Discworld is a flat world supported by four elephants standing on top of a huge turtle swimming endlessly through space. Using this classic mythological concept as his starting point, Terry Pratchett has, since the publication of The Colour of Magic in 1983, cheerfully lampooned a vast range of targets – Shakespeare, Creationism theory, heroic fantasy, etc – and ventured into such far-flung realms as ancient Egypt, the Aztec Empire and Renaissance Italy for further raw material. When he is not satirising historical periods or cultures, Pratchett allows much of the action to centre around Ankh-Morpork, a melting-pot of a fantasy city that’s a mix of Renaissance Florence, Victorian London and present-day New York. The series uses fantasy as a fairground mirror, reflecting back at us a distorted but recognisable image of modern concerns (for example, equal-opportunity and affirmative-action laws take on new dimensions when you’ve got vampires, werewolves and zombies among your citizens…).
The books can be divided roughly into four groups:
In the Rincewind series (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sourcery, Eric, Interesting Times etc.) the protagonist is an incompetent, cowardly (or very clear-thinking) magician, who is constantly trying to escape some danger only to run into something ten times worse. However unfortunate his misadventures become, in the end he manages to triumph and to restore Discworld to a semblance of order, as order is understood there. The primary satiric object of these books is a lampoon of heroic fantasy, complete with all the genre staples – trolls, wizards and similar fauna. Sourcery, for example, is a parody of the Lovecraftian netherworlds, while Eric is a spoof of the Faustian deal-with-the-devil theme.
The Granny Weatherwax books (Equal Rites, Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, Lords and Ladies, Maskerade etc.) introduce one of the most popular characters in the series, a witch of iron constitution, steel morals and reinforced concrete pride who takes charge in any situation; like the hero of a Western, she’s technically a bad witch who does good. A rewriting of The Phantom of the Opera forms the basis of Maskerade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is lampooned in Lords and Ladies, with Shakespeare’s more genteel fairies replaced by haughty, vicious elves from Celtic folklore.
The books comprising the Death series (Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather etc.) follow the trials of Death, a humourless entity who secretly harbours a soft spot for humanity, and whose inability to understand these same humans creates real pathos. In Mort, Death takes a holiday, leaving his even more soft-hearted apprentices to carry on while he’s gone. Reaper Man follows Death when he becomes – temporarily – mortal, and learns what humanity really means.
The City Watch books (Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay etc.) combine fantasy with elements of the police-procedural mystery novel, with appropriately lively results. Guards! Guards! finds the grubby but honest Ankh-Morpork Night Watch battling a dragon who wants to assassinate the city’s Patrician and install a new puppet ruler. Men at Arms tracks a serial killer running amok with Discworld’s only gun (designed by Discworld’s equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci).
The stand-alone novel Pyramids injects some modern thinking into a version of Egypt of the Pharaohs; Moving Pictures uses the Discworld toolbox to examine the real magic of the movies and Small Gods provides a darkly humorous look at the rise of a religion whose one ‘truth’ is that Discworld is actually spherical instead of flat. In addition there are probably about another dozen novels and many more short stories which either fit into one of the series threads mentioned above or stand alone.
As of this year there have been 39 Discworld novels and Terry Pratchett (now Sir Terence, a knight of the realm) has publicly stated his intention to publish at least two more. This is despite the fact that he now suffers, sadly, from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. His achievements remain phenomenal: Pratchett was the UK’s best-selling author of the 1990s, and as of August 2010 had sold over 65 million books worldwide in thirty-seven languages. He is currently the second most-read writer in the UK, and seventh most-read non-US author in the US. His latest Discworld novel, Snuff, is the third fastest selling novel since records began in the UK, selling 55,000 copies in the first three days. He even once had the dubious distinction of having written the most shop-lifted books in Britain! In particular, what makes his success so noteworthy is the fact that he mainly writes in a genre – comic fantasy – which was practically unknown before the publication of The Colour of Magic.
Pratchett makes no secret of outside influences on his work: they are a major source of his humour. He imports numerous characters from classic literature, popular culture and ancient history, always adding an unexpected twist. Pratchett is also a crime novel fan, which is reflected in the frequent appearances of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch in the Discworld series. Growing up, Pratchett cites his earliest inspiration as coming from reading the works of H G Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle and, in his words, ‘every book you really ought to read’ – something which he later came to regard as the best education he could ever have received. It was the fantasy genre which always held a special interest for Pratchett, however, as illustrated by the comments he made in his acceptance speech upon being presented with the Carnegie Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in literature. ‘Fantasy isn’t just about wizards and silly wands,’ he said, ‘It’s about seeing the world from new directions’.
With millions of fans and conventions arranged regularly to celebrate his work, Pratchett is one of the few authors who seems to have an influence that reaches well outside his writing. He is involved in charitable work, voices political opinions (often controversially so) and is incredibly generous with his time to both fans and collaborators. His writing has been adapted into numerous forms of media, including live action films, cartoons, plays and even musicals – although not always successfully, as he would be the first to admit! He also once voiced one of the best pieces of advice about writing that I’ve ever heard: ‘…to write, you must read extensively, both inside and outside your chosen genre and to the point of overflow….writing is hard work, and you must make grammar, punctuation and spelling a part of your life’. Words to live by, I’d say!