The books in my head(er image) 4: I Shall Wear Midnight

This is the fourth in my series of posts on the books that are stacked in the header image of this site. Each of them has contributed to my decision to embark on a DPhil studying faith and imagination. The first is on Tolkien’s Tree and Leaf, and the second is on Rita Felski’s The Limits of Critique, and the third addresses Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice.

I came to the Discworld late and slowly, but between getting handed a copy of The Color of Magic in college by a friend and then discovering the masterful narration skills first of Nigel Planer and then Stephen Briggs in the audio productions of the other two score novels, it was not long before I discovered that Pratchett and the Discworld were more than the snarky satirical fantasy that the first handful of books promise.

For those unfortunates who have not read any of the Discworld books, the Discworld is just what it says on the tin: a flat, circular world. It glides through the cosmos on the back of four elephants who themselves ride on the back of Great A’tuin, a sea turtle of truly enormous proportions. The Disc is, as is often noted in the opening pages of the novels, “a world and mirror of worlds”. Gradually shifting over the course of the novels from a typical medieval fantasy-type world in the best (worst?) traditions of mid-twentieth-century pulp fantasy into a kind of pastiche of the Middle Ages, Victorian England, and the industrializing west. As “mirror of worlds” it picks up stray ideas that speed through the multiverse and makes them its own, throwing up fantastic manifestations of film, rock music, print media, the telegraph, advanced medicine, and the list goes on. In all respects Pratchett couples faithful representation of the (near)human condition with a mode of social critique that employs and subverts stereotypes, usually to great comic effect.

And this is important. The books are funny. Often deeply so. And in the way that we are seeing late-night comedians drive public discourse around the travesties of the Trump administration, Pratchett was able to take contemporary issues such as economic inequality and racial injustice and through the distorting lens of fantasy and the disarming power of humor and render them compelling and palatable to a wide readership.

For instance, while the Discworld does not have the discourse around disability and access, the ways that society changes or fails to change around the issues of “dead rights” for zombies (who are prone to losing body parts at inopportune moments) and the struggles of reformed vampires (apt to disintegrate into dust in the presence of strong light) open narrative space not unlike contemporary real-world conversations.

Likewise, it is a lot easier to talk about religion when the gods in question are Offler the Crocodile God whose favorite offering is grilled sausages, The Great God Om (who spends much of one novel in the form of a tortoise trying not to be eaten by eagles and hungry humans), and Anoia, goddess of things that get stuck in drawers and whose most cherished prayer is “How can it close on the damned thing but not open with it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?” While religion, ostensibly, has a major role in the Discworld itself, it rarely takes center stage. However, questions of religious tolerance and controversies over piety abound. As is often asserted throughout the later novels, Dwarves have no religion, at leas inasmuch as they don’t spend much time at worship to a named personal deity. However, the legal disputes and conflict over what constitutes “true dwarfishness” as determined by the legal experts called grags, sure starts looking like religion more broadly construed. The freedom of the setting and the genre allow Pratchett to explore religion without stepping not he toes of any particular real-world faith.

Which brings us, more or less, to Tiffany Aching. I Shall Wear Midnight is the forty-fourth of forty-seven novels, books, and short stories set in the strange world of the Disc, and it represents the final complete* story of the adventures of Tiffany Aching, witch from the Chalk country that strongly resembles Pratchett’s own childhood countryside.

There is not much religion on the Chalk, and when it arrives in the form of traveling preachers or private devotees, it is usually met with a lack of interest or a silent disdain. However, and this is what I find compelling about the Tiffany Aching books especially, is that in the place of priests and churches, the Chalk has witches.

Reading The Wee Free MenA Hat Full of SkyWintersmith, and I Shall Wear Midnight, and observing the way that witches function in Chalk society led me into the avenues of thought which eventually led me to the doctoral work I am set to begin in October. Though not religious in themselves or in the least, Tiffany and her fellow-witches (among them the estimable Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) nonetheless fill the roles of clergy in many ways. The attend to the dying and even sometimes officiate weddings. They mediate transcendence to the people in the form of magic. They teach and offer pastoral care. In this they are not unlike the wizards of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle. After writing a comparison of the two cultures of magic in a paper for the American Comparative Literature Association in 2015, I began to think I might be on to something.

Not only do the witches and wizards occupy roles not unlike clergy, the nature of a fantasy world lends magic yet more religious character. The blurred lines between myth and practical reality in fantasy worlds gives all of life a mythic quality. In a world where the gods really do live on a mountain over there and the creator can be encountered in the flesh, the transcendent and meaning-laden character of the mythologies which only achieve reality by being enacted in ritual and ethical practice in our world have a concrete reality in fantasy worlds that lights everything with the transcendent.

Pratchett was not a religious person. Though he grew up in the Anglican milieu of twentieth-century England, he did not end his life a person of faith. Likewise, though deeply engaged with spirituality, Le Guin is most certainly not religious in the way the word is commonly understood today. And so the degree to which both the Discworld stories and the Earthsea stories seem to be doing something religious, seem to be saying something about who God is and what mythic thinking can look like in everyday life. Or, put in the terms of the witches stories in Discworld, stories are real and they have power: we get to choose the stories we live by and we have the power to resist and participate in the “narrative causality” that takes the Discworld place of fate, and even Divine Providence.

I keep returning to the Discworld, and to the stories of Tiffany Aching especially because they seem to be saying something interesting about what counts as transcendence and how stories shape our lives. Or, as I like to call it: religion.