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Book review: “The Light Fantastic” by Terry Pratchett

In Terry Pratchett’s second Discworld novel The Light Fantastic, a mob of Ankh-Morpork citizens has marched through the streets to the gates of the Unseen University to demand that the wizards there save their flat, round world.

That is, most of the mob has. “There were one or two freelance rioters here [in a nearby alley], mostly engaged in wrecking shops.”

Also in the alley are Rincewind, a failed wizards, and two friends, planning to sneak onto the University grounds a back way. But, to gain entry, Rincewind needs a knife to pry away some stones so he sends his friends to get one.

“All the shops have been smashed open,” one says upon returning. “There were a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?”

“Yeah,” says Rincewind. “Luters, I expect.”

pratchett.light fantastic


Hamlet in Swedish

I’m not sure how many times Terry Pratchett’s name has been used in the same sentence as the name of another British writer, William Shakespeare — but here’s one.

The two writers share a lot. There is, of course, their love of puns. “Luters” is an example from Pratchett. Here’s one from the Bard of Avon: A broken-hearted Romeo says he can’t come dancing: “Not I, believe me. You have dancing shoes/With nimble soles; I have a soul of lead/So stakes me to the ground I cannot move.” (Groan.)

And there is the difficulty that comes about when attempts are made to translate their words.

Have you ever wondered how Shakespeare’s plays and poetry sound in another language? When you think about it, there’s no way for, say, a Chinese drama fan to hear the full flavor of Will’s artistry. Hamlet in Swedish can’t help but come up short. King Lear in Ethiopian? The same.

For one thing, Shakespeare wrote in a version of English that’s now somewhat archaic. Even more, he wrote poetry in which each metaphor, each simile is rooted deep in the entirety of English. Each word and phrase encompasses in its way the full ocean of the language.

All poetry, whatever its language, does this to some extent. It communicates through hints and whispers, glimpses and echoes. The words of a poem are important, but just as important are the spaces, the gaps — what’s not said, but what’s suggested. The reverberations.

When Romeo says “soles” and “soul,” our interest is piqued by the way the sounds echo but has different meanings. And we know the many connotations of the words. It would be much different if Romeo had said, “You have dancing shoes/With nimble feet; I have a spirit of lead…” Not only would the sound-joke be lost, but “feet” and “spirit” bring with them subtly different meanings than the words Shakespeare used.

This is true for the work of any good poet, but, when it comes to English, Shakespeare was the greatest of them.

There’s no way for a translator to capture all the meanings and echoes of a particular word, to say nothing of trying to match the rhythm and melody of a poetic line. At best, it’s an approximation.

Much, as they say, is lost in translation.


What’s missing

Pratchett is, no doubt, easier to translate into another language. But I’ve notice how hard it is to translate his books into other media.

Several of Pratchett’s books — The Color of Magic, Soul Music, Hogfather, Wyrd Sisters and Going Postal — have been translated into a mini-series or movie script, but they have always fallen far short of providing the same delight that his readers find in his books.

These adaptations tend to focus on the fancy-dress aspects of his stories and their outrageously convoluted plots. The result is something campy and adolescently silly.

This happened, too, with the dustjacket and paperback covers for the British editions of his early Discworld books — lots of images of silly-looking wizards, and silly-looking muscle-men, and silly-looking swordswomen and, well, you get my drift.  See the cover image above.

Cover art that hints at odd and interesting things

Cover art that hints at odd and interesting things

(The book covers for a series of Discworld books from an American publisher sought to avoid this by using cover art that hinted at odd and interesting things inside rather than trying to depict them.)

Neither the films nor those early book covers capture the key element of Pratchett’s work.

What’s missing is Pratchett.

The joy of reading one of his books comes from spending several hours listening to Pratchett tell his stories. He’s droll and imaginative, wacky and thoughtful.

His characters are interesting not so much because of who they are but because of how he describes them. Their adventures, put down in plain straight-forward summary form, aren’t all that exciting, but the way Pratchett tells a story makes it a romp or something darkly suspenseful. Or both — and a lot of other things simultaneously.

Don’t get me wrong. Pratchett is certainly silly, on probably every page. But he always has much more going on than giddiness.


“Slightly foxed”

Pratchett in 2012  (Luigi Novi)

Pratchett in 2012 (Luigi Novi)

Some of his puns, for instance, are throwaways, like “Luters.” Others, though, are used to lighten up a piece of what could be, in the hands of most other writers, dry exposition:

Many of the books [in the library of the Unseen University] were magical, and the important thing to remember about grimoires is that they are deadly in the hands of any librarian who cares about order, because he’s bound to stick them all on the same shelf. This is not a good idea with books that tend to leak magic, because more than one or two of them together form a critical Black Mass.

Yes, that’s a cringe-worthy pun. But it also helps the reader take in some important information about the way things work on the Discworld.

He does it again when he writes about the Octavo, the library’s most magical book, which “looked the sort of book described in library catalogues as ‘slightly foxed,’ although it would be more honest to admit that it looked as though it had been badgered, wolved and possibly beared as well.”

It’s a fun way for him to tell the reader that this important book looks rather ordinary.


“But not black”

At a deeper level, in telling his stories about the Discworld, Pratchett is commenting on the world that he and his readers live in. He isn’t writing slapstick, even when it appears he is. He’s using his Discworld as a lens to examine, well, life.

Some commentary is aimed at the conventions of those oh-so-serious popular genres of science fiction and fantasy, whether in book or comic book form. For example, a redheaded woman-mercenary enters the story, and Pratchett writes:

Now, there is a tendency at a point like this to look over one shoulder at the cover artist and start going on at length about leather, thighboots and naked blades.

Words like “full,” “round” and even “pert” creep into the narrative, until the writer has to go and have a cold shower and a lie down.

Which is all rather silly because any woman setting out to make a living by the sword isn’t about to go around looking like something off the cover of the more advanced kind of lingerie catalogue for the specialized buyer.

Oh well all right. The point that must be made is that although Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan would look quite stunning after a good bath, a heavy-duty manicure, and the pick of the leather racks in Woo Hun Ling’s Oriental Exotica and Martial Arts on Heroes Street, she was currently quite sensibly dressed in light chain mail, soft boots, and a short sword.

All right, maybe the boots were leather. But not black.

Yes, in Discworld, Pratchett has created an alternate reality, but it’s not a fantasy. Which is to say, it’s a world where people act like people and where leather chafes and armor is necessary in battle. It’s a world where “a good bath” is often needed, and wanted.


“…and bloody-mindedness”

Elsewhere in The Light Fantastic, Pratchett’s commentary has to do with computer geeks/science nerds although, on Discworld, their computer is comprised of great large stones erected in a Stonehenge-like formation:

The druids of the Disc prided themselves on their forward-looking approach to the discovery of the mysteries of the Universe. Of course, like druids everywhere they believed in the essential unity of all life, the healing power of plants, the natural rhythm of the seasons and the burning alive of anyone who didn’t approach all this in the right frame of mind but they had also thought long and hard about the very basis of creation and had formulated the following theory.

The universe, they said, depended for its operation on the balance of four forces which they identified as charm, persuasion, uncertainty and bloody-mindedness.

Through his many Discworld novels, Pratchett has shown that he understands the power of belief to do good and get things done. He’s kind of a fan. But he holds no truck with priests and other spoilsports who try to impose some sort of inhumane system on human beings.



Consider Trymon, a cutthroat wizard of great ambition:

He wasn’t good or evil or cruel or extreme in any way but one, which was that he had elevated greyness to the status of a fine art and cultivated a mind that was bleak and pitiless and logical as the slopes of Hell.

Later in the book, Trymon’s mind has been taken over by some darkly dangerous magical entities, and Pratchett describes the scene:

Rincewind started, and knew that there were worse things than Evil. All the demons in Hell would torture your very soul, but that was precisely because they valued souls very highly; evil would always try to steal the universe, but at least it considered the universe worth stealing.

But the grey world behind those empty eyes [of Trymon] would trample and destroy without even according its victims the dignity of hatred. It wouldn’t even notice them.

It has been clear throughout the arc of Pratchett’s long writing career that, for him, “greyness” — an icy lack of feeling, a drab lack of humor, a machine-like mindlessness — was the greatest danger.

It fed a fanaticism that was rampant in the world where Pratchett lived in 1986 when he wrote The Light Fantastic and is still rampant today. A fanaticism that was embodied in a tall thin man haranguing a mob about the end of the world and inciting its members to slaughter:

It went on and on, a quiet, clear voice that used words like “cleanse” and “scouring” and “purify” and drilled into the brain like a hot sword…But somehow even the wrath of the gods would have been better than the wound of that voice…

The voice didn’t believe in gods, which in Rincewind’s book was fair enough, but it didn’t believe in people either.

That’s the core of it — believing in people.


Most human of people

One of Pratchett’s most human of people isn’t even a person. It’s Death.

As a wizard, however inept, Rincewind can see and talk with that personification of the end we all face. As the two of them watch the demagogue and his crowd, Rincewind suggests that Death is happy because the slaughter that will result will make it easy for him to do his job. To which Death responds:


That, for Pratchett, is the worst — the death of the mind.

He is deadly serious about that, even as he’s cracking jokes. And that’s why he’s been so hard to translate onto the TV screen or the covers of his own books.

Patrick T. Reardon

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