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The Fantastic Folklore And Satire of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

 

Cover detail from The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson, courtesy of Penguin Random House

Blame it on a lifetime of poring through Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manuals and Crestwood House Universal Studios monster books, or maybe growing up in an area of the country where just about every third house or tavern is supposed to be haunted (King’s Tavern, for example) and old folks still talk in all seriousness about “spreadin’ atters” and black panthers, (My wife’s grandmother can tell some hair raising stories about living out in the countryside in the time before electricity) but I love collecting books about monsters, folklore, and the kinds of stories most people file under “A” for “Are you kidding me?”

I was delighted to receive a copy of Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson’s The Folklore of Discworld: Legends, Myths, And Customs From The Discworld With Helpful Hints From Planet Earth. Simpson, a well-known chronicler of English myth and legend, brings a scholarly but fun perspective to the Discworld mythos, comparing the setting’s people, places, and things to the legends and myths of Earth. Folklore has been an enormous part of Discworld from the very beginning of the series, and it’s nice to have an easily perused reference guide like this one. Arranged by category and indexed, The Folklore of Discworld is a perfect companion to have at your side when reading Pratchett’s novels, whether it is for the first or fortieth time.

In the real world, mythological monsters and supernatural events helped us to make sense of a world that was beyond our understanding in the days before science. Believing that the crops failed because someone forgot to pay homage to the gods might not be the right answer, but at least it’s an answer, and if you haven’t noticed by now, most people prefer having an answer – even the wrong one – to no answer at all. For some people it’s easier to believe in one story or another than it is to accept the insecurity of not having the real answer.

Great fantasy authors like Pratchett know this, and they use folklore and fable to shore up the cracks around the edges of believability to make their settings seem more authentic to readers, or to inspire their world’s myths in some way. Perhaps all of the above. Pratchett certainly has done so, and kept millions of readers laughing the entire time. Like the late Robert Asprin, and Piers Anthony, Pratchett is a master of fantasy parody who manages to send up real-world folklore without completely derailing the believability of his world. The beliefs of Discworld might seem silly at times, but there’s an internal consistency in the narrative that keeps things from devolving into total farce.

Pratchett doesn’t just take aim at the “folklore” of the ancient past, either. Myth is still born every day, even if in jest. Anyone who has ever traveled knows that sometimes their luggage tends to reproduce (When did one travel bag become two?) and each piece seems to have a mind of its own. It can “wander off” and get lost, come undone at inopportune times, and stubbornly refuse to follow along on the “leashes” and “harnesses” we drag them by at the airport. We don’t really believe that’s true (Okay, most of us don’t, but it sure as heck seems true when a carry-on bag refuses to be “carried on” anywhere.) but leave it to Pratchett to incorporate this modern myth into the Discworld:

“…as time rolled on, the race of porters became mysterious extinct, and evolutionary pressures caused luggage itself to develop mechanisms enabling it to obey its instinct to follow.” (The Folklore of Discworld, p. 198)

The brilliance of Pratchett is that he then takes this idea of sentient luggage and rolls it back on itself, combining this modern pseudo-myth with stories from fable about cursed chests and boxes, including this well-known bit of Egyptian mythology concerning the death of Osiris:

“The virtuous king Osiris was murdered by his evil brother Seth. Seth secretly brained the exact measurements of Osiris, and had a magnificent chest made; he then displayed it during a feast, promising to give it to whoever could fit inside it exactly. May tried, but in vain. Finally, Osiris laid himself in the chest, which immediately became a perfect fit for him; Seth promptly bolted it shut, sealed it with lead, and threw it into the Nile.” (The Folklore of Discworld, p. 201)

From this modern frustration and the scraps of ancient religion comes Discworld’s “Luggage”: a rare variety of sentient baggage that wanders about on invisible feet eating what it likes. Some of them like “crisps” (potato chips to us Americans), and there’s even the story of one that ate a basilisk. If you can’t see this kind of mix-and-match mythologizing for the brilliance that it is, then you might need to go back and reread the Discworld books – or have your humor gauge recalibrated.

Sometimes our own monsters and myths are proven to be true, at least in some way. The gorilla was considered a mythological monster until the 19th century (read Between Man and Beast for more about that), and where I live there is a very real and mostly harmless hognose snake that inspired all of the deadly “spreadin’ atter” stories that I heard about when I was a kid. Both the gorilla and the snake were considered vicious before they were studied. The “spreadin’ atter” was rumored to be highly venomous, extremely aggressive and could spread a hood like a cobra, but the real hognose snake is a reclusive species with tiny fangs in the back of its mouth that produce a mild venom that’s not dangerous unless you’re a toad. While it will indeed hiss and puff up its neck and head, it isn’t much to compare to a cobra, and if a predator continues to threaten the snake, it goes belly up and plays dead rather than bite. Roll it back on its stomach and it will flip over again, as if to say,”No! I’m dead! I really mean it!” They actually make good pets. – Hognose snakes, not gorillas!

Sometimes even in Discworld, rather prosaic truths hide behind the most astonishing acts of pseudo-sorcery. The wisdom and power of Discworld’s witches are legendary, but they don’t actually use magic – despite its availability. They prefer to use the power of suggestion, instead. They could harness magic, but prefer not to. Naturally, the citizens of Discworld believe them to be formidable masters of the arcane, rather than just incredibly smart women with a knack for psychology and applied natural science. Pratchett is inverting the witch scare of Europe, of course. There’s no magic on Earth, but that didn’t keep the Cunning Women of medieval villages – lifesaving practitioners of midwifery, natural medicine, and yes, probably a good bit of homespun psychology – from being tortured and killed. In another fun inversion of witch lore, Discworld’s witches are pretty insular: No Witches’ Sabbat for them, thanks.

Magic isn’t always hidden in fantasy: Sometimes it’s an accepted fact, but just like science in our world, fact and fiction can sometimes blur together. Take for instance Discworld’s dragons. There are common dragons, and they’re excitable and delicate creatures. There are also other dragons, though. Well, maybe. There’s the rumored Middle-Earth Dragon, a take on the Norse World Serpent, (not to mention Tolkien!) and Draco Nobilis – the powerful dragons of high fantasy tales. Supposedly they dwell on the moon – or at least Leonard of Quim said so after he flew there on one of his flying machines. Leonardo da Vinci would be intrigued, I’m sure.

Things doesn’t always go well when the reality behind a myth is discovered. Before the Matawan shark attacks of 1916, most scientific “experts” believed that sharks didn’t even have the jaw strength to harm a human being, despite claims to the otherwise by sailors and other people with real experience on the open seas. They also didn’t believe witnesses to the first attack and assumed that they had mistaken a barracuda or other creature for a shark, and even if one of the victims had actually been attacked by a shark it was a complete fluke. Over the coming weeks, they would learn that everything they thought was true about sharks was wrong. Check out Michael Capuzzo’s Close to Shore for this story. (Incidentally, this series of shark attacks inspired Peter Benchley’s Jaws, a great book and movie that sadly perpetuated our NEW myth about sharks: That they’re man-eating monsters. (It terrified me – so much so I wouldn’t sit down in the bathtub as a kid!) There wasn’t much research about sharks when Benchley was writing Jaws, and later in life, he regretted contributing to the fear people have of them and he and his wife became advocates for shark preservation. Read my interview with Wendy Benchley here.)

Similarly, when fantasy world inhabitants discover the reality behind what was supposed to be a myth it can sometimes have disastrous consequences. In George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, there might not be “snarks and grumpkins” beyond the Wall, but the reality behind that myth might just make the people of Westeros wish that there were. The rediscovery of magic isn’t always a bad thing, though. By the time of the events of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope, the Jedi and their powers are considered superstition and sorcery by many of the galaxy’s inhabitants. At least, it is until a farm boy has a chance meeting with a “crazy old wizard” who gives him a “magic sword” and the keys to his destiny. (Or is that The Once And Future King? Ah, see? That’s the power of myth: It is transcendent, recurrent, and universal. Have you read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth?)

Myth isn’t just about gods and the universe, either: It serves plenty of practical purposes, too. Like Earth in times past, Discworld’s moms and dads use fictional monsters like “the Corn Mother” (Earth’s folklorists call them “nursery bogies.”) to scare children away from real dangers. Unfortunately for these parents and their children, believing in these things strongly enough can make them come alive. This is another great example of the inversion of myth that Pratchett plays to great effect (and big laughs) in his novels. Here’s a nursery bogie you’re probably familiar with: If you’re a native English speaker, then you were probably told at one point or the other that the “bogie man” (or “booger man” or “boogie man”) was going to come and get you, but every culture has some version of this mythical devil. Be glad that these things don’t come alive here. (They do in a way, though, if the idea of them influences the choices you make of your own accord here on Earth – be it for good or ill.)

Discworld and Earth shares a few nursery bogies, among them “The Scissor Man” and “Jenny Greenteeth.” The former is, I suspect, one of the influences on modern bogey man “Slenderman” that has popped up in the news lately. The latter, Jenny Greenteeth, doesn’t get much play anymore but popped up under the name “Meg Mucklebones” in Ridley Scott’s fantasy film Legend and certainly draws from the same well as Dungeons & Dragon‘s “hag” monstersthe Sea Hag in the old Popeye cartoon. Closer to my home, there’s The Witch of Yazoo.

Pratchett doesn’t just poke fun at Earth’s myths and legends, though. Through Discworld’s inhabitants and locations, he also pays puckish homage to other fantasy and horror writers.

H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos are born again in Discworld’s Dark Gods: a pantheon that includes Bel-Shamharoth (an amalgamation of Shub Niggurath and Yog-Sothoth, with maybe a dash of Cthulhu), among other beings. Naturally, their existence was revealed in The Necrotelicomnicon by Achmed the Mad (compare to the Necronomicon of Abdul Alhazred), also known as the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum, The Book of Yellow Pages. (If you were born after the digital revolution, then you may not be familiar with the real-world version of this book.) The book is kept under lock and key at Discworld’s Unseen University rather than Lovecraft’s Miskatonic University.

The Unseen University is a playful reference to the Elizabethan-era Invisible College, an idea later appropriated by an Earthly mystic society that may or may not have actually existed, the Rosicrucians. They’re really only known by their own mystic manifestos Fama Fraternitatis and Confessio Fraternitatis. You can read them online for free (click for PDF), but I own a beautiful limited edition of them that you might still be able to find. If you want to jump even further down Pratchett’s literary spoof rabbit hole, the Invisible College was also featured in Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol and Umberto Eco’s conspiracy theory satire turned real-life conspiracy novel Foucalt’s Pendulum.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings trilogy also gets the Pratchett treatment, with Discworld’s work-obsessed Dwarfs who lug axes everywhere they go and its wild-hearted, awe-inspiring, but utterly capricious and cruel Elves, as does Robert E. Howard (“Cohen the Barbarian”) and Fritz Lieber. (The City of Ankh-Morpork compares favorably to his Lankhmar.) Really, listing Pratchett’s homages and spoofs to authors would probably take forever and rival reading Achmed The I Just Get These Headaches Book Of Humorous Cat Stories for its ability to inflict utter madness on the unfortunate soul pressed into doing so.

Pratchett also sends up entire genres. Guards! Guards! is a police procedural – a mystery. Soul Music takes aim at rock n’ roll and youthful rebellion, and in his most recent book, Raising Steam, he’s gunning for the Steampunk sub-genre:

Steam is rising over Discworld, driven by Mister Simnel, the man with a flat cap and a sliding rule. He has produced a great clanging monster of a machine that harnesses the power of all of the elements—earth, air, fire, and water—and it’s soon drawing astonished crowds.

To the consternation of Ankh-Morpork’s formidable Patrician, Lord Vetinari, no one is in charge of this new invention. This needs to be rectified, and who better than the man he has already appointed master of the Post Office, the Mint, and the Royal Bank: Moist von Lipwig. Moist is not a man who enjoys hard work—unless it is dependent on words, which are not very heavy and don’t always need greasing. He does enjoy being alive, however, which makes a new job offer from Vetinari hard to refuse.

Moist will have to grapple with gallons of grease, goblins, a fat controller with a history of throwing employees down the stairs, and some very angry dwarfs if he’s going to stop it all from going off the rails . . .

The dialogue of tinkerer Dick Simnel (I’m assuming this is a pun – a bawdy one at that – on the word “seminal,” defined as”having a strong influence on ideas that come later“) is rendered in a kind of eye dialect by Pratchett, which reminds me of Steampunk’s Victorian affectations: “Sorry, sir, you ‘ave to let t’steam out. It’s all about ‘arnessing t’steam.” Of course, this isn’t the first time he has landed a few arrows in Steampunk’s well-armored hide: Thud! featured several “Devices.”

Pratchett’s fans know about his ongoing struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, but hopefully he’ll be able to keep bringing readers more tales from his marvelous creation. I have a feeling that there is plenty of fictional conventions and fantasy tropes yet that need to make their way to the marvelous – and marvelously funny – Discworld.

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