Piotrek: The fifth one, huh? Well, this time we have a real treasure. We debated for a while, if it can be counted as one of the Nostalgia Posts, and decided that yes, why not? After all, we’ve been reading Pratchett most of our lives, and we feel pretty nostalgic about both the author and his works. Well, one difference between that and all the others – there isn’t a large gap between our first childhood encounters with Sir Terry and recent re-reads. Me, at least, I would read a Discworld novel or two at least every once in a few years.
Pratchett published The Colour of Magic in 1983, coincidentally the year when I was born 😉 and The Shepherd’s Crown, final chapter of Discworld, in 2015, when he died of a rare form of Alzheimer’s. My adventure with his books started in mid 90-ties, during the later half of primary school. I’ve read all that was then available in Polish, and occasionally went back to the author on a regular basis.
But the Great Discworld Re-Read started in the Summer of 2014, when I decided it’s been too long since I’ve last read the first volume. By mid-2015 I reached Mort, and stopped for two years. Read Mort again in early 2018, and stepped up my tempo, to finish the entire series two weeks ago.
Most of the books I’ve listened to, with a few exceptions. The final novel, The Shepherd’s Crown, I’ve read on paper and for the first time, and that was a very moving experience. To my surprise, I’ve realised a few more books had never been read by me before. Now, I can definitely claim – I’ve read it all, entire Discworld, and what a joy it’s been!
How to write about such a huge and fascinating topic? I’ll let Ola describe her history with Sir Terry, and then we’ll discuss several selected topics that are, in our view, among the most important when talking Discworld.
Ola: I’ve got very fond memories of the beginnings of my long acquaintance with Discworld – I used to visit a small bookstore on my way to the primary school, and every month I’d buy a book or two with my pocket money. Fantasy book, of course – it was a great time for fantasy and SF in Poland, with many masterpieces and important works translated for the first time. And that bookstore totally rocked – I remember seeing there Żelazny’s works, Martin’s Game of Thrones, Beagle’s Last Unicorn, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s books, Sapkowski… Sadly, it doesn’t exist any longer anywhere except my memories. But, in what turned out to be my most significant instance of judging a book by the cover – among all those books I picked up The Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, with unforgettable Kirby’s cover illustrations, and I became a devoted, lifelong fan at a tender age of 12 or thereabouts 😉
I’ve been on every meeting with Pratchett (when he visited Kraków, that is ;)) and remember how the crowds grew between his visits – during the first, I was the youngest person present among maybe two, three dozen people 😉 During the last, the line wound through a three storey bookstore, outside, to the Main Market Square. His books were loved by so many people for a reason – or, more precisely, for a whole plethora of reasons. One of them was undoubtedly the wonderful translation of Piotr W. Cholewa.
I switched to English originals in high school, with Interesting Times, and since then I have read all his subsequent books in English. But I do come back to Polish translations, in audiobooks and in the signed paper editions I still proudly own 🙂 I read his books time and again, and though I have not undertaken a great re-read, I keep going through them at my own pace, introducing them to new generations of readers, and totally not chronologically – we’ve been listening to all Death books this year, and now we’re going through all Rincewind’s books, to hopefully reach Sam Vimes’s books soon 😀
Piotrek: I also have one signed! The Fifth Elephant that I bough from Amazon Marketplace, not knowing I’m acquiring such a treasure (neither did the seller know, as the price was two pounds plus postage 😉 ).
Where to start? Favourite characters? Ola has Vimes as her avatar, so I’ll leave him to her, but he definitely is one of my heroes. A good man who prevailed, reached the top, and stayed decent. And also kept his dry sense of humour!
Vetinari I like even more. I always had a weakness for Realpolitik, and he is the quintessential Machiavellian prince. Ruthless, when necessary, bereft of illusions, but ultimately aiming for the greater good. If only real-world tyrants were that selfless. Chessmaster that plays the rest of the characters like a virtuoso he is, but also knows when the forces of nature (or progress!) are too big to be turned back. He is the shepherd of a very unruly herd.
I’ve never been a fan of rogues, so, despite my enthusiasm toward the industrial revolution in Discworld, Moist von Lipwig won’t make it into my top 3. Rincewind will. Cynical, smart enough to be a coward, ready to save the world when no one else will. Introduced early, when Discworld was mainly a parody of the fantasy genre, perhaps a bit lost in a modern Ankh-Morpork, Rincewind is nonetheless the character I identify with the most, a lazy but fundamentally good intellectual trying to survive in a crude, cruel world.
I love Rincewind, and I love the early Discworld novels. Unpolished, less sophisticated, concentrated on tradition fantasy tropes, they are already highly entertaining, and full of Pratchett’s humanity and wit. But he is definitely a writer who grew in time, and what began as a relatively light-hearted joke on the cliches of genre literature transformed in time, to become a well aimed satire, a wonderful inputs into the discussion of the ills of the real world. Going Postal and Making Money are some of the best depictions of the deviations of modern capitalism that landed us in the mess we’re in right now.
Ola: Three favourite characters? Easy, despite seemingly being difficult 🙂 I will always admire Vetinari, who evolved from a city despot to a figure of Machiavellian proportions, albeit with much bigger heart (though he will deny it if asked ;)), and Rincewind with Two Flowers will retain a special place in my heart. But the three Discworld characters who influenced me the most are listed below.
Samuel Vimes, Commander of City Watch, the quintessential noir character, who remains on the side of good by conscious, and absolutely not easy, choice. He is the exception to the rule that power corrupts – the more responsibility you heap on him, the more responsible he becomes, proving that you can change and adapt, and yet at the core you can remain true to yourself. Vimes is a flawed, deeply self-aware character who always strives to become better. He started out as a stereotypical beat cop, with nothing more than street smarts and a drinking problem, but he defied Pratchett’s expectations, becoming something else altogether on the long way from Guards, Guards! to Snuff – and one of the pillars of the Discworld to boot. Am I idealist or what? 🙂
Secondly, Death, the wondrously, incessantly amazed visitor in the lands of living. The ultimate anthropomorphic personification, driven to life like a moth to flame. Naive, and yet possessing all the wisdom, empathy and understanding of life of aging Pratchett. Somber and incapable of dishonesty, humble and vulnerable, and overwhelmingly lonely despite – or maybe because of – all the power and immortality a being of his scale can possess. And let’s not forget that he’s the only one capable of speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS even when whispering 🙂
And… Granny Weatherwax. Proud and stern, horribly abrasive and despotic to a fault, unbending to the point of becoming a granite effigy instead of a human being, and yet deeply, faultily human. Possibly the greatest pragmatist philosopher of the Discworld, more concerned by the well-being of her goats than problems of kings and nations, she can unerringly be found exactly where she’s most needed. Learning humility and the necessity of giving in, she still stands tall and proud till the very end. As Vimes, she deals with her internal darkness on everyday basis. Acutely aware of it and of her own place in the world, stemming both from the world’s expectations and her denial to give in to them, Esmeralda Weatherwax is one of the most self-conscious characters Pratchett created.
To wrap up the favourites section, my three most loved Discworld books are: Night Watch, The Reaper, and Small Gods.
Piotrek: Both Death and Granny Weatherwax would make it into my top 5, definitely. The Reaper who is often more human that humans he encounters at work, the amazed connoisseur of our flawed species… and the ultimate witch and one of Pratchett’s benevolent, self-limiting authority figures. No quarrel here, they are among the greatest characters of Discworld.
Favourite novels, well… Small Gods definitely, I just adore tortoises, and one is my constant, faithful companion since October 1994 🙂
She’s not easily frightened, it’s the cat that gave way 😉 In the book, I loved the harsh assessment of very human side organized religions, definitely my favourite on the Sir Terry takes on… part of the Discworld.
The Colour of Magic is definitely not the best, but one of my favourites and one I feel most nostalgic about. I’ve read it so long ago, when overused cliches of mass-produced genre literature still entertained me, and sir Terry made me a much more aware reader.
The third would be one of the Watch novels. Not an easy choice, but probably also The Night Watch. I like them all, but here Pratchett found a great way to show the contrast between old and new Watch, between the corruption of the old regime and the difference a few decent people in position of power made.
Here I would also add Making Money, and a pit of politics 😉 Pratchett, among other things, in my interpretation, rehabilitates the very notion of progress a bit. There always was corruption, good ole’ days where very imperfect, and Ankh-Morpork might be a stinking den of villainy, but it’s also a place where dwarves and trolls patrol the streets together and even a vampire might find friends and honest employment. City air might make you puke, but also sets you free to choose your path in life. What follows is a biting satire on all the imperfections of this modern life, but Pratchett does not offer easy solutions. It’s very much not a true king is revealed to heal the sick kingdom kind of fantasy, and we even get a possible candidate for such role, smart and decent enough not to go there.
Pratchett’s is a satire of the best kind. Biting, but not harmful. I admit, I love satire, it’s for me the highest form of expression. I like to think I have a deep sense of irony (including self-irony!), but some people have been known to say I’m simply sarcastic… probably right, I’m sometimes rather ruthless and not as kind as I feel I should. Waging the intellectual war against the unarmed might be futile, but it’s often so much fun… Pratchett is not harsh. He taught me there ought to be kindness in irony.
Ola: Hear, hear! And yet, when we look at the villains of the Discworld, we’ll find stupidity as well as ruthlessness in them. Fundamentalism, corruption by power in any form, delusions of supremacy, hatred and contempt, and, most often, prejudice. Pratchett doesn’t look at the world with rose-tinted glasses, on the contrary – he’s indefatigable in pointing out our vices and follies and shortcomings. What makes his point of view unique is the compassion and understanding that underline all of Discworld.
Piotrek: And then there is Mort, another favourite. A great Death book, one where we have the closes view of his weakness for humanity and his strength and dedication.
Ola: I would like to proudly point out that Poland made its way into Discworld – conflated with Germany and other Mitteleuropa countries, Poland forms the charmingly dangerous, if not entirely up-to-date, Überwald. Inhabited by werewolves, vampires, trolls and dwarves, it is particularly famous for its mines of fat 😀
Should we talk about Sir Terry’s lack of luck when it comes to movie adaptations? Better not, though I still hope for a decent Discworld movie – despite the lessons of Moving Pictures 😉 At least he had great illustrators, and though Josh Kirby’s original covers will remain with me always, I prefer Paul Kidby’s artwork.
Piotrek: Discworld is very thought-provoking, educational when it reveals the hidden mechanisms of human societies – it can easily be a replacement for Sociology 101 ;), and reading it simply makes you a better person.
It’s also very touching at times. Hard to count all the times, throughout the 41 novels, when I was deeply moved. Definitely each time Vimes had a family moment, you seldom see good noir protagonist so rewarded (and not in a one-paragraph happy ending, we get to see him :)! ), during the final moments of Granny Weatherwax…
Ola: Not only we get to see Vimes in his happy moments, we get to see him endure them and fight for them as well! The children book Where is my cow as a reality check works wonders 😀 There are many deeply moving scenes in each of the Discworld books, because first and foremost, Pratchett told stories. He was ironic, sarcastic, and incredibly witty, but above all, he was a master storyteller, infusing sometimes formulaic plots with poignancy and humor, and a full range of other human emotions. A kind and forgiving teacher, his lessons were nonetheless sharp as sword’s edge, for Pratchett’s writing, for all its obvious love for humanity’s redeeming potential, was fueled by anger at humanity’s folly.
Piotrek: Terry Pratchett is very important to me. He co-shaped the way I see the world since I was pretty young, and influenced my political views, my sense of humour, my attitudes towards fellow human beings. He entertained me, but also, I strongly believe, made me a better human being 🙂
Ola: Here I can only concur 🙂 Pratchett influenced me in so many ways, and to this day remains to me one of the most important writers. What Terry Pratchett started as a cutting satire of the world as we know it, over the years had transformed into a wonderful, 40-odd books long philosophical essay on human condition. A loving – but no less critical for that love – letter to the potential and abilities of “rising apes”, making us, the readers, believe that humanity is good, after all. And if it yet isn’t, not entirely, it nevertheless can – and should – be.
Verdict: Supremely recommended 😀