The Potatoes of Defiance

I can’t find my copy of Small Gods.

Terry Pratchett, who died on Thursday, wrote fully 41 novels set on a flat, circular planet called the Discworld that is carried by four elephants standing equidistant from each other atop the shell of a giant turtle, named A’tuin, who just sort of lumbers through space and is generally left to its own devices. Of all the fantasy universes created in the last half of the last century, it was inarguably the friendliest, and probably the most capacious, too, because Pratchett’s novels didn’t built on one another. Not at all. Perhaps there were one or two that picked up a plot thread from one or two others, but for the most part you can pick up any of them, at any time in your life, and start reading.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what you’d find when you did so, because Pratchett was maniacally curious about historical minutiae. In, for example, a late Discworld book called Monstrous Regiment, the author detailed the exploits of a young woman who’d joined the army pretending to be a man, and he filled the book with all kinds of interesting backstory, most of it very silly, that happened to be true, frequently in hilariously odd ways. So, while a teenage boy living in Kenya with his three younger siblings could simply steal the copy of Feet of Clay his younger brother had purchased off a shelf swollen with mass-market paperbacks at at the nearby used bookstore and enjoy it for a lot of the things teenage boys like—tortured heroism, adventure, last-minute escapes, unthinkable evil, thinkable evil, anatomical humor—the series manages to entertain and challenge that reader fifteen years later despite its doing double duty as comfort food. And now he can’t find his fucking copy of Small Gods.

Small Gods is the Pratchett book I like the most; it’s about religion in a very funny and compassionate way and while it’s written by a famous atheist, it’s in no way snide or rude about faith, even faith in ridiculous things, because no one in English letters saw the ridiculousness of very real things as clearly as Pratchett, and no one was able to turn up the volume on them just enough to make them not merely absurd but fantastical and hilarious.

Pratchett’s gentleness is much-remarked but it is best appreciated by contrast to his bite: One of the less admirable characters in Small Gods, which is set in a monastery, is the master of the novices, a disagreeable hypocrite named Nhumrod who doesn’t like our hero, Brutha. “He was, as Nhumrod had complained before, too old to be a proper novice. About ten years too old. Give me a boy up to the age of seven, Nhumrod had always said.” It’s a cheap shot, and a very funny one, and it’s Pratchett’s way of acknowledging something awful that was happening in the outside world without allowing it to intrude on his own, where he carefully controls and modulates the horrors and pitfalls his heroes will encounter.

And in this way he can get at all sorts of interesting, taboo things: the complexities and difficulties of lower-class urban life, the problems with police work, the difficulty and terror of governance. Somehow, Pratchett always seemed to be approaching these problems from the inside, because of course he was: he was a fantasy writer, and so he had to imagine what it was like to be a Night Watchman. But rather than sand down the complexities of police work in the name of keeping the world orderly and the reader engaged, Pratchett discovered that the most engaging thing was not to ignore the petty and sometimes disturbing vagaries of something like police work, he mined them for jokes and plot points and unapologetically demanded the reader’s sympathy for everybody from cops to robbers, from elves to vampires, from the Tyrant, Lord Vetinari, to the dumbest troll in Uberwald.

This, by the way, is how the author got at the problem of, well, England, because in a certain light, Ankh-Morpork looks a lot like London, Lanrce looks a lot like Cumbria, Quirm looks a lot like France and so on and so forth. ANd in so doing he passed a number of his contemporaries like they were stopped. This is because they were stopped, by the way: Americans mostly miss this but the British penchant for twenties and thirties style doesn’t correspond to our own love of Jazz Age fashion the way we like to think it does—it’s more like what happens when Americans fetishize mainstream culture from the 1950′s, when things were simpler and there was no pesky Civil Rights movement, no Women’s Lib, and presumably no gay people at all.

England, now, is a melting pot, and this terrifies enough of its intelligentsia that they’ve retreated into a much more dangerous kind of fantasy than the gnomes-and-dwarves kind Pratchett is both engaging with and sending up, and make no mistake: this is a serious act of subversion. Public sentiment, not just in his home country but here, too, is often all but mandatory, and the people mandating it are often powerful, their concerns vast, their motivations corrupt, their ideas bad. Pratchett was here to mock and question them, and with a kind of righteous enthusiasm that would have been frightening if it hadn’t been so funny. 

So if, to the non-reader, Discworld seems like a strange thing to celebrate, it’s because it was a strange thing to do. Contemporary fantasy authors must be forgiven for their tendency, as amateur medievalists, to adore gilt and leather binding and Serious consideration from Serious people. As someone who wanted nothing less than to be Serious, Pratchett was immediately free from any desire to produce an elaborate reworking of The Canterbury Tales illuminated by his own handpicked artists; though he did make some very elaborate and funny jokes about The Canterbury Tales, and he employed his own sort of Thomas Nast, a guy named Paul Kidby whose caricatures perfectly suited Pratchett’s own exaggerations. Rather than seven slim, courtly volumes suitable for a box set, he produced reams of copy best consumed in the form of sweaty paperbacks, their pages filled with digressive, snortingly funny footnotes, their characters adam’s apples and bowlegs dominating the covers. His people are flawed, always, even the very good ones—even the supernaturally perfect ones, like Death, whose knows better than anyone what’s important but, as a consequence, doesn’t understand people at all. And his evil people are rarely wholly evil; his very first protagonist, in fact, is a wizard named Rincewind whose most salient quality is that he’s such a terrible coward “that he’s a hero coming back the other way,” as Pratchett put it.

Instead of elevated, cosmic truths, fantasy was a way for him to talk about what was on his mind, whether it was email or guns or geopolitics or newspapers or time travel. His work was, often, sentimental, but it was never sentimental about itself; never thought it had solved the world’s problems simply by existing. It had merely identified those problems, sometimes very rapidly after they came up—his last few books have startlingly familiar extremist groups in them—and that quality, above all the other excellent characteristics of his work, has made it timeless. He was a writer who was able, consistently and creatively, to find Death funny. A part of me, a ridiculous, irrational part, of the kind Pratchett was so often so supportive, likes to think the feeling was mutual.

And Pratchett will survive, if not as sentient carbon, then as ideas. Disobedience, kindness, empathy: these aren’t virtues that come naturally, and they’re worth cultivating in these very ugly times. Too many of us are afraid, or angry, or both. But Small Gods, of which I am going out to buy another copy as soon as I post this, has the best thing to say on that subject, at least for this occasion: “Fear is a strange soil,” Pratchett wrote. “It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.”

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