If you want thousands, you have to fight for one — more of why I love sf/f
My friend joined me just as I was setting it down, and asked if I’d ever read the book. So I explained about my previous encounters with Pratchett, and we went off on a long digressive conversation about books we loved, books we tried to get other people to love, books we realized were problematic but still liked, and so forth.
A couple months later, my first husband died. And not long after that I was preparing to head off to spend my Christmas vacation at my Mom’s (which was going to be interesting for many reasons). And a couple days before I left, the same friend stopped by. She was one of many of my friends who had taken to regularly checking on me following Ray’s death, so I thought she was just checking in. She had an additional mission. She had spent a lot of time thinking about what I had said about why I had disliked all of Pratchett’s Discworld novels I had tried to read, thus far, and she was bringing me one book to get me to try again. The book was Wyrd Sisters, which focuses on the witches of the tiny kingdom of Lancre. She explained why she thought I would like it (fairy tale themes given various twists, a lot of Shakespeare references, unconventional characters with deeply-rooted senses of ethics independent of religion), and asked me to give it a try. She cryptically said, “There’s one character in here who I think you’ll really love, but I don’t want to say who, because they need to grow on you.”
The second night of my vacation, I accidentally stayed up all night reading all the way to the end, and was so disappointed that I didn’t have any more Pratchett books to read next, that I started over at the beginning.
I finally understood. Pratchett wasn’t writing parodies, he was writing satire. Going by dictionary definitions of those two words, they may seem to be nearly the same thing. But they aren’t. A parody imitates a specific work or body of work, and makes use of deliberate exaggeration for comic effect. A satire, on the other hand, uses humor, irony, exaggeration or ridicule to critique and analyse human nature. It just so happened the Pratchett did this in many of the Discworld books through the lense of various tropes of fantasy literature.
Once I had found the book that spoke to me, and bonded with characters such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, suddenly, the rest of Pratchett’s work made sense. I saw now that the purpose of the jokes was not to poke fun at books and stories I loved, but to make me laugh in such a way that I got new insights into people (and incidentally why we tell some of the stories we tell)1.
Which brings me to Small Gods, one of my favorite books from the entire series2.
Small Gods is built around the notion that in a magical world such as Discworld, believe is what gives gods their power. The Great God Om has been worshipped for centuries in Omnia, because at intervals he returns to earth, manifests in some way, picks a new prophet, does a little smiting, and so forth. When our story begins in Omnia, people are waiting for the god to return and select his Eighth Prophet. Many think he’s overdue. Others are much more concerned with Omnia’s relations with neighboring countries, such as Ephebe. And then there is Brutha, a humble novice that everyone knows isn’t very bright because it’s been impossible to teach him to read, but he’s got a good memory and works hard and never complains as he’s tending garden in one corner of the Citadel in the capitol city. Brutha has a problem: he can hear a voice in his head, and the voice, he is convinced, is coming from a tortoise inexplicably in his garden, and the tortoise insists that he is the Great God Om.
We eventually learn that Om returned to the mortal world three years ago, quite surprised to find himself trapped in the body of a tortoise and almost completely lacking all divine powers. The problem is, you see, that over the last many years, belief—genuine faith in the existence of Om—has dwindled, having been replaced by fear of the Quisition. So now Om is in danger of losing the last of his power and becoming nothing more than a voice in the desert, along with all the small gods that have never had a believer. So he has to find a way, using only the abilities of a tortoise and his one last believer, to make a comeback.
Meanwhile, Deacon Vorbis, the head of the Quisition, is plotting to conquer Ephebe, while simultaneously root out a new underground heretic movement within Omnia. Brutha gets caught up in Vorbis’ plans when Vorbis realizes that Brutha’s memory isn’t just good, it is eidetic. Brutha has no idea why Vorbis has suddenly become interested him him, partially because Brutha has never really questioned anything his whole life. He was raised by a cruel and overzealous grandmother, and believed everything she told him. It isn’t until he meets his god face-to-face that he learns to start thinking for himself. Om, meanwhile, also has some learning to do before the story is over.
Pratchett has a lot of fun in this book with the idea of philosophers. Brutha meets philosophers in Ephebe, including Didactylos, the blind author of a scroll about the physical nature of the Discworld (a vast disc rotating on the back of four giant elephants standing on the back of a great turtle swimming through space), which has become the inspiration of the heretic movement back in Om. The holy books of Om teach that the world is a sphere floating in space on it’s one, revolving around a sun. So believing that the world isn’t flat is heretical.
Over the course of the story we see several aspects of faith and its misapplication. By the end of the story Brutha and Om have enduring various trials (Brutha nearly being burned to death as a heretic himself in the dramatic climax) before Om returns to power, and then finds himself forced to bargain with his new prophet and help transform his religion into one that is less violent. Before they can do that, they have to deal with the small matter of the war Vorbis has started. One of my favorite quotes from this book happens during this part, as Brutha is trying to stop everyone from fighting, and some of his would-be allies are proclaiming their willingness to die for the truth: “The truth is too precious to die for!”
It is easy to look at the book as an indictment of organized religion and blind faith. But I think the people who do that are making the same sort of mistake I did when I was trying to read the earlier books in the series the first time: they’re looking at this is a parody, rather than paying attention to Pratchett’s deeper commentary on human nature. The book skewers blind atheism at least as much as it does empty faith, because Pratchett turns his satirist’s eye on everyone. Characters you would expect to be allied heroes in the book have their flaws examined just as closely as the characters who are primarily villains.
There’s one other plot thread I should mention: The History Monks. Pratchett will use these guys a few more times, most interestingly in Thief of Time. They are a group of monks charged with keeping history on track, running around the world trying to make sure that things happen as they ought. Of course, who gets to decide “ought”?
I like to re-read Small Gods regularly, to remind myself where morals and ethics should come from. To remind myself that there are things worth having faith in (truth, yes, but also people, and compassion, and empathy). To remind myself that evil people are evil, yes, but they’re people, too—and that all of us have the potential to be evil, no matter how well-intentioned we may be. And most importantly to remind myself that forgiveness isn’t something you earn, it’s something you give.
1. One important note: another problem is that Pratchett himself didn’t find his voice in the series right away. In my opinion, Pratchett didn’t find the proper voice for this series until about the fifth book in the series. Some of his characters took a couple books on their own before they gelled, as well.
2. So many favorites. I read a lot of them out of order after finally having my breakthrough. As I mentioned, some of the earlier books are a lot weaker than the later ones. But they’re easier to enjoy once you know where the series is going.