In Terry Pratchett’s 2011 Discworld novel Snuff, Young Sam Vimes has become very interested in poo.
Mainly, this is because Young Sam is six.
It’s also because the only son of Sam Vimes, the commander of the City Watch in Ankh-Morpork, is on a visit to his parents’ country home where, throughout the grounds and nearby fields, interesting varieties of excrement abound.
And because, each night, his father (grudgingly) reads to him from a book by Young Sam’s favorite writer, Miss Felicity Beedle, called The World of Poo. (Vimes doesn’t find all the verbal mucking about very enjoyable, but parenthood requires some sacrifices.)
Young Sam and his family live on the Discworld, the subject of 40 novels by Pratchett as well as ancillary works produced with the help of collaborators
The Discworld, where technology has reached the equivalent of Victorian times on Earth, isn’t a ball, like Earth. But a flat disc — like a huge DVD — covered with mountains, rivers, plains, oceans, six-year-olds and poo, among other items, resting atop the backs of four elephants, themselves standing on the back of Great A’Tuin, a giant turtle,…and flying through space.
Pratchett has used Discworld as a vehicle to wittily comment on human nature and society (even if many of the characters aren’t technically human, including vampires, dwarfs, golems and such). Even more, he’s employed it for sheer, utter and bald-faced silliness.
Exhibit #1: The World of Poo.
“Very good luck”
Published a year after it was mentioned in Snuff, The World of Poo is a droll parody of a children’s book that is actually a very interesting children’s book. (Indeed, I may give copies of it to some six-year-old boys I know — if I can figure out some way to avoid the wrath of their mothers.)
Written by Pratchett with the assistance of Bernard and Isobel Pearson, it tells the story of young Geoffrey. His pregnant mother is nearing her due date, so Geoffrey is sent to visit his Grand-mama, a wealthy rather well-connected woman in Ankh-Morpork.
As expected in a book for children, everyone Geoffrey meets is sweetness and light, except Grand-mama’s scowl-faced maid Lily.
Geoffrey is a boy of great curiosity. When, during a walk in Grand-mama’s garden, he feels something splat on his head and reaches up to find “a greeny-white mess.”
“That’s bird poo,” says the jolly gardener Plain Old Humphrey. “It’s very good luck when a bird chooses to poo on your head.”
In a footnote — one of many in the book — Pratchett and his co-authors note:
Bird poor is one of nature’s special garnishes. A bird’s insides are cunningly designed to preserve fluid and the slimy green poo is iced with white-solid wee, as every schoolboy knows or did, back in the days when schoolboys knew such things.
Among the myriad delights of The World of Poo is its ambivalence about fact. It’s a fictional book from a fictional world, made into a real book in our world, and its subject is one with which every reader is intimately familiar. So, when the footnote says bird poo contains solidified bird urine, is that true? Or a fiction?
I guess I could look it up, but it’s more fun to guess. (I’d say, yes.)
“The main melody”
Geoffrey is captivated by Plain Old Humphrey’s description of lucky bird poo, so he finds a pair of scissors, heads to his room and clips off the clump of hair with the charmed feces.
This leads to his decision to collect poo in all its many forms. Out of consideration for Grand-mama, Plain Old Humphrey suggests that Geoffrey keep his treasures in an unused shed.
“Could I make a poo museum? I think poo is very interesting and it is not nasty,” he said, his face going red. “After all, without poo everybody would explode.”
And Ankh-Morpork is particularly good place for a poo collector. As the authors point out in another footnote, dung of all sorts is used as fuel and in tanneries and dye-works.
In addition, with so many animals passing through and with so many people staying put, the heavy sullen smell of poo, in all its varieties, is the main melody in which the other smells are merely the high notes.
“A wide arc”
In the course of his visit to Grand-mama, Geoffrey is able to gather poo at the Menagerie on the grounds of the Palace and other animal sanctuaries as well as with the help of Sir Harry King. Harry has made a fortune collecting night-soil (a fancy name for poo) and urine and reselling them to those who can use them for such processes as farming and tanning, and he sees Geoffrey as a connoisseur of refinement and taste, in a manner of speaking.
In his search, Geoffrey learns an interesting thing about hippos:
Geoffrey watched with amazement as one of the hippos emerged from the pond and started whirling his short tail round like a windmill, spraying poo in a wide arc.
Again, the question arises: Is this true? Or made-up? (Again, I guess, true.)
The fantasy is clearer in some other cases, such as when Geoffrey gets the poo of a baby-swamp-dragon (it burns a hole in his pocket), that of a gargoyle (not surprisingly, it’s like gravel) and that of a Bashful Panda (it comes out in black and white).
His hope of gathering the poo of every animal in the world is, however, doomed to failure, as the authors explain in yet another footnote. The curators at a poo museum inside the Unseen University (for wizards) are believed to be missing the dung of at least one animal:
Scholars are confident that it lacks the poo of the rocking horse, which is thought to be rarer than anything known to humankind.
Geoffrey’s visit comes to a conclusion when he returned to Grand-mama’s to find his mother and his new baby sister.
Any idea what his first question is?
Patrick T. Reardon