Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Unauthorized Guide to the Discworld Novels

This is the longest gap I've ever had between entries. Prior to this one, I did quite a long post, so that entitled me to take an equally long break. That's my story and I'm sticking to it. Still, eleven days is more than enough, so I've decided to finally get down to business and write this post I've had in mind for a few weeks now. I hope it proves more enjoyable than offensive.

Reading Discworld novels is a particularly poignant experience these days. Author Terry Pratchett has early-onset Alzheimer's disease. His fans are fond of saying that "he aten't dead yet," in reference to the sign that Granny Weatherwax wears around her neck while out of her body. I, like all his fans, hope he'll hang onto life and most of his faculties for a good long time.

Still, the experience has affected him and his writing. His latest novel, Nation--not a Discworld novel--is filled with more grief and anger than, to the best of my knowledge, anything else he has written. This is understandable. Pratchett has spoken with much honesty and humour about his anger over his condition and his treatment by the NHS (England's National Health Service), which considers him too young to have Alzheimer's and is therefore refusing him coverage. What he is going through is, in more ways than one, a life-changing experience, and even if he writes more Discworld novels, they will not be quite the same.

I suppose that's what made me take a nostalgic look back at the Discworld. I read one of the novels I hadn't gotten to before and took another look at some of the ones I had. Which has resulted in this, my Unauthorized Guide to the Discworld Novels.

What Is The Discworld?

The Discworld is a flat disc of a world that rests on the backs of four elephants, which in turn stand on the shell of a very large turtle. This world has different physical laws. Light moves slowly, flowing over the disc like syrup. Magic exists, and has its own colour: octarine. There are two types of magic practiced on Discworld: men's magic, the type practiced by wizards at the Unseen University in the city of Ankh-Morpork, and women's magic, practiced by witches in small villages.

That's a basic introduction. It's not my intention to reproduce The Discworld Companion. In fact, I don't mean to produce a guide to the Discworld itself, only to the novels.

Things You Should Know About The Discworld Novels

They contain footnotes

Novels don't usually contain footnotes. I've read a lot of novels and that's one of the major things I've noticed about them. The Discworld novels are different. Usually, the footnotes are used to insert jokes that entertain Pratchett, if nobody else, but aren't essential to the story. A startling exception can be found in the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. The entire lower halves of pages 20 and 21 are taken up with one giant footnote explaining "the shape and cosmology of the disc system." One wonders why this information couldn't have been included in the prologue, which the book does have. Perhaps Pratchett was using this giant among footnotes to demonstrate to readers, right up front, just what they were getting into.

They contain puns

The Discworld novels are satirical and humorous. Some of that humour involves puns. For example, from the second Discworld novel, The Light Fantastic:

Tumbling past, totally out of control, is the bronze shell of the Potent Voyager, a sort of neolithic spaceship built and pushed over the edge by the astronomer-priests of Krull, which is conveniently situated on the very rim of the world and proves, whatever people say, that there is such a thing as a free launch.

Just so you'll know.

Now that you have been warned, I shall proceed to the heart of my unauthorized guide, the intention of which is to provide you with some handy rules of thumb to help you determine which Discworld novels you are most likely to enjoy. Note that they are based on my opinion, and are therefore not at all scientific--but then, neither is Discworld.

Vivian's Rules of Discworld Novels

Rule #1: Novels with Rincewind the Wizard in them are not as good as Rincewind-free novels

Rincewind is a sad-sack sort of character. I think I can best describe him as Wile E. Coyote without the malevolent intent. Aside from his fantastic trunk that follows him around on lots of little legs and gets him out of scrapes, He hasn't got much going for him. He's not a good wizard. He's not brave or morally upright. He can't even spell, as shown by his hat, which has "Wizzard" written on it. On top of all that, he appears to be cursed: everything bad happens to him, and everything that involves him goes wrong. So it shouldn't be surprising that he also has an unsalutary effect on the novels he inhabits. It's probably some sort of magical influence that has not been sufficiently studied. The wizards of Unseen University should look into it at their earliest convenience. It could be the subject of someone's dissertation.

This doesn't mean that the Rinceworld novels are not worth reading. All Discworld novels are worth reading. Even Rinceworld novels contain funny bits and brilliantly insane ideas such as watercrafts that are kept aloft by water-hating wizards called hydrophobes. But if you are new to Discworld, you may want to choose non-Rincewind novels first, and face the annoying "wizzard" only once you have become a diehard fan.

Discworld novels that include Rincewind are:

  • The Colour of Magic (#1 in the series)
  • The Light Fantastic (#2)
  • Sourcery (#5)
  • Eric (#9)
  • Interesting Times (#17)
  • The Last Continent (#22)
  • The Last Hero (#27)
Rule #2: Novels that contain wizards other than Rincewind are good

Wizards in Discworld generally reside at, or at least have dealings with, the Unseen University, and that's an interesting place. There's so much magic bouncing around in there that unexpected and often disastrous things keep happening. Which makes it very similar to male-dominated institutions in our own world, with the advantage that since it's happening in a humorous novel, everything works out all right in the end.

Unseen University is also graced by the Librarian, who was turned into an orangutan some time before the series started. (Correction: see below.) The wizards don't change him back, not because they can't, but because he's happier this way. I'm fond of the Librarian and wish we got more of him in the Discworld novels.

The University is located in Ankh-Morpork, a crowded, smelly, vice-riddled city--basically a magical, medievalish New York. If you prefer urban settings, stiff hierarchies and an absence of women, the novels involving wizards and Unseen University are right up your alley and you may want to disregard Rule #3.

Books that have wizards in them but do not have Rincewind include:

  • Equal Rites (#3 in the series)
  • Lords and Ladies (#14)
  • Reaper Man (#11)
  • Soul Music (#16)
  • Hogfather (#20)
  • The Unseen Academicals (#37)
Rule #3: Novels that contain witches are better

Witches on the Discworld stand in sharp contrast to wizards. Wizards are urban; witches are rural. Wizards love their rigid hierarchy; witches have no hierarchy but are communal. Wizards are celibate; witches are not, at least not always. It's unclear whether Granny Weatherwax ever got any action, but Nanny Ogg certainly did, and is not shy about letting people know how much she enjoyed it. Even Tiffany Aching is growing up and experiencing a little romance in Wintersmith (#35). Wizards practice dangerous, destructive magic, whereas witches use magic only when necessary, and then always in harmony with nature.

Pratchett's portrayal of women is interesting. They frequently come across as more multifaceted and human than the men, who are often simply figures of fun. Pratchett writes a lot of strong women. The formidable grandmother character crops up repeatedly, most commonly in the form of Granny Weatherwax, but there is also Tiffany Aching's grandmother, and in addition, the main character in The Dark Side of the Sun (not a Discworld novel) has an overbearing, interfering grandmother to contend with. (One wonders who may have been the inspiration for all these tough old ladies. Pratchett's grandmother, perhaps?) Pratchett's tendencies to write complex female characters while so often making the men play the fools explains the superior quality of the witch-themed novels. These include:

  • Equal Rites (#3)
  • Wyrd Sisters (#6)
  • Witches Abroad (#12)
  • Lords and Ladies (#14)
  • Maskerade (#18)
  • Carpe Jugulum (#23)
Rule #4: Novels that contain both witches and Nac Mac Feegles are the best

The Nac Mac Feegles, also known as the Wee Free Men, are a lot of fun. Like Picts, they are blue, and like Pixies, they are small. They speak in a sort of Scottish dialect, love fighting, and engage in strange antics. It's worth reading a Nac Mac Feegle book just for the dialogue.

As far as I know, books about the Nac Mac Feegle always have Tiffany Aching in them. She is a young witch-in-training that the Feegles are sworn to protect, and that's a good thing, because like any adolescent girl, she doesn't always do what she's told. And when you're a witch, that can have serious consequences.

The books that contain witches and Nac Mac Feegle are:

  • The Wee Free Men (#30)
  • A Hat Full of Sky (#32)
  • Wintersmith (#35)
Rule #4: Many novels contain other characters that are also worth reading about

Death, the personification with hood and sickle, stars in a number of worthy Discworld novels:

  • Mort (#4)
  • Reaper Man (#11)
  • Soul Music (#16)
  • Hogfather (#20)
  • Thief of Time (#26)

The Watch, who enforce the law in Ankh-Morpork, dominate several novels. One of the benefits of Watch Novels is the presence of The Patrician, Ankh-Morpork's lovable benign dictator.

  • Guards! Guards! (#8)
  • Men at Arms (#15)
  • Feet of Clay (#19)
  • Jingo (#21)
  • The Fifth Elephant (#24)
  • The Truth (#25)
  • Night Watch (#29)
  • Thud! (#34)



I wrote above that the Librarian was turned into an orangutan before the series started. I've just discovered that in fact it happens at the beginning of The Light Fantastic. (It is the side effect of a spell cast by the grimoire Octavo to save Rincewind from falling over the edge of the world, if you wanted to know.) The first time we meet him, he's an orangutan, but technically he was a human until Book 2. My apologies for any inconvenience caused by this error. --April 15, '09 Back


James said...

I agree 100% on the role of witches and wizards in the Discworld novels. After just finishing Equal Rites (only the second TP novel I have read but I will surely read more) I can see that witches are the more complex, interesting and intelligent characters, when compared to the bumbling, hierarchy-obsessed wizards.

Based on Equal Rites I wouldn't extend this description to non-magical male and female characters though. I was somewhat surprised by the portrayal of the Smith's wife who is not described in the least and has virtually no role in the novel apart from spawning the novel's heroine.

The male Zoon character that unwittingly gives Esk a ride on his boat doesn't have a huge role in the story but comes across as reasonably savvy, and there's a humorous back story about his being an official "Liar" too, which is probably the main reason he appeared.

Anyway, great advice on the novels - I think I shall seek out the Mac Nac Feegles next - they sound interesting!

Raine Lawliet said...

They didn't have too large a role, but I distinctly remember the Nac Mac Feegle featuring in Carpe Jugulum. Speaking of which, I hadn't thought much about it before, but you're absolutely correct about Pratchett's portrayal of men and women. Perhaps I just didn't realize because most of the Discworld novels that I've read were about Death, a technically male character and a rather profound one at that.

Vivian said...

Thanks James! Good point about the invisibility of Esk's mother; now that I think about it, mothers are largely absent or in the background in Pratchett's novels, and not only in Discworld novels--in Nation, the latest, the female lead's mother is dead. I am going straight to Wikipedia to see what was going on with Pratchett's mother.

I'm back. Wikipedia offers no clues. It doesn't say his mother died young, and there's no mention of a grandmother. And it looks like no one's written a biography of him yet.

Raine, I read Carpe Jugulum a few years ago and can't remember anything about it. I'm glad to hear that the Mac Nac Feegles are in it; they should feature in as many books as possible.

I was just rereading The Colour of Magic and it's interesting to see what a different sort of character Death was then; mean and sadistic really. Pratchett really, ahem, fleshed him out over the course of the series. I have the novel Mort and that's a good one that stars Death. He becomes a mature, likeable character.

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