I must thank my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, for inviting me to overcome my prejudice against the colourful covers of Terry Pratchett’s novels and kicking me head first into the Discworld. 17 years and 39 novels later I can only say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you…’ for so much literary pleasure. As happens, I have just started supervising a PhD dissertation on Pratchett (by Rosa María Moreno), thus breaking the rule that treasured authors must be kept just for pleasure.
Rosa María’s focus are five of the best novels and, in particular, how humour is constructed in them. Pratchett is a superb writer of comic fantasy and one of the best-kept secrets of English Literature, in view of the little academic attention he has received (talk about prejudice…). All his novels reach systematically the top of the best-selling list in the UK but I know very few academic readers of his work, if any, and just a handful of fans (Rosa María among them). There’s a book-length monograph about him called Accused of Literature and that seems to be the problem: that calling Pratchett a literary author sounds pretty much like an accusation. I’ve had the pleasure of teaching the 25th Discworld novel, The Truth (still my favourite) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, though I must acknowledge that Pratchett’s dense web of allusions (he’s a very sharp satirist) make reading his novels a hard task for many students. This is one of the paradoxes of popular fiction in the university classroom –Joyce ends up seeming more accessible… (right, Rosa María?)
The reason why I’m writing this posting is sheer serendipity. I have just gone through Charles Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, with the usual immense pleasure I find in reading his work. One of my colleagues, Néstor, saw the copy on my table and he launched into enthusiastic praise of Dickens. We both agreed that a) a non-native learner of English can only fully appreciate Dickens after reaching 40 (sorry, students!) and b) there’s none like him to portray eccentricity and absurdity (Becket is just a would-be-Dickens…).
Then I read Pratchett’s latest paperback, Snuff, and something clicked: hang on, this is Dickens, passed, yes, through Tolkien and Monty Python. I have never doubted that Pratchett’s chaotic Ankh-Morpork is Victorian London and I have always found something endearingly Victorian in the Discworld’s reluctant yet wide-eyed embrace of new technology. Yet, as Pratchett is otherwise very up-to-date in his social criticism, I had missed the Dickens in him (silly me, all that talk of justice and injustice!).
To my immense surprise (and, yes, pleasure) Pratchett himself has pointed out the obvious: his next hardback, due September, is called… Dodger!, and yes, it has Charlie Dickens in it, together with all those other Victorian eccentrics. I’m teaching Oliver Twist again starting next September and I do know it’s going to be a long summer, waiting for the master to see what he’s done with the master in Dodger. I’m sure indeed that Dickens would have enjoyed reading any of Pratchett’s books.
Two more things. The Discworld series has been narrating over the years the progressive inclusion of ‘ethnic’ minorities other than human in Ankh-Morpork’s society. The police force, its most symptomatic example of integration, already boasts among its ranks a werewolf, a troll, dwarves and, indeed, Igors and vampires in its ‘CSI’ team. Snuff is all about Commander Vimes’s heroic fight to have goblins acknowledged as full citizens. And, yes, also by sheer serendipity I have just read George MacDonald’s Victorian classic for children, The Princess and the Goblin (1872). I do know that goblins are much older creatures, possibly our guilty memory of the Neanderthal we exterminated. Yet, reading MacDonald’s callous presentation of the goblins as pure monsters, I realised even with more clarity how Pratchett is following Dickens’s wake in undoing Victorian (and indeed post- or neo-Victorian) prejudice. Perhaps the telling difference is that sentimentalism is (almost) gone. Um, well, instead of Little Nell you get a goblin girl move Ankh-Morpork’s high society to tears… with a harp.
To finish: Pratchett has Alzheimer’s disease in its early stages, which is why, I’m sure, his last eight novels or so, are much darker (or maybe the world is to blame for that). Also, why each new book is so precious to us, fans. Let’s then, look forward to Dodger.