Even his name is cowardly
As anyone following my blog knows I’m working my way through the Discworld series. I’m finding it super interesting, especially Pratchett’s ability to create layered stories. I find it oddly funny that I never really thought of Pratchett’s works as being “fun-loving” or “comedy” not of course because they weren’t humorous, but that I always found it was the serious and intriguing themes that often ran underneath or alongside the hilarity.
Anyways one of my wonderings was kind of the deeper themes and ideas of the ongoing series. I’m not going to assess all of them, but after getting few the first 2-3 books in some I thought I would reflect.
Apologies I’m not going to cover all of them but the ‘main’ ongoing series of the early books: Rincewind, Death, Witches, and Guards.
I recently saw an r/books thread commenting that the OP couldn’t really get behind Rincewind, he was just too, well, Rincewind. He’s certainly a strange character, his core feature being cowardice, with a side-quest of cynicism and failed romances. He’s not exactly your typical protagonist, and not even very typical for your zero to hero MC (as he doesn’t manage the hero often).
As first when reading this post I found myself wondering what exactly is the attraction of Rincewind, is he meant to be funny, relatable, realistic?
I believe that the very first Discworld novels were very much born out of Pratchett’s love of Dungeons and Dragons BUT ALSO his love of subverting fantasy tropes and Rincewind seems to fit this model quite well.
That said I noticed something about Rincewind in rereading some of his books lately. Yes he is all those negatory things mentioned above, but there is something I find very interesting about the failed Wizard. While he is technically a true Discworld inhabitant, he is I believe the closest you’ll get in the Disc to an Narnia-like “Son-of-Adam” he is in fact an ordinary person in an extra-ordinary world.
Again, just to emphasize I know that he is actually a genuine Disc inhabitant, but I feel they way he responds to things and reacts is how a regular Earthling would thrown into a fantasy land. He certainly does have the sense of a naïve DnD player wondering what the heck is going on.
This is particularly notable in
Faust Eric a story which is almost entirely more a riff on puns and literary interpretations of a supernatural classic.
But in saying all of this I don’t think the theme of Rincewind is ‘fish out of water’ even though that’s a context – I think its more Pratchett riffing on the absurdity of life and reality, how we’re all kinda faced with feeling like the only sane person in the room/planet or helpless in the face of the bizarre arbitrary nature of the world. Rincewind is that part of all of us that is smart enough to be constantly terrified.
Writing this I really wonder how Pratchett would have taken the past Pandemic years.
Death is a really interesting series. The obvious choice for analysis is to suggest that the theme is about Death himself becoming more and more human and kind of juxtaposing that with the consequences of a anthropomorphic force making choices about his duty.
And it is about that – but I feel intriguingly that a series about Death isn’t really about Death and mortality, its more about other big questions in life “Why is the world the way it is” This is why even though in my early post I critiqued Soul Music for having a weird mix of a Death plotline with a “Soul of Music” thing, but in terms of themes it makes sense. Pratchett clearly values music and believes that it is some sort of inalienable ‘heart-beat’ of reality.
Similarly in Reaper Man while the overt plot was Death being fired, the themes were very much about the passage of time and progress, how new replaces old (but sometimes shouldn’t).
I haven’t got up to my reread of Hogfather yet but my recollection is that its very much about human values like justice not being ‘real’ and yet being all the more important.
The Guards are quite a tricky one. They’ve always been my favourite focus, perhaps because they are in many respects the more straightforward characters, at least in terms of traditional fantasy story telling they are a rag-tag ensemble of city guards coming up against Dragons, ‘Gonnes’ and Golems. It is interesting though that many of the Guards stories read more like whodunnits than fantasy stories (sort of).
In terms of deeper themes I couldn’t really look further than the brilliant tagonism between Vimes and Carrot. Like many young fools I assumed the story of Guards Guards would be basically Carrot slaying the dragon and assuming the mantle of King but in defiance of the Cabal that summoned the dragon (in early days I didn’t realize how subversive Pratchett was).
What I think the Guards series is really about is how can ordinary folk fare in the face of politics, and the machinations of mad despots and manipulative but brilliant Patricians (more on that later).
Pratchett uses Vimes and Carrot as two important dichotomies in life, optimistism and pessism, experience and passion, hope and street-smarts. I feel throughout the series Carrot and Vimes rub off on each other the best ways, leading to Carrot honing his naivety into something almost like a cunning weapon, while Vimes learns to have some faith in progress.
Just a quick note on Veteranari, a strange character in the Disc, who I think at first was supposed to be a fairly sinister background tyrant, however as Ankh-Morpork and the Discworld evovled he turned into a more benevolent manipulator figure. It’s hard to know what Pratchett himself thought about the character, if he believed this was the ideal ruler, a cynical representation of how he thought politics worked, or perhaps just the only sort of person he thought could run a city like Ankh.
Trying to analyse the witches left me feeling a bit bamboozled at first. Esme Weatherwax is such an interesting complex character, between her iron-clad morals somehow fitting in with her borderline abusive pride and patronizing approach to the other witches I had trouble making sense of what these stories were really about – despite them always feeling meaningful.
Then I realized that all their plots involve Kings and Queens, and/or power squabbles. Within many of the stories is an internal battle of Granny Weatherwax. I mentioned in the Guards paragraph that I wasn’t sure if Veternari was supposed to be an ideal ruler, whereas in the Witches series Pratchett frequently riffs on ethics of rulership, whether through their interactions with the King/fool of Lancre, Elves, the Fairy God Mother or (looking forward to rereading Carpe Jugulam) Vampires.
I think through Granny Weatherwax Pratchett explores ideas like how you sometimes can’t do the right thing AND be nice or how the overtly wrong thing might be right if you look at the bigger picture.
My suspicion is that in later books I’ll have trouble overanalysing them, as they sort of get deeper and more complex as the Discworld novels progress (with the likes of Jingo, and Night Watch) but I look forward to a year ahead of more Discworld.