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.