On discovering Terry Pratchett’s Discworld - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

On discovering Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

BySuhit Bombaywala
Jan 20, 2024 06:26 PM IST

40 years after the publication of The Colour of Magic, the first of 41 books, the fantasy series continues to delight new generations of readers

The writer Terry Pratchett once declared in an interview and also in numerous biographical notes appended to his books that he was not writing literature. This was possibly tongue-in-cheek, for elsewhere he said fantasy writing was literature, and the oldest genre at that. The question, as millions of readers have discovered for themselves, is largely forgotten when they are laughing their heads off at his vivid, imaginative, hilarious writing. Rarely do you see such writing thunderbolted with imagination and magicdusted with humour potent enough to turn the sourest grinch into a wide-eyed child (ask me). To have discovered Pratchett’s comic fantasies wrought by magic’s wildness as much as the commandment to “thrill and delight” so late in my reading life is incredible. This month I relished the first book of the series, The Colour of Magic in the beginning of my 44th revolution around the sun… better late than never.

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) (Michal Kalasek / Shutterstock)
Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) (Michal Kalasek / Shutterstock)

“The year gone by, 2023, was the 40th anniversary year of book number one in the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic.” (Amazon)
“The year gone by, 2023, was the 40th anniversary year of book number one in the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic.” (Amazon)

The year gone by, 2023, was the 40th anniversary year of book number one in the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic. This calls for celebration, though far be it for me to advise well-read fans of Pratchett. Any writer would go down on their knees with wet-eyed, quivery-lipped thanks to have readers like Pratchett’s: genuine stakeholders able to remember key details and plot twists from the alleys of Ankh-Morpork, generous with counsel on a good reading order for this long series, utterly passionate rasiks. Let me whisper that The Colour of Magic is only the second book by Pratchett I’ve read so far.

All things considered it’s excellent progress seeing as it’s been two months since I chanced upon the Ankh-sphere. Or as I’d love to say, I am a holder of good fortune comprised of 39, count them, reading treats in the future, which is great good fortune. Let me update my speed dial with the number for my local book shop which has a wide shelf packed with the series. Aside: This being Mumbai, “local” is 10 kilometres away.

I wouldn’t have believed it if you said the first book, named The Colour of Magic, sets up a fantasy realm called Discworld, a flat disc resting on the shoulders of four gigantic elephants straddling the back of a humongous turtle roving to unknown ends the void between stars. What a pleasant surprise to see the riff on an old myth — it’s true that later books eased off on parody considerably.

But the first book is big on turning fantasy characters and tropes on their head. What a treat, for instance, to meet the side characters: brawny, brave, sword-wielding barbarian unencumbered of excessive smarts who is certainly not named Conan; his sword which is not only scary sharp but also speaks cuttingly, being a saltier precursor to today’s talkative devices; a sultry dragon-riding queen (I see your blades flashing, fans of GoT, please read the last sentence of this paragraph); a wizarding school drop out inept in magic but honest (wands down, Potterheads). As parodies go, they are good natured parodies which are respectful to the originals, are not the point of the plot, its kernel being warm-hearted exuberant joy.

I found it a delight to read that Discworld is just that, a flat disc, on which there are countries, kingdoms, realms and wilderness; today, it is possible to see the map of Discworld as not a parody of myth but an eye-rolling comment on current-day reality, when a mass movement of folks believes the world is flat, the moon landing was a well-choreographed hoax, and vaccines mutate you. Going forward into the series, I’ll keep an eye peeled for more riffs on scientific and historical developments.

“Pratchett breaks the then-prevalent rules of fantasy fiction by explaining how magic works in his fictional world, by breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader...” (Stefano Chiacchiarini ‘74 / Shutterstock)
“Pratchett breaks the then-prevalent rules of fantasy fiction by explaining how magic works in his fictional world, by breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader...” (Stefano Chiacchiarini ‘74 / Shutterstock)

As for the first book, there is much to relish in the fact, as scholar Daniel Luthi said in an academic paper, that Pratchett breaks the then-prevalent rules of fantasy fiction by explaining how magic works in his fictional world, by breaking the fourth wall and talking to the reader, also by including footnotes (Shrug your shoulders up to the ceiling, postmodernists, but we see you’re delighted.)

In the first book— happy fortieth anniversary! — gullible, rich and kind hearted Twoflower flails at a mid life crisis brought on by years of tallying accounts and a useful but uneventful stint of selling insurance. His yearning for adventure, to live a life that’s more, turns him into the first tourist in all Discworld. It is shady, brawl-prone Ankh-Morpork he visits, romanticising it as a hive of high jinks, its daunting carapaces of grime being not so much a municipal failure as the stuff of fairy dust to his daydreaming eyes. Reminds you, doesn’t it, of a kind hearted American or European tourist strewing currency all around like it’s fallen out of favour? Twoflower hands out gold coins in seedy taverns, shrugs off danger thinking he can’t be hurt as he isn’t from around here and therefore immune to local laws of cause and effect. He might be prone to think that Ankh-Morpork is a tale which he is experiencing. Makes you grin and shake your head. And yet…

My heart goes out to him for having a primal longing for freedom, for a vibrant, exciting life. His naive adventurousness is hazardous but also absolutely life-affirming. By the end of the book, I was entranced by his transformation into a daring explorer. Even Pratchett’s parody of a naive tourist, it emerges, is good natured and stemming from a core belief in seeing good, latent potential in everyone.

“Rincewind, such a brilliantly conceived protagonist, so far from a conventional fantasy hero as can be.” (MarkauMark / Shutterstock)
“Rincewind, such a brilliantly conceived protagonist, so far from a conventional fantasy hero as can be.” (MarkauMark / Shutterstock)

And Rincewind, such a brilliantly conceived protagonist, so far from a conventional fantasy hero as can be. The wizarding school dropout who knows one spell though not what it might wreak, struggles with his incompetence and timidity while possessing a jewel most precious and inconvenient — honesty. By the end of the story, having reluctantly undertaken an epic journey bristling with, among other things, a sword fight, perilous parleys with dragons, a free fall from the edge of Discworld, and a near-tryst with dangerous magic, to say nothing of several brushes with death, he develops a sliver of bravery.

His careening through adventures on Discworld and free-falling in outer space puts me in mind of another timid adventurer -- written barely a few years before Pratchett’s first book, although differing starkly from Rincewind -- created by another beloved writer of comic fantasy. I am fondly reminded of Arthur Dent, the towel-clutching hero of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Rincewind along with Twoflower gets in trouble in Ankh-Morpork and finds himself at the edge of Discworld, and even beyond. The journey doesn’t unfold so much as detonates: Rincewind is deputed by the local dictator to accompany and ensure the safety of Twoflower, whose satisfaction and physical intactness might usher in the age of tourism much to Ankh-Morpork’s gratification. Unfortunately, the city harbours myriad dangers. Please read “dangers” as “Ankh-Morpork residents”. These comprise not only lay humans, but also wizards, magical nonhuman creatures including peevish monsters, trolls, sundry thieves and thugs, menacing warriors and sneaky assassins, to say nothing of a diabolical Patrician.

“...the city harbours myriad dangers. Please read “dangers” as “Ankh-Morpork residents”. These comprise not only lay humans, but also wizards, magical nonhuman creatures including peevish monsters, trolls, sundry thieves and thugs, menacing warriors and sneaky assassins.” (Olga Popova / Shutterstock)
“...the city harbours myriad dangers. Please read “dangers” as “Ankh-Morpork residents”. These comprise not only lay humans, but also wizards, magical nonhuman creatures including peevish monsters, trolls, sundry thieves and thugs, menacing warriors and sneaky assassins.” (Olga Popova / Shutterstock)

The plot has so many wonderful twists, it will resist further summary. From cover to cover, the book is an incredibly rapid-fire volley of dopamine dollops. And do you remember the ending, a hilarious send up of cliffhanger endings?

The Colour of Magic is among the few books in my reading with a high point, a delightful twist, a wow or a-ha moment, after every few paragraphs on each page. It is probably the most gripping book I’ve read so far. No doubt you’re saying, “Thirty nine books to go,” and I’ll try and report back eventually.

Apart from the imagination, I was awestruck by the writing. I’ll leave this passage about a time anomaly correcting itself here: “Already the temple was a half-buried heap of mossy stones. But Time, having initially gone for the throat, was now setting out to complete the job. The boiling interface between decaying magic and ascendant entropy roared down the hill and overtook the galloping horse, whose riders, being themselves creatures of Time, completely failed to notice it. But it lashed into the enchanted forest with the whip of centuries.”

Several pages into the book, I also read specifically to commune with Pratchett’s mind. And what an imagination! Remember the sentient luggage box with multiple legs and alarmingly large teeth which follows its master, Twoflower, through many a close shave? The transparent dragons you can imagine into being? The family patriarch who, seeing his three children quarrelling over the matter of inheriting his throne, remains alive “in an unofficial capacity” till he can be buried by the sole survivor? The colour of magic, octarine? The number between seven and nine which must not be named? And the grim reaper, Death, who persistently and violently objects to Rincewind’s opinion that all things considered he should continue to live?

I was also delighted by the humour in the book, ranging from chuckle-worthy asides to belly-laughter-inducing set pieces, satirical character sketches to absolute send-ups of fantasy tropes, and witty dialogue. For instance: “ ‘What a strange creature,’ Twoflower remarked. ‘Is it dangerous?’ ‘Only to people!’ shouted Rincewind. He drew his sword and, with a smooth overarm throw, completely failed to hit the troll.”

“Am gratefully looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Light Fantastic.” (Amazon)
“Am gratefully looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Light Fantastic.” (Amazon)

The Colour of Magic was a happy introduction to one of the most original imaginations we’re blessed to experience. Am gratefully looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Light Fantastic. Come to think of it, why stop there?

Suhit Bombaywala writes fact and fiction, though not in the same place, promise. Email: suhit.bombaywala@protonmail.com; X/Twitter: @suhitbombaywala

Catch every big hit, every wicket with Crick-it, a one stop destination for Live Scores, Match Stats, Quizzes, Polls & much moreExplore now!

See more

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Wednesday, July 24, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On