Yesterday, a sad man decided that the best way for him to look serious and important was to step on what looked like too much fun. But who cares about him. I thought I'd tell you #whyIloveTerry Pratchett
The Discworld is balanced on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of The Great A'Tuin, a giant turtle moving slowly through space: There may seem to be little room for realism on the Disc. If you are imaginatively impaired, you may think it therefore follows that there is little of worth there. But literature can be at its truest when it is most honest about lying, and the fantastic setting is used as a space for the meeting of incompatible narratives, a collision of contradictory ways of thinking, which serve to give our patterns of thought a good shake. All while being delightfully funny. As is often the case in these situations
, the cure for not seeing the point of Pratchett might be to read some Pratchett.
Stereotypes and narrative patterns form our expectations: certain things appear natural in one context, but not in another. The lazy attitude to such patterns would be to reinforce them by conforming to them: For a story to seem believable, the storyteller needs to follow the rules governing what seems plausible in a given context (hello, Hollywood). Bringing two incompatible patterns together, however, puts them both in play, thereby not only creating something new but also providing a position from which each of the original components may be seen from the outside.
This is there in Pratchett's use of language. By combining conventionally high language with low language, he destabilises and denaturalises both. The absolute and eternal rhetoric of secret societies has a rude encounter with the here and now in Guards! Guards!
“Since a time no man may wot of”
is revealed to refer to “Last February” by a helpful attendee. Similarly, the titles used to distance objects from everyday life are exposed when used in a common expression, such as
a bunch of incompetents no other secret society would touch with a ten-foot Sceptre of Authority
“The Door of Knowledge Through Which the Untutored May Not Pass sticks something wicked in this damp”.
The same is done to the high language frequently employed by epic fantasy, for example in Witches Abroad
Then she stood back, hit the rock sharply with her broomstick, and spake thusly: 'Open up, you little sods!'
Granny Weatherwax is not one to abide by literary conventions.
But this approach is not limited to language. Much of the Discworld consists in taking the worlds of fantasy and fairytales, which are ordinarily characterised by their separation from our world, and bringing them into contact with it. The Unseen University is of course the most obvious example, but by no means the only one. In Guards! Guards!
Pratchett brings the rule of law into the question of dragon disposal. A dragon menacing the city is a familiar trope of fantastic literature, and as anyone who has read their share of fairytales knows, a dragon should be killed by the hero. But Carrot, the very embodiment of law and order (a six foot adoptive dwarf and rightful king of Ankh-Morpork), arrests the dragon and finds himself in the seemingly absurd situation of the hero protecting the dragon from harm, as the enraged mob demands its death.
While high fantasy is generally placed in an otherworld, where the rules of our world do not apply, Pratchett reintroduces them by taking a pattern we have all grown up with, the idea that monsters should be killed, and confronting them with moral and legal principles: the rights of the prisoner not to be harmed, and the right to a trial. This becomes politically significant when politicians draw on fairytale patterns in their portrayals of real-world people (all too easy if stereotypes are left to live their own life in their own little narrative bubble): While we generally agree that people have certain fundamental rights, if the others are monsters, should they not be destroyed? If you are not trained to step outside a limited perspective and question the premises of the narratives served up to you, things can go very wrong very quickly.
In Witches Abroad
the theme of the power of stories is part of the main plot. It discusses the problem of patterns, conventions and stereotypes in connection with the figure of Lilith, Granny Weatherwax’ evil sister, who has taken to heart the role of fairy godmother to the extent that she will threaten and force the orphaned girl (who is an orphan because Lilith has killed her parents) to marry a frog turned into a man. The heroes of the book are those who refuse to conform to narrative expectation, those who put the stereotype into play, rejecting the restrictions it sets: The good witches set out to rescue the poor kitchen maid from having to go to the ball by turning the carriage into a pumpkin.
There is no clear distinction between good and bad in terms of following stories in the book. Lilith is the bad one, but she considers herself to be good, and, when compared to traditional fairy-tales, she does fill the role of the good fairy godmother. She herself thinks that a bad fairy godmother is just a fairy godmother with a different perspective, still operating within the story and therefore in Lilith’s terms good/right. Likewise, Black Aliss, who is often referred to in asides in the Witches books as an example of a witch gone bad, corresponds to both the good fairy godmother (turning a pumpkin into a coach, sending a palace to sleep) and the evil witch in fairy-tales (gingerbread houses, poisoned apples).
Meanwhile, the heroes are those who do not follow the direction of the story: Nanny Ogg, another of Pratchett’s witches, whose red boots lead to her having a house crash on top of her, resists the obvious end to that story by sheer vitality; and Granny does it by confronting the stories with real, everyday life: the ’happy ending’ of the story we recognise as that of Sleeping Beauty is rejected because the ability to hack one's way through brambles says nothing about a man’s qualities as a husband (now, if only Hollywood could get that particular memo).
Pratchett manages a parody that only rarely resorts to ridicule. The many heterogeneous elements of the Discworld come together to shape it as a sovereign universe which has an internal coherence (or coherent incoherence) and is independent of any single other work of art while mirroring many. The placement of any well-known pattern within the Discworld destabilised it, up to and including the pattern produced by the earlier books (just look at the pattern of integration of early "others" into the Watch).
His genius, if you will, lies in refusing to let a pattern rest in peace. By letting stereotypes, patterns and worlds play against each other, Pratchett showed how they are not a given. He dismantled them, but in so doing reintroduced them in a new constellation where they gained and produced new meaning. And he did it while making us laugh and giving us Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax, Vimes, Ponder Stibbons, and Death.