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Part 3: Destabilising Comic Boundaries

Elephants and Light Fantasy: Humour in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series

Éléphants et Light Fantasy: l’humour dans Les Annales du Disque-monde de Terry Pratchett
Caroline Duvezin-Caubet

Résumés

Le Disque-monde est un monde plat comme un disque, traversant l’espace sur le dos de quatre éléphants eux-mêmes juchés sur la carapace d’une tortue stellaire géante, la Grande A’Tuin. Sir Terry Pratchett, l’auteur le plus connu de light fantasy (ou fantasy humoristique), doit beaucoup à J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, William Shakespeare, Jerome K. Jerome, P.G. Wodehouse et bien d’autres encore, et pourtant, l’univers fantaisiste et souvent absurde qu’il a construit au cours des trente-deux années depuis le premier de ses quarante-et-un romans principaux ne ressemble à aucun autre. Son sens de l’humour, qui allie bouffonnerie, satire et un comique de répétition presque névrotique, s’attache à magnifier plutôt qu’à avilir ; l’humour soutient le Disque-monde autant qu’il éduque ses lecteurs. Au cours de cet article, nous nous intéresserons aux fonctions et au pouvoir de cet humour à la croisée des genres littéraires. Le rire du Disque-monde, affectueux, accueillant et jamais réservé aux initiés, dépasse la théorie de Bergson, et Pratchett, qui sait passer sans complexe d’une blague scatologique à une autre sur la physique quantique, apporte à la parodie postmoderne la légèreté et bonne humeur propre à la light fantasy.

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  • 1 Opening narration to Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (two-part television adaptation of the thirty-t (...)

I’ve always known gods had a sense of humour. Why else would they put us all on the back of a giant turtle? Of course, I had assumed I was in on the joke…1

  • 2 A subgenre also called ‘sword and sorcery’ which received a more mixed critical history than Tolkie (...)
  • 3 Like any consensual definition, this one is caricatural. Fantasy tends to be reduced to high fantas (...)
  • 4 ‘[L]a dimension ludique […] permet de nuancer le paradoxe […] : la coexistence […] d’une high fanta (...)
  • 5 ‘Pour que l’humour et la satire puissant exercer leur coupable industrie, la cible se doit d’avoir (...)
  • 6 Written by Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kennedy, published in 1969 by the Harvard Lampoon. It is o (...)
  • 7 Though they will not be elaborated in the body of the paper, parallels with the theories of the gro (...)
  • 8 According to its wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bored_of_the_Rings). The precision ‘ (...)

1The Discworld is a world shaped like a disc, traveling through space on the back of four elephants, themselves standing on the shell of the great space turtle A’Tuin. And as far as jokes are concerned, the cosmology of Terry Pratchett’s famous series is only the tip of the iceberg. The first book, The Colour of Magic, published in 1983, notably sets failed wizard Rincewind and oblivious tourist Twoflower on a great epic quest… determining the turtle’s sex by dangling from the rim of the Disc in a medieval spacecraft. The original publisher, Colin Smythe, tried to describe Pratchett’s genre and style by adding the subtitle ‘Jerome K. Jerome meets Lord of the Rings (with a touch of Peter Pan)’: a summary which seems appropriate as the heroic fantasy2 dimension lessens after the first two novels, yet also misleading. The adjectives used are eloquent: ‘light’ (or comic, or low) fantasy consists in subverting and deflating the romantic, epic, and melodramatic (thus, often ponderous) tendency of ‘high’ fantasy à la Tolkien.3 Light fantasy occupies a precarious role within the critical tradition: although Anne Besson, for instance, sees humour as a fundamental generic component of fantasy,4 it rarely warrants more than a quick mention (however laudatory), and is more often used as a badge of honor, a sign that the genre in general has grown notorious enough to be recognized.5 This is mostly a strategic choice: fantasy is not a well-established research topic, and its comic sub-genre is a minor one amongst the number of books published every year. But we could also connect this with humour’s ability to disturb the established order and categories. Even though Pratchett is hailed as the figurehead of the parodic vein, his work operates on a completely different level from straightforward parodies like Bored of the Rings6—which is not to say that Pratchett is above toilet humour, as the corporeal7 dimension is an essential comic and poetic feature of the Discworld. But while Bored of the Rings ‘has the distinction for a parody of having been continuously in print since it was first published’,8 Pratchett’s magnum opus now consists of forty-one novels with a host of companion books and merchandise, not to mention several adaptations to television, radio and the stage, and has earned him critical and popular acclaim, a huge (and committed) fan community, a Carnegie Medal, a World Fantasy Award, and a Knighthood.

2And yet, ‘[s]uffering under the triple damnation of writing popular, humorous fantasy, Pratchett has largely been ignored by academia and the serious press, and when he is reviewed, often doesn’t get any real attention beyond another description of the Discworld itself’, though ‘[o]ccasionally he gets accused of literature’ (Butler vii–viii). Even genuine attempts at paying tribute (see Dupont-Besnard’s obituary) simply mention subversion, satire, absurdity and parody without taking stock of the contradictions and nuances of Pratchett’s humour. Throughout this paper, we shall establish that humour, even at its most whimsical, is not just at the surface, but at the core of the Discworld series, and explore what purpose(s) it fulfils. From Blaise Pascal to chaos theory, nothing is represented seriously in this strange, colorful universe—and yet every metaphor and cliché can (and will) be taken literally and pushed towards absurdity. Towards the beginning of The Light Fantastic, a description of the sleeping city through commonplace expressions is found lacking in precision by the omniscient narrator, who then launches into a non-sequitur which, while hilarious, is not at all random:

The point is that descriptive writing is very rarely entirely accurate, and during the reign of Olaf Quimbly II as Patrician of Ankh, some legislation was passed in a determined attempt to put a stop to this sort of thing and introduce some honesty into reporting […] Poetic simile was strictly limited to statements like ‘his mighty steed was as fleet as the wind on a fairly calm day, say about Force three’, and any loose talk about a beloved having a face that launched a thousand ships would have to backed by evidence that the object of desire did indeed look like a bottle of champagne. (Pratchett 1986, 20)

3Terry Pratchett, the most emblematic but also the most unorthodox writer of light fantasy, exemplifies just how powerful levity can be, as he enacts a postmodern definition of parody without losing the accessibility of light, popular, humorous fantasy.

Rebellion of Repetition: Funny Vegetables and Cheshire Cats

4Comedy of repetition is Terry Pratchett's weapon of choice—so much so that his fantasy is more often ‘heavy’ than ‘light’. When he is developing a funny idea or unraveling a cliché, the narrator of the Discworld can go on for pages and pages, putting the narrative on hold, and characters tend to repeat their jokes ad nauseam—especially bad ones. In The Truth, protagonist William de Worde keeps getting badgered by Mr. Wintler, ‘a man of the variety that thinks a whoopee cushion is the last word in repartee’ (Pratchett 2000, 138). The latter wants him to show pictures of his humorous vegetables in his newspaper: a phallic carrot, an anthropomorphic parsnip and a ‘funny marrow’ are thus presented to him, at which point William loses his patience and suggests that he ‘stuff it’ (163). Pun intended, of course, as Pratchett delights in parodying his own tendency to keep the joke running after the horse has clearly been beaten to death. Yet among the more rounded, colorful characters that inhabit the Discworld, many also insist on repeating the same actions over and over again, no matter how drastic the consequences. For instance, Otto von Chriek, the photographer that William hires for his newspaper, turns out to be a vampire with an Überwaldian accent, a condition which creates some technical difficulties:

Click. The salamander flared, etching the room with searing white light and dark shadows.
Otto screamed. He fell to the floor, clutching at his throat. He sprang to his feet, goggle-eyed and gasping, and staggered, knock-kneed and wobbly-legged, the length of the room and back again. He sank down behind a desk, scattering paperwork with a wildly flailing hand.
‘Aarghaarghaaargh…’

And then there was a shocked silence. Otto stood up, adjusted his cravat and dusted himself of. Only then did he look up at the row of shocked faces.
‘Vell?’ he said sternly. ‘Vot are you all looking at? It is just a normal reaction, zat is all. I am vorking on it. Light in all its form is mine passion. Light is my canvas, shadows are my brush.’
‘But strong light hurts you!’ said Sacharissa. ‘It hurts vampires!’
‘Yes. It iss a bit of a bugger, but zere you go.’

‘And, er, that happens every time you take a picture, does it?’ said William.
‘No, sometimes it iss a lot vorse.’
Worse?’
‘I sometimes crumble to dust. But zat vich does not kill us makes us stronk.’
(Pratchett 2000, 140–41)

5Otto’s dramatic physical reaction, emphasized by the accumulation of compound adjectives and the expression of his colleagues’ shock through expressive punctuation, stands in sharp contrast with his own anti-climactic conclusion: regularly crumbling to dust is only ‘a bit of a bugger’. The mind and the body are treated as completely separate entities. In addition to the humour inherent in Otto’s resigned attitude (and, of course, his accent), throughout the novel, his reaction becomes a literal running gag—so much so that William uses it as a decoy on one occasion. Moreover, in the series, Otto’s stubborn refusal to accept reality is rather the norm than the exception, as most characters walk a fine line between single-mindedness and madness.

6Thus The Wee Free Men, the thirtieth novel in the series, introduces the Nac Mac Feegles, some sort of fairies also known as ‘Pictsies’, who, as their name reveals, act and look exactly like stereotypical Scotsmen (blue-painted and kilt-clad, drinking, stealing and head-butting everything in sight) despite the fact that they are only six inches tall. Most of the humor lies in the way the handful of ‘sane’ characters react to all these eccentricities—in a very polite, straight-faced British way. In Making Money, the Ankh-Morpork Post Office Master has acquired the habit of opening his door and moving his chair every day at 11:29 AM so that the Post Office’s antique cat can make his circuit of the room, which leads to a bemused but resigned inner monologue:

You just opened the door for an elderly cat who's lost hold of the concept of walking around things, he told himself, as he rewound the alarm. You do it every day. Do you think that's the action of a sane man? Okay, it's sad to see him standing for hours with his head against a chair until someone moves it, but now you get up every day to move the chair for him. (Pratchett 2007, 31–32)

  • 9 We will not elaborate on this dimension in the paper, but Lewis Carroll’s influence is visible firs (...)
  • 10 ‘Du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant’ (Bergson 29).
  • 11 ‘[C]es esprits chimériques, ces exaltés, ces fous si étrangement raisonnables [...] des coureurs qu (...)
  • 12 ‘*Rains of fish, for example, were so common in the little landlocked village of Pine Dressers that (...)

7A reference to the Cheshire Cat appears self-evident at this point, since nonsense is among Pratchett's many influences9 and the Discworld often feels like a giant lunatic asylum in which the reader is asked to play along and humour the inmates. Those single-minded characters seem to illustrate Henri Bergson's famous analysis of laughter as a response to the recognition of ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’10, which only grows with every repetition: ‘C'est que la vie bien vivante ne devrait pas se répéter. Là où il y a répétition, similitude complète, nous soupçonnons du mécanique fonctionnant derrière le vivant’ (Bergson 26). Laughter is a social censorship, always enacted at someone’s expense, and seen from the outside, the characters from the various examples we have just considered certainly resemble Bergson’s dreamers and idealists, who stumble over reality and become more ridiculous, less life-like every time they persevere.11 The twist being that obviously, the rules of reality are somewhat different in a light fantasy novel: Pratchett informs us in Reaper Man that ‘[i]nexplicable phenomena [are] not in themselves unusual on the Discworld*’, illustrating the statement with one of his whimsical footnotes.12 Single-mindedness seems more powerful than any magic, and it is ironic that wizards, in particular, rise within their own hierarchy not through their powers or wisdom, but mostly by being too stubborn to die. As it turns out, Otto’s phlegmatic response is entirely appropriate, since he only needs a drop of blood to come back to life whenever he crumbles to dust, and the Nac Mac Feegles actually are the most fearsome warriors of the Disc (even trolls are afraid of them). So if you laugh at them, the joke is on you. Everybody might be mad there, but ultimately, if you only bang your head against a wall long enough, somebody might move the chair for you. Bergson’s theory can only go so far, not just because of the chosen genre, but the intended message. Pratchett’s brand of comedy of repetition engineers a laughter which connects and includes instead of dehumanizing. The reader is invited into this strange community, laughing with the characters and not at them, and in any case laughing in the face of reality—regardless of his level of familiarity with Pratchett’s universe.

  • 13 ‘The only reason you couldn’t say that Nobby was close to the animal kingdom was that the animal ki (...)
  • 14 The famous certificate can, of course, be consulted in Feet of Clay: ‘I, after hearing evidence fro (...)
  • 15 Also humorously called ‘figgins’ within the reader community: ‘a figgin in Discworld editorial disc (...)
  • 16 In addition, Carrot ‘operates as a guardian of the comedic stability of the Discworld’ (Clute 26).

8As a rule, every novel in the series can be read on its own: a new reader is always provided with enough information on the universe and the characters to join in the general merriment and insanity. But of course, reading them in chronological order only adds to the sense of belonging, as most of the information develops into inside jokes. One example is the constant doubt concerning the species to which police officer Nobby Nobbs belongs, which starts out as metaphoric jokes in Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms (to emphasize the fact that he is not a great example of physical and moral beauty13) and recurs in every novel in which he makes an appearance, until Commander Vimes finally admits in Thud! that he is human, ‘just like many officers. It [is] just that he [is] the only one who ha[s] to carry a certificate to prove it’ (Pratchett 2005, 21).14 This kind of running jokes15 creates over-arching connections inside the series, but also a feeling of fixity (which particularly seems to affect officers of the Watch). Comic relief, as a rule, does not allow for a great deal of character growth, and both Nobby and his diametrical opposite, the candid and admirable Captain Carrot,16 function as types. Often, the Disc’s comedy of character borders on slapstick, and a committed reader quickly learns to predict storylines, as almost all characters move in recognizable patterns. For instance, every novel with Death as a protagonist revolves around an (ultimately failed) attempt to quit his job. This predictability can be interpreted in widely different ways: after all, fantasy belongs to genre literature, and therefore caters more openly to its readership’s desire of reading more of the same, but with variations. Story-wise, Pratchett seems to embrace repetition as a poetics to knit the fabric of his fictional universe, and his community of readers, more tightly together—usually in a self-reflexive way. However, the recurring, and seemingly pointless struggle between Death’s compassion for humanity and the narrative necessity for him to do his job also has tragic undertones. Regardless of whether the characters embody anthropomorphic personifications or bring comic relief, they appear at times to be mere puppets manipulated by a higher power, another comic mechanism analyzed by Bergson: ‘Le pantin à ficelles—Innombrables sont les scènes de comédie où un personnage croit parler et agir librement, où ce personnage conserve par conséquent l'essentiel de la vie, alors qu'envisagé d'un certain côté il apparaît comme un simple jouet entre les mains d'un autre qui s'en amuse’ (Bergson 59). And why should they not appear that way? They are, after all, characters in a story.

Postmodern Parody: Narrativium and Cheese

  • 17 ‘En simplifiant à l’extrême, on tient pour ’postmoderne’ l’incrédulité à l’égard des métarécits. .. (...)

9Drawing from the idea that the central symptom of the postmodern condition is the loss of metanarratives,17 developed in Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal essay, Kirby Olson argues that ‘[p]ostmodernism and comedy are aligned in that they function by overturning master narratives and ridding metaphysics of transcendence and closure’ (Olson 6). As might be expected, Terry Pratchett echoes both of these analyses while conforming to neither when he explains the core of his whimsical universe over the course of the first three volumes of The Science of Discworld:

What runs Discworld is deeper than mere magic and more powerful than pallid science. It is narrative imperative, the power of story.
On Roundworld, things happen because the things want to happen.
What people want does not greatly figure in the scheme of things, and the universe isn't there to tell a story (Pratchett 1999, 10).

On Discworld, things happen because people expect them to. The sun comes up every day because that's its job: it was set up to provide light for the people to see by, and it comes up during the day when people need it. That's what suns do; that's what they're for.
Great A’Tuin the turtle must swim through space with four elephants on its back and the entire Discworld on top of them, because that's what a world-bearing turtle has to do. The narrative structure demands it. Moreover, on Discworld everything that there is exists as a thing. [...] [C]oncepts are reified: made real. Death is not just a process of cessation and decay: he is also a person, a skeleton with a cloak and scythe, and he talks like this. On Discworld, the narrative imperative is reified into a substance, narrativium (Pratchett 2002, 23–24).

Narrativium is not an element in the accepted sense. It is an attribute of every other element, thus turning them into, in an occult sense, molecules. Iron contains not just iron, but also the story of iron, the history of iron, the part of iron that ensures that it will continue to be iron and has an iron-like job to do and is not, for example, cheese. Without narrativium, the cosmos has no story, no purpose, no destination (Pratchett 2005, 1–2).

  • 18 The plot of Witches Abroad, for example, is about stopping a delusional fairy godmother who has ann (...)
  • 19 ‘This is it!’ said Carrot. He glanced towards the Hub, in case any gods had forgotten what they wer (...)

10Thus, stories metaphorically and literally hold the world together. Although narrativium carries its own contradictions in-universe,18 it explains for example how characters can routinely reference the generic tropes which they are fulfilling or subverting. They are aware that their reality is governed on certain literary patterns, like the idea that a last-ditch, million-to-one chance will succeed nine times out of ten.19 And although there is no central definition of postmodernism, it is generally agreed that ‘[w]hat we tend to call postmodernism in literature today is usually characterized by intense self-reflexivity and overtly parodic intertextuality. In fiction this means that it is usually metafiction that is equated with the postmodern’ (Hutcheon 1). Narrativium, though a spectacular alliance of fantasy, comedy and metaphysics, is not the only way in which Pratchett’s ‘fictional writing […] self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artefact’, thus aligning him with Patricia Waugh’s definition of metafiction (Waugh 2). The Disc's reality is narrative, textual, and therefore, the references to ‘Roundworld’ appear as parodic intertextuality, as we shall see now.

  • 20 ‘In the postmodern philosophers we see a delight in this world an and enjoyment of humour for its o (...)
  • 21 In his essay ‘Theories of Humour’, Andrew M. Butler examines the novel Mort through the prism of se (...)

11In The Colour of Magic, Twoflower’s cheerful attempts to explain the workings of insurance policies and economics elicit incomprehension in the pseudo-medieval inhabitants of Ankh-Morpork and hilarity in the reader. Furthermore, due to the language barrier, the words come out on the page as ‘inn-sewer-ants-polly-sea’ and ‘reflected-sound of underground-spirits’ (Pratchett 1983, 55). The distortion undergone in this fake translation fits the kind of deconstructive linguistic games which we expect from postmodernism, reenchanting very mundane elements of our reality to make them almost poetic.20 But it does not necessitate any highbrow reference to decode, instead falling back on the very simple, child-like pleasure of solving a charade. In the same way, the magical computer Hex consists of ram (RAM) skulls, ‘small religious pictures’ (icons), ‘ants’ and ‘bees’ (bugs) and a mouse which somehow stops the whole contraption from working ‘whenever they forg[e]t to give it its cheese’ (Pratchett 1997, 129). The end result looks as though its builder, Ponder Stibbons, heard the names of the components, but enacted a bad translation due to the lack of appropriate industrial development. Although perfectly accessible to any reader who has ever handled a computer, the allusions require effort to be decrypted (notably a far-fetched paronomasia on ‘anthill’/intel inside), until the reader bursts out laughing because he has solved the puzzle and ‘gets’ the joke. Hex also produces delightfully absurd error messages, such as ‘+++ Out of Cheese Error +++’ or ‘+++ Divide by Cucumber Error. Please Reinstall the Universe and Reboot +++’. The parallel to carnivalesque parody21 is quite visible here, as references to food ground Pratchett’s humour, allowing metaphysical (‘Reinstall the Universe’) and meta-literary (‘…no story, no purpose, no destination’) issues to be breached in a very down-to-earth way. One could also simply note that saying the word ‘cheese’ makes anyone smile, and thus automatically lightens the atmosphere. Pratchett seems to enjoy maintaining the ambiguity, and one precept of postmodernism which he definitely puts into practice consists in breaking down the opposition between high and low culture. Or, as the Archancellor would say: ‘That statement is either so deep it would take a lifetime to fully comprehend every particle of its meaning, or it is a load of absolute tosh. Which is it, I wonder?’ (Pratchett 1997, 183).

  • 22 In Wyrd Sisters, Snuff, Hogfather, The Truth and Jingo, respectively.
  • 23 ‘Another aspect of Discworld’s eclectism comes from what Pratchett has self-deprecatingly referred (...)
  • 24 Just to give an idea, The Annotated Pratchett File, which collects any and all allusions garnered b (...)

12Reading the Discworld can mean meeting Leonardo Da Vinci or Jane Austen, getting an allusion to Pascal's Wager on the existence of God, another to Sisyphus, and having the theory of the multiverse referred to as the ‘trousers of time’,22 all that in quick asides woven into the storylines as seamlessly as the references to cheese. Nothing is too high (or too low) to warrant a joke, because nothing is off-limits, and such treatment of knowledge23 is intrinsically didactic. Although that dimension is more noticeable in the books explicitly marketed for children, like the Tiffany Aching novels, the access to culture is always democratic: given the staggering amount of jokes about anything from pop culture to quantum physics that Pratchett makes, every reader is bound to miss some no matter their level of education.24 They can be discovered in later re-readings, and the sense of potential, of a bottomless source of echoes and Easter eggs, wins out over the impression of ‘missing out’ or being excluded from a joke. On the other hand, Pratchett’s almost excessive use of the quid pro quo as a comedic device means there is a frightening amount of information being lost in translation whenever the characters try to communicate something, especially jokes.

(En)Light(ened) Fantasy: Cosmic Jokes and Mythic Lies

13In The Comedy of Entropy, as Patrick O'Neill charts the rise of black humour over the centuries, he compares the existentialist view of the universe as ‘absurd, a fate best countered by what Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, called “scorn”’ to the black humorist’s view of the universe as ‘ridiculous, a joke, with the point being one’s ability to enter into the joke, get it, and laugh’ (O’Neill 27). With a giant space turtle, the Discworld is probably as literal a joke as any universe can get, and sometimes, it seems as though its very existence is put into jeopardy by its inhabitants and their inability to ‘get it’. The twentieth Discworld novel, Hogfather, has Susan (grand-daughter of Death) and Bilious (oh god of hangovers) stumble upon a poor attempt at humor on the part of the food-obsessed wizards of Unseen University.

He turned the menu over. On the cover was the University's coat of arms and, over it, three large letters in ancient script:
η β π
‘Is this some sort of magic word?’
‘No.’ Susan sighed. ‘They put it on all their menus. You might call it the unofficial motto of the University.’
‘What's it mean?’
‘Eta Beta Pi.’
Bilious gave her an expectant look.
‘Yes...?’
‘Er...like, Eat a Better Pie?’ said Susan.
‘That's what you just said, yes,’ said the oh god.
‘Um. No. You see, the letters are Ephebian characters which just sound a bit like “eat a better pie”.’
‘Ah.’ Bilious nodded wisely. ‘I can see that might cause confusion.’
Susan felt a bit helpless in the face of the look of helpful puzzlement. ‘No,’ she said, ‘in fact they are supposed to cause a little bit of confusion, and then you laugh. It's called a pune [sic] or play on words. Eta Beta Pi.’ She eyed him carefully. ‘You laugh,’ she said. ‘With your mouth. Only, in fact, you don't laugh, because you're not supposed to laugh at things like this.’
‘Perhaps I could find that glass of milk,’ said the oh god helplessly, peering at the huge array of jugs and bottles. He'd clearly given up on sense of humour. (Pratchett 1997, 213)

  • 25 ‘“Uh...why does your partner keep saying ‘ing’, Mr Pin ?” said a chair.

14Here, Pratchett is poking fun at the kind of erudite puns reserved to the happy few. The original joke is bad, but the more Susan tries to explain it, the less Bilious understands, rendering the conversation almost surrealistically absurd. Susan’s helpless accumulation of words only seems to disintegrate meaning further. This is a typical example of how conversations usually unfold in the Discworld, because a lot of the humor hinges on misunderstandings—once again, a classic comedic device is taken to the extreme. Most gods, like Bilious, do not have a sense of humor because they are not really alive. Some characters (like Captain Carrot) are immune to sarcasm and irony, and many species (dwarves especially) always take metaphors literally—an understandable reflex, since on Discworld, ‘everything that there is exists as a thing’. Factoring in malapropisms, foreign languages, accents, ‘speech impediments’25 and the average IQ, it is a wonder that any communication comes through, since more time is spent translating, explaining and correcting than actually communicating. The metaphorical ‘noise’ is deafening, and the Discworld appears ridden with entropy—the thermodynamic concept applied to information theory as ‘a measure of disruption of information, a measure, that is to say, of what information theorists call “noise”. Noise is the distortion factor in any communication system’ (O’Neill 9). Objectively, the logorrheic way in which conversations unfold, and subsequent erosion of meaning at work in Pratchett's books brings him quite close to the Theatre of the Absurd. And yet, rather than dissolve into silence, the characters’ flawed attempts at communication and translation never falter, and thanks to narrativium, the deus ex machina, everything always turns out fine.

15Nevertheless, the concept of narrativium rests on circular logic: the sun comes up every day because people expect it to, but people expect it because it comes up every day. It only works as long as it is not questioned, and brings us back to the ‘suspension of disbelief’ at the heart of fantasy, ‘a genre whose structure is highly enabling of the comic novel, but distinctly unfriendly to formal comedy’ (Clute 15). This generic hybridity leads to a contradictory state of mind:

[W]e never quite forget that the Discworld is a game, an experiment. There is at times a sense of vulnerability about the mise en scène of the Discworld books, a sense that the entire edifice could be dissolved with the flick of the Owner’s wand […]. Comic novels written within the Discworld environment not only threaten to change the nature of the series—they threaten, through a kind of leakage of metamorphic energy, to alter Discworld itself. (Clute 25)

  • 26 The lyrics are sung by the protagonist and other characters, all strung up on crosses at the very e (...)

16Common sense, like a shared joke, makes for a very fragile point on which to balance an entire turtle-shaped universe, but it holds. At the end of Hogfather, Death concludes that humans need fantasy to be human, that they have to believe in the little lies, like Santa Claus, so that they can believe in the big ones, like truth and justice—so that the sun will rise the next morning, and not just ‘a mere ball of flaming gas’ (Pratchett 1997, 422-423). Susan rolls her eyes at this melodramatic and frankly cheesy conclusion—an appropriate tendency for a Discworld book. Terry Pratchett’s whimsical universe reflects the potential absurdity of the world while rejecting it, instead choosing to embrace comedy and the power of myth, the funny vegetables and tiny blue heroes. It is not just light fantasy, but enlightened fantasy, endeavoring to ‘always look on the light side of life, always look on the bright side of life’.26 Pratchett’s playfulness is not shallow, and neither does it fall under the usual accusation of self-referentiality lobbied at postmodernism. On the contrary, he seems to embody the ‘spectacular irreverence that breaks all the standards of rational thought […], the very lack of solemnity that the postmodernists have looked for, [which] is in fact the virtue of iconoclasm’ (Kirby 3). Much as studying Pratchett’s puns, slapstick and word games helps to understand the purpose of his humor, it is the emotions behind the forms that remain with the reader long after the books have ended. Joseph Campbell’s words perhaps express the spirit of the Discworld best when he writes that ‘[t]ragedy is the shattering of the forms and our attachment to the forms; comedy, the wild and careless, inexhaustible joy of life invincible’ (Campbell 21).

Conclusion: Making Light of Dark Humor

  • 27 The ludic dimension, which has been mentioned several times in the course of this paper and is cent (...)

17The existence of a postmodern and humorous parody should not surprise us that much. As Margaret A. Rose points out, the drab image of postmodern irony can be attributed to ‘late-modern’ efforts like Linda Hutcheon’s ‘virtual elimination of the comic from parody’ in a ‘laudable, if not novel, criticism of the reduction of parody to the negative and one-dimensional form of ridicule with which the modern definition of parody as burlesque has been associated’ (Rose 239). So Pratchett, reconciling the metafictional, intertextual dimension with the comic, follows postmodern parody as defined by Bradbury, Lodge and Eco (Rose 282–283). Thus proving that light fantasy can go well beyond parody (defined as a negative and one-dimensional form of ridicule) while still making readers laugh out loud. Humor in Terry Pratchett's Discworld comes in all shapes and sizes, and though it is, at times, heavy to stomach, and might take a while to digest, the sheer length of the series almost guarantees that everyone can find the right flavor for them. And unlike Bergson's final comparison of laughter with sea foam, it does not leave a bitter aftertaste after the bubbliness and the whimsical have faded. On the Disc, humour is a way to rebel against fatality, both low and high, physical and metaphysical. No essential difference exists between a vampire photographer and the potential absurdity and emptiness of the universe. Pratchett's playful relationship with language hinders, but also enables communication, and things are more often won than lost in translation, as the misunderstandings and puns outline unwritten stories and potential worlds.27 Incidentally, Pratchett's humor translates very well on a linguistic level: he is read in 37 languages, and his French translator Patrick Couton won the Grand Prix de L'Imaginaire in 1998 for his outstanding work on the Discworld series. Humor connects, creates, unites, and like narrativium, this more evolved form of suspension of disbelief, it holds the universe together. It enlightens. The expression ‘enlightened fantasy’, apart from being a useful pun, also underlines how important the ideals of the Enlightenment are for Pratchett, who uses his comic writing to educate and to fight against ignorance.

  • 28 See for example Andrew Rayment’s study on postmodern fantasy.
  • 29 This quote is actually applied to Otto, when Commander Vimes realizes that the little vampire is ac (...)

18Satire is always present in the Discworld, and the side of Pratchett’s humor which has attracted the most critical attention,28 which is partly why it was not the primary focus of this paper. It is also almost too blunt, and any smile it elicits from the reader will be a grim one. On the contrary, Pratchett’s brand of gallows humor warrants a second look. While not a new idea in and on itself, it is the popularity of his Death character that is surprising, as it has become one of the most beloved in the Discworld series. There seems to be something inherently endearing about a seven-foot-tall skeleton trying (and failing) to tell a knock-knock joke. And humor comes once again with a purpose: ‘make them laugh, and they're not afraid’.29 When Pratchett’s satire and gallows humor are put side by side, things like ignorance, intolerance and hatred appear more frightening than death. This seems all the more relevant if we consider, in closing, Pratchett's personal life. In 2007, he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. From that point on, he lobbied for the right to assisted suicide very publicly, even participating in a documentary entitled Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die. In the face of physical and mental decay, Death can be seen as an ally or even a friend. Pratchett even reports in The Art of Discworld to have received letters from terminally ill children hoping that Death will resemble its Discworld incarnation. The power of humor, its ability to bring joy in a manner that makes both life and death bearable, is part and parcel of the series’ legacy. On March 12th, 2015, Terry Pratchett passed away, and his daughter Rhianna chose to announce this news on Twitter through the voice of the Reaper: At last, Sir Terry, we must walk together.

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Bibliographie

Primary Sources

Pratchett, Terry, The Colour of Magic (1983), London: Corgi Books, 2013.

Pratchett, Terry, The Light Fantastic (1986), London: Corgi Books, 2013.

Pratchett, Terry, Guards! Guards! (1989), London: Corgi Books, 1990.

Pratchett, Terry, Reaper Man (1991), London: Corgi Books, 1992.

Pratchett, Terry, Men at Arms (1993), London: Corgi Books, 2013.

Pratchett, Terry, Feet of Clay (1996), London: Corgi Books, 2013.

Pratchett, Terry, Hogfather (1997), London: Corgi Books, 2010.

Pratchett, Terry, The Truth (2000), London: Corgi Books, 2013.

Pratchett, Terry, Thud! (2005), London: Corgi Books, 2006.

Pratchett, Terry, Making Money (2007), London: Corgi Books, 2008.

Critical Works

Baudou, Jacques, La fantasy, Paris : PUF, « Que sais-je ? », 2010.

Bergson, Henri, Le rire: Éssai sur la signification du comique, Paris: PUF, 2007.

Besson, Anne, La fantasy, Paris : Klincksieck, coll. « 50 questions », 2007.

Besson, Anne, Constellations: Des mondes fictionnels dans l’imaginaire contemporain, Paris: CNRS Editions, 2015.

Butler, Andrew M. ‘Theories of Humour’, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, eds. Andrew M. Butler et al., London: Old Earth Books, 2013, 67-88.

Butler, Andrew M., Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, ‘Preface’, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, eds. Andrew M. Butler et al., London: Old Earth Books, 2013, vii–xiii.

Clute, John, “Coming of Age”, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, eds. Andrew M. Butler et al., London: Old Earth Books, 2013, 15-55.

Dupont-Besnard, Marcus, ‘Terry Pratchett est mort: entre humour, subversion et satire, il a renouvelé la fantasy’. Le Nouvel Obs. 12 mars 2015, accessed at <http://leplus.nouvelobs.com/contribution/1338686-terry-pratchett-est-mort-entre-humour-subversion-et-satire-il-a-renouvele-la-fantasy.html>, on April 16, 2015.

Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Novato: New World Library, 2008.

Hutcheon, Linda, Historiographic Metafiction: Parody and the Intertextuality of History, last accessed at https://tspace.library.utoronto.ca/bitstream/1807/10252/1/TSpace0167.pdf on April 2, 2014.

Langford, David, ‘Introduction’, Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, eds. Andrew M. Butler et al., London: Old Earth Books, 2013, 3–13.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques. Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature, London: Routledge, 1994.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois, La condition postmoderne : rapport sur le savoir, Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1979.

Olson, Kirby, Comedy After Postmodernism: Rereading Comedy from Edward Lear to Charles Willeford, Texas Tech UP, 2001.

O'Neill, Patrick, The Comedy of Entropy: Humour, Narrative, Reading, U of Toronto P, 1990.

Pratchett, Terry, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, The Science of Discworld I, II, III [1999, 2002, 2005], Clays: Ebury Press, 2013.

Rayment, Andrew, Fantasy, Politics, Postmodernity: Pratchett, Pullman, Miéville and Stories of the Eye, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2014.

Rose, Margaret A., Parody: Ancient, Modern and Post-modern, Cambridge: CUP, 1995.

Ruaud, André-François, Cartographie du merveilleux: Guide de lecture, Paris: Denoël, 2001.

Sewell, Elizabeth, Field of Nonsense, London: Chatto and Windus, 1952.

Waugh, Patricia, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction, London: Methuen, 1984.

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Notes

1 Opening narration to Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal (two-part television adaptation of the thirty-third Discworld novel, directed by Jon Jones and produced by The Mob, 2010) spoken by Richard Coyle (protagonist Moist von Lipwig).

2 A subgenre also called ‘sword and sorcery’ which received a more mixed critical history than Tolkien, with Robert E. Howard and his famous Conan the Barbarian, a character created in 1932, as its figurehead (Baudou 38–39). The Light Fantastic features Cohen the Barbarian, an alternate version eighty years later, with arthritis, no teeth and no remaining illusions about the romantic side of the hero trade. Which does not hinder him from being properly heroic until his death in The Last Hero, as ridicule and myth often go together on the Disc.

3 Like any consensual definition, this one is caricatural. Fantasy tends to be reduced to high fantasy, which is in turn boiled down to Tolkien’s copycats, through a number of unfortunate synecdoches, and low fantasy was originally reserved to fantasy bordering on the fable, often involving animals. The adjectives are anything but axiologically neutral (Besson 2007, 20).

4 ‘[L]a dimension ludique […] permet de nuancer le paradoxe […] : la coexistence […] d’une high fantasy épique qui demande instamment qu’on la prenne au sérieux […] mais aussi une forte veine parodique, qui, à l’inverse, se plaît à dénuder ces prétentions dans ce que leur naïveté, ou leur roublardise, peut avoir de comique […]. Que la fantasy soit tout cela en fait un genre participant pleinement des caractéristiques de la post-modernité artistique : de l’incessant recyclage que celle-ci orchestre, fasciné, ironique ou, mieux encore, les deux à la fois’ (Besson 2007, 23).

5 ‘Pour que l’humour et la satire puissant exercer leur coupable industrie, la cible se doit d’avoir atteint une certaine notoriété. Le succès de Terry Pratchett tendrait à prouver que c’est désormais le cas pour la fantasy’ (Ruaud 71–72).

6 Written by Henry N. Beard and Douglas C. Kennedy, published in 1969 by the Harvard Lampoon. It is one of the first parodies of fantasy, and probably the most famous one. To give an example of the level of subtlety involved, let it be said that Bilbo Baggins is renamed ‘Dildo Bugger’.

7 Though they will not be elaborated in the body of the paper, parallels with the theories of the grotesque body and the carnivalesque developed by Mikhail Bakhtin in Rabelais and His World are very relevant here.

8 According to its wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bored_of_the_Rings). The precision ‘for a parody’ is particularly noteworthy.

9 We will not elaborate on this dimension in the paper, but Lewis Carroll’s influence is visible first and foremost in the strict (if otherworldly) logic which dictates both the narration and the characters’ actions, since ‘nonsense is not merely the denial of sense, a random reversal of ordinary experience and an escape from the limitations of everyday life into a haphazard infinity, but is on the contrary a carefully limited world, controlled and directed by reason, a construction subject to its own laws’ (Sewell 5). For more on the tradition of nonsense, see also Jean-Jacques Lecercle in Works Cited.

10 ‘Du mécanique plaqué sur du vivant’ (Bergson 29).

11 ‘[C]es esprits chimériques, ces exaltés, ces fous si étrangement raisonnables [...] des coureurs qui tombent et des naïfs qu’on mystifie, coureurs d’idéal qui trébuchent sur les réalités, rêveurs candides que guette malicieusement la vie. [...] [D]e grands distraits, avec cette supériorité sur les autres que leur distraction est systématique, organisée autour d’une idée centrale — que leurs mésaventures aussi sont bien liées, liées par l’inexorable logique que la réalité applique à corriger le rêve — et qu’ils provoquent ainsi autour d’eux, par des effets capables de s’additionner toujours les uns aux autres, un rire indéfiniment grandissant’ (Bergson 10–13).

12 ‘*Rains of fish, for example, were so common in the little landlocked village of Pine Dressers that it had a flourishing smoking, canning and kipper-filleting industry’ (Pratchett 1991, 64).

13 ‘The only reason you couldn’t say that Nobby was close to the animal kingdom was that the animal kingdom would get up and walk away’ (Pratchett 1989, 67); ‘Corporal Nobbs had been disqualified from the human race for shoving’ (Pratchett 1993, 45).

14 The famous certificate can, of course, be consulted in Feet of Clay: ‘I, after hearing evidence from a number of experts, including Mrs Slipdry the midwife, certify that the balance of probability is that the bearer of this document, C.W. St John Nobbs, is a human being. Signed, Lord Vetinari’ (Pratchett 1996, 268).

15 Also humorously called ‘figgins’ within the reader community: ‘a figgin in Discworld editorial discussion is shorthand for a running gag, with variations, to be repeated a magical three times at the least. What I tell you three times is true’ (Langford 11).

16 In addition, Carrot ‘operates as a guardian of the comedic stability of the Discworld’ (Clute 26).

17 ‘En simplifiant à l’extrême, on tient pour ’postmoderne’ l’incrédulité à l’égard des métarécits. ... La fonction narrative perd ses foncteurs, le grand héros, les grands périls et le grand but. ... Où peut résider la légitimité, après les métarécits ?’ (Lyotard 7–8).

18 The plot of Witches Abroad, for example, is about stopping a delusional fairy godmother who has annexed the city of Genua and forced its inhabitants to conform to fairytales clichés on pain of death. As a rule, any monolithic idea or cliché will be turned on its head sooner or later by Pratchett.

19 ‘This is it!’ said Carrot. He glanced towards the Hub, in case any gods had forgotten what they were there for, and added, speaking slowly and distinctly, ‘It’s a million-to-one chance, but it might just work!’ (Pratchett 1989, 353).

20 ‘In the postmodern philosophers we see a delight in this world an and enjoyment of humour for its own sake’ (Olson 6).

21 In his essay ‘Theories of Humour’, Andrew M. Butler examines the novel Mort through the prism of several theories on comedy: Pirandello, Bergson, Freud, Lacan and Bakhtin.

22 In Wyrd Sisters, Snuff, Hogfather, The Truth and Jingo, respectively.

23 ‘Another aspect of Discworld’s eclectism comes from what Pratchett has self-deprecatingly referred to as his broad but shallow erudition. Throughout the series, little treats are buried or left in plain sight for the knowledgeable to recognize’ (Langford 9).

24 Just to give an idea, The Annotated Pratchett File, which collects any and all allusions garnered by fans of the series, is currently in its 9th version, with 181 pages.

25 ‘“Uh...why does your partner keep saying ‘ing’, Mr Pin ?” said a chair.

“You must be out of your – ing minds!” Tulip growled.

“Speech impediment,” said Pin’ (Pratchett 2000, 93).

26 The lyrics are sung by the protagonist and other characters, all strung up on crosses at the very end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, DVD, Warner Bros. and Orion Pictures, 1979). The Monty Pythons are another of Pratchett’s main influences, and this song exemplifies both black humour and absurdity perfectly.

27 The ludic dimension, which has been mentioned several times in the course of this paper and is central to Pratchett’s work, also participates in Anne Besson’s definition of fantasy quoted in note 4, and is at the heart of her latest publication, Constellations, which shows the creation and expansion of imaginary worlds within the transmedia era. While Pratchett is only quoted once or twice in this book, his fan community has certainly managed to transform his Discworld series into a playful, interactive universe.

28 See for example Andrew Rayment’s study on postmodern fantasy.

29 This quote is actually applied to Otto, when Commander Vimes realizes that the little vampire is acting ridiculous on purpose, to make himself less threatening. Ultimately, sunlight is less detrimental to him than the anti-vampire prejudice.

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Caroline Duvezin-Caubet, « Elephants and Light Fantasy: Humour in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 51 | 2016, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2016, consulté le 20 novembre 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/3462 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.3462

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Auteur

Caroline Duvezin-Caubet

Caroline Duvezin-Caubet is a former student from the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon, where she studied from 2010 to 2014 and passed the ‘Agrégation’ in English in 2013. She is currently part of the inter-disciplinary research unit LIRCES at the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis, where she is also a second-year PhD candidate under the supervision of Professor Christian Gutleben. Her thesis is entitled ‘Para-, néo-, rétro-, alter-littérature : le décentrement de la fantasy néo-victorienne contemporaine, élaboration d'une poétique’ (‘Towards a Poetics of Contemporary Neo-Victorian Fantasy as a De-centering : Para-, Neo-, Retro- or Simply Other-literary?)

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