One of my favourite Terry Pratchett quotes is now immortalised, on the front page of the Terry Pratchett Books Website. Well I say immortalised, but who knows with electronic media.
“Welcome to the Discworld. It started out as a parody of all the fantasy that was around in the big boom of the early ’80s, then turned into a satire on just about everything, and even I don’t know what it is now. I do know that in that time there’s been at least four people promoted as “new Terry Pratchetts” so for all I know I may not even still be me.”
Now it makes me wonder, what exactly the Discworld is? Why is it so endearing? And Why does it resonate so much with so many people?
I guess ultimately on a Blog like this one the best answer I can give will, in the end, just be my answer. But what the hell, here it is.
It seems to me that the Discworld takes one step to the side of the world as we know it. In this sense the Discworld is our world, but liberated from the restrictions of having to fiddle about getting every little geographical and historical detail absolutely right. As well as this it seems that because, it is one step to the side, it is able to offer up things that most people really know about Roundworld anyway, as ‘realities’ of the Discworld, without the reader feeling the need to argue any political points.
Because of this Sir Terry is able to litter the landscape of the Disc not just with fantastical creations, and fascinating characters, but also with truisms. It might be my imagination, but as the series has developed, the plots seem to have moved away from the more exotic and improbable settings into the increasingly modern setting of Ankh-Morpork. Taking a close look at the kinds of institutions which allow modern society to run in the way it does, but which often seem to rest on archaic and habitual oddities.
The books ‘The Truth‘, ‘Going Postal’ and ‘Making Money’ seem to strongly represent this theme, though ’Unseen Academicals’ seemed a departure from this. Interestingly the Tiffany Aching books seem to me, to have preserved more of the original anarchic aspects of the earlier books. The Nac Mac Feegle seeming almost to distil this anarchy into a well formed culture all of their own. So for all I am making a broad generalisation about the direction the books have taken, I don’t think I could easily argue it is anything more than a tendency, rather than any kind of full blown departure.
It at times, it is tempting to see the Discworld as the world as it should be, filled with Heroines and heroes defeating the villains and cheating Death, against impossible odds, and sometimes the hero is Death himself, and sometimes he cheats himself. Justice prevailing against the murkier elements of society. Sam Vimes’s regicide ancestor ‘Old Stoneface’ chopped the head off a king and successfully ended the monarchy, unlike his Roundworld counterpart Oliver Cromwell, who only succeeded in displacing the Monarchy for the duration of his own life. Something about this rings in the mind as somehow a more just outcome, yet, Sir Terry then offers us the Patrician, who despite lord Vetinary’s benign nature, is a dictator, and only the most recent of a line that includes characters such as Mad Lord Snapcase, who’s name says it all really. So maybe the alternatives to Monarchy were not so much better.
I should have expected when I began writing this I would end up where I am now, there is something about the nature of the Discworld that makes it next to impossible to make any generalisations about it. The moment I think I might have pinned it down it slips away and twists into something different.
One thing I can say with relative certainty, is that the Discworld is incredibly popular, so whatever it is that Sir Terry has created it connects with a great many people.
If memory serves the blurb on the inside cover of many of Sir Terrys books, says that ‘he has even been accused of Literature’ Which is in itself a fascinating comment, which illustrates something about the Discworld books which is not immediately obvious. I have the impression that the ‘serious’ literary establishment rather looks down on the Discworld, (Well you would have to wouldn‘t you, or else all you would see would be Great A’Tuins tummy,) as not really proper literature.
In this regard the Discworld bares an uncanny resemblance to J.R.R. Tolkien’s, Lord of the Rings, which to a certain extent it lampoons. Like the Discworld the academic establishment looked down on LOTR, and to a great extent still does. I recall it being awarded the ‘book of the century’ and being voted ‘Britain’s favourite book’ in the big read, much to the consternation of serious literary critics who thought there were much better books that should have been rewarded. Even now it is only reported that there are ‘moves’ in academic circles to take it seriously as a literary work.
One of the criticisms levelled at LOTR in the above article is that it had finally become a ‘brand’ with all the marketing and commercialisation aspects that that entails. It seems fairly evident that this has already happened to the Discworld.
I suspect that the same struggle awaits sir Terry’s work, I strongly believe that they will continue to be popular for a long time to come, and that they will be looked down on because they are not serious books, and that they represent a ‘brand’ rather than a serious literary effort.
That the evidence of the initial quote I began this piece with, suggests that Sir Terry is a little indifferent to this, which I think can be no bad thing. Both for the future of the Discworld, and the future of Literary criticism. To my mind Literary critics are all to eager to find something serious, heavy and difficult to read, as this somehow makes a book of more value. That sir Terry is able to tackle sometimes difficult and challenging themes with humour which makes the issues more accessible to his readers, only further recommends his books.
When I began writing this I did not realise I would end up here, but here I am: popularity doesn’t mean that something is good literature, but equally it doesn’t mean it isn’t.
So my answer to the original question is: the Discworld is damn good fun, which resonates with a lot of peoples lives in a twisty kind of ineffable way, written in a style which is just endearing.
Not much of an answer I suppose but it was fun trying, perhaps I will have another go another time with more success.