There’s an apocryphal story of an eminent lecturer (some say Bertrand Russell) giving a lecture on astronomy, describing how the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the centre of the Home Galaxy, the Milky Way, when someone objects and states that the earth is a flat surface, balanced on the back or a turtle.
The lecturer questions what it is that the turtle is standing on, and the objector states that the turtle is standing on the back of another turtle. The lecturer asks what the second turtle is standing and gets the answer “It’s turtles all the way down“.
It’s always struck me that the objector’s argument is paralleled by the lecturer’s own argument. The moon orbits the earth, the earth orbits the sun, the sun orbits the Home Galaxy, the Home Galaxy orbits the Local Cluster of galaxies. It’s orbits all the way down.
Of course the lecturer’s world view is a lot more sensible than the objector’s world view, wouldn’t you say? Well a confirmed sceptic would be dubious about both claims, but the man in the street assuming he wasn’t by chance a turtle believer would probably side with the lecturer.
It’s worth remembering that the current view of the universe as espoused by the lecturer is fairly recent in historical terms. Sir Isaac Newton and his near contemporaries (both in Britain and elsewhere) cemented the physical view of the world as the paramount paradigm. Again it’s worth noting that Sir Isaac and co did not completely ditch the mystical view of the world. He was very interested in alchemy for example, though this could be considered to be a rational belief at a time when the field of chemistry was still relatively immature.
Sir Terry Pratchett took the turtle theory and ran with it in the Discworld series of books. What would life be like on a world shaped like a disc, carried by four elephants, on the back of a gigantic turtle? This is the basic premise of Pratchett’s books, which I enjoy immensely.
Obviously, sort of, such a world cannot be ruled by the laws of physics, so it is ruled by the laws of magic, which seem parallel the physical laws in some ways. Pratchett’s Discworld clockwork is run by magic, not by physics. Indeed one of the characters muses on the magical laws and wonder whether or not there might be “another way”.
Threading the Discworld books and the Discworld universe are certain key characters, the first of whom is the failed wizard and professional coward Rincewind, from the first Discworld book “The Colour of Magic”. Rincewind’s quest for a quiet life is forever dashed by circumstances which often result in Rincewind escaping from some life-threatening situation or other by the skin of his teeth.
Rincewind’s case is watched over by Death, who describes himself as an “anthropomorphical manifestion” and who looks after a room full of “life-timers”, huge hour glasses containing the sands of a person’s existence. When the sand runs out, Death appears to the person and with a sweep of his scythe cuts the person’s lifeline. What happens then varies, but usually the person or soul travels over a dark plain.
Rincewind’s lifetimer apparently looks as though it was constructed by a glass blower with a bad case of the hiccoughs, and Death has ceased to wonder when Rincewind will die, but merely retains a “professional interest” in Rincewind’s exploits.
One thousand words cannot do justice to the inventiveness of Pratchett’s Diskworld. It is peopled by trolls, dwarves, werewolves, vampires, heroes (professionals of course), wizards, witches, talking dogs, a smell with its own personality, druids, priests, gods and godesses and many many other characters.
Over the series of books the geography of the Diskworld as are some of its physical (or maybe that should be “magical”) properties. The geography is centred socially in the twin city of Ankh-Morpork, and physically by the Hub Mountains (home of the Ice Giants and “Dunmanifestin”, the home of the rather down market major gods of Diskworld).
Sir Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld is, as can be seen from the above to be a complex one, interleaving and referencing many well-known myths and legends which Pratchett weaves into enthralling parodies of the originals.
For example, the heroes that Rincewind and others encounter are mostly bumptious self righteous individuals who seem to possess very little in the way of intellect. They win because they are heroes and heroes always win in the end, not because they are shrewd campaigners.
An exception to this model of hero is Cohen the Barbarian and the Silver Horde. These ancient heroes are shrewd and survive because they have decades of experience in not dying. The overcome a bunch of martial arts experts by using there experience by not being there when the martial arts experts makes a move.
Pratchett references all sort of myths, legends and stories and often delves deep into the roots of the myth. He traces the roots of the “Father Christmas” myth in the book “Hogfather” back to one bloody version of the possible roots of the myth.
His coven of witches who appear in several books harken back to Shakespeare’s three witches in Macbeth and also to other witch myths, such as (supposed) pagan myth of the Maiden, the Mother, and the Crone. Shakespeare of course, like Pratchett is tapping into earlier myths.
The adoption of the alternate reality scenario allows Pratchett to tap into all these myths and legends and to mix and match them with similar myths and legends and put them up against present day society. There is for example the Last Continent of XXXX, obviously a reference to current day Australia, the social problems of immigration, typified by the Dwarves who are mild mannered at home, but who turn into drinking, carousing menaces singing about gold when they immigrate to Ankh-Morpork.
Pratchett’s strength were to be able to draw on all these myths and legends and to build engaging stories around them. Even if you don’t know the legend, you can enjoy the characters and the story, and recognise the parallels with the real world.
You can enjoy the stories of the three witches turning the tables on card sharks who try to take advantage of three little old ladies, for example. Or the invention of surfing by the Burser of the Unseen University when the faculty find themselves offshore of the Last Continent (aka XXXX). Or sympathise with Death when he becomes disenchanted with his role as an “anthropomorphic manifestation” and takes a holiday.
You do all this while enjoying the marvellous stories. RIP Sir Terry Pratchett. You will be sorely missed.