a BRILLIANT read, and even more incentive for me to make my own wizards trope-defying and excellent.
God it’s fascinating to look at the timestamp on this one and then realize that Pratchett went on to write his Witches Series and Granny Weatherwax, who’s strong and fierce and brilliant and austere and so achingly, bitterly, intensely good. I think Granny Weatherwax would give Gandalf a hard look and Gandalf would remember he had a very urgent appointment three shires away and stroll off really fast.
Holy fuck, everybody go read this right now.
Pratchett is one of the people whose work is not only hilarious, but legitimately brilliant. I learned so much from reading his books. Even this talk is peppered with the kind of thing that makes you snort out loud and get stared at by coworkers:
No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless — it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You’d hear a noise in the night and it’d be the local kids, eating the doorknob.
And he fucking nails the witch/wizard dichotomy. Wizards = wise, powerful, organized, educated; witches = crones who give you warts. The Tiffany Aching series addresses this directly, as do the regular Discworld books focusing on the Lancre witches. Like Roach says, Granny Weatherwax is achingly, bitterly, intensely good, and that’s partly because she’s constantly aware of how easy it would be to be bad. How someone has to do the mucky jobs and help the obnoxious and stupid and never, ever take credit for anything you didn’t do; how the hardest thing is to stay balanced just on the edge between extremes, maintain that equilibrium, do what needs to be done no matter how awful or difficult it may be. Wizards never have to think about this. They just forge straight ahead, eating big dinners and squabbling amongst themselves and taking their power for granted.
Come to think of it, that’s one of the most significant divisions of power in Discworld: the men all gang up into this big elitist mob and loll around indolently, specifically not doing magic. Their magic is so powerful and dangerous that it’s a better use of their time to all keep each other down, all the wizard books basically revolve around ‘Oh no, someone’s doing magic, we’d better stomp them flat and then go home for second breakfast’. They keep the world from turning inside out but not much more than that, and they’re kind of a bunch of assholes about it too. Meanwhile the witches are just grimly slogging along, delivering babies and rousting out vampires and changing compresses, like, they stake out territories and then take care of everyone in it… while everyone still thinks that wizards are respectable and witches are shady.
I really want to discuss one of my favourite Terry Pratchett novels, “Night Watch.”
Possible spoilers below the line.
Is that her books are about the mistakes she made, and how she confronted them and dealt with them herself. Not without fear, not without being unsure if she could do it, but with determination to fix her own mistakes.
And that’s what makes her awesome. She never runs away from. She runs to.
So I’m reading the next Harry Potter, as lent to me by a friend. Again, it’s a well written, enjoyable read… but I felt some thoughts being provoked, again most likely by having read Discworld first.
The main factor being just that magic is used so gratuitously. Whenever I voice this to friends I get told that the early books were written more for children in mind, but I’m just not satisfied with that answer.
So you have two alternate prejudices: You have the Dursleys, who are Muggles who are terrified by and completely suppress Harry’s magical aptitude, and consider it a stain on the family honour. They’re aware in general of magic, but just try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
On the other hand, you have the way magic users are generally disparaging of muggles, pitying and scoffing at them for not being able to enjoy magic. At their very best, you have people like the Weasleys who say “Wow, check out the things they come up with because they can’t use magic!”
And… that’s really the thing that bugs me.
Although the Harry Potter books are about a lot more than just kids learning magic, there’s a lot of gratuitous use of it. Everyone takes it for granted and uses it liberally, the only limitation being not to let the wider Muggle world know. So they use it all the time: stagecoaches without horses, food which just magically appears, and just about everything involves using magic without hesitation.
And it feels like showing off; it feels like special effects thrown in to dazzle an audience.
Which brings me back to Terry Pratchett. There’s a lovely passage from “Going Postal”:
What was magic, after all, but something that happened at the snap of a finger? Where was the magic in that? It was mumbled words and weird drawings in old books and in the wrong hands it was dangerous as hell, but not one half as dangerous as it could be in the right hands. The universe was full of the stuff; it made the stars stay up and the feet stay down.
But what was happening now… this was magical. Ordinary men had dreamed it up and put it together, building towers on rafts in swamps and across the frozen spines of mountains. They’d cursed and, worse, used logarithms. They’d waded through rivers and dabbled in trigonometry. They hadn’t dreamed, in the way people usually used the word, but they’d imagined a different world, and bent metal around it. And out of all the sweat and swearing and mathematics had come this… thing, dropping words across the world as softly as starlight.
What Pratchett is describing in this quote is that we are so easily impressed by flashy effects or supposed miracles, when what actually happens and what people actually create is far, far more impressive. He remarks that in a world full of amazing things, like how sunlight becomes wine, humans can feel boredom.
But just like how special effects have a way of dazzling movie going audiences, is it the same here? Does the idea of magically appearing food in limitless quantities just fire the imaginations of readers?
Whenever mass media attempts to describe Terry Pratchett’s work, they’re quick to call it “creative” which is a cop out answer for people who haven’t actually read it. They use the same bland adjective to describe Harry Potter as well, and there’s this weird mainstream idea that the appeal of fantasy literature is in its sturm and drang and simply its use of magic.
I don’t want to pass too much judgment regarding Harry Potter. I’m not far enough in the series yet to make a sweeping generalization, only express about what I’ve read so far and I would reassert that I enjoy the storytelling. I just find the gratuitous use of magic strange, because it feels like it’s there to get people to think like non-Muggles: Wow, those Muggles don’t have magic, poor them. The only people who disapprove of magic are the entirely unlikeable Dursleys.
But no, not poor us. What we build, with mathematics, with economics, with science, with communities and cultures and literature and engineering… that’s magical. All these things we create through our organization and competition and drive, things like roads, cities, the Internet, the internal combustion engine, Wikipedia, the United Nations… All these things that the magic users in Harry Potter condescend over.
Somehow we are bored with the fact of our creating these things, and we are always looking for magic to impress us.
And perhaps that’s our drive. There’s an interesting idea that all of our technological development is geared towards a psychological desire to return to the crib. In the crib, we didn’t have to do anything to get what we wanted, but as you get older you understand the process behind things and that you have to work at them. But our attempts to hide the steps which make our technology work creates an illusion of magic: push a button on a remote control to turn on a TV, flip a switch to turn on house lights, and so on. We don’t know how they work any more and we’re happy to not have to know.
All this desire to make life easier for us, without having to understand how and why they work, this desire to be able to create or do things easily… isn’t that our pursuit of magic?
So in the Christmas spirit I watched the film rendition of “Hogfather” with my parents. I’ve been riding on Discworld love, lately,
But as I watch it again, I realize: You know, this is not a film made for non-Discworld fans. It’s the most loyal of the Sky One films made from Discworld, but it’s also, I think, the worst edited.
It makes no attempt to explain things, and takes for granted that the viewers are already familiar with the source material.
Which is why my parents were really confused. And I can’t blame them. Also I really didn’t like the editing. A lot of scenes seem to have been cut in half and split in two, so we’re constantly jumping around just when we’re getting to understand a particular scene and so we constantly lose track of ourselves.
I hated the film version of “Going Postal” despite that I absolutely adore the book, because it made so many unnecessary changes. I don’t mind necessary changes to make a book more watchable, because so many books just aren’t good on the screen. However, “Going Postal” was a lot easier to understand for my parents when we watched it.
It probably also helps that the book is how we’re introduced to Moist von Lipwig, while in “Hogfather” we’re long acquainted with Death and it’s the second book with Susan.
Still, while I like “Hogfather” the most for film adaptations as it’s the most loyal to the source material, it’s just not made for people who haven’t read the books. I think it doesn’t even try.
Still, Michelle Dockery is really pretty. And now she’s famous on Downton Abbey, so good for her.
|—||The Last Hero, by Terry Pratchett|
It’s the one book which pulls together characters from a wide variety of Discworld books. After all, you have the Wizards and the Watch and the Silver Horde. Rincewind and Captain Carrot going on an expedition with Leonard da Quirm and (SPOILERS) the Librarian.
Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde, old barbarian heroes who are experienced at not dying, ride out for one last charge against their own mortality, one which could destroy the world as they bring fire back to the gods (with interest).
Bits and pieces involve most of the Disc and beyond, and as ever with Pratchett, the pressing human question of what makes a good life, and why the gods let us get old and watch our world change before us.
Also, the art by Paul Kidby is just stunning.
Sometimes I think that reading Discworld, as my primary source of (technically) Fantasy fiction, has ruined me for other Fantasy.
Sir Terry does such a good job creating a world which works within its own rules, with believable people and interesting observations about the nature of people. That he created something so real, despite the initial premise of it being a flat world on four elephants on a flying turtle through space is really impressive.
In the Harry Potter world, it’s just hard to reconcile the existence of magic without boundaries and hidden massive magical whatevers in the contemporary world. You have to take a leap of logic and say “Well it just works that way.”
But really? A part of England which isn’t visible to satellite or been noticed is unexplored and uncultivated? Also, the economy of the magical world sounds really impractical and lacking in government guarantee, and really is Hogwarts the only real magical institution besides the Ministry? How does the whole thing operate?
Or in the Lord of the Rings books, it’s set in a different world which never changes. Kings and rulers change, people migrate, but otherwise nothing much changes. Empires rule for thousands of years and don’t change very much. People were living in Minas Tirith for how many hundreds of years in the same rock houses?
This is a trope in fantasy fiction called “Medieval Stasis”, which assumes the simplistic historical view that not much happened in the medieval period and people largely lived in the same circumstances for a long time. This is partially true but also largely false, because it assumes that people just sat around and didn’t do anything. But there were social or technological advances during the medieval period, some of which went very wrong or weren’t productive, but the attempt was still there.
So did all these Middle Earth societies just sit around and twiddle their thumbs for thousands of years without changing?
The point is that Ankh-Morpork is a living, breathing city, which works. That it manages to be a fictional fantasy city while also being an odd mirror to our own…
The point is that at a lot of Fantasy settings just say “Well, that’s how it is, we don’t have to explain how things work and we presume you’re on board with all our assumptions, but check out this story!” and Discworld… doesn’t.
Like, as I read Harry Potter I get the feeling that some of the attraction and magic of the story is “Wow, magic! Look, strange new creatures!” It does have good characters and good stories but the real window dressing is all the magical stuff. Lord of the Rings is also mostly about constructing an interesting world, as all of the books are about discovering that world.
But most Discworld books are generally about something to do with human nature, or why we are. They’re to do with the way people are people. Trolls in LOTR and in HP are just big and dumb monsters. Trolls on Discworld just want to go to work and raise families, like everyone else. They’re seen as dumb by people because their brains don’t conduct well in hot environments, having been made for higher altitudes and colder temperatures.
When I read Philosopher’s Stone, and they had the chapter with the troll attack… It’s hard to think “dumb monster troll” when you’ve read about Detritus. Trolls, too, should be living, breathing creatures, but in most Fantasy fiction they’re just monsters. On Discworld, monsters like vampires, werewolves, goblins and trolls are people.
Hank Green has several songs dedicated to Harry Potter, but one of them is about how no matter what else he reads nothing matches up to Harry Potter. I’m kind of experiencing it differently, because the more I read Harry Potter, which is fine, the more I appreciate Discworld, which is just excellent.
The point is just that the HP books are good, and the LOTR books are good… but I just can’t read them the same way after reading Discworld.
‘Not many men can say this,’ Terry says, proudly, ‘but as a result of The Wee Free Men I was made an honorary Brownie for writing a proper girl in a book. I’ve got a woggle and everything. No kidding.
‘Anyway, the Brownies wanted to kidnap someone famous and they decided on me because they liked Tiffany Aching. But they didn’t know how to go about it. And I thought, “All we need is a signing queue, two little girls and a yellow rubber chicken.” (I don’t know why it hasn’t been established before, but a yellow rubber chicken is the secret of all humour.)’
‘So, it’s all set up and I tell the two little Brownies, “You stand on one side of me and you on the other and just look at the camera, all sweet and innocent. Then without looking at me, one of you must raise my hat and the other has to hit me over the head with the rubber chicken. Then the first Brownie should place my hat back on my head as I slump down in the chair.”
‘The only problem was that people saw me apparently doing a signing and a massive queue built up. So then we had to explain to everyone that I wasn’t in fact doing a signing, but I would sign their books if they wouldn’t mind waiting until these two little girls had knocked me out. It was one of those surreal moments that you just treasure.’