Pratchett is one of the leading living authors in Britain, with each new book reaching a wider audience. Working predominantly in the field of fantasy, a genre notorious despised by critics, Pratchett’s comedies have not received much critical attention, and he is wary of any such attention. Pratchett began publishing in his teens in 1963 with a short story “The Hades Business” in the magazine Science Fantasy, and published a handful of stories over the next few years. His work as a journalist limited the amount of time he devoted to writing his own fiction. A meeting with publisher Colin Smythe led to the publication of The Carpet People (1971), a fantasy novel with overtones of J. R. R. TOLKIEN’s The Lord of the Rings set in a carpet. In the next ten years or so, he published two more novels, SCIENCE FICTION pastiches The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). None of these had sold very well, but the latter novel featured a flat world perched on the back of elephants balanced on the back of a turtle, an idea he was to reuse in a comic fantasy The Colour of Magic (1983), the first of nearly thirty Disc-world novels. P was able to become a full-time writer, with Smythe becoming his agent rather than publisher.
In retrospect The Colour of Magic is more of an overture than a fully fledged novel, featuring four novellas about the misadventures of the hopeless wizard Rincewind guiding the naive tourist Twoflower around the city of Ankh-Morpork and its surroundings. Many of the staples of fantasy—barbarian heroes, thieves, dragons—are parodied, with the real world we know occasionally breaking in on it. Rincewind became a popular character with readers, despite the fact that he did little more than run away from danger, and he was to return in a direct sequel, The Light Fantastic (1986), Sourcery (1988), Eric (1990), Interesting Times (1994), and The Last Continent (1998).
The last two titles illustrate part of Pratchett’s technique, to take what we think we know of a particular phenomenon, parody it, and make fun of our preconceptions. Interesting Times draws on Chinese culture, The Last Continent on Australian, and Pyramids (1989) on Egyptian. In addition, Pratchett has drawn on William SHAKESPEARE (Wyrd Sisters, 1988), opera (Maskerade, 1995), and rock music (Soul Music, 1994). Parallels have been drawn with the Carry On series of films in which a familiar group of characters occur in a variety of specific settings—hospitals, holiday camps and Cleopatra’s Egypt.
Pratchett’s protagonists are often children, or child-like, with a naiveté that protects them from the dangers of an often hostile world. In Mort, the eponymous character is apprenticed to Death (a character who recurs in all of the Discworld novels) and has to learn the trade of taking people’s souls as they pass on. He finds that some deaths are in fact necessary, for the greater good of society, and his meddling in the order of things threatens the stability of reality itself. His lack of awareness of the full enormity of his task protects him from disaster.
Pratchett has a strong female following, and portrays strong female characters in the Discworld novels. In Equal Rites (1987), Esk, the natural heir to a wizard turns out to be female, which exposes the sexism of the Unseen University where the wizards live. Initially she is trained by Granny Weatherwax, one of Pratchett’s most powerful and popular characters, who draws power from the Earth but is much more willing to use people’s beliefs against them rather than to invoke anything supernatural. From Wyrd Sisters, Weather-wax is joined by Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, with the three of them representing stages of womanhood: crone, mother and maiden.
With Guards! Guards! (1989), Pratchett introduced Captain Vimes of the City Guard, in part a parody of hardboiled detectives—cynical, hard-drinking, democratic—but as a further means to explore the notions of power first associated with the witches novels. Anyone who wishes to have power is to be treated with caution, and the novels featuring Vimes usually feature an attempt to restore the ancient monarch of Ankh-Morpork, the last one of which was dispatched by Vimes’s ancestor. Vimes has now married into aristocracy and maintains an uneasy balance between law and order and the anarchy of freedom.
For children, Pratchett has written two trilogies: The Bromeliad (1989–90), featuring Nomes who have been turned out of their home in a department store and are seeking a new home, and The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy (1992–96) about a young man and his encounters with aliens, ghosts, and the Second World War. The former sequence explores issues of leadership in a crisis and how working together can be more effective than individualism. The latter offers a sophisticated exploration of perceptions of the Other, whether through identifying with aliens, or confronting racism and sexism.
Pratchett’s prolific output shows no sign of diminishing, and maintains a remarkable quality. He manages to balance slapstick and more sophisticated comedies with metaphysical and political musings.
Bibliography Butler, A., E. James, and F. Mendlesohn, eds.T. P. (2000); Butler, A., The Pocket Essential T. P. (2001)
Andrew M. Butler
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Discworld The setting of the comic fantasies by the novelist Terry Pratchett (b.1948), a flat planet supported by four elephants riding through s