Rimfall, Finger Pokes, and Angry Letters: Discworld's Fantastic Reaches
By Donna Royston
8 September 2008
Terry Pratchett's Discworld has grown by gradual accretion: around the central grain of Ankh-Morpork and its citizenry of wizards, innkeepers, itinerant heroes, and criminal lowlifes, each novel has added a new layer, gradually building different elements of its universe—a City Watch, an Unseen University, history monks, Auditors, and a nice assortment of characters from different walks of life (or undead existence). Discworld has also evolved in its own historical time, progressing from a magical-medieval to a more Renaissance-like society with printing presses, newspapers, a "gonne," and even a submarine designed and built by artist and inventive genius Leonard of Quirm.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Discworld. Mr. Pratchett has published more than a book a year, on average, during the past quarter century: the first novel was The Color of Magic, in 1983, and, with 2007's Making Money, 36 Discworld novels have appeared in print.
Now, examining the somewhat oddly shaped pearl that Discworld has grown into—a bit nubbly, and somewhat turtle-shaped—we can admire how it has grown and what it has become, and explore the ideas and craftsmanship that have shaped it. I'm going to single out three particular moments, each from a different novel, that will serve to illustrate what Mr. Pratchett has achieved in the Discworld novels.
The Rim, and What Lies Beyond Parody
The Color of Magic was written as a parody of the characters, settings, and conventions of sword-and-sorcery fantasy novels and role-playing games. The gist of the parody is this: Mr. Pratchett sends a tourist to heroic-fantasy land. The prime mover of what is to become the Discworld saga is Twoflower, wearing glasses and outlandish clothing, who arrives in the standard medieval fantasy city of Ankh-Morpork. Hailing from the Counterweight Continent, where there are no barbarian adventurers, smoky taverns, or wizards, he wants to see and experience this exotic place of which he's read so much. Twoflower is the wide-eyed innocent, seeking local color to capture with his camera, and spending lots of cash. Some of the story that ensues is a sendup of familiar types—stand-ins for Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and dragonriders à la Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels. The Color of Magic is an episodic novel, four different adventures strung together sequentially, amusing but of no great weight, simply playing with the ideas of deserted temples, tentacled horrors, dragons, and the traditional complement of thieves, tavernkeepers, and assassins.
Parodies usually have a very short life, only coming into existence as a reaction to the excesses of the subject they ridicule, and losing readers' interest when that subject has been sufficiently mocked. Fantasy fiction has moved on from where it was in the 1980s, but The Color of Magic is still good entertainment, and that is because Mr. Pratchett did more than simply parody.
It is in the last episode of The Color of Magic that something beyond parody and farce begins to be perceptible: something extraordinary, something the reader cannot expect, approaches. Having told us from the beginning that Discworld was flat and was carried by the Great Turtle A'Tuin, Mr. Pratchett takes us to one of the necessary consequences of the world as a disc: the edge. On Discworld it's called the Rim, and Rincewind and Twoflower, adrift on their raft after escaping from pirates, are caught in a current that is carrying them inexorably to the Rim, where the sea pours endlessly over the edge of the world.
There was a line of white on the foreshortened horizon, and the wizard fancied he could hear a distant roaring.
"What happens after a ship goes over the Rimfall?" said Twoflower.
"Well, in that case perhaps we'll just sail on through space and land on another world." A faraway look came into the little man's eyes. "I'd like that," he said. (p. 158)
At this point in the story, Rincewind and Twoflower's drifting raft will be caught before they go over the Rim, but this close encounter with the edge of the world is a trigger that causes Twoflower, who has already seen and experienced so much, to begin obsessing about greater horizons, an infinity of marvelous places to see. He becomes the heroic tourist, a camera-carrying Ulysses figure who cannot rest from travel and will drink life to the lees. Twoflower, like Ulysses, is ready (to borrow Tennyson's words) to "sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western stars." He yearns to explore the "untravelled world, whose margin fades for ever and for ever"; he feels "how dull it is to pause" and not travel in search of the mystery.
It is the peril—and the paradoxical lure—of the Rim that elevates Discworld from amusement to something strange and terrifying. Return, for a moment, to the scene above, as Rincewind and Twoflower's raft is swept toward the edge:
Spray was being thrown up now and the current was so strong that waves were forming and breaking all around them. It all seemed unnaturally warm. There was a hot golden haze on the sea.
The roaring was louder now. A squid bigger than anything Rincewind had seen before broke the surface a few hundred yards away and thrashed madly with its tentacles before sinking away. Something else that was large and fortunately unidentifiable howled in the mist. A squadron of flying fish tumbled up in a cloud of rainbow-edged droplets and managed to gain a few yards before dropping back and being swept away in an eddy.
They were running out of world. Rincewind dropped his bucket and snatched at the mast as the roaring, final end of everything raced toward them. (p. 159)
This first encounter with the Rim establishes its deadly danger and terror, and although Rincewind and Twoflower are rescued before going over, they learn that they have been saved only to be cast over the edge as a sacrifice later. Thus, at the climax of the novel, Rincewind finds himself actually falling off the edge of the world.
After the de rigueur struggle, Harold Lloyd-like, at the precipice—falling, catching on a tree, watching the tree creak, crack, and, by agonizing degrees, break—Rincewind loses his last grasp of the world and is in free fall, like a parachutist who has no parachute. He plummets through a layer of cloud that envelops Discworld, and the clouds grow thin and vanish.
Below, the whole Universe twinkled at Rincewind. There was Great A'Tuin, huge and ponderous and pocked with craters. There was the little Disc moon. There was a distant gleam that could only be the Potent Voyager. And there were all the stars, looking remarkably like powdered diamonds spilled on black velvet, the stars that lured and ultimately call the boldest towards them . . .
The whole of Creation was waiting for Rincewind to drop in.
He did so.
There didn't seem to be any alternative. (p. 210)
And there is no more: these are the last words of the novel. My feelings, after struggling with Rincewind on the edge of the abyss and finally seeing him fall, were a mix of breathless terror and exhilaration. It is an extraordinary conclusion, in which the novel completely abandons its parodic intentions, and it hints at greater aspirations to come, when the Discworld novels will attempt something more complex than literary parody.
A Poke of the Finger: Satire
Never, in all the subsequent Discworld novels, is the scene of Rincewind's falling off the Rim, such a strange melding of terror and beauty, matched. It was a deliberate turning away, I think, on the author's part: he had no interest in engaging with tragic or elegiac themes or evoking the sublime and terrible. There is no Moria, no Fangorn, no Lothlorien to be found in Discworld. Society and politics—trade, religion, the workings of cities, crime, the overthrow of governments, and racial discrimination—are the chosen subjects, and the chosen method is satire.
As the Discworld stories moved out of the realm of parody and gained complexity in subject matter, even such a character as Cohen the Barbarian, who first appeared in The Light Fantastic (1986) and whom you would think could not possibly be anything more than what he was created to be—a farcical Discworld version of Robert E. Howard's Conan—takes on additional weight. When we get to 1994's Interesting Times, he has gathered an absurdly small "horde" of geriatric barbarians to overrun the Counterweight Continent.
The Counterweight Continent, which was in The Color of Magic suggestive of the U.S. (that is, a place of wealth and wondrous conveniences, and an issuer of tourists), has been transformed for the needs of this new story into a version of totalitarian China, an ancient civilization, but brutal and xenophobic, its citizens prevented from leaving and kept in ignorance of other lands. Inside the Forbidden City, the walls are exquisite—and constructed of paper. Only a symbolic expression of a wall is now used, or needed, for all residents of the City to respect it as a wall and believe it is a wall.
There, the tax collector Six Beneficent Winds, who "never took away from people more money than they actually had," has the misfortune of being visited in his office by invading barbarians Cohen and his Silver Horde:
[T]he men wandered into his office as if they owned it. One of them started poking holes in the wall and speaking gibberish.
"Hey, the walls are just made of paper! Hey, look, if you lick your finger it goes right through! See?" (p. 189)
Mugging for laughs, the story suddenly—with an old barbarian's poke of the finger and snigger—slips the knife into the reader. For this simple moment is emblematic of a frightening idea: the fragility of civilization. The barbarian, the enemy of civilization, discovers with glee that a mighty-seeming society has gone decadent, and he is having a blast laughing at it; the cultured tax collector doesn't get the joke. There is a powerful shock (which is both hilarious and sobering) concentrated in this moment—it not only ridicules the overconfidence and self-delusions of the Mighty Empire, but also issues a warning.
Recall the often-quoted lines from Howard's story "Beyond the Black River": "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind . . . Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph" (p. 100). Mr. Pratchett's image leaves any such conclusion hanging, but it suggests that the barbarians will always be poking at, testing the strength of, civilization and will be delighted to find its weakness and exploit it. It is an image simple, and perfect, and devastating, in which a moment of farce pierces deeply into the heart of things to reach a startling truth.
There is, of course, much more territory to explore in Discworld's satiric landscape. My excuse for focusing on this one image is its masterly quality, combining depth of meaning and economy of line, or, to look at it another way, its stealth, which enables it to make a surprise attack on the reader. It serves simply as one example of how Discworld has gained a complexity of thought and sophistication of artistic method. Mr. Pratchett no longer holds up a mirror to fantasy fiction; he holds up the mirror to humanity.
Dead Letters: Comedy
It is not just Mr. Pratchett's richly satiric look at humanity that makes Discworld an impressive literary achievement. The aim of satire is to take down our bloated self-esteem by showing us humanity's hypocrisy, venality, cruelty, and other vices. The message to the reader is This is what you are, and the picture is not flattering. A purely satiric work is inimical to hope. In the Discworld novels, however, the more generous spirit of comedy prevails.
Comedy is one of the two faces of the human condition: it is the laughing face. Comedy is the country of fools, lovers, and madmen, where no one comes to much harm except perhaps a dear brother who has drowned in a shipwreck before the story begins, and even he manages, miraculously, to turn up alive later. Comedy is the joyous leap into the air before we come back down and break a leg. Here we will find no Romeo and Juliet; we have instead Petrucchio and Mad Kate. No Oedipus, but Don Quixote. Here too we have lower-class sots and slackers, infatuated teenagers, scoundrels, bumbling guards, and the everyday worker who is no one special but who has a dream. Tragedy is the realm of downfall and death; comedy is the realm of festivity, mirth, and nonsense, and sometimes redemption.
While we think of comedy first as something funny, humor is only part of what comedy is: more broadly, it is a joyful vision of life, a celebration and an admission that there is meaning to life. Comedy is, in essence, an expression of optimism and hope.
In 2004's Going Postal, Moist von Lipwig—forger, fraudster, and swindler—has come to the end of his criminal career: he has been caught, convicted, and sentenced to hang. He is hanged, at least to the satisfaction of the public who came to witness the death of Alfred Spangler, the alias he had been using. But a highly skilled executioner, at the command of Lord Vetinari, Ankh-Morpork's calculating Patrician, makes the hanging a sham, and Moist awakens from near-death to find himself, not deceased, but in a private audience with Vetinari, being offered a chance to redeem himself: revive the city's defunct post office, get it working again, and his life will be spared.
Moist accepts, with his fingers crossed, so to speak—intending to flee at his first opportunity. When he realizes he can't escape his golem parole officer, Mr. Pump, he reluctantly begins to face the arduous task of getting millions of letters, crammed into every room and crevice of the huge post office building, out of their limbo and into the hands of their addressees.
Moist also begins to perceive, after a few days, that something strange is going on: the letters are alive, restless, even angry. They talk, whispering the messages they must deliver, and he can hear them. As he describes it to Mr. Pump, "it's as though they want to be . . . read." The Post Office, Mr. Pump agrees, is "A Tomb Of Unheard Words. They Strive To Be Heard." (p. 125)
These unheard words, the frustrated messages in dead letters, have been employed as symbols for human connections and human lives before Going Postal. Think, for a moment, of the concluding image of Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and the unconfirmed rumor that Bartleby had been a post office employee who worked with dead letters:
Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. (para. 250)
Going Postal takes these dead letters and animates them, giving them frustration, longing, urgency, anger. They are living dead letters.
And it's not just the letters and Post Office setting of Going Postal that are apt for comparison with "Bartleby." Isn't it interesting that "Bartleby the Scrivener" ends in a prison, with a death; and Going Postal begins in prison with a death—a death that turns out to be actually a near-death that is the beginning of a rebirth? Moist himself, the self-isolated man, the carefully created nobody, unmemorable and alone, also bears a resemblance to Melville's pale clerk, except that he has not come to apathy and despair of life. Going Postal is a joyous inversion of "Bartleby" in which the undelivered letters demand to reach their destinations.
Around the group, letters started to land on the floor like fish dropped by a passing tornado.
Moist looked up. The letters were falling down from the darkness, and the drizzle was turning into a torrent.
[. . .]
The lanterns winked out . . . and by the darkness they now shed Moist von Lipwig saw the writing on the wall or, at least, hanging in the air just in front of it. The hidden pen swooped through the air in loops and curves, drawing its glowing blue letters behind it.
Moist von Lipwig? it wrote.
"Er . . . yes?"
You are the Postmaster!
"Look, I'm not the One you're looking for!"
Moist von Lipwig, at a time like this any One will do!
"But . . . but . . . I am not worthy!"
Acquire worth with speed, Moist von Lipwig! Bring back the light! Open the doors! Stay not the messengers about their business!
Moist looked down at the golden light coming up from around his feet. It sparkled off his fingertips and began to fill him up from inside, like fine wine. He felt his feet leave the dais as the words lifted him up and spun him gently.
In the beginning was a Word, but what is a word without its messenger, Moist von Lipwig? You ARE the Postmaster!
"I am the Postmaster!" Moist shouted.
The mail must move, Moist von Lipwig! Too long have we been bound here.
"I will move the mail!"
You will move the mail?
"I will! I will!"
Moist von Lipwig?
The words came like a gale, whirling the envelopes in the sparkling light, shaking the building to its foundations.
Deliver Us! (pp. 142-143)
Is it possible to find words adequate to praise this scene's excellence? The image itself, of course, is visually wonderful: the letters falling from above around Moist, the glowing script appearing in the darkness. Then there is the rhythm of the exchange between the letters and Moist, and the action that builds from hesitancy to abandonment and ecstasy, culminating in the double meaning of the letters' demand Deliver us!—asking not only to be delivered to their addressees, but to be set free—this is prose that you feel physically, as well as hear.
And, in carrying out his assignment, Moist—the man who has hidden his entire adult life behind false identities, making emotional connections with no one—finds his own deliverance: he leaves his self-imposed aloneness behind. He takes on the cause of others who are in need, not just the letters, but the ordinary people who have been swindled out of their business in the Grand Trunk Semaphore Company (the "clacks"). He does it to get the girl (Adora Belle Dearheart, the chain-smoking damsel who is Moist's romantic interest) but, more importantly, seeing a reflection of himself in Reacher Gilt, the man who swindled his way into a takeover of the clacks business, he does it to prove that he is non-Gilt, and in the process, whether he realizes it or not, to remake himself.
And what about Miss Dearheart? Embittered by her family's ruin and her brother's death, she has, like Moist, isolated herself: she works with Ankh-Morpork's golems and supports their cause and believes in their decency as she does not believe in the goodness of human nature. In redeeming himself, Moist also gives her an opportunity to let go of the cynicism and self-isolation that is so similar to his own.
There is something at stake here: the redemption of two people, and the fulfillment of countless thwarted human connections. It is not too presumptuous, I think, to compare Going Postal with Shakespeare's comedies. Not because Going Postal is funnier than earlier works—The Color of Magic is very funny and Mr. Pratchett has remained constant in his determination to keep us laughing, not letting the action flag or the reader's attention wander—but because it shares in the same qualities that Shakespeare's comedies have, most notably:
A rich assortment of comic characters worthy to stand beside Dogberry and Bottom. Stanley the pin collector; Groat, the ancient Junior Postman who cooks up throat lozenges that melt plaster and whose sulfur- and saltpeter-laden trousers are "the subject of a controlled detonation" at the hospital—these two provide the low humor. And others take both comic and serious turns: Lord Vetinari and his clerks, the dishonest shareholders in the Grand Trunk, Miss Dearheart, the golems Anghammarad and Mr. Pump, and, of course, Moist himself.
Fun with language. Here is a quick sketch of Miss Dearheart: "a figure at the front of the crowd. It was wearing a figure-hugging gray dress, and as he watched, it blew a neurotic cloud of smoke at the sky, gave him a look, and shrugged" (p. 203). And then there is each character's mode of speech—Vetinari's erudite, ironic voice; Gilt's smarmy effluvium; and one of the greatest pleasures, Anghammarad's portentous phrases:
"Many Kings," said Anghammarad. "Many Empires. Many Gods. Many Gods. All Gone. All Things Go." The golem's voice got deeper, as if he was quoting from memory. "Neither Deluge Nor Ice Storm Nor The Black Silence Of The Netherhells Shall Stay These Messengers About Their Sacred Business. Do Not Ask Us About Saber-Toothed Tigers, Tar Pits, Big Green Things With Teeth, Or The Goddess Czol." (pp. 167-168)
Playfulness. Filling Moist's final hour before he is hanged with his jailers' fruit basket conversation, followed by the hangman's asking Moist to autograph the rope, keeps things about as serious as they need to be, in Ankh-Morpork or in the Forest of Arden.
Generosity of spirit and joyous affirmation. The characters we have sympathized with, suffered with, and laughed at have triumphed. A part, however small, of a wrongdoing world is corrected: the clacks company has been wrested from the unscrupulous men who had taken it over, and, as for the mastermind Reacher Gilt, "fled he is upon this villainy" (Shakespeare, A.5, s.1). But as in Messina, so in Ankh-Morpork, and the criminal is caught and returned to the city of his crime. When he stands before Lord Vetinari, Gilt is offered the chance for self-redemption, just as Moist had been. And, well, affirmation only goes so far in Discworld, and Gilt comes to an end that recalls the Brothers Grimm more than Shakespeare.
Lord Vetinari's Door: Conclusion
I have used this essay to sketch a movement through time of Mr. Pratchett's Discworld in order to point out a broad outline of its development. That the three works on which I have focused stand almost exactly at 10-year intervals was not part of my original purpose, but I like the spacing: it reveals a steady expansion in Mr. Pratchett's vision and goals.
Those who term Mr. Pratchett a satirist, I think, characterize his work in terms too limited. Mr. Pratchett marries satire to delicious absurdity, and the offspring is comedy that chastises us for zealotry, warmongering, and selling bad sausages. To return to a point that I made earlier—that Rincewind's fall from the Rim has not been equaled in subsequent novels—I will here add that, if Mr. Pratchett hasn't plumbed terror, he has lifted us with ecstasy and made us soar with joy, and that is an accomplishment to be lauded with hosannas: it is joy that saves us.
It is always good to be in the audience of a bard who is both confident and still reaching to excel himself and surprise us. We have to be as attentive as if we were exiting through Lord Vetinari's door: there might be, as generally expected, a floor under our feet. And then again . . . there might not.
 Except that, of course, on Discworld the margin doesn't fade for ever and for ever. The margin is very firmly placed.
 As to the resemblance between Moist and Bartleby, it is interesting to notice, too, the words of the grub-man in "Bartleby": "Well, now, upon my word, I thought that friend of yourn was a gentleman forger; they are always pale and genteel-like, them forgers" (para. 238).
 Reminding the reader, it is to be hoped, that one theme of the novel is freedom.
Howard, Robert E. "Beyond the Black River." Originally published in Weird Tales, May-June 1935. Reprinted in The Conquering Sword of Conan, New York: Del Rey, 2005.
Melville, Herman. "Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street." Putnam's Monthly Magazine, November-December, 1853. http://www.bartleby.com/129/.
Pratchett, Terry. The Color of Magic. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Originally published by Colin Smythe, Bucks, U.K., 1983.
Pratchett, Terry. Going Postal. New York: HarperCollins, 2005. Originally published by Doubleday, London, 2004.
Pratchett, Terry. Interesting Times. New York: HarperCollins, 1998. Originally published by Victor Gollancz, London, 1994.
Shakespeare, William. Much Ado About Nothing. London: V.S., 1600. http://shakespeare.mit.edu/much_ado/full.html
Tennyson, Alfred. "Ulysses." In Poems. London: Edward Moxon, 1842. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/tennyson/ulyssestext.html.