The L-Space Web: Analysis

The Literary Evolution of Terry Pratchett


A paper for Advanced Placement Composition.
by
David Bapst
Frontier Central High School, of Hamburg, New York.
100% pass achieved!

The enormous space-turtle, Great A'Tuin, swims into view, with the four astral elephants standing precariously on its back, the flat Discworld rotating slowly above them. This setting, Discworld, is the creation of Terry Pratchett, who created the entire series. He has written twenty-eight Discworld novels in the past nineteen years, beginning with The Colour of Magic in 1983. I have had the good fortune of having read and reread all but one of these and several of his earlier, non-Discworld novels. Considering the size of his Discworld series, the long procession of years allows me the opportunity to have seen Pratchett develop his writing into something amazing to read. This development, while not readily apparent, is mentioned by Pratchett himself in his interview with January Magazine: "'I guess you could say that the history of the Discworld is my own history as a writer'" (par. 18).

The evolution, however, lacks definition. One could postulate that since many aspects, such as genre and setting, have not changed, only certain parts of the books evolve. Indeed, at first this seems to be the case and the evolution is composed of several main parts of Pratchett's writing that change individually. But the longer one studies these aspects, connections emerge and we find that they perhaps are related with one another. We begin to see that if the novels shift in a single direction, then we must step back and study the series chronologically.

The nature of the Discworld series is that it normally concentrates on groups of books involving a certain cast of characters inside in their own separate environment on Discworld. Each is used for different types of stories, and thus this is the normal way used for sorting the Discworld novels. This is not the case, though, when sorting for Pratchett's development. Style overtakes plot and setting, and style differences are subtle and evasive for the average reader. The change in styles is noted by Pratchett in a newsgroup post: "I've seen plenty of attempts by others at writing in DW [Discworld] 'style'... which style would it be? TCoM [The Colour of Magic] or, say, the opening sequences of Carpe Jugulum?" ("Re: [R] Misuse of Terry's name?" par. 2). Since the change would be impractical to study on an individual basis in each book, we will examine where the style has been primarily the same in certain stages of the series, separating the occasional throwbacks to an earlier style into their own group.

The earliest of Pratchett's novels are the first group, going from his early science fiction novels to the first four Discworld novels. The Discworld works show a rather simplistic parody of either well-known fantasy and science fiction works or jabs at general fantasy cliches. The author admits it in an interview at SF Site: "'The first couple were just gag books and I wasn't really certain too much what I was doing. I was doing it for the fun of seriously parody a lot of bad fantasy, and, indeed some good fantasy [. . .]'" (sic) (Pratchett par. 7). Although there is a slight satirizing of normal culture in the Discworld books, they do not ascend to the importance seen in his later books. As for books that aren't fantasy, Strata was a parody of the classic Ringworld science fiction novels, and the Truckers trilogy was a blend of both genres, referencing almost nothing when compared to the numbers in future novels.

As noted, Pratchett has used repeating character casts in his books, specific to a certain setting. These character sets, largely present in Pratchett's later novels, begin in these books, although Pratchett didn't seem to have had their development in mind. Mort and Equal Rites merely contain the seeds for the future characters. Mort's main characters later have a daughter who becomes a main character in the future books, while Granny Weatherwax in Equal Rites becomes a center point for a another set of characters. Twoflower, Rincewind's companion in the first two Discworld books will only appear once more in the series. These large changes in the sets appear to be evidence that Pratchett did not set out at first to make the character sets.

The more subtle differences in his style when comparing the first and later novels, is his lack of characterization for the minor characters in his story. As Phillip Krummich in Beecham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction notes in his article on The Colour of Magic that Pratchett "[. . .] crams his pages with trolls, dryads, brigands, dragons, demigods, pirates, viziers. They follow one another so rapidly that they truly cannot be developed, they move the plot along, provoke a laugh or two, and are left behind" (884). The minor characters are hardly even faces compared to the few main characters.

One of the early books shows a centralized idea that is not merely based on parodying fantasy. This book, Equal Rites, appears to meet some of the criteria for the later books, but fails in other aspects of style. It has characters that aren't from the earlier books, aspects of the Discworld that are explained and made more pronounced (the difference between witches' magic and wizards', for instance), and the central aspect of women's rights. Krummich notes this in his article on Equal Rites: "The theme of equal rights for women, as introduced by the punning title, is the most obvious of several closely related themes of the novel" (1262). But how this theme is then implemented in the story is quite different from how other central themes are interested in later novels, for instance, how rock'n'roll is shown in Soul Music. In Soul Music, we find numerous references to famous bands and songs and the entire history of the music, but in Equal Rites, the theme is merely represented as the character Esk's attempts to enter the all-male Unseen University. Also, the author tied the plot in with the elements of normal fantasy he'd been parodying in the past two books by poking fun at the nonexistence of female wizards. Pratchett's style is still in the early development of his works with Equal Rites; thus the novel is placed with his earlier works.

With Sourcery, we begin to see the beginning of a new style for Pratchett. Minor characters begin to take on more importance, and major characters like Rincewind, which were made for simple parody, gain some development. The very fact of Rincewind appearing again seems to be the first repeated use of a character set. Sourcery being the point of change is admitted by Pratchett by an interview at SF Site: "'Sourcery actually marked the boundary line. The books before that were 'old Discworld'; the books after that were 'New Discworld.' They were written in the same place but written by a better writer'" (sic) (par. 22).

It is with the next book, Wyrd Sisters, that we see the new Pratchett style developed in full. Granny Weatherwax, who we first saw in Equal Rites, appears with an entire small kingdom of main characters and minor characters in a satire of Shakespeare's Macbeth and elements of Elizabethan theater. Pratchett has better realized his use of character sets and is modifying the past novels' casts to exist in multiple books. The use of sets takes over his books for the next few novels. He uses Death for a second time in Reaper Man, just like in the earlier Mort. The first Watch book is written; entitled Guards! Guards!. These and the several novels written up to Small Gods mark when Pratchett is developing the style he'll use with success later. Guards! Guards! is a parody of the faceless, unlucky city guards that are seen in the average fantasy novels, along with more detail for the city of Ankh-Morpork. Reaper Man, somehow, manages to satirize both the undead and shopping malls at the same time. Moving Pictures has a central theme of the movie industry, as from its title. Unlike Equal Rites's treatment of women's rights, we find many references to Hollywood and early movies in Moving Pictures. The idea of the Discworld's inhabitants becoming caught up with a new idea (in this case, making movies) is a first for Pratchett's novels, and it will be used in a similar way later in Soul Music, but for rock'n'roll. Other than Eric, which is an apparent throwback, these books have elements that will become stronger in the next era.

Minor characters fare better in these books. As Pratchett notes in the SF Site interview "'[. . .] the early ones were written in the fantasy tradition. You populate, apart from your heroes, with rogues, beggars, vagabonds, lords, whores... you don't think of them as characters. But I find it much more fun to bring them forward as characters'" (par. 23). As noted before, this sudden characterization is hardly noticeable if the books are read out of synch; they are such a subtle part of his style.

Up to Reaper Man, almost none of the books have major characters dying from other than natural causes. Sourcery, the only one of these novels that did not adhere, involves the murders of two wizards that helped make the young Sourcerer head of the University (Pratchett 113-219). This, like Moving Pictures, foretells the direction the series will take.

From Small Gods on, the age of serious parody has appeared. The delineation between this book and the ones that came before it is defined in how serious they are. This element is normally abstract and hard to define. In the Discworld series, this element can be clearly measured using, simply, the number of deaths in each book (the Death Lists on the website L-Space came in handy to see this (par 5-37)). Small Gods and most of the books after it are filled with main characters meeting their just and unjust ends. The only exceptions are the throwbacks.

Just as prevalent as the number of violent deaths, is the centering of novels around the satirizing of an element of our pop culture. Along with the plot-controlling themes, Pratchett exploded with minor allusions and references during this period. While there were ones from not so well known sources, as Pratchett notes in "Words From the Master" on the website L-Space: "'If I put a reference in a book I try to pick one that a generally well-read (well-viewed, well-listened) person has a sporting chance of picking up; I call this 'white knowledge', the sort of stuff that fills up your brain without you really knowing where it came from'" (par. 217). These references and parodies seem to overwhelm the story and make little sense but in an interview with Isis, Pratchett noted, "Yes, there's a lot of what looks like parody, because we're viewing it from here, but often it makes perfect sense within the story" (par. 12). The references to our world aren't alien insertions into Discworld, but introduced as real parts of the fantasy world. Things like the scene with the little match girl make sense to the story's characters and to the readers who don't know the reference, but those who do know will get the allusion.

Comparing these to the earlier books, the references may have increased, but scenes done merely for comedy have certainly decreased. While he maintains his ability to make us laugh, he does it less often, making way for serious storylines and characters. The growth of seriousness in Pratchett's stories is inverse to the humorous content in each. Obviously, a book can't make a serious point in a scene that is also supposed to make you laugh. With this increased seriousness comes what appears to be a complicated and contradictory ideology, although understandable if you consider the differences between the mindsets of each character. In response to a question about conflicting ideologies in his books, Pratchett said "[. . .] But you're really suggesting, aren't you, that my character's beliefs are the same as mine? That was how Granny thinks. I can think like her, I can think like Nanny Ogg [. . .]" (Isis Interview par. 17). Pratchett's main characters do not share a common ideology. This allows Pratchett to give us different moral values with each book. This contributes as the serious aspects of his novels.

This seriousness, as noted, brings the death of major characters, and the first of these was Cuddy, in Men at Arms. "'In Men at Arms,'" Pratchett said in the interview with SF Site, "'I didn't know Cuddy was going to be the one who died. When it happened, I realized a character you liked had to die. [. . .] I had to say guns kill, that's what happens. That's the thing about guns, that's what they're there for'" (par. 23). This progression towards more serious stories brings along with it darker themes. The last few of the books in this phase, excepting throwbacks, are Maskerade, Feet of Clay, and Hogfather. All of these are parodies in their own right, but contain heavy, dark elements. In a newsgroup post, "What's wrong with dark? spoiler for Hf," Pratchett says that "[. . .] this is a problem I've faced since Men at Arms. The gonne *kills* people. You can't get around it. [. . .] Banjo in Hogfather and Walter in Maskerade are characters out of the subset of the 'dark' called real life" (par. 4-5). As the books become deeper, more serious, more realistic, they will inherently become darker. Real life is dark. It's the same progression. This overall development is summarized in a quote from the SF Site interview: "[. . .] I've discovered the joy of plot and the books have tended, over the years, to become a little deeper and sometimes, especially in the last few years a little darker" (sic) (Pratchett par. 7).

The era of serious parody ends with Hogfather, which was pretty dark for what was essentially a parody of Christmas traditions. The next novels in the sequence are the dark adventures, starting with the war parody, Jingo. Compared to the novel right after it, Carpe Jugulum, which is about vampires, Jingo seems hardly as sinister. However, Pratchett points out why Jingo should be considered dark in his interview with Science Fiction Weekly: "I would say [the novels are getting] darker. Like Carpe Jugulum was pretty [expletive] dark. So was Jingo- I mean, people were dying" (sic) (par. 42). Thus, we use Jingo as the starting point for this era in the Discworld series.

The parody shifts in these books, along with setting. Pratchett notes in the "What's wrong with dark? spoiler for Hf" newsgroup post that "[t]here's no place for straight horror writing on DW [Discworld], certainly. But horror as a component is another matter" (par. 6). And so it is. While Pratchett can't have straight horror as long as he retains the satirical feel of Discworld, he can parody it. Carpe Jugulum and The Fifth Elephant introduce the Transylvania-like region of Uberwald. But whatever Pratchett's take on vampires or his population of hunch-backed, lisping assistants all named Igor, it is only part of his increasing use of darker elements. The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rats, Pratchett's version of the pied piper for young adults, is rather serious, and the sentient rats are similar to the little Nomes in the Truckers saga. Some of the more horrible things humans do to rats, like tying rat's tails together to make rat kings, or rat pits where humans bet on how many rats a dog can kill almost sicken the reader. Rather violent rat catchers (the kind that actually catch meddling kids) make this 'young-adult' novel far more serious than a good deal of other Discworld books.

The newest era in the Discworld books is the new creation of character sets. New characters appear with their own settings in these books, most likely for use beyond one novel. Considering that each of the character sets from before (the Watch, the Witches, Rincewind/Wizards, Death/Susan) were suited to different types of stories, these types may have begun to get worn out, or perhaps Pratchett simply wanted to expand on his world. None the less, The Truth and The Thief of Time both have new casts of characters and new settings

Pratchett uses past sets to parent two new sets of characters in both books. Death and Susan (from the Death books) are used to help introduce the History Monks in the Thief of Time, giving Susan a love interest. The large role these characters play almost makes the novel part of the Death/Susan books. In The Truth, there is no mystery that the journalists at the fictional Times led by William de Worde are the central characters in the book. The City Watch and its commander, Sam Vimes, became characters seen instead as an antagonistic force, which for long-time readers of the series was strange. We knew Vimes was a good guy when we read books from his cop's viewpoint, so we understood his position, and yet viewed from William's vantage point, Vimes appeared almost fascist. For instance, read part of the conversation that takes place when de Worde and Vimes first meet and the reporter tells the cop he should tell him things so the newspaper can record the truth:

"And you'll let me see what you've written?" [asked Vimes.]
"Of course. I'll make sure you get one of the first papers off the press, sir." [said William.]
"I meant before it gets published, and you know it."
"To tell you the truth, no, I don't think I should do that, sir."
"I am the commander of the Watch, lad."
"Yes, sir. And I'm not. I think that's my point, really, although I'll work on it some more."
(106-107)

While Vimes never becomes a complete villain, having glimpsed the Commander so differently from the outside will change how readers will view him. In either case, Pratchett used his older characters to help bring new characters into the world. This action is probably to ground long-time readers, and not alienate them with a sudden change in the books.

The last group of Discworld books that have their own separate style and attributes have already been mentioned several times earlier. These are the throwbacks, the evolutionary remnants that appear now and then in the series like ancient fish in fishermen's nets. Pratchett noted the existence of at least one in the post "Re: Jingo : Is Pterry going downhill?" stating that: "TLC [The Last Continent] was a deliberate throwback, and there may be more- [. . .]" (par. 4). The Last Continent was a parody of Australian culture, but it lacked a serious plot like the serious parodies that were written at the same time. A certain character seems to almost attract throwbacks, and that is Rincewind, who is the protagonist of many Discworld books, including The Last Continent. The only later Rincewind books that are not a part of the light humor of the early novels are Interesting Times and Sourcery. This is because Sourcery is Pratchett's turning point in style, while Interesting Times questions bureaucracy, revolutionaries, and social classes. The Last Continent simply pokes fun at natural selection and Australia. The reason Rincewind does not appear in many serious plots can be explained with this Pratchett quote: "'He's not my favorite character because it's hard to give him any depth. Rincewind is just the eternal 'reasonable' character. [. . .] someone like Vimes or Granny Weatherwax is a far more interesting character. We can see far more going on inside their heads. They're more screwed up'" (sic) (Pratchett, SF Site Interview par. 38). Since it is hard to develop Rincewind in a serious novel, Pratchett tends to put him only in throwbacks.

Both of the Discworld books that were accompanied by drawings are considered throwbacks. Eric, the first of such, is merely a light parody of Faust with Rincewind, but the second book with illustrations, The Last Hero, is a throwback for a different reason. Characters from different sets meeting is a rare occurrence, and Pratchett has even stopped himself from doing this before. For instance, in The Fifth Elephant, Pratchett has said: "'I almost had Vimes and Lady Sybil meeting Verence and Magrat in The Fifth Elephant, but it got edited out because I was doing it as 'series glue' rather than because it was necessary for the book'" (Pratchett, SF Site Interview par. 32). It could be assumed that the The Last Hero has a large number of characters meeting for the first time either due to a lack of restraint or perhaps because Pratchett wanted to have many of his characters appear in The Last Hero's illustrations. Either way, it seems, most of the times when character sets are going to meet in the Discworld novels, it comes with the light humored plots of the early books.

While much has changed while the Discworld series has evolved, there is some that has stayed the same. Obviously, neither the overall setting nor the genre has changed during the series, except for when Pratchett wrote a small trilogy of young adult books. Also, Pratchett has retained a humorous tone with all his stories, even if it has gotten more serious in the darker ones. This satirical feel is native to the Discworld, so the two unchanging elements are connected. Why genre doesn't change or why Pratchett doesn't change to a new world, might be because he feels that he can make fantasy more than what it is thought to be through Discworld. "I say what I do is write fantasy," Pratchett posts, "which usually then gives me an opening to define fantasy as something more than the famous 'guys with swords'" ("Re: [R] Sci-fi, SF, or Fantasy -" par. 4). Or maybe it's out of spite over the fact that fantasy is ignored that he sticks with it, a thing he is very vehement about. While being interviewed for January Magazine, Pratchett said: "It [expletive] me off that fantasy is unregarded as a literary form. When you think about it, fantasy is the oldest form of fiction" (par. 16).

What might be the best theory to explain all this is that fantasy is both a personal choice and a way to make the books better, as does every choice he's made in the development of the Discworld series. Pratchett's own words support this in a post to a newsgroup: "I [am] quite certain that the way that DW [Discworld] is going is the only way I can take it. [. . .] -- but while a book has got to be worthwhile from the point of view of the reader it's got to be worthwhile from the point of view of the writer as well" ("Re: Jingo : Is Pratchett going downhill?" par. 4). Considering the simple fact that Discworld has spanned 28 books, the series must certainly be worthwhile to the author. But is it worthwhile to the readers? If the series has become amazing, as I declared earlier, then it is in their hands that the true opinion rests.

Reviewers have not been kind to Terry Pratchett, yet not through negative reviews, but incredible infrequency, especially here in the United States. The New York Times, for example, it seems from their website, hasn't reviewed a single one of his books since 1996, quite possibly even earlier than that (Robinson, par. 1). Thus, reviews are not easy to be found. Even when Pratchett does get reviewed, the opinion seems unbalanced. Tom Paulin, a poet and reviewer on BBC's show "The Late Review," called Pratchett a "complete amateur" (par. 50), while the Oxford Times calls him "the best humorous writer of the 20th century" (Wignall par. 75).

The people themselves may have to decide it. For instance, Pratchett gave this fact when he replied on a newsgroup: "[Sourcery] was the first DW [Discworld] book to be a #1 bestseller and stayed in the first top 20 for three months" ("Re: [R] Introducing Pratchett to others." par. 2). It seems an interesting coincidence that Discworld's first success was when Pratchett began changing his style. Since then, he has remained at the top. Last year, his Thief of Time was placed as the number one best-selling hardcover fiction book in the UK, according to the Guardian (Bell par. 2). The Last Hero was number four on that list (par. 2). Thief of Time is still on the top ten list, at number seven for the week of May 26, 2002, even though it was released over a year ago (par. 9). In the eyes of the people of Britain at least, Terry Pratchett is a literary giant. His books, to them if not the reviewers, are amazing.

In Lords and Ladies and The Last Continent, Pratchett puts forth the idea of invisible writings to poke fun at quantum physicists. Basically, according to the General Theory of L-Space, if past books eventually inspire future books, then the contents of unwritten books can be gleamed from written ones (Pratchett, Lords and Ladies 36). While it was originally written as a gag, a serious application of the theory of L-Space to Pratchett's books could be made. Certain patterns emerge in his style, when the series is studied. Throwbacks, one can say with almost certainty, will show up again. As for the ever-evolving main body of works, we will see the same progression towards dark storylines as before. Humor will lessen but never disappear because Pratchett's sarcastic tone is a central part of the series that has yet to be absent. The characters that we can expect will not be more of the same, but they will be totally new characters or old characters that have changed by finding love, having children, developing their powers or just finding steady employment for once in their lives. Perhaps Pratchett will even spread his series to a setting based somewhere not within several hundred miles of Ankh-Morpork. But what we have yet to see, except possibly with the hard-to-develop Rincewind, is the shutting down and filing away of a character set. The Discworld can only get so large, and as we will probably never see the one-shot novel characters again (Esk from Equal Rites, Teppic from Pyramids, Brutha from Small Gods, etc.), some of those casts we have come to know and like will probably have to fade. Ultimately, no matter my predictions, the decision is up to Pratchett how to change the series.

Pratchett's style has changed, and changed for the better. He has evolved the series when others might have told him keep it like it is. Whatever we may think about the series, he's brought us this far using his judgment, so Terry Pratchett must certainly know what he's doing.


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