Reading Pratchett: Part 2, The Early, Funny Stuff Part 1 (1989-90)

When people think about Terry Pratchett’s work, what they tend to think of is the run of novels he did from about 1989 to about 1998, the period in which he was Britain’s biggest-selling author, and in which he was at his funniest. During this time, he created most of his best-loved characters, and fleshed them out — characters who start out as one-note jokes in one book will, by four or five books down the line, have turned into characters who feel like real people (or dogs, or orangutans).
Perhaps uncoincidentally, this period coincided with my own adolescence (I was eleven in 1989, and turned twenty in 1998) and that of many of Pratchett’s readers (a plurality, if not an actual majority, are from my demographic group; there was a common belief in the 90s among those who like to look down on fantasy, humour, or especially the combination of the two that Pratchett fans were all teenage boys called Kevin who liked computers more than people). His writing grew up along with us, and the books came out at such a pace, two or often three a year, that we were able to follow this growth in real time.

This period will be split into a few posts, but that’s more due to my own time constraints — the books from Wyrd Sisters through Jingo feel very much part of a single style.

Wyrd Sisters was the first book that Pratchett wrote solely for Gollancz, and the first of his books to feel like he’d finally found his voice. The early novels show Pratchett working through his influences — often they seem to have undigested chunks of P.G. Wodehouse, G. K. Chesterton or Douglas Adams popping up, and sometimes they do seem a little self-consciously “wacky” or “zany” (despite Pratchett’s understandable loathing of those words).
Here, though, we finally have something that feels like the author who’d be writing for the next twenty-five years.
Wyrd Sisters is Pratchett parodying Shakespeare — basically, all the good bits from Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear, the bits everyone can sing along with, pulled together into a new plot centred around the witches.
And the three witches he brings in here are among his greatest creations. Granny Weatherwax, the generic witch from Equal Rites, is reworked here as a hard-as-nails moraliser, who uses her magic to give people what they need, not what they think they want, and who is respected more than liked even by her friends. Nanny Ogg, the second of the trio, is a fat old woman, the matriarch of a huge clan, who likes a drink or ten, enjoys singing amusing songs, and is more likely to cackle at a single-entendre than over a cauldron. And Magrat Garlick, the youngest of the trio, is a well-meaning, rather wet and dippy, new age type with hidden depths.

Pyramids is one of the few Discworld books that is more-or-less completely standalone. All the books work on their own, but most feature characters who have appeared before or will appear again. Pyramids, by contrast, features almost nothing from previous or future books (the character of Dr. Cruces, the head of the Assassins’ Guild, turns up later, and the story of the Tsortean war is expanded on in Eric, but these are minor asides in the book).
Pyramids is rather unusual for Pratchett, in that it follows the standard Hollywood Star Wars-style Hero’s Journey far more than any of his books (even down to the woman who’s at first presented as the hero’s love interest later turning out to be his half-sister, as in Star Wars). A young prince from the Disc equivalent of Egypt (Djelibeybi — literally “child of the Djel”), sent off to the big city to be educated, comes back to the ancient, unchanging, land he came from and discovers *why* it’s ancient and unchanging.
The best thing about Pyramids, though, is the brief section set in Ephebe (the Discworld’s equivalent of classical Athens, whose name was a joke it took me something like twenty years to get…) with philosophers testing axioms by shooting arrows at tortoises (in an attempt to test multiple axioms at once, it was shown that a tortoise *could* outrun a hare, but only when the hare gets hit by the arrow by accident).

Guards! Guards! is interesting, coming straight after Pyramids, in that its structure seems to be a philosophical repudiation of the hero’s journey that Pratchett had been playing with in the previous novel.
Here, Carrot Ironfoundersson, a foundling adopted by dwarfs, discovers he is in fact a human, and that this is why he’s over six feet tall. He’s sent off to the city of Ankh-Morpork, with which he instantly falls in love. Everyone finds him instantly likable, he’s got a birthmark in the shape of a crown, a mysterious sword that’s a relic of his unknown parents, and there are rumours around the city that in the time of the city’s greatest need, the true king will return…
And Carrot becomes an ordinary policeman in the City Watch, helping them to defeat the cultists who raise a dragon in hopes of putting their own puppet king on the throne, but making very sure that the subject of becoming king himself never comes up.
We’ve already seen Pratchett’s distaste for monarchy to an extent in Wyrd Sisters (where the person who ends up on the throne might well not be the true heir, but is probably the least-worst person for the job), but more and more in this phase of Pratchett’s writing we see that resisting capital-D-Destiny and the idea that some people are inherently better than others is one of the main driving forces of Pratchett’s own beliefs.

Eric is another Rincewind book, this time a novella (originally published as a very-heavily-illustrated hardback) parodying Faust — a nerdy teenage demonologist called Eric has conjured up Rincewind by mistake, and real demons have given Rincewind the power to grant Eric’s wishes, without him realising how he’s doing it. An episodic comedy follows, with Rincewind and Eric going back to the Tsortean War (where the Ephebians left a gigantic wooden horse at the front gates of Tsort, and then when the Tsorteans were laughing at the obvious ploy sneaked round the back), meeting the great god Quezovercoatl (the Feathered Boa), and talking to Ponce da Quirm, who discovered the Fountain of Youth but wasn’t warned that you should boil the water before drinking it. Probably the funniest of the Rincewind books, but like all of them much slighter than the books around it.

Moving Pictures is the first of a type of novel that Pratchett does a lot at this point: “invention from the real world leaks through into the Discworld”. In this case, one of the alchemists in Ankh-Morpork invents a way of making moving pictures appear on a screen, and suddenly there’s the equivalent of a gold rush to the Holy Wood, where the filmmakers set up.
The story follows screen actors Victor Tugelbend (“Can’t sing. Can’t dance. Can handle a sword a little”) and Theda Withel (“I come from a little town you’ve probably never heard of”), and their eventual defeat of the magic that’s leaking into the world from elsewhere (against a backdrop of a world gone mad! With a thousand elephants!) but is best remembered for Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, a minor character from Guards! Guards! (who sells suspicious sausages at a price so low it’s “cutting me own throat”) who here takes on the first of his many inevitably-doomed entrepreneurial ventures, as the head of a film studio.

Next — the first Golden Age.

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3 Responses to Reading Pratchett: Part 2, The Early, Funny Stuff Part 1 (1989-90)

  1. Mike Taylor says:

    “Ephebe (the Discworld’s equivalent of classical Athens, whose name was a joke it took me something like twenty years to get…)”

    I don’t get it.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It’s rather poor taste. An ephebophile is the word, from Greek roots, for someone whose tastes run to adolescent boys, much as the ancient Greeks’ are generally assumed to have.

      • Mike Taylor says:

        Oh. I got that; I just didn’t recognise it as a joke. Maybe not Terry’s finest hour.

        For what it’s worth, Guards Guards may be my favourite of all the Discworld novels (and I’ve read most of them three or four times). It does a lovely job of subverting cliches without being heavy-handed about it, and while telling an actual story at the same time. (Of course, it’s very heavy-handed at the end, with the million-to-one chance stuff, but that’s obviously deliberate.)

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