian atheist — which is someone who is angry at God for not existing,” he told me in our interview in the spring of 2000.
Yet he recognized what seems to be an innate human need to believe. And he wrote about it often, beginning in The Colour of Magic.
Twoflower, it turns out, had grown up dreaming of dragons, disappointed and a bit crushed when he learned they didn’t exist and hadn’t existed. He begins to remember those dreams while locked in a dungeon cell, and suddenly….
Something was in the cell with him. Something that made small noises, but even in the pitch blackness gave the impression of hugeness. He felt the air move.
When he lifted his arm there was a greasy feel and faint shower of sparks that betokened a localized magical field….
A gout of flame rolled past his head and struck the far wall. As the rocks flashed into furnace heat he looked up at the dragon that now occupied more than half the cell.
I obey, lord said a voice in his head.
It turns out that, with a small magical nudge, Twoflower had called the dragon — his dragon — into existence simply by wishing him to exist. In other word, through a kind of faith.
“All I know,” the dragon tells him through telepathy, “is that once I was not, and then you thought me, and then I was.”
“EXPECTED TO STALK THE STREETS”
Faith and how it impacts life was an important subtext in The Fifth Element, as well.
A key plot-hinge was the Scone of Stone, an ancient artifact deeply sacred to Discworld dwarfs and essential to the coronation of the Low King. In addition, there were religious overtones to the legend of the fifth elephant of the title — a giant pachyderm said to have crashed into the surface of Discworld eons ago, leaving huge fat deposits that the dwarfs now mine.
And, of course, there’s Death who talks in capital letters and appears in all but two of the Discworld novels, usually pondering the meaning of life.
For instance, in The Colour of Magic, Fate comes to Death, demanding that he take out Rincewind and Twoflower. But the Grim Reaper responds:
I HAVE TASKS ENOUGH THIS DAY. THE WHITE PLAGUE ABIDES EVEN NOW IN PSEUDOPOLIS AND I AM BOUND THERE TO RESCUE MANY OF ITS CITIZENS FROM HIS GRASP. SUCH A ONE HAS NOT BEEN SEEN THESE HUNDRED YEARS. I AM EXPECTED TO STALK THE STREETS, AS IS MY DUTY.
That’s an interesting idea — that Death will “rescue” people from the suffering of the plague.
Fate doesn’t want to take “no” for an answer, pointing out that Death had been trying to nab Rincewind for a good long while. But Death says:
I DID INDEED CHASE THEM MIGHTILY, ONCE. BUT AT LAST THE THOUGHT CAME TO ME THAT SOONER OR LATER ALL MEN MUST DIE. EVERYTHING DIES IN THE END. I CAN BE ROBBED BUT NEVER DENIED. I TOLD MYSELF, WHY WORRY?
Ah, yes. The eternal reality.
“The big things”
When I interviewed Pratchett, he mentioned that, in one of his Discworld books,
Death says, in a conversation, that you need to believe in Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny so you can believe in the big things, like justice, mercy and pity.
In other words, he explained, great ideas and visions such as justice, mercy and pity don’t actually exist in the universe. Not in themselves. They only come into being when people believe in them — when people live as if those virtues were real.
They become real because people believe.
And, even if he didn’t go to church, Pratchett said he had a kind of faith:
I cannot believe the universe, as complex as ours is, has not, at some level, some unifying . . . force, perhaps — I can’t think of the right word — that some people might call God.
Patrick T. Reardon