Michaeline: The Hogfather’s Wee Piggies

A rich man sitting on Santa's lap, being denied presents. Next to Santa is a collection box for the poor, and a mouse is putting a large coin in the slot on top.

Pratchett wasn’t the first to tackle the hypocrisy of the winter holidays. This cartoon from Bob Satterfield contains many of the same elements — sitting on Santa’s lap, the rich, the poor, a rat . . . . (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

I am on record as stating that Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather is not the most accessible of his Discworld novels. But even so, a kinda-hard Pratchett is head and shoulders above a good anything-by-anyone-else. I spent a merry December evening this week giggling on the sofa with his holiday book, and then I spent a few lovely hours thinking about what made me laugh. (A really good book is still with you even when it’s not open.) (What is Hogfather? io9 talks about it here with some spoilers.)

The scenarios I want to examine are the ones set in the Grotto. Our story so far: the Hogfather has disappeared on Hogswatchnight, and Death (and friends) decide to bring him back by re-creating belief in the Hogfather. In other words, Death puts on a jolly red suit, gets behind a sleigh powered by four flying pigs, and performs Christmas miracles in his own inimitable fashion. One of his duties is showing up in an Ankh-Morpork shopping emporium and granting the wishes of the kiddies.

Nothing says “real” like a urinating hog. As the Hogfather/Death’s sleigh crashes into the Hogfather’s Grotto, one of his pigs widdles, and it becomes a running joke.

Now, potty humor is not to everyone’s delight, but I must admit, I get a kick out of it. It’s unexpected. One never really imagines Santa’s reindeer up on the rooftop, voiding our roofing warranty. I am an audience for that sort of humor.

But even if you are not, Pratchett’s joke density is extremely high. If you don’t laugh at this joke, don’t worry, there’s another joke around the corner that may be more to your taste. (Or not. Personally, the eyeball jokes with the raven bored me after the third time. But, if eyeball jokes are YOUR thing, you will be delighted to find a wide variety in this book.)

The humor is also very layered. We’ve got these earthy jokes littering the substratum like presents under the tree. We have all sorts of wordplay going on like tinsel garnishing the branches. The branches themselves are funny. How would Santa/Hogfather go over in a mall if he made a real appearance? What would he do for the Little Match Girl? How would he view Good King Wenceslaus, the once-a-year giver of good things?

And then there’s the tree itself, which is absolutely frightening and hilarious at the same time: What would happen if Death became Santa for a night?

Pratchett can pull off this very deep game for several reasons. In the book, he makes a good case for the winter holidays being about death and rebirth and the continuance of life. And during the series, Pratchett establishes Death as something that isn’t scary and vengeful, but rather empathetic and without discrimination. Death comes to everyone. He is grim and he has a duty, but he isn’t wicked or evil. Death, despite expectations, is consistently funny throughout the series, and continues to be so during Hogfather. If you’ve read the other books and are a fan of Death, I think you’ll enjoy his role in this book, too.

I love Hogfather as a holiday story for many reasons. First, it’s quite serious in the structure. It uses humor to make us really think about what the winter holidays mean, and what they should mean. But second, and most importantly, it’s funny. It’s a rare page that goes by without a joke or four, and the situations themselves are full of humor and a certain love for humanity. Pratchett may be poking fun at Christmas and people, but he generally does it with a fondness and an empathy. Maybe we can borrow his goggles when looking at the madness of December.

Altogether, it’s a book full of jolly and bright, and it reminds us why we need to be jolly and bright in the first place. It’s a funny old world, innit it? Still, you’ve got to laugh.
What about you? There are so many examples where an author’s humor has changed the way we all look at the most ordinary things, like Santa. For example, after When Harry Met Sally, I could never look at diner food in quite the same way again. “I’ll have what she’s having.” What’s your favorite example of the mind-warping nature of humor?

And stay tuned tomorrow when Jilly gives us her tuppence on Hogfather.

12 thoughts on “Michaeline: The Hogfather’s Wee Piggies

  1. Probably the most mind-warping foodie example I can think of is Monty Python’s grotesque Mr. Creosote from The Meaning of Life. He’s a monstrously obese restaurant patron and while I was squicked out rather than amused by his repeated vomiting, the end of his cameo, when he ingests a “waffer-thin mint” (pronounced with obligatory faux French accent) and explodes, was sheer brilliance.The phrase quickly found its way into common parlance and it stuck. I think it may have caused many a smart restaurant to re-think their petits fours.

    I also love the Chez Paul restaurant scene in the Blues Brothers (in fact, I love the whole script – check it out at http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/bluesbrothers_script.pdf) . Jake and Elwood are putting their band back together, and they misbehave outrageously in order to get Mr. Fabulous fired from his job as Maitre d’ . His desperate sotto voce plea “Come on, seriously you guys, the food here is really expensive…the soup is fucking ten dollars,” is just a warm-up. Things get much, much worse, as they play with their food, use the wrong utensils and eventually offer to buy the daughter and wife of the uptight man at the adjacent table. If we find ourselves out to dinner somewhere ultra-pretentious, one of us will generally sneak in a quote or reference from this scene before the night is out.

    Upmarket restaurants that charge eye-watering prices by dressing up everyday ingredients and giving them ludicrous names (generally in French) are a classic comedy target and Hogfather does a particularly pointed and hilarious job thanks to a seasonally inspired menu of old boots and river mud (Mousse de la Boue dans un Panier de la Pate de Chaussures, and – classic Pratchett gag – Sole d’une Bonne Femme).

    • Yeah, I didn’t love Mr. Creosote. Barf humor provokes a sympathetic reaction in me. But that said, the sketch was unforgettable. I laughed too at the final explosion. I’m a big fan of “last straw” humor.

      And yes! Sole d’une Bonne Femme! I get a little mixed up with Soul, but it’s not a bad mixed-up. The manager insisting that anything will be fine if you put enough cream on it . . . could actually be true (-:. I don’t always remember that those gags are from Hogfather, but I do remember them. I think it’s the multi-lingual wordplay that’s so dizzying! We’re working with English, French and High-Cuisine (which Pratchett mentions is a language unto itself). Unforgettable, with 50 percent less misery than the Monte Python sketch.

  2. Pingback: Jilly: Hogfather – Holiday Fun and Humanity 101 | Eight Ladies Writing

  3. I”m going to have to give Pratchett another shot. If you both think he’s that brilliant, I’m just missing something.

    • I know some really smart people who just don’t care for Pratchett. And I’ve never been able to get anything out of them but, “I dunno, I just don’t get it.” So, yeah, I get that. There are some comedians and writers that are very famous but just leave me cold, and I can’t really define what it is that turns me off.

      Have you tried “Small Gods”? I don’t know whether that would ring your bells or make you go “blech” to be honest. The peculiar physics on Discworld means that the gods (and Death and the spirit of Winterfair) are real. But they are very definitely human constructs, and their s
      behavior reflects this. They just aren’t awesome or wonderful gods, although they’d like to be. Small Gods is more about the people’s belief than the nature of godhood, IMO, but everyone sees these books a little differently.

      I really like the Witches books, but the first one starts off slightly slow (for Pratchett), and I don’t care for the last one where Magrat turns into a helicopter mom. And, there’s the backstory issue for the middle ones. Not coming to them without the backstory, I don’t know how the “dive right into the middle” experience is.

      Moving Pictures is pure silliness though (-:.

      Oh, I don’t know. I love them so much I just can’t think of them from a logical standpoint.

  4. If you don’t have time to read the book, there’s a UK (BBC?) TV version that is wonderful. I haven’t read the book yet, but it feels true to Pratchett.

    • I have a couple of Pratchett videos; I’m pretty sure I have Hogfather. Was there an animation and a live action version? I want to know how they go over in the UK! Are they becoming traditional viewing, like in the US we have Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Charlie Brown Christmas.

      To tell the truth, I’m not sure how those are viewed these days. They used to be yearly events for the family, but now everyone has DVD players and other ways to watch . . . .

      • This is the live-action one from 2006, starring Michelle Dockery, with Tony Robinson and a host of other ‘ooh look, it’s her/him!’. Bit like a Dr Who Christmas special, really 🙂

        It’s been played a few times here in Australia (so I can’t tell you about the UK, as I’ve never been there), but as it’s properly dark only after 9.00 here (I live in Melbourne, where we actually have twilight), it’s easy to forget to sit down and watch something like that. It’s also non-ratings time for the TV stations, so they basically don’t care, and put a lot of cheap rubbish on. This will probably get another run on the ABC (=BBC), as the’re not so ratings-driven, being a government-owned broadcaster.

        • OOOOH! I have to tell you, I am very envious of your place in the world. We have snow right now, and they are promising rain this afternoon (unusually), so that means ice rink by evening. It’s dark at about 4 p.m. now, so snuggling up to the electric hearth is a very good way to spend the evening.

          Do you guys have any special holidays in June or July that let you veg out? IIRC, Australian Fiscal New Year is in July, but there’s nothing to that, right (-:?

        • We’ve got the Queen’s Birthday weekend (three days in early June) – which is actually the official opening of the ski season. The ski season is celebrated – Lizzie’s birthday generally passes unregarded 🙂

          Some restaurants do ‘Christmas in July’, but there’s no set date, it’s a really recent thing, and just an excuse for a party.

          So for where I live – Melbourne – there’s a big gap between the long weekend in early July and now the long weekend for the Grand Final (Aussie Rules football), at the end of September. The nearest thing to a sit in front of the fire long weekend is Easter, which traditionally rains in Melbourne (we get four days off at Easter).

          End of Financial Year is just an excuse for sales, particularly cars. Nothing exciting about that!

        • Melbourne always makes me think Peter Temple – horse racing, die-hard Aussie Rules football supporters, furniture-making and local politics. Very fun to read from a distance, especially as the prose is so sparkling. I’d love to know how it comes across to a local.

        • /anne, that’s really cool to know! I think people *need* something during the dark days of the year, and if It’s Lizzie’s birthday, so be it. Ski season, ho! I teach English as a foreign language for my dayjob, and this is the kind of thing kids would get a kick out of knowing.

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