Terry Pratchett, as the phrase goes, needs no introduction. Instead, a brief reminiscence. The one occasion when my hand has grasped the levers of literary history and seized the very zipper of the Trousers of Time was in February 1986, when I prepared a reader's report for Victor Gollancz Ltd. With the first two Discworld novels already something of a cult success in paperback, Gollancz were wondering whether to take on Pratchett for hardback publication, beginning with Equal Rites. The gist of the resulting report on that book was: "Yes, go for it."
So perhaps the now vast and overwhelming Discworld phenomenon is all my fault? No, no: just as Pratchett explains away timeline inconsistencies by remarking that the present-day Discworld may have several mutually incompatible pasts, one suspects that his bestsellers and their trademark cover paintings by Josh Kirby (now, since Josh's lamented death in 2001, by Paul Kidby) would in any case be with us today. Though perhaps coming from another publisher. Indeed they do now have another publisher, the hardback Discworld novels having moved from Gollancz to Transworld's Doubleday imprint with The Last Continent in 1998.
In that year, the sheer extent of this sequence's commercial spinoffs made for an alarming spectacle at the second Discworld Convention, held in Liverpool. The following extract from my own account of the event in a science fiction newsletter also indicates the author's unusual personal involvement.
Even for Terry it's still boggling to stand in the convention dealers' room and see the endless vistas of Discworld merchandise. Maps, companions, artwork, role-playing and computer games, a quizbook (I can't complain; I wrote it), tapes, CDs, videos, badges, jewellery and t-shirts are only the beginning. You can light your home with Discworld candles (but what fan would ever put a match to one?), play chess with Discworld pieces, cover your mantelpiece with Discworld figurines and the £50 Terry Pratchett Toby Jug, impress the neighbours with academic qualifications from Unseen University (Doctorum Adamus cum Flabello Dulci), and replace those flying ducks on your living-room wall with countless ornamental Discworld plaques and plates.
Terry has a certain grim sense of personal responsibility: "The thing is, when the tip drops off your Star Wars light-sabre, George Lucas never hears about it. But if a candle's the wrong colour, it's me that gets the bloody e-mails." (David Langford, Ansible #146, 1999)
Unexpectedly enough, something of the flavour of Discworld's present ramifications had been caught sixty years earlier in Michael Innes's witty "golden age" detective novel Stop Press (1939). The occasion for this book's traditional English country house party is the 21st birthday of a hugely successful crime novelist's Saint-like series hero, the Spider. The menaced household is crammed with the Spider's entourage: publishers, editors, agents, stage adaptors, actors, artists, translators, miscellaneous hangers-on, resentful writers of similar but less successful fiction ... and even one fellow who is being paid a retainer to steep himself in every word written by the star author, so that he can take over the writing and at least complete the current works in progress should there be an unfortunate accident. One idly wonders whether some equivalent of this person will be on the scene at Discworld's 21st birthday party in 2004.
Pratchett's concern for the quality of spinoff material is anticipated in Stop Press, whose fictional author draws the line at crockery painted in Spider designs "and by buying back those particular 'rights' for an exorbitant sum nipped the nascent industry in the bud." Another telling point is that Innes's author – like Pratchett – takes risks and constantly pushes at the boundaries of his fictional world, always with miraculous success even though "Against these hazardous trends more than one interested party held complicated and costly insurance policies."
Thus Pratchett's 25th Discworld novel, The Truth, moved his long-established and highly popular Ankh-Morpork City Watch characters from their usual stage centre to the sidelines of a crime puzzle. Taking their place in the foreground is a previously obscure man of letters, William de Worde – initially introduced in the first edition of the reference work The Discworld Companion, which six years before The Truth predicted: "It could well be that the future holds great things for young de Worde ..."
In the event and almost by accident, the introduction of typesetting leads de Worde to become the world's first investigative journalist, working for the newly founded Ankh-Morpork Times ("The truth shall make ye fret"). This adds a brand-new factor, not to say a new spanner, to the city's already complex workings. Meanwhile Samuel Vimes and his motley Watch crew – steadily augmented since their first introduction in Guards! Guards! – take on a harder, less sympathetic aspect when seen from outside by a harassed reporter. Later still, in Monstrous Regiment, a similar distancing process affects de Worde himself as he in turn appears as an alarming figure on the sidelines of another brand-new character's story while covering a foreign war in far-off Borogravia. The road goes ever on.
Also instructive is the evolution of Pratchettian vampires. The innocuous fanged parvenus in Reaper Man, who inherited the condition as though it were an embarrassingly minor title of nobility, are pure comic relief. A more sinister and traditionally village-terrorizing vampire appears in Witches Abroad and, in bat form, comes to a sticky end at the claws and digestive system of one witch's beloved pet: "Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat." Feet of Clay has a vampiric villain but makes it quietly clear that to coexist in the racial melting-pot of Ankh-Morpork city, vampires must go cold turkey or at best obtain their blood from the kosher butcher's. The family of near-invincible, garlic-immunized vampires in Carpe Jugulum is a springboard for some serious thought on socio-ecological checks and balances, and the sheer necessity of some vampiric Achilles' heel to make their continued existence tolerable to others. With The Fifth Elephant, Pratchett begins to consider how the steely obsessiveness of a "benign" vampire on the wagon might be rechanneled, here into politics. In The Truth, the new focus is professional pride: vampire cameraman Otto Chriek is a great asset to the Ankh-Morpork Times despite occasional near-relapses and a tendency to reduce himself to dust with his own flashgun. He is clearly set to become Discworld's first regular, sympathetic vampire character.
A similar long-term development of dwarfs can be traced through the sequence, in turn spoofing, subverting and analysing their traditional Fantasyland characteristics – as laid down in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-5), appendix A, section III. One offhand Discworld joke, about not being able to tell male and female dwarfs apart since they're equally bearded, has spawned an elaborate, plausible and sometimes even touching system of dwarfish gender relations and rebellion, coming to a head in The Fifth Elephant.
As Pratchett himself says of Discworld, "... it has to evolve to keep going. If I'd written 25 versions of The Light Fantastic by now, I'd be ready to slit my wrists." (Amazon.co.uk interview, September 1999)
His extraordinary success story naturally induces hostility in those segments of the literary establishment which consider that no author who sells as well as Terry Pratchett and uses (however subversively) the language or settings of genre fantasy can possibly be guilty of literature. An anecdote from my own experience concerns what Sherlock Holmes might have termed the baffling and sinister affair of the Vanishing British Council Monograph.
For several tantalizing months in 1997 and 1998, it seemed that Pratchett was to be officially hallmarked as literature. In Britain the official stamp of literary virtue is conferred by the British Council's respected series of critical texts under the overall title "Writers and their Work". It is not, admittedly, impossible for a fantasy author to enter this pantheon. J.R.R. Tolkien finally attained the respectability of a monograph in this series in Summer 1995. Nor in fact is it necessary to have been dead for decades: also in 1995, the British Council seal of approval went to a fantasy novelist called Salman Rushdie.
You could have knocked me down with a slim volume of modern literary criticism when the Advisory Editor of the "Writers and their Work" series – let us call him Dr X – wrote to me in 1997 with an invitation to contribute a booklet about Terry Pratchett. Wonderful vistas of academic possibility immediately began to open up. I imagined glittering chapter headings like "Deconstructing Rincewind: The Aesopian Figure of Coward as Hero", "New Labour and the Policies of Lord Vetinari", or the inevitable "Granny Weatherwax: Exemplar of Post-Pre-Feminist Political Discourse, or Just Plain Ornery?"
However, the author himself was unconvinced that a Pratchett critical monograph could ever make it through the glass ceiling of literary snobbery. "My fairly confident bet is that this will wither away ..." was his e-mailed prediction.
Dr X, though, expressed enthusiasm about the resulting book proposal and sample critiques (including the lengthy Pratchett entries I had written for John Clute's and John Grant's 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and David Pringle's 1996 St James Guide to Fantasy Writers) and sent it all on with a "strong recommendation". This seemed to have curiously little effect, since next came a welcoming letter from the General Editor of "Writers and their Work" – let us call her Professor Y – who duly asked for a book proposal and sample critiques.
Time passed, with occasional e-mail from Dr X conveying reassurances like "Bear in mind that this is academic publishing at a scholarly pace, i.e. we've yet to hit the real world. All will be well." Further wonders of academic communication were implied when I finally heard from the actual publisher – let us call him Z – who hadn't seen and therefore wanted copies of the book proposal, the sample critiques ...
Since we were by now discussing a real draft contract already signed by Z, it seemed that Pratchett's entry into the world of real literature was assured. Unfortunately the next item to arrive, after further long delay, was a dismal letter from Professor Y conveying the information that "there has been a policy change" and that "the general direction of the series" had suddenly, inexplicably veered away from the hideous possibility of a Pratchett study. There was also a hint that despite the expressed enthusiasm of academics and publishers, it was the political appointees who wielded the veto: "I am sorry about the policy change, but we do have to work with the British Council."
So canny Terry Pratchett won his bet, and at that time the accusation of literature couldn't after all be made to stick. Contributors to the book you hold have now re-opened the case.
Discworld itself, which Pratchett has significantly called "a world and mirror of worlds", has changed a great deal since its first outing in 1983. Superficial commentators on the series can often be detected by a fondness for describing it as fantasy parody. Parodic elements certainly appeared in the initial book The Colour of Magic, which to some extent is written for fantasy fans who will recognize the nods to Fritz Leiber's heroic duo Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser (here Bravd and the Weasel) and their beloved, sleazy city of Lankhmar (Ankh-Morpork), to H.P. Lovecraft's unspeakable tentacular abominations (Bel-Shamharoth, reduced in Pyramids to a mere patron deity of youth hostels operated by the Young Men's Reformed Cultists of the Ichor God Bel-Shamharoth Association), and to Anne McCaffrey's not entirely plausible dragons – here rethought as magical psychic projections which may be semi-transparent, allowing the pointed line "I didn't know dragons could be seen through.".
Already, though, the mirror of worlds was reflecting ideas from outside Fantasyland. A highly characteristic description of thaumaturgical pollution and difficulties in safely disposing of magic-exuding spell books is a pastiche of real-world issues of radioactive waste handling, all too familiar to the author from his work in public relations for part of Britain's nuclear power industry. His cynical-seeming view of human gullibility, visible in almost any vox-pop scene of Guards! Guards! or Jingo!, may be similarly traceable to another past job which touched on the world of UFOlogy:
"I remember, as a journalist, patiently investigating the claims of some apparently perfectly normal people who had, once you worked out the details of the glowing hemisphere that they had seen, watched the sun set." (Terry Pratchett, correspondence, 1991.)
The eclectic nature of Pratchett's mirror emerges more clearly in later work. The opening segment of Pyramids, for example, offers two contrasting pastiches: one of a real-world situation, with the format of a British driving test comically imposed on the somewhat grimmer qualifying examination of the Assassin's Guild, and another from literature, reworking one of the more sickly segments of Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857) in the light of Discworld's multiplicity of religions. Hughes's excessively pious boy Arthur causes embarrassment to backsliding classmates by praying aloud in the public-school dormitory; Pratchett's equally devout Arthur goes further at bedtime, and tries his best to sacrifice a goat to the Great Orm.
Exercises in pastiche and revisionist rewrites of fairy tales or Shakespeare – a recurring theme of the Witches sequence – led to a developed theory of the power of Story.
This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. [...]
It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed. (Witches Abroad)
This is the comic, semi-magical presentation of the theory, but Pratchett also shows the shaping effects of Story as rooted in human desire for narrative neatness, for events that follow comfortingly familiar patterns. Edward James's essay on the City Watch novels illustrates how Ankh-Morpork city seems haunted by the Story of the Return of the King, which various factions are repeatedly trying to actualize – a prospect which the common people, despite all the historical evidence that this is not a good thing, persistently find attractive because it's a good story.
Another aspect of Discworld's eclecticism comes from what Pratchett has self-deprecatingly referred to as his broad but shallow erudition. Throughout the series, little treats are buried or left in plain sight for the knowledgeable to recognize. Victorian street catchphrases like "Tuppence more and up goes the donkey!" find their way into the free-association babblings of Unseen University's spaced-out Bursar, and the low life of Ankh-Morpork offers plenty of evidence that Pratchett is intimately familiar with Henry Mayhew's monumental London Labour and the London Poor (1851, 1862). Close examination of characters' names can sometimes be instructive. Rincewind the inept wizard, for example, is a nod to a classic British humorous columnist, J.B. Morton or "Beachcomber", who mocked our legal system by confronting his unfortunate Mr Justice Cocklecarrot with a succession of lunatic cases involving twelve red-bearded dwarfs – one of them called Rincewind.
Further allusive Discworld names abound. Three of the dwarfs who set type and run the printing press in The Truth are appropriately called Boddony, Caslong, and Gowdie; the leader of this team is Goodmountain, which can easily slide past as a routine Discworld dwarf-type name until considered as a translation from the German. Fliemoe the school bully of Pyramids is not so much a distortion of Thomas Hughes's corresponding Flashman as of Flashman's crony Speedicut, a name (as Pratchett has explained) which was the brand of a lawnmower once used by the author, suggesting the better-known mower brand Flymo. In Maskerade the Opera House musical director is Salzella, an obvious pun ("salt-cellar") concealing a clue to this character's rather sinister nature: seller of salt, or Salieri, the music director and court composer of Emperor Joseph II in Vienna, who Mozart believed to have poisoned him, and whose supposed jealousy of Mozart's talent drives Peter Shaffer's play Amadeus (1980). One of the noble families of Ankh-Morpork presumably has a fortune founded in banking: the Selachii, or sharks. Lord Vetinari, ruthless ruler of the city, recalls that politics-ridden Italian family the Medici. The very Welsh region of Discworld known as Llamedos echoes Dylan Thomas's idealized village of Llareggub (Under Milk Wood, 1954), especially when read backwards. This list could be substantially extended.
Another name, not a proper name, has become part of the private Pratchettian terminology used by insiders to discuss his work: the figgin. This first appears in the comically doom-laden and vaguely Masonic rituals of that grubby secret society the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night:
"Art all here who Art Here? And it be well for a knowlessman that he should not be here, for he would be taken from this place and his gaskin slit, his moules shown to the four winds, his welchet torn asunder with many hooks and his figgin placed upon a spike –" (Guards! Guards!)
This is enjoyable on its own, and we nervously wonder which precise organs are being referred to. The next twist of the figgin, as it were, comes from the discovery that we are not alone in wondering. Very soon the Supreme Grand Master of the Brethren broods on his flock's stupidity: "They've all sworn the oath, he thought, but not a man jack of 'em has even asked what a figgin is." After a suitable interval, Pratchett tops this with one of his notorious footnotes, citing The Dictionary of Eye-Watering Words and providing all too innocuous definitions for the unknown terms, a figgin being in fact "a small short-crust pasty containing raisins".
Thus a figgin in Discworld editorial discussion is shorthand for a running gag, with variations, to be repeated a magical three times at the least. What I tell you three times is true. In his versatile way, Pratchett stretched the original, definitive figgin joke to a long-delayed fourth appearance as one of the Brethren falls into the not unkindly hands of the City Watch, who feel this prisoner should have something to eat:
"... when Nobby asked him if he wanted his figgin toasted, he just give a scream and ran off."
This joke may almost be said to continue outside the novel. If you are moved to look up "figgin" in the OED you will find that the sole citation is an oath from Sir Thomas Urquhart's translation of Rabelais: "By my figgins," which once again sounds quite lewdly promising until you follow the cross-reference "A variant form of FEGS" and discover the latter to be – despite tasty variant phrases like "By my feckins!" – an essentially harmless component of such obsolete ejaculations.
The names of the four "books" which make up Pyramids provide another figginesque example. "The Book of Going Forth" and "The Book of the Dead" of course refer respectively to the literal and the familiar title of ancient Egypt's DIY guide to the afterlife, "The Book of Coming Forth by Day" – Pyramids being the Discworld novel which in the spirit of W.C. Sellar's and R.J. Yeatman's 1066 and All That (1930) is crammed with all the Egyptology that we can remember. Part three alludes to Gene Wolfe's SF masterwork (later, as John Clute observes, to be more subtly echoed in Small Gods) with "The Book of the New Son". The final segment raises a smile by capping this sequence with an altogether unsonorous title, evocative of Victorian stinks, bangs and unsavoury hobbies: "The Book of 101 Things A Boy Can Do". These boyish pastimes invariably included taxidermy, subliminally linking back to the Egyptian embalming process already described with gruesome relish in Book II of Pyramids.
It is perhaps worth noting that Pratchett loves to use the humorous technique of 1066 and All That, as mentioned above, which is subtitled A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember ... A similar patchworking of artfully mangled fact and fable leads to his "all you can remember" pastiches of Hollywood in Moving Pictures, the Far East in Interesting Times, Araby in Jingo! and Australia in The Last Continent – not to mention such Discworld folk beliefs as that (in Mort) a princess can be identified by her ability to pee through a dozen mattresses. Incidentally, it is typical of Pratchett's offbeat erudition that he also knows and can quote from memory the other, almost forgotten comic textbooks by Sellar and Yeatman: And Now All This (1932), Horse Nonsense (1933), and Garden Rubbish (1936). But I digress.
Further figgin exemplars are numerous and very varied. The impossibility of reducing Pratchett's humorous variations to mere formula recalls an exchange from "The Village That Voted the Earth was Flat" (1913) by Rudyard Kipling, in which Bat Masquerier – the master of the music-halls – allows himself a tiny brag at the launching of the compulsive song-tune that like a typical Discworld novel "devastated the habitable earth for the next six months":
"Wonderful," I said to Bat. "And it's only 'Nuts in May' with variations."
"Yes – but I did the variations," he replied.
Figgins in Discworld narrative are decoration rather than architecture, but the decoration is added with considerable comic skill and ingenuity. Other little-known critical terms include cigarettes, as in cigarettes after sex, the brief post-climactic aftermath scene that wraps up a storyline; Easter eggs, bonus items that provide an extra fillip for readers in the know, like the fact that all the unspeakably pungent detail about dogshit and tanners in The Truth is 100% authentic Victoriana; and sherbet lemons ... but we must leave Mr Pratchett with some secrets.
And to conclude? Many authors – as Andy Sawyer remarks in his Guilty of Literature essay – have imagined their fictional libraries as engulfing the world, or even Borgesianly anticipating all possible worlds. Thus when the Librarian of Discworld's Unseen University penetrates the corridors of L-space, which encompass and link the libraries of the entire multiverse, the strange denizens of the remoter bays provide anticipations of all possible works like the present volume:
Several times he had to flatten himself against the shelves as a thesaurus thundered by. He waited patiently as a herd of Critters crawled past, grazing on the contents of the choicer books and leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism. (Guards! Guards)
What more could anyone possibly add?