Discworld is an expansive fantasy series created by Terry Pratchett. It features a flat, disc-shaped world (who would have guessed) resting upon the backs of four enormous elephants standing on the shell of a giant turtle, the Great A’Tuin. It’s made up of multiple series following different groups of characters, as well as a plethora of stand-alone novels. As anyone listening to some of our podcasts can tell you, I am a rabid Discworld fan. These books are absolutely amazing; in fact, they are some of the best stories written by a modern author, the kind that will help define today’s literature for future generations. I hope that everything I just said is second nature to you. If not, here are just a few reasons start reading as soon as possible.
Warning: minor spoilers for several Discworld Books, but nothing that will make reading them less fun. I’d never do that to you.
1. It Uses New Tricks with Old Tropes
Fantasy is absolutely full of tropes, and the same ones tend to pop up over and over again, likely because a handful of authors like Tolkien and Howard were very influential to the genre in its early years. Elves are beautiful, mysterious, superior beings who act in ways too grand for humans to grasp. Trolls are stupid brutes who exist primarily as a challenge to high level adventurers. We are used to wise and powerful wizards standing beside righteous heroes with bulging muscles.
Discworld turns all of that on its head. The elements fantasy readers expect are all there- elves, wizards, and heroes still roam the land- but they are not at all what we expect. Pratchett’s wizards in particular are a great example. They start off as pure satire; a bunch of power-hungry schemers and backstabbers, in contrast to the noble virtues of Gandalf or Merlin. However, as the books go forward, things change drastically.
Rather than simply mocking traditional fantasy stories, Discworld wizards forge their own path. They transform into a profession where the goal is to learn as much magic as they can, while at the same time using as little as possible. After all, any commoner can go around not using magic, but for a wizard who could bend the universe to their will, not doing so is a sign of restraint and wisdom. Besides that, magic is really hard, and wizards in Discworld are much like any other group of humans – they avoid hard work when it isn’t necessary. The ultimate goal of a Discworld wizard is to be so wise and knowledgeable that your days can be filled with nothing but large meals and lazy afternoons with a good pipe. Let the younger ones rush off and do the hard work.
An even better example of trope subversion are the elves of Discworld. They are absolutely terrifying in an almost Lovecraftian way, and Pratchett accomplishes this without losing any of the traits that elves are known for. They are immortal and eternally beautiful, and this makes them see the fleeting life of the human world as something amusing to be toyed with. They are powerful beyond mortal ken, and that power gives them the feeling of absolute superiority.
Pratchett’s elves are a lot like cats, actually, which is a comparison he makes in Lords and Ladies. They toy with human affections in the same way a cat toys with its food, and the end result is similarly brutal. Not only is this an interesting take on a fantasy race that has become more than a little clichéd, but it gives food for thought on the way elves have been portrayed in other works. Why are they always shown as being prettier, more capable versions of humans? Why is their psychology so similar to ours despite the vast biological differences? Despite the otherworldly horror Discworld elves invoke, they also come off as being better developed than their portrayal by other authors.
2. It’s Full of Complex Characters
There’s a common idea that speculative fiction books are about plot, while literary books are about characters. Discworld takes that idea and throws it out the window. From the magically charged peaks of the Ramtop Mountains to the grimy streets of Ankh-Morpork, this series is full of characters that feel like living, breathing people, with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies that entails. There is a character in Thud! who for all the world seems like a stereotypical cowardly bureaucrat, only for him to completely reverse course and become a brave and loyal, if physically incapable, officer of the Watch. When this transformation occurs, it somehow makes complete sense with everything that has been established about the character so far.
Discworld is full of such characters, and I would be here all day trying to name them all, so here are two that embody Pratchett’s ability to conjure living people on the page.
Esmerelda Weatherwax: Known as Granny Weatherwax, or sometimes just Granny, this old woman is a creature of contradictions. At first glance she seems every inch the evil witch. She wears only black, rides a broom, has a broken down cottage in the woods, and never goes anywhere without her pointy black hat. However, it quickly becomes clear this is not the case. Granny is vital to the kingdom around her. She treats the sick, sorts out disputes, and oversees the birth of new children. Occasionally, she and her fellow witches even defend their homeland of Lancre from whatever menace is about to befall it.
Just when you think Granny is purely a good character and the evil witch stuff is just for show, Pratchett lets slip something that makes you doubt. People are afraid of Granny, and sometimes with good reason. There is a deep anger within her, and it can be terrible when roused. She works to control it, but it’s a struggle. She’s closer to the edge than she can ever admit. Granny goes through most of her life without using any overt magic, but every once in a while something will happen to bring out her real power, and that’s when you had better beware.
To add another level of complication, Granny gets older in each book where she appears. At first this is fine- Granny’s age is a badge of pride for her- but eventually the years start to take their toll. She must grapple with the fact that she won’t always be the most powerful witch in the Ramtops. There are younger, up and coming witches who may supplant her. Watching such a well established character struggle with her impending mortality elevates Pratchett’s writing even higher.
Samuel Vimes: The story of Vimes is a long and complicated one. He begins with rather humble roots, an alcoholic veteran of the much maligned Ankh-Morpork City Watch. He lives in defiance of the swirling mass of plots and intrigues which govern the city around him, insisting that a policeman’s job is simple: catch the bad guy. Of course, his job is never simple. The glorious thing about Vimes is that he slowly, over the course of half a dozen books, becomes an expert in all of the aspects of Ankh-Morpork life he despises.
Plotting, for instance. Vimes believes with all his heart that the Watch must stay out of politics. As he sees it, their job is to keep the peace, not make secret plans in dark rooms. But what happens when those secret plans become a threat to the peace Vimes keeps? In books like Thud! and Jingo, we see that Vimes could have had a bright career as a scheming political mastermind. He’s incredibly smart, held back only by his unshakeable, though often twisted, sense of morality. He hates the upper classes, but in later books he is made a duke of the city, and must deal with all the responsibilities that come with it.
Perhaps even more interesting is Vimes’ battle with alcohol. His drinking fluctuates throughout the book, with no clear cut off point where he decides once and for all not to touch another drop. It is a slow, painful process for Vimes to sober himself up. In some stories he’s doing very well, and in others he crashes and falls back in his destructive habits.
A final and brilliant twist comes to the character with the birth of his son. Vimes, a character built entirely out of grit and stubbornness, falls completely to pieces in order to nurture his child. An entire plot revolves around him getting home on time to read Sam Jr. to sleep at night. This is a particularly beautiful bit of writing because nurturing fathers are so rare in genre fiction. Usually, the father is distant, an unemotional role model at best and a straight up villain at worst. Instead, Vimes cares for his son so deeply that it’s made me tear up on more than one occasion.
3. It Explores Racial Tensions
Let’s face it, fantasy stories tend to put the non-human races into boxes. They get universal traits that apply to every member of the species. Elves are all beautiful, dwarves love to drink, halflings are mischievous and thieving, et cetera. These boxes often include built-in racial conflicts as well. Elves almost always hate dwarves, no matter what the setting. More often than not, very little thought is given to why these conflicts exist. They just do, and that’s the end of it.
Not so in Discworld! The novel Thud! focuses on the centuries-old conflict between dwarves and trolls, but not at all in the way it is normally done. Instead of assuming this conflict is predestined by genetics, Pratchett frames the conflict as similar to the reason two groups of humans will go on fighting each other generation after generation. At some time in the past, some event happened to start the conflict, and both sides blamed the other. Trolls claim that the dwarves are murderous psychopaths who want nothing more than to carve up their stony hides into tiny chunks. Dwarves claim that trolls are stupid oafs who will betray and devour you at the first opportunity.
Just as in real life, neither side has the whole truth. History is twisted by both trolls and dwarves to suit their own purposes, with very little thought given to what actually happened. At the same time, Thud! avoids painting the entirety of either group with the same brush. There are members of both races who reject the old conflict to come together, and Pratchett makes it clear that this is the only way forward. Continued fighting will only make life worse for both groups, even if one were to eventually “win” in the end. At the same time, there are some who are so devoted to the hatred built up over long years that they will actively try to stop any momentum towards peace.
Discworld also looks at conflict between groups of plain old humans, particularly in Jingo. When Ankh-Morpork goes to war with neighboring Klatch, Pratchett focuses on all the fallout such a conflict creates. First and foremost is the paranoid distrust of anyone who shares an ancestry with the enemy nation. Klatchians in Ankh-Morpork, many of them having lived in the city for generations, become the targets of suspicion and sometimes outright violence.
The parallels to how Japanese Americans were treated in WWII, and how Muslims in the west are treated right now, are unmistakable. It shows not only how the current “other” suffers from this treatment, but how the act of discrimination damages the people performing it as well. Pratchett somehow manages to describe both the laughable absurdity of judging someone based on their ethnicity, but also how easy it is for otherwise good people to slip down that dark path.
4. It Takes On Sexism
I’ve talked before about how some fantasy series can end up being really sexist in their portrayal of women. Fortunately, Discworld goes in the opposite direction, telling stories about interesting women and the problems they face in their societies. That is not to say every female character Pratchett writes is defined by the prejudice she endures, but he tells this particular kind of story very well.
Discworld is full of stories where women take on tasks traditionally dominated by men. Monstrous Regiment in particular is a story of a woman named Polly, who dresses as a man in order to join the army in the highly conservative country of Borogravia. Rather than the straightforward tale of battlefield heroism you might expect, Pratchett takes great pains to show both the absurdity and ugliness of war. Beyond that, the story examines the sexism of Borogravia with a holistic eye. It’s shown to be systemic to the whole society, not just a little problem the army has which can be easily hand waved away at the end.
One of the best parts is when Polly and several other women land in a lot of trouble because they were caught doing “men’s business.” A way out is offered to them, in which their actions can be interpreted as culturally acceptable, so long as they make it clear they were merely acting as support for the real heroes, Borogravia’s men. This is a moment of serious conflict for the characters. They really aren’t looking to throw themselves at martyrdom, but can they live with letting the entrenched system sweep their deeds under the rug?
Something else that makes Monstrous Regiment so effective is that the book doesn’t demonize femininity or its associated roles. For some characters, the struggle is to be accepted in a traditionally masculine role, for others it is to do what they already do on their own terms.
Equal Rites is a story that runs along similar lines. It’s about Eskarina Smith, a girl who wants to be a wizard. Of course, girls can’t be wizards, because… Well, because! Girls become witches, and boys become wizards, and that’s how it’s always been. Many of the characters go on at length about how the sexes do very different types of magic. Granny Weatherwax has absolute disdain for the showy and impractical explosions of wizard magic, while Archchancellor Cuteangle dismisses witchcraft as little more than herbalism.
The secret is, of course, that witch magic and wizard magic are different because they use different methodologies, not because of the chromosomes anyone is born with. Men can learn to be witches, and women can learn to be wizards. It’s just that they live in a society which pushes them into specific roles. I don’t know if Equal Rites was meant as a deliberate commentary on series like the Wheel of Time, but it works brilliantly regardless.
5. It Challenges Gender Norms
Discworld may not be the only fantasy series to promote equality between men women, but it is the only one I know of to question what those genders actually mean*. The idea that gender may not be a male/female toggle switch is one that our real life society has difficulty even acknowledging, so naturally Pratchett had to write a story about it. Even better, this progressive story is born out of that trite “joke” that fantasy stories are always asking: do dwarven women have beards?
Dwarves on the Disc have two sexes, but only one gender: dwarf. The idea that there should be any difference between male and female once the baby can eat solid food simply doesn’t exist. Everyone dresses in chainmail armor, carries an arsenal of bladed weapons, and sports a mighty beard. There is “equality” of a sort, but it’s really more a case of extreme conformity.
Of course, no society is completely static, and things do slowly begin to change in books like Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant. The character Cheery Littlebottom of the City Watch becomes a focus for this ongoing story thread, as she makes the decision to reject the uniformity of dwarven society and express her femininity by wearing a skirt and getting some high heels. She makes it clear to the world that she is female, in addition to being a dwarf.
At first, Cheery’s fellow officers are put off. They’ve never seen a dwarf do anything like this, and they don’t know how to handle it. However, because they are for the most part decent people, they come around and support her. When Cherry’s appearance causes friction with the conservative elements of dwarven society, the City Watch makes it clear any problem with her is a problem with all of them. Not only is the story groundbreaking, it’s uplifting and positive as well.
A final element to Cherry’s arc that I think really completes it is that she doesn’t end up as a short version of a traditionally feminine human woman. Her skirt is armored leather, and her heels are metal spikes welded to her boots. She remains proud of her beard. She creates herself an identity that fits who she is rather than having to pick one from off of society’s shelf.
6. It Includes Scifi Ideas in a Fantasy Setting
Many classic scifi stories focus primarily on a single piece of technology and all the ramifications that come from it. Blade Runner was about the implications of robots being able to imitate human behavior. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea imagined a submarine unleashed on the oceans of 1870. In this way, science fiction has made numerous predictions and commentaries about our society, cementing the genre’s value as a bastion of critical thought. As you may have guessed, I’m about to tell you that Discworld does this too.
One facet of Pratchett’s world is that many advances are held back – not because the technology doesn’t exist, but because social pressures keep them out of common use. This is a marvelous setup for a technology springing up quickly and changing the way people live overnight, and that’s exactly what happens in The Truth. The basic plot is that a group of adventurous dwarves come to Ankh-Morpork with the first commercial printing press. Suddenly, words can be put on paper with speed and accuracy unimaginable with previous technology. This leads to the publication of the Disc’s first newspaper, which is when things really go crazy.
You see, prior to these events, people in Discworld had very little access to information. They could either get it by word of mouth, or from unreliable town criers. The newspaper changes everything. Out of nowhere there is a cheap and readily available source of information about what is going on in the world. People suddenly have opinions about things they didn’t know existed. The leaders of Ankh-Morpork find themselves under an unprecedented level of scrutiny, and they don’t much like it.
The Truth also dives headlong into the problems faced by journalists. People are often more interested in a fantastic lie than a mundane reality. The characters struggle with balancing their reports of geopolitical intrigue against pictures of funny shaped vegetables. Even when people are interested in the important stories, they often come up with opinions that aren’t what the characters expected at all. Add in some cats, and it could easily be a story about the Internet.
A more chilling example is from Men at Arms: the gonne. Readers from outside the Disc might know it as a gun. For the most part, people who want to kill each other in Discworld need to work hard at it. Swords require getting up close and personal, bows take years of training to use properly, and even crossbows can only fire once at limited range before becoming oddly shaped clubs.
The gonne is different. It can kill from a long ways off, with the pull of a trigger, and it’s got a very simple point and click aiming system. If you miss, just load another bullet. In short, the gonne makes killing an impersonal affair, something that can be done almost casually. In Men at Arms, it functions almost like the One Ring, seeming to have a mind of its own. Whether it actually does, or if the people holding it simply realize how easy it would be to accomplish their desires, the results are the same. With the gonne in your hands, everyone slowly starts to look like a target.
The gonne can be an analogy for any sudden improvement in weapons technology, though my favorite is the atomic bomb. Nothing like it has ever existed before, the temptation to use it is nearly irresistible, and the results are catastrophic. One of the most powerful moments in the book is when Vimes briefly holds the gonne in his hands. He sees how easy it would be to rid Ankh-Morpork of all its problems with a few simple pulls of the trigger. In a few paragraphs, Terry Pratchett perfectly encapsulates the allure of power, and how there are certain kinds of power that no one can be trusted to use.
There are so many more reasons why the Discworld books are must-reads for people who enjoy good stories. Pratchett’s humor hits you in all the best and least expected places. He is one of the few authors who can regularly make me cry when reading his books. I don’t have time list every reason, and we’d be here all day if I did. It’s my hope that people eventually start thinking of Discworld in the same way we think of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter – classics that must be read- because the stories are just that good.
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