So it’s 2018! Hooraayyyyy. Now that we’re done commemorating the inevitable march of time, let’s get back to business.
As some of you may already know, I absolutely love Terry Pratchett. I looked at three of his characters for my Strong Female Characters series, and because I am totally and completely unbiased, they all passed with full marks. He was a giant of British fantasy, largely thanks to his Discworld series – a series that spanned forty-one novels, several short stories, four ‘mapps’, and a wide range of non-fiction books including diaries, trivia collections, cookbooks and picture books. Pratchett was nominated for several awards and was eventually knighted – and in the most fantasy author move ever, made himself a sword out of meteorite iron to celebrate. He died at the age of sixty-six, after battling Alzheimer’s disease for almost a decade.
Hands down, the Discworld series is Sir Terry’s best-known work. The name comes from the shape of the planet – it’s a giant disc, supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. At forty-one books (not counting the supplementary texts), this can look like an intimidating series from the outside. But it’s a series in quite a loose sense of the word. Most of the books can be read as standalone novels, and there are a few mini-series dealing with specific recurring characters:
- Rincewind, the cowardly wizard constantly being strong-armed into saving the world
- The Lancre witches, (later joined by Tiffany Aching) who shun magic as much as possible and steal all the sandwiches
- The Ankh-Morpork City Watch, a police force in a city that has regulated begging, prostitution, theft and assassinations via various guilds
- Unseen University, a university of wizards who unleash eldritch horrors when they aren’t trying to kill each other
- Moist von Lipwig, an unfortunately-named con artist who finds himself in control of various public institutions
- Death, i.e. the Grim Reaper, who TALKS LIKE THIS and has a fondness for cats.
On the surface the set-ups for these novels don’t look very different from other fantasy books. The basic elements are all there: wizards, witches, the long-lost heir to the throne, dragons, the undead, trolls, dwarves, goblins. I could go on. But what makes Discworld stand out amongst other fantasy series is the way in which these elements are treated.
Pratchett took delight on turning clichés on their heads. In Discworld, witches aren’t wicked: they’re usually overworked midwives, healers and occasional guardians against the nastier elements of the supernatural, fuelled by sweet tea. The long-lost heir to the throne of Ankh-Morpork has no interest in reclaiming it; he’s pretty happy with the way things are being run. Dwarfs aren’t just gruff and bearded miners: they keep their gender secret from everyone but their families, and presenting themselves as openly female is a radical act that has led to deep divides in the dwarfish community. This is typical of Pratchett’s treatment of fantasy clichés. He has a real knack for drawing out certain aspects of fantasy tropes and turning them on their heads, without losing their connection with the original. He does this for pretty much every fantasy race we see in the Discworld series, with the result that Pratchett’s dwarfs, trolls, goblins and elves feel unique, distinct and fleshed-out. It’s a real skill.
But for me, what really lifts the Discworld series above over fantasy books is that it’s not static. It’s not just the characters that develop with every book. Their actions and decisions have a direct impact on the setting, and that changes accordingly. Technological advancements and societal changes all happen over the course of the series and are explored thoroughly, which isn’t something that we see very often in fantasy novels.
Let’s look for a moment at the character of Cheery Littlebottom.
Cheery is a dwarf in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. When we first meet Cheery she dresses like all the other dwarfs in the series – i.e. like a short, beardy man. Before this, all dwarfs are described as male – there’s only one gender pronoun in the dwarfish language, and humans have translated this to ‘he’ thanks to their beards and such. But Cheery is female, and decides that she wants to look female, too. She doesn’t shave her beard (she is a dwarf, after all), but she starts wearing make-up and dresses and glitter in the first book she appears in. This causes something of a stir – some dwarfs want to copy her, some dwarfs find her attractive, and some see her as immoral. This is all in her first appearance. Over the course of the series Cheery’s decision starts a trend, and other dwarfs start dressing as women too, particularly in Ankh-Morpork. This causes a schism in dwarfish society between Ankh-Morpork liberals and more conservative dwarfs from the mountains, ultimately causing political factions and extremist splinter groups, all with complex motivations and goals of their own.
And that’s just the dwarfs.
This is reflective of Pratchett’s development as a writer. While Pratchett had always been noted for his comic fantasy, his earlier books tended to fall into some of the same traps as more straight-laced fantasy fiction. They’re funny and well-written, but it’s really as the series gets going that Pratchett comes into his own.
The later books in the Discworld series are where Pratchett starts to establish himself as one of the greats. Having satirised a lot of explicitly fantasy clichés, Pratchett started to take aim at a much wider range of topics. He certainly hit his targets. He took on extreme nationalism in Jingo. He examined gender expectations and warfare in Monstrous Regiment. He picked apart the nature of death, belief, hysteria, good and evil and he did it all with tact and grace.
This is reflected in the complexity of his characters. Sam Vimes – the leader of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch – was obviously inspired by the stereotype of the bitter, alcoholic detective often seen in noir fiction. Pratchett manages to subvert this cliché by exploring it to its fullest extent, going into detail about Vimes’s experience as a recovering alcoholic and eventual teetotaller. This frank look at Vimes’s alcohol addiction and his efforts to distance himself from it are what lifts him away from the stereotype, making him a much more believable character. And, of course, this is by no means limited to one character. Pratchett’s female characters are, quite simply, brilliant. Monstrous Regiment is one of the best depictions of gender and warfare in fantasy fiction – its female characters are so tangibly real that I am always amazed they were written by a male writer. When he wrote Tiffany Aching, the young witch protagonist of his YA Discworld novels, Pratchett was made an honorary Brownie for writing such a realistic little girl as a protagonist. Incidentally, this was what earned him his ‘Writer’ and ‘Booklover’ badges.
This is a huge part of the reason why I find Discworld so appealing. Pratchett’s fantasy setting doesn’t stop him from dealing with real-world issues like alcoholism, prejudice and systemic abuse, but his characters aren’t constrained by them. The world and its characters feel real because these bigger-than-fantasy problems are neither swept under the rug nor made the only markers of a character’s personality. His characters feel like real people, even when they aren’t people at all.
For me, this is what makes Discworld so compelling. I’ve always found high fantasy a bit too exclusive for my tastes. Characters from high fantasy have never seemed like real people to me; they’re so poised, well-spoken and noble that they seem worlds above us grubby normal people. This goes double for the female characters, who tend to be fair, perfect, and steeped in a lot of gendered stereotypes that I could really do without.
But Discworld is a different place. Its female characters face prejudice, but they overcome it. They aren’t forced to fit into very narrow boxes. They develop, they fight, they make mistakes. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: it’s welcoming. It feels like a place where I, as someone who attempts things with more enthusiasm than skill, could actually live. More than any other series I’ve read – and this goes for all books, ever – I have seen myself reflected in Pratchett’s characters. I connect with Tiffany Aching way more than with Hermione Granger, although lately, I’m more like Granny Weatherwax.
Reading a Discworld novel is like coming home. I’ve had such a strong attachment to these books that it’s lasted for half my life, and I know it’s only going to continue. I’ve read them all so many times I’ve lost count. Apart from The Shepherd’s Crown, which I’ve only read once. No matter how much time passes, it’s always going to feel a bit too soon.