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The Light Fantastic

Annotations | Information | Quotes

- [title] The Light Fantastic

The book's title comes from the poem L'Allegro, written by John Milton in 1631:

Haste thee, nymph, and bring with thee
Jest and youthful Jollity
Quips and Cranks, and wanton Wiles
Nods, and Becks, and wreathed Smiles
Such as hang on Hebe's neck
And love to live in dimple sleek
Sport that wrinkled Care derides
And Laughter holding both his sides
Come and trip it as ye go
On the Light Fantastic toe.

- [p. 6/6] "[...] proves, whatever people say, that there is such a thing as a free launch."

The reference is to the saying "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch" (also known by its acronym 'TANSTAAFL', made popular by science fiction author Robert Heinlein in his classic novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, although the phrase was originally coined by American economist John Kenneth Galbraith).

- [p. 8/8] "[...] the sort of book described in library catalogues as 'slightly foxed', [...]"

"Slightly foxed" is a term used primarily by antiquarian booksellers to denote that there is staining (usually due to Ferric OXide, hence 'FOXed') on the pages of a book. This does not usually reduce the value of the book, but booksellers tend to be scrupulous about such matters.

- [p. 8/8] Many people have commented on the last name of the 304th Chancellor of Unseen University: Weatherwax, and asked if there is a connection with Granny Weatherwax.

In Lords and Ladies, Terry supplies the following piece of dialogue (on p. 224/161) between Granny and Archchancellor Ridcully as an answer:

"'There was even a Weatherwax as Archchancellor, years ago,' said Ridcully. 'So I understand. Distant cousin. Never knew him,' said Granny."

- [p. 8/8] "[...] even with the Wee Willie Winkie candlestick in his hand."

This is one of those candlesticks with a flat, saucer-like base, a short candleholder in the middle and a loop to grip it by at one side. 'Wee Willie Winkie' is a Mother Goose nursery rhyme, and traditional illustrations always show Willie going upstairs carrying a candle.

Wee Willie Winkie runs through the town,
Upstairs and downstairs, in his nightgown.
Rapping at the windows, Crying through the lock,
'Are the children all in bed? For it's now eight o'clock.'

- [p. 9/9] "[...] the Book of Going Forth Around Elevenish, [...]"

The title the ancient Egyptians used for what we now call the Book of the Dead was The Book of Going Forth By Day. Note that in the UK until a few years ago the pubs opened at 11 a.m.

If you try really hard (one of my correspondents did) you can see this as a very elaborate joke via the chain: Around Elevenish -> Late in the morning -> Late -> Dead -> Book of the Dead. But I doubt if even Terry is that twisted.

- [p. 10/10] Dandelion Clock

Amongst English (and Australian) children there exists the folk-belief that the seed-heads of dandelions can be used to tell the time. The method goes as follows: pick the dandelion, blow the seeds away, and the number of puffs it takes to get rid of all the seeds is the time, e.g. three puffs = three o'clock. As a result, the dandelion stalks with their globes of seeds are regularly referred to as a "dandelion clocks" in colloquial English.

- [p. 10/10] "'To the upper cellars!' he cried, and bounded up the stone stairs."

The magic eating its way through the ceilings with the wizards chasing it floor after floor vaguely resonates with the 'alien blood' scene in the movie Alien, where the acidic blood of the Alien burns through successive floors of the ship, with people running down after it.

- [p. 24/24] "[...] when a wizard is tired of looking for broken glass in his dinner, [...], he is tired of life."

See the annotation for p. 193/158 of Mort .

- [p. 26/26] "I WAS AT A PARTY, he added, a shade reproachfully."

When someone on the net wondered if this scene had been influenced by Monty Python (who also do a Death-at-a-party sketch), Terry replied:

"No. I'm fairly honest about this stuff. I didn't even see the film until long after the book was done. Once again, I'd say it's an easy parallel -- what with the Masque of the Red Death and stuff like that, the joke is just lying there waiting for anyone to pick it up."

The Masque of the Red Death is a well-known story by Edgar Allan Poe, in which the nobility, in a decadent and senseless attempt to escape from the plague that's ravishing the land, lock themselves up a castle and hold a big party. At which a costumed personification of Death, of course, eventually turns up and claims everyone anyway.

It is perhaps also worth pointing out that the quoted sentence looks very much like a classic Tom Swiftie (if you can accept Death as a shade). Tom Swifties (after the famous series of boys' novels which popularised them) are sentences of the form "xxx, said he zzz-ly", where the zzz refers back to the xxx. Examples:

"Pass me the shellfish," said Tom crabbily.
"Let's look for another Grail!" Tom requested.
"I used to be a pilot," Tom explained.
"I'm into homosexual necrophilia," said Tom in dead earnest.

- [p. 30/30] "[...] the only forest in the whole universe to be called -- in the local language -- Your Finger You Fool, [...]"

The miscommunication between natives and foreign explorers Terry describes here occurs in our world as well. Or rather: it is rumoured, with stubborn regularity, to have occurred all over the globe. Really hard evidence, one way or the other, turns out to be surprisingly hard to come by. As Cecil Adams puts it in More of the Straight Dope: "Having now had the "I don't know" yarn turn up in three different parts of the globe, I can draw one of two conclusions: either explorers are incredible saps, or somebody's been pulling our leg."

- [p. 34/34] "Twoflower touched a wall gingerly."

Speaking of Tom Swifties...

- [p. 34/34] "'Good grief! A real gingerbread cottage!'"

The cottage and the events alluded to a bit later ("'Kids of today,' commented Rincewind. 'I blame the parents,' said Twoflower.") are straight out of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale by the brothers Grimm.

If you have access to the Internet, you can find an online version of the original fairy tale at the URL:

<ftp://ftp.uu.net/doc/literary/obi/Fairy.Tales/Grimm/hansel.and.gretel.txt.Z>

- [p. 35/35] "'Candyfloss.'"

Candyfloss is known as cotton candy in the US, or fairy floss in Australia. It's the pink spun sugar you can eat at fairs and shows.

- [p. 35/35] "He read that its height plus its length divided by half its width equalled exactly 1.67563..."

A parody of the typical numerical pseudo-science tossed about regarding the Great Pyramid and the 'cosmic truths' (such as the distance from the Earth to the Sun) that the Egyptians supposedly incorporated into its measurements.

The remark about sharpening razor blades at the end of the paragraph is similarly a reference to the pseudo-scientific 'fact' that (small models of) pyramids are supposed to have, among many other powers, the ability to sharpen razor blades that are left underneath the pyramids overnight.

- [p. 37/37] "'Hot water, good dentishtry and shoft lavatory paper.'"

From the first Conan The Barbarian movie (starring Arnold Schwarzenegger): "Conan! What is good in life?" "To crush your enemies, drive them before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." This quote, in turn, is lifted more or less verbatim from an actual conversation Genghiz Khan is supposed to have had with his lieutenants.

- [p. 45/45] "'Of course I'm sure,' snarled the leader. 'What did you expect, three bears?'"

Another fairy tale reference, this time to Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

- [p. 46/46] "'Someone's been eating my bed,' he said."

A mixture of "someone's been eating my porridge" and "someone's been sleeping in my bed", both from the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairy tale.

- [p. 47/47] "Illuminated Mages of the Unbroken Circle"

An organisation with this name is also mentioned in the Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

+ [p. 57/57] "The universe, they said, depended for its operation on the balance of four forces which they identified as charm, persuasion, uncertainty and bloody-mindedness."

The four fundamental forces that govern our universe are gravitation, electro-magnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force.

The word 'charm' also resonates with the concept of quarks, the elementary quantum particles that the strong nuclear force in fact acts on. For more information see the annotation for p. 133/97 of Lords and Ladies .

+ [p. 62/62] "'In the beginning was the word,' said a dry voice right behind him. 'It was the Egg,' corrected another voice. [...] '[...] I'm sure it was the primordial slime.' [...] 'No, that came afterwards. There was firmament first.' [...] 'You're all wrong. In the beginning was the Clearing of the Throat--'"

The bickering of the spells is cleared up somewhat by the creation passages on pp. 103/85-119/99 from Eric. It is quite clearly stated that first the Creator did an Egg and Cress (for Rincewind), then He Cleared His Throat, then He Read the Octavo (that's the word then), which created the world and finally the primordial slime came into being because Rincewind couldn't eat the Egg and Cress Sandwich and just dropped it on the beach. The Creator subcontracted for the firmament, so it isn't quite clear when that came to be.

"In the beginning was the word" is of course also a biblical allusion to John 1:1: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

- [p. 82/82] "'Anyway, I don't believe in Caroc cards,' he muttered."

Caroc = Tarot. See also the annotation for p. 110/90 of Mort .

A minor inconsistency, by the way, is that on p. 24/24 there actually is a reference to Tarot cards.

- [p. 88/88] "[...] what about all those studded collars and oiled muscles down at the Young Men's Pagan Association?"

A reference to the Young Men's Christian Association, YMCA. See also the annotation for p. 14/14 of Pyramids .

In our world the YMCA somehow became associated with the homosexual scene (I think quite a few people singing merrily along to the Village People's disco hit 'YMCA' would have been very surprised to learn what the song was really about), hence the "studded collars and oiled muscles" bit.

- [p. 93/93] "'Only when you leave, it's very important not to look back.'"

It's always important never to look back if you're rescuing somebody from Death's domain. The best known example of this can be found in the tragic legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus went to fetch his departed loved one, talked Hades (the Greek version of Death) into it, but had to leave without looking back. Of course he looked -- and she was gone forever. A contemporary retelling of the Orpheus legend can be found in Neil Gaiman's Sandman series.

A few people have written and suggested a reference to Lot's wife in Genesis 19:26 (who was turned into a pillar of salt when she looked back when they left Sodom and Gomorrah), but the fact that we're talking about Death's domain here indicates clearly to me that the Orpheus reference is the one Terry intended.

- [p. 104/104] "Rincewind wasn't certain what a houri was, but after some thought he came to the conclusion that it was a little liquorice tube for sucking up the sherbet."

A houri is actually a beautiful young girl found in the Moslem paradise. For more information on sherbets see the annotation for p. 122/111 of Sourcery .

- [p. 105/105] "[...] homesickness rose up inside Rincewind like a late-night prawn birani."

A birani is an Indian rice curry.

- [p. 128/128] "'Man, we could be as rich as Creosote!'"

This is the first mention of Creosote, whom we will later meet as a fully developed character in his own right, in Sourcery. See also the annotation for p. 125/113 of Sourcery .

- [p. 133/133] The idea of a strange little shop that appears, sells the most peculiar things, and then vanishes again first appears in a short story by H. G. Wells, appropriately called The Magic Shop. A recent variation on the same theme can be found in Stephen King's Needful Things.

When an a.f.p. reader mistakenly thought that this type of shop was invented by Fritz Leiber (see the annotation for p. 9/9 of The Colour of Magic ), Terry replied:

"Actually, magically appearing/disappearing shops were a regular feature of fantasy stories, particularly in the old Unknown magazine. They always sold the hero something he didn't -- at the time -- know he needed, or played some other vital part in the plot. And I think they even turned up on the early Twilight Zones too. You're referring to a Leiber story called Bazaar of the Bizarre or something similar, where a shop appears which seems to contain wonderful merchandise but in fact contains dangerous trash."

The Leiber story is indeed called Bazaar of the Bizarre. It features Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, and can be found in Swords Against Death.

- [p. 171/171] "'Do not peddle in the affairs of wizards...'"

See the annotation for p. 183/149 of Mort .

- [p. 209/209] "The young turtles followed, orbiting their parent."

My herpetological correspondent tells me that in our world no known turtles give any sort of care to their young. They just lay the eggs and leave the hatchlings to fend for themselves, which incidentally helps explain why sea turtles are becoming extinct.

It can be argued that Great A'Tuin is in fact a kind of sea turtle (admittedly, a somewhat unusual sea turtle), since only sea turtles have flippers in place of feet and spend most of their time swimming.

- [p. 213/213] "'They do say if it's summa cum laude, then the living is easy --.'"

Substituting "graduation with distinction" for the Latin "summa cum laude" gives a perfectly unexceptional sentiment, but it is, of course, also a reference to the song 'Summertime' from the Gershwin opera/operetta/musical Porgy and Bess: "Summertime, and the living is easy".


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