Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Pratchett, Terry

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(1948-    ) UK writer whose Discworld fantasies (> Humour) are phenomenal UK bestsellers; reportedly, 1% of all books sold in the UK are by TP, an astonishing share of the market for a single author. His first published story was "The Hades Business" (1963 Science Fantasy). His debut novel, The Carpet People (1971 rev 1992), is a Children's Fantasy set in a Wainscot world of tiny, warring creatures inhabiting the weave of a carpet, where a fallen sugar crystal is a vast natural resource and humans' crushing footsteps are perceived as the malice of a Dark Lord called Fray (> Great and Small). Strata (1981), a parodic sf novel (> Parody), plays with the idea of an artificial flat world with its own orbiting Sun, Moon and Stars painted on a Ptolemaic crystal sphere; this was the seed of the Discworld.

The Discworld comedies to date are The Colour of Magic (1983), The Light Fantastic (1986), Equal Rites (1987), Mort (1987), Sourcery (1988), Wyrd Sisters (1988), Pyramids (1989), Guards! Guards! (1989), Eric (1990) – whose heavily illustrated first edition gives equal credit to Josh Kirby, regular artist of UK Discworld covers; this book has the pseudo-title Faust crossed out on the cover and Eric scrawled in – Moving Pictures (1990), Reaper Man (1991), Witches Abroad (1991), Small Gods (1992), Lords and Ladies (1992), Men at Arms (1993), Soul Music (1994), Interesting Times (1994), Maskerade (1995), and Feet of Clay (1996). Related short stories are "Troll Bridge" in After the King: Stories in Honour of J R R Tolkien (1992 US) ed Martin H Greenberg, and "Theatre of Cruelty" (1993 W.H. Smith Bookcase; exp rev 1993 US).

Discworld, echoing certain Creation Myths, is supported by four elephants standing atop an immense turtle swimming endlessly through space. Naturally it has odd properties, such as a complicatedly silly Calendar, but after the initial books the structure is only fleetingly referred to. More importantly, this is a Playground where Reality is thin and fragile, and where "narrative causality" – the momentum of Story – has shaping power; "morphic resonance" makes Discworld overtly a Mirror of our world and its stories ... a distorting mirror.

The novels fall into rough thematic groups. First comes the Rincewind sequence, here named for the hilariously cowardly and inept Wizard found fleeing in terror through book after book. Rincewind is present from the start in The Colour of Magic, which contains most of the series' overt Parody (e.g., of Fritz Leiber, H P Lovecraft and Anne McCaffrey). He remains reluctant escort to Discworld's first naive tourist, Twoflower (and his animated, psychopathic Luggage), in the romping continuation The Light Fantastic – which establishes the wizards' college Unseen University (> Edifice) in the great and malodorous City of Ankh-Morpork, while poking fun at Astrology, Druids, Dwarfs, Heroic Fantasy (via the nonagenarian hero Cohen the Barbarian; > Conan), magic Shops, Spells, Trolls and other genre staples. Sourcery sees an increase in the potency of Magic luring Discworld's wizards into hubris and war: the Apocalypse and its Four Horsemen loom. A reluctant act of inept heroism saves the day but exiles Rincewind to a Lovecraftian Otherworld. In Eric he is summoned back by a callow would-be Faust wishing to raise a Demon: the ensuing rapid travelogue (shaped to provide Kirby with illustration opportunities) tours the Discworld's Aztec Empire, Trojan War, Creation, End of the World and Hell. In Interesting Times, TP's excursion into Chinoiserie, both Rincewind and Cohen acquire a certain comic gravitas from their developed philosophies of, respectively, cowardice and barbarian conquest.

The next subgroup stars a Witch with a whim of steel: Granny Weatherwax, who in Equal Rites attacks magical Gender prejudice to force a talented girl's admission to the men-only faculty of Unseen University. Wyrd Sisters fills out Granny's tiny coven with the shameless old reprobate Nanny Ogg and the young, desperately earnest New Age witch Magrat: all are entangled in royal and thespian derring-do which repeatedly echoes and perverts William Shakespeare's Macbeth (performed 1606; 1623). Witches Abroad takes the trio to foreign parts for a clash of rival Fairy Godmothers over the proper outcome of Cinderella's story; Fairytale references abound, incongrously mixed with Voodoo in the Discworld analogue of New Orleans. The title Lords and Ladies refers euphemistically to Elves, here viciously sadistic invaders which only the returned coven (and a Morris-dancing team) can effectively oppose; the resonances are with A Midsummer Night's Dream (performed 1595; 1600). Maskerade sees mayhem at the Ankh-Morpork Opera House as Granny and Nanny wrestle with the narrative momentum of the Discworld's skewed re-enactment of Phantom of the Opera. A distinctive character from the outset, Granny Weatherwax grows in stature as an indomitable figure who commands respect rather than liking, might easily have turned to Black Magic, and now determinedly preserves Balance: in Maskerade she impossibly catches a Sword blade in her bare hand – but later, when time permits, restores balance by finally accepting the stroke and stitching up her delayed wound.

The Death stories hinge on Discworld's eternally grim and humourless straight-man Death, a self-confessed anthropomorphic personification manifesting in all books as a robed skeleton speaking in hollow capitals. Death has a soft spot for humanity, and a pathos stemming from inability to grasp human quirks like emotion. In Mort – the first Discworld novel with a successfully integrated plot – Death allows himself a holiday by hiring the eponymous apprentice, whose sympathy for the doomed proves disastrous. Reaper Man sees Death (temporarily) pensioned off by the auditors of Reality and finally subject to Time, while uncollected life-forces leave Ankh-Morpork plagued with Poltergeists, Zombies and worse. Soul Music has Death depressedly taking another holiday while his adoptive granddaughter is forced to take up his role ... but this novel principally concerns a manic craze for rock Music which coincidentally afflicts Ankh-Morpork and environs, including a repeatedly implied pun about the star performer, who somehow looks Elvish.

TP's City Guard or Night Watch sequence (> Detective/Thriller Fantasy; Urban Fantasy) opens with the very successful Guards! Guards!, shot through with Chandleresque and police-procedural pastiche as the run-down, sleazy Ankh-Morpork Night Watch finds the city threatened by a killer – a Dragon summoned in a scheme to overthrow the Patrician, the city's unlovable but efficient ruler, and instal a malleable king. Men at Arms features a Serial Killer with Discworld's only gun (for Ankh-Morpork is in the throes of Renaissance), and has much inventive detail about the city guilds. Feet of Clay confronts the Watch with a devious assassination plot involving Golems. Notable continuing characters are Vimes, the Watch leader whose glum feeling for injustice and moody love of his city lead him to a kind of socialism (fanned by the irony of his being, uniquely, knighted for service to the Patrician, of whom he strongly disapproves), and Carrot, a Guardsman initially naive-seeming to the point of stupidity, who develops sharp wits and a sunnier love for Ankh-Morpork – of which he is, though refusing the throne, the Hidden Monarch.

The rest are less overtly linked. Pyramids begins with a comic Ankh-Morpork Assassin's Guild practical examination and moves to Discworld's Ancient Egypt, where the picture of a static and bankrupt society spending all its resources on pyramids and Mummies is more darkly humorous. Moving Pictures, perhaps TP's most hilariously shambolic novel, infects Discworld with the spirit of Hollywood as a magic-powered Cinema industry rises at fast-forward speed, and falls – after countless real-world movie allusions and a climactic King Kong travesty in which a 50ft woman scales Ankh-Morpork's tallest building while brandishing a terrified ape (who is the Librarian of Unseen University, another popular running character). Small Gods, the most grimly effective of the series, introduces a fundamentalist Religion enshrining one revealed "truth", to deny which is a punishable heresy: that Discworld is not flat but spherical. Echoing Galileo's "Eppur si muove", expiring heretics cry: "The Turtle moves." Even this theocracy's God, Om (now incarnated as a tortoise; > Bondage; Kenosis), is powerless against its inflexibility; the hero Brutha, a holy Fool, undergoes a gruelling desert Night Journey before reaching Eucatastrophe. As TP has remarked, not everything in a Discworld book is intended as funny: a steadfast seriousness in matters of life and death underpins the humour of the finer novels.

Discworld narratives are increasingly shaped by the interplay of belief and Story. In Moving Pictures the movies compel belief, a source of power which threatens the world with Monsters; but the actor Hero realizes that, by the Hollywood logic of Story brought into operation through this belief, he can win by behaving not prudently but in wildly heroic, filmic style. In Small Gods Om has suffered Thinning through neglect, because his Church is following another Story of blood and conquest which pays scant lip-service to Om, and – until a climactic "miracle" makes many converts – Brutha (to whom Om becomes Secret Sharer) is the sole believer. Granny Weatherwax, whose laser-willed belief in herself makes her unstoppable, repeatedly works to derail Stories whose impetus is being turned to bad ends. The city of Ankh-Morpork is haunted by the Story of the Return of the King: the Night Watch defeats several plans to depose the Patrician in favour of a ruler "qualified" by birth. Death himself often warns the newly dead that the Story of the Afterlife is their own choice: what would they like to believe? Thus, in Interesting Times, an aged schoolmaster who had expected a dull afterworld shifts Stories to gatecrash Valhalla.

Discworld's success has led to many spinoffs, the most substantial being The Discworld Companion * (1994) by TP and Stephen Briggs (1951-    ), a humorous concordance with much additional material. Briggs has adapted several of the novels for the stage. Graphic-Novel versions are The Colour of Magic (graph 1991), The Light Fantastic (graph 1992) and, most successfully, Mort: A Discworld Big Comic (graph 1994), rewritten by TP for illustrator Graham Higgins (1953-    ). Two fold-out map books were devised by Briggs and TP and drawn by Stephen Player: The Streets of Ankh-Morpork: Being a Conciſe and Possibly Even Accurate Mapp of the Great City of the Discworld * (1993) and The Discworld Mapp: Being the Onlie True & Mostlie Accurate Mappe of the Fantastyk & Magical Discworlde * (1995). The Unseen University Challenge * (1996) by David Langford is a Discworld quizbook.

TP's most ambitious non-Discworld novel is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990; rev 1990 US) with Neil Gaiman, which spoofs the Omen movies via a youthful Antichrist who, with his cronies and dog (a hellhound), strongly recalls the William children's stories by Richmal Crompton (> John Lambourne) – and who, despite the efforts of the Four Horsemen, Heaven and Hell, forestalls Armageddon. Additional diversions include the long-dead witch Agnes Nutter's book of devastatingly infallible Prophecy, a small, inept army of Witchfinders, and the notion that the M25 motorway encircling London is an evilly emanating sigil. The YA Johnny books star a more normal but adventure-prone boy. Only You Can Save Mankind (1992) is a Technofantasy where the alien targets in a shoot-'em-up computer Game require Johnny to accept their surrender and guard their retreat through the Otherworld of "game space"; it was dramatized as a BBC radio serial by Bob Hescott in 1996. Johnny and the Dead (1993 US; 1994 UK) entangles him with Ghosts in a cemetery corruptly sold off for redevelopment (a topical UK allusion); Johnny and the Bomb (1996) involves Time Travel to World War II.

Despite occasional patches of sloppiness ascribable to TP's high rate of production, the Discworld books are a remarkably fine set of fantasy comedies whose popular success derives not only from inventiveness with words and ideas but from understanding of how darker issues can, by contrast, intensify the comic highlights. Further Discworld novels are expected. [DRL]

other works: The Dark Side of the Sun (1976), sf; The Bromeliad or Book of the Nomes children's sf series, being Truckers (1989), Diggers (1990) and Wings (1990); The Witches Trilogy (omni 1994), assembling Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad; Hogfather (1996).

see also: Recursive Fantasy; Satire.

Terry Pratchett


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.