In Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a lot of things are possible. Of course, this is true of most fantasy; after all, isn’t that the whole point? Fantasy novels are escapist fiction. They’re like the archetype of escapist fiction, to the point of mockery; every lonely, scrawny nerd can be a heroic, folk-famous sword-wielding barbarian, if they roll the right stats and own a few battered Tolkien paperbacks. Dragons and talking animals and mysterious witches with even more mysterious potions, all of these things aren’t merely possible in fantasy, they’re practically commonplace. In fantasy, everyone can abandon their everyday lives, because everybody is a hero.
And therein, I would argue, lies the first thing which sets Pratchett’s writing apart from archetypical fantasy fiction. In the Discworld, nobody is a hero, a chosen one destined for greatness. Everybody is a hero, because they all simply do the job that’s in front of them.
Take Sam Vimes as an example. Sergeant in the City Watch when we first meet him, lying in the gutter and looking not at the stars, but at a broken tavern sign. Hardly the most auspicious of beginnings by anybody’s reckoning. And yet simply by doing his job, by recognizing the work that is in front of him, the job which needs to be done, Vimes becomes sober, becomes Commander of the Watch, becomes a loving husband to an incredible wife, a doting father, even a Duke, though he’d probably contest the last one on moral grounds. He fights werewolves bare-handed, shoots down a dragon (and raises a few others), helps resolve century-old grudges, and that’s hardly half of it. The man arrests an entire war! And yet Samuel Vimes would never call himself a hero. All of his heroic actions are built on a set of simple, fundamental moral principles. Sam Vimes is an Officer of the Watch. He knows what is right, and what is wrong. The parts of him that are wrong (Who watches the watchmen? I do. And who watches you? I do that, too.) are kept contained and under control. He knows who he loves, and what they need from him, and at six o’clock every evening he reads to his son. Not a fantasy hero, but a man.
Dragon keeping is charity work, and assassins can’t hide in shadows without breaking the rules, and witches are healers whose magic consists mostly of knowing one extra fact, seeing things as they are, and thinking twice again before you speak. Wizards cower before paper money, reliable postage, and printing presses, because power is in everything, in every day. Heroes are found in a myriad ordinary people doing their jobs, living their lives.
That’s the first thing.
The second thing which sets the Discworld apart from many other fantasy worlds is that- well, let me ask you this. Have you ever noticed that some fantasy nerds are, maybe, just a little bit sexist? A little bit racist? Fantasy universes not exactly welcoming to the concept of characters being anything other than cis, straight, able-bodied and white, unless maybe they need a villain?
Yeah, I’ve noticed that too.
In this piece so far there are more paragraphs than there are speaking female characters in all twelve hours of The Lord of the Rings. And frankly I don’t have the time, energy, or willpower right now to devote to an analysis of the unfortunate imperialist undertones present in a lot of fantasy. Don’t get me wrong- Not All Fantasy, to parody a truly obnoxious phrase. But enough. Too much.
Pratchett’s Discworld, in contrast, contains women in every role and every part of society, playing prominent parts in every story, and each their own person with their own life and attitude and interests. There are queer characters, in the plural, and there are carefully crafted allegories for systematic oppression and the issues facing minority groups woven throughout the text.
Several prominent scenes in the books deal with the problem of assigned gender, gender roles, and gender identity not quite matching up, and the often oppressive or hostile attitudes faced by those who speak up about their own identity. Take Cheri Littlebottom, who becomes the first of the dwarves in the Discworld to live openly as a woman. Her coming out is a bumpy journey- isn’t it for all of us?- and though she faces certain difficulties along the way, she also has many friends who support her and becomes something of a role model to other dwarves, many of whom also begin to come out as women. Cheri appears in several of the City Watch stories, and in every one she continues to defy gender stereotypes both human and dwarven, and continues to live truly to herself and support others. In the novel Monstrous Regiment, Tonker and Lofty are clearly a same-sex couple, devoted to one another regardless of how others might view them. In the same book there are many characters who explore their gender identity, initially out of necessity- characters assigned female attempting to pass as male in an environment where women are not allowed- but for many of them this exploration lasts past sheer necessity.
Racial coding in fantasy is often handled terribly, and while I don’t feel I can speak much on this from personal opinion, being a white man living in a frankly ridiculously white area, I do recognize an interesting aspect to the way that trolls are portrayed as a race in Discworld. At first glance, it seems they are portrayed the same way they are in a lot of fantasy fiction; slow, lumbering, unintelligent, often violent. However Pratchett takes this concept in a unique direction. Trolls, as Pratchett writes them, are highly intelligent and have their own developed civilization. Their physiology, however, means that in the warm lowlands and desert regions of the Discworld, their brains are negatively affected. Unfortunately, these regions support the majority of the Discworld’s large cities, and many trolls have to live in these unwelcoming environments in order to find opportunities to make a living. When able to remain cool, in the mountains or through accommodations such as Sergeant Detritus’s specially modified helmet, trolls are as intelligent as every other person on the Disc. Though I cannot know Pratchett’s intent for sure, I would say this could easily be interpreted as an allegory for systematic inequality. No minority group is inherently inferior; many simply exist in a world which stacks the odds against them, and moves success ever further out of their reach without ever allowing them reasonable accommodations.
Don’t let me get too far ahead of myself; there isn’t exactly a thriving queer community portrayed in Discworld, and very few characters use language exactly equivalent to how we would describe minority groups seeking equal rights. But there is also a distinct sense of acceptance. In the cases of characters showing outright discomfort towards a minority group, by the end of the novel the same character has invariably confronted their own prejudices and learned to treat others with a distinct amount more respect. A large portion of the time characters simply respond with confusion, followed almost immediately by acceptance. The main character in Monstrous Regiment may be a little bewildered by the realization that Tonker and Lofty are a same-sex couple, but with a simple “You learn something new every day” the conversation moves on and this new discovery is simply slotted in to their understanding of the world.
I could talk all day about what Pratchett’s characters mean to me, but instead of inflicting that upon you I’ll summarise with this. Terry Pratchett, the Discworld, and every character who lives in it won’t tell you that you are the chosen one. They won’t tell you that you’re unique, or special, or have some hidden power and some unknown destiny. You can’t become a hero. But you can be yourself, and you can carry on doing the job that’s in front of you, and you don’t have to hide because everyone else is being themselves, too, and it’s very rare that you’re the most unusual person in a room like that.
For me, speaking as someone who struggles with self-acceptance and depression, not to mention societal prejudices, a story of grand adventure and inhuman strength and unknown talent and destiny is a lot of fun, but can sometimes feel of very little use. I’d much rather take Sam Vimes and Cheri Littlebottom and Sergeant Perks and Corporal Maladict and Angua von Überwald and the knowledge that if you watch the watchman, you speak truthfully, you put your boots on the ground and you do the job that’s in front of you, then you will surely end up a hero to somebody, even if that somebody is yourself. There will be truth, there will be freedom, there will be reasonably priced love and there may even be a hard-boiled egg.
And the new day will be a great big fish.
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