Newsgroup Discussions: Themes

Themes

alt.fan.pratchett

This thread includes comments about all Discworld books, and can be assumed to contain spoilers for everything up to and including Carpe Jugulum.


Subject: [R] Themes - no spoilers
Date: 10 Jan 2000
From: Livia Mitson

This is kind of relevant, so I'll try to keep it that way to justify the tag.

I recently got my textbooks for my social psychology books, and one of the first exercises we had to do was to read through nine accounts of people talking about their health and pull out "themes". The textbook was pretty vague about what constituted a "theme", and I came up with some different ones to the ones the book suggested.

Now, the [R] bit. It seemed to me that analysing these accounts was a bit like analysing a novel in order to try to work out the themes presented in it - Tamar and Miq, for example, sometimes say that they think a particular novel is on a certain theme. So you might think that Jingo, for example, is about choices (with the personal organiser, Angua's choice of whether to go on the boat or not, etc) or that CJ is about what people are really like, deep down.

But what people think are the themes in a book can vary from person to person - that's what a lot of the discussion on alt.books.pratchett is all about. So does it make sense to think of the themes as being present in the book, and (to a certain extent) everyone sees the same themes, or are they more "imposed" on the book by the person reading it, and thus more a product of that persons' perceptions?

Or am I just trying to fit a black and white dichotomy on something that isn't black and white?


From: Jens Ayton

CJ struck me as being an allegory on religion, although I can't remember why.


From: pia

Or am I just trying to fit a black and white dichotomy on something that isn't black and white?

You probably are. Say an author consciously writes a book to be 'about' something. Then there definitely is a theme present in the book - even if no reader ever would recognise it (if no reader can find 'the' theme, then competence of the author can of course be questioned). And even if the authors intentions remain unknown, some kind of consensus often is achieved among the readership over what books are about.

OTOH same book (or any work of art) can be interpreted in alternative ways. There doesn't have to be 'the' theme but several of them. Best books are multi layered, allowing satisfactory experience to readers with very different backgrounds - hence different interpretations and differently perceived themes. A book can be a mirror on which to reflect your mind.

I don't however subscribe to the postmodernistic view that everything is relative, and truth is as you choose it to be. You must have some objective reasons for reaching a certain interpretation. For instance, if someone was to tell me that Small Gods is actually about... gender identity, it would take one heck of a good argument to convince me, or I would write down the person as a lunatic.

As a personal note, I often get angry over books where I don't find the 'about', the theme. That's the reason I didn't like TLC. In the end I've decided it is about the nature of time.


From: Davina Spafford

Good question... and here's my take on the answer... A few years ago for a major class project for one of my education classes, I did a hyperstudio review of the works of Terry Pratchett. As I had to make the books relevant to class work and "teacher use" I went through all the books I had at the time and picked out as many "themes" as I could for each book.

I let them range from social commentary, to cultural trivia... each book wound up with at least half a dozen themes by the time I was finished... many of em had over a dozen... and those were generally from quick reviews of books I may not have seriously read in several years.

So.. the answer is yes... there are lots of themes in any given book, intentional, subconscious and otherwise. It's all going to depend on how, when, and why you read any given book.


From: Richard Eney [Tamar]

AOL to Davina and to pia. However, to support the existence of a particular theme in a particular book, it helps a lot if you can actually find sentences, word choice, etc that relate to the theme. It's much harder to support a theme based solely on sequence of episodes, because major structural elements are pretty much generic to any storytelling form.

The theme you perceive is usually considered to be valid as long as it is based on words that are actually used in the writing of the story, and as long as it is not flatly contradicted by other word choices present.


From: Miq

Yup. For instance, I think 'Carpe Jugulum' is about duality and contrast: the idea of 'black-and-white', or 'darkness-and-light', shines off virtually every page. (What colour is a magpie?) The sheer heavy- handedness of the imagery is one of the things that spoils it for me.

The theme you perceive is usually considered to be valid as long as it is based on words that are actually used in the writing of the story...

Which of course does not preclude the possibility that many different themes are equally valid in looking at a given book. In my recent treatment of 'The Fifth Elephant', I was torn between several possible keys, and the subsequent debate convinced me that others were at least as valid as the one I picked. But I still think the one I picked was worthwhile and did make the whole clearer and more coherent.


From: Davina Spafford

The sheer heavy-handedness of the imagery is one of the things that spoils it for me.

ah.. but imagery can only be "heavy handed" if you've read enough of the "back ground material" (for lack of a better term for all the literature and culture that's out there...) for most of the references to make any sense.

If you've lived in a cave, never watched tv, read any books, etc.. you can slam every sort of reference in existence into a work.. and that silly person isn't going to get it... and as much as i hate admitting it.. more and more of our society is heading that way

A writer almost has to be a bit heavy handed with the references and imagery if he/she wants the majority of possible readers to grasp any of it... sometimes to the annoyance of the more well read who figure out 2 pages in what the "vital image" is...


Date: 11 Jan 2000
From: Victoria Martin

As a personal note, I often get angry over books where I don't find the 'about', the theme.

But surely a book which has only one, blindingly obvious "theme", would be incredibly dull? I prefer a bit more subtlety in my reading matter myself. Anyway, you can think of a book as being rather like a good play. You can stage a good play in all sorts of different ways in order to stress different aspects or bring out different ideas, and as long as these interpretations don't go against the text, then they add to its richness and to the pleasure of seeing a play rather than just reading it.

With books, you can see different things in them at different times, which is why a good book can always be re-read. The more often you can find something new in a book, the more highly you tend to regard it (at least i do). Whereas a book which has only one thing to say isn't worth reading more than once (I agree with you about TLC, though, for all sorts of reasons, and I agree that a lack of unity can be a big weakness).


From: pia

Absolutely. And I've never meant a book should be about one single thing. My trouble with TLC was that it didn't seem to be about much anything, expect gags and Australiana. The other DW books I'd read before TLC made a very different impression on me (at that point I hadn't read anything pre-WS). Compulsive meaning-maker as I am, for my own mental peace I had to find some kind of let us say explanation or raison d'aitre for TLC. It was a baffling experience at its best.


From: The Senior Wrangler

Having just reread TLC I was delighted to find that it was a lot better than I remembered.

Apart from a lot of side-splittingly funny allusions, one-liners, situations etc. I got the impression that Pterry was trying to make us question our assumptions re the genesis of DW, and creation in particular. With a possible foray into the equivalence and equivalidity(?) of different world views. (And of course a wonderful parody of a continent not a million miles away!) :-)


From: Miq

Creation is certainly one of the themes in TLC, yes. I think it also has quite a lot to say about storytelling, narrative, 'fate' and the nature of time.

I was reflecting recently on how Terry matches the themes of books to the protagonists. 'Death' books tend to be about some aspect of 'humanity' - what it means to be human, and alive. 'Witches' books are about freedom, individuality, independence. 'Guards' books are about power, authority and organisation.

'Rincewind' books are the most subtle-themed of all. They are the DW equivalent of [M]-books: books about books. There's TCOM, a spoof on fantasy fiction; TLF, "a textbook on creative writing" (thank you April); and so on. I suspect this is why there's so little consensus about these books, and why so many people think they're "just" funny (as if that were somehow a bad thing...)


From: Mary

As a personal note, I often get angry over books where I don't find the 'about', the theme.

Funny, I'm just the opposite. I get angry when people try to "decode" art. I wrote a whole paper on why it's better to read T.S. Eliot as a nonsense poet than to make up silly theories about him. English classes used to drive me up the wall. Teachers who thought all that was need was a decoder ring for the "symbols": Water=Life White=Purity. Blech. Or "State the theme of the book in one sentence."

Number one, if it's a book worth reading in an English class, it prolly has more than one theme, not all of them necessarily intentional. Number two, if it were simple enough to say in one sentence, the author would have written a sentence, and not a book. Easiest way to kill all of a student's interest in books: convince him the authors are just too snobby to state their opinions plainly.

It "means" all that it says, no less, though possibly more.

I was reflecting recently on how Terry matches the themes of books to the protagonists. 'Death' books tend to be about some aspect of 'humanity' - what it means to be human, and alive. 'Witches' books are about freedom, individuality, independence. 'Guards' books are about power, authority and organisation.
'Rincewind' books are the most subtle-themed of all.[...]

I had to quote all of that because I think it's incredibly insightful. Thank you, Miq, for pointing it out. It seems so obvious in retrospect... I get the feeling that it's the characters themselves who cause this. Granny has a lot to say about letting people make their own mistakes (where was I wibbling about people not having too much control over other people? This is probably why the Witch books are my favourite...) and some of her philosophy inevitably shows up in all of the stories about her. Likewise Death, and Vimes, who have learned some things the hard way, and who show their principles in nearly everything they do.

And Rincewind is, as you say, more subtle. He understands Dramatic Necessity very well, and resists it, always. That's why his stories are the way they are...


From: Richard Bos

For instance, I think 'Carpe Jugulum' is about duality and contrast

Case in point: I, otoh, think that CJ is about personal evolution, since all the major characters go through more or less dramatic changes in the course of the book, and, as a result, find out something about themselves that they didn't know, or learn to do something they couldn't do, before. And it is one of my favourite books. The b/w imagery doesn't bother me at all, because it isn't important to my interpretation of the story.


From: Miq

Yes, but they go through those changes as a result of making choices. Time and again they are faced with a simple two-way decision to make - yes or no, heads or tails, stay or go. The most obvious example is the scene with Death and [Granny], but there are many, many others.


Date: 12 Jan 2000
From: Victoria Martin

One of the reasons why I didn't like TLC was it seemed so slap-dash. take the Librarian's illness fr'instance. At the beginning of the book Ridcully is afraid he's dying. By the end, he seems to have got better, with no mention of when or how this cure was effected (or did I miss something?) His illness seemed purely designed to get the wizards off on their journey and to allow some not very funny (imo) jokes about him turning into furry suitcases and things.


From: Morgan Lewis

'Death' books tend to be about some aspect of 'humanity' - what it means to be human, and alive.

Definitely. And it's one of the most delightful ironies that Death is one of the most humane (in the sense of understanding human potential) characters in any book I've read.

'Witches' books are about freedom, individuality, independence.

And also largely about the power of words and symbols. (Note: I'm not including ER in this, as it's more about Eskarina than Granny. This is not to say it doesn't fit also, but that I've not seen how it does yet.)

In WS, we're treated to a whole conversation between the Duke and the Fool about the power of words, and plays.

In WA, the story centres around narrative causation and the power stories have.

In L&L, a symbol gives Magrat an advantage she didn't normally have, purely through her belief in it. (Was that vague enough to avoid spoilers? I think so.)

M!M shows the power of plays once again, this time in the operatic tradition. Granny doesn't like opera, but she gets involved - and plays by its rules.

CJ had the villains showing the power of ignoring words and symbols.

'Guards' books are about power, authority and organisation.

Very much so. And a recurring theme is the difference between what we want to be right, and how justice really needs to work. Examples are the ends of M@A and J, and Vimes's actions there.

'Rincewind' books are the most subtle-themed of all...

Yes. They are much, much subtler than the others. It's not too hard to pick out at least one theme in the other books, and with some, like SG, you can't miss the theme. But with the Rincewind books, the theme is often easy to overlook, and I agree that they seem to be books-about-books in many cases. TCoM and TLF, certainly.

Sourcery I'm not so sure about; but it's certainly not themeless, as personal choice is a pretty strong theme there.

Eric is, of course, a spoof on Faustian tradition, and like SG, the only way to miss this theme is to not read it.

IT puts a lot of store into the power of traditional legends -- how One Sun Moon (or whatever his name was) won the empire, and how empires should be won are all part of the Empire's traditions based on their legends. Of course, it's also about traditional culture behaviour in general.

TLC is really a natural follow-up to IT, because it is largely about the power of popular culture. Rincewind gets by because his exploits are so much like modern folk tales (as opposed to traditional legends) that the people around him go along with it.


Date: 13 Jan 2000
From: Richard Bos

Yes, but they [characters in Carpe Jugulum] go through those changes as a result of making choices.

Or, in at least Agnes's and Wotsisface's case, because things happened to them that would probably have changed them profoundly whatever their choice; the choice determined how the evolution went, not that it occurred.

Time and again they are faced with a simple two-way decision to make - yes or no, heads or tails, stay or go.

Several points:

- A two-way decision does not always mean black-and-white. It can mean the lesser of two evils, or a choice between two options, either of which is plausible, and neither of which is, rationally, to be preferred - a matter of taste.

- Characters are faced with decisions all the time. Take, e.g., Rincewind: do I run or do I stay? Do I run into this alley, or do I follow the main road? Do I help this tourist, or do I play it safe and ignore him? Do I listen to the Trickster or not? But none of this means that TCOM or TLC are about black-and-white, just that such choices are made.

- Most choices only appear black-or-white. There's almost always a gamut of greys in between, even if there seem to be two main choices.

The most obvious example is the scene with Death and [Granny]

And this is a good example of why CJ is not about two-way choices, because it could've been 1. the child, 2. the cow, 3. Granny, or 4. none of the above; that's at least four options for Death, and that's not counting combinations, possibilities I overlooked, and different ways in which that choice could be put to effect.

IOW: TMTTWTDI, even on the Discworld.


IOW: TMTTWTDI = In Other Words: There's More Than Ten Ways To Do It


Date: 14 Jan 2000
From: Miq

Sourcery I'm not so sure about;

I think the major theme here is identity and stereotyping. There's the wizard who can't do magic (but he's still definitely a wizard, and this is the book that proves it); there's the barbarian hero who wants to be a hairdresser, and the wimp who wants to be a barbarian hero, the serif who thinks he should be a poet - all because they have stereotypical conceptions of what they want to be.

...and like SG, the only way to miss this theme is to not read it.

More than that: mythology in general. The gap between what people think they believe - what they're brought up to believe - and what really seems credible if you think about it in detail. Like Eric's disappointment at meeting Elanor, or his shock at finding out what 'ruler of the world' and 'living forever' really mean. Or Ponce da Quirm's discovery of the Fountain of Youth.

See, the thing about 'Faust' is that it's more than a story, it's a myth - by which I mean, it's something that was once believed to be true, a story that caused people to change their lives. Like the Fountain of Youth, or the Trojan Horse, or the Inferno, or Quetzalcoatl - other myths that get the Pratchett Treatment in this book.


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