Well I’ve been thinking about some of the books I like, or rather series of books because the kind of book I like comes in a trilogy at the least. And it seems to me that if you summarize them enough, they always seem to come down on the main character or characters trying to find their way on a line between two opposites. I want to do a series of posts about what line each of my favourite books comes down to. For this first post, I’ll talk about Terry Pratchett’s great series: the Discworld.
Discworld is one of the most extensive book series I know about. Wikipedia lists 39 titles so far. Although some of these tell one-time stories, most of them are about one of a set of themes, each of which has its own setting and major characters. There are the stories about Rincewind, a wizard, and those about Granny Weatherwax, a witch. There are a few about the adventures of Death, and some are about Sam Vines, commander of the City Watch. The most recent books have introduced two new themes: Moist Von Lipwig, which take place in the same city as the one in which Sam Vines works, and Tiffany Aching, a young witch whose stories always include Granny Weatherwax.
Now the Discworld is a difficult series to categorize as a single set of opposites, because the series as a whole is actually rather a parody on modern culture and fantasy literature specifically. This works wonderfully because Pratchett has a sharp and insightful sense of humor. But it does mean that many of the stories are defined not by themselves, but also by the thing they parody.
But at the core of things, there is one thing that all Discworld stories have in common. They always include, whether it is named explicitly or not, what Pratchett calls Narrative Causality. It means simply that because the Discworld books parody other literature which has a well defined structure, the narrative of each story also has that structure. The unusual thing is that most main characters in Discworld novels are aware of this, consciously or not. Witches Abroad is, I think, the quintessential Discworld book. In it, the Witches travel to a kingdom of fairy tails and encounter talking wolves, princes made from frogs and bakers being sentenced for not having rosy cheeks. Why? Because the secret leader of the country knows about stories, and wants to reshape the world to better fit the stories.
And this forms the line among which Discworld characters must place themselves: to accept their role in the story, or to fight it.
Sam Vimes, for example, is based on the detectives from Noir novels and films. He knows this, and accepts it. If you put him out in the streets, at night, in the dark, in the rain, trying to catch killers and thieves, he’ll be completely happy. But dress him up in fancy clothes, name him a duke and put him in a room full of nobles, and he’ll be miserable.
On the opposite side we find Granny Weatherwax. She is a witch. Therefor she can either be a bad witch, which means cackling and shoving little children into your oven, or be the good witch, which means handing shining swords to heroes and helping lost travelers find their way. But Granny Weatherwax is stubborn. She refuses to be pressed into something she does not want. So she has to be the good one, much to her own chagrin, but she doesn’t have to like it and she doesn’t have to be nice.
Death is supposed to be ominous and frightful, and he knows it. The problem is that he’s not very good at it. He keeps messing up his lines. Trying, for example, to make a little joke to try and lift the spirits (pun intended) of the recently departed. But because his delivery sucks, the ghost in question asks him to explain the joke, and all sense of Death being ominous is suddenly gone.
Rincewind finds himself in the role of the adventurer, but he doesn’t want to be. What he mostly hopes for is a warm meal and no worries, but people keep giving him missions and pushing him into dangerous situations, which he then has to weasel his way out of again.
Moist Von Lipwig is a con artist. He keeps telling the world stories about who he is, and is amazed when the world buys into it. Then, to his dismay, it turns out that he is actually playing the part of the story he has made up about himself, thinking to himself that he can stop at any moment, he just wants to wait a little bit longer.
Tiffany Aching is just a little girl when she finds out she’s a witch, but not quite like other witches. She plays a role in an ancient story about the life of the land itself. The problem is that she doesn’t know the role she has to play, and she finds out as she’s going along.
So that is the core of Discworld novels. Each parodies existing stories, and the characters that can find out what that story is, and how they fit into it, can use it to shape their own destiny.
Next time I’ll talk a bit about one of my favourite book series: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. Donaldson has a very dense and deep writing style, making it a challenge to summarize. Until next time!