Jilly: Hogfather – Holiday Fun and Humanity 101

HogfatherAre you a Terry Pratchett fan? If you haven’t read him yet, you’re missing out on some good stuff (85 million books in 37 languages good). If you are, what is it about his writing that appeals to you?

Apart from the quality of his prose, which is stellar, there are two big reasons why Pratchett is my all-time favorite author. The first, which Michaeline discussed in this post yesterday, is the humor. Everything in Pratchett is done with a smile or a laugh, and the darker the topic, the more likely it is to get the comic fantasy treatment. Who else could turn the Grim Reaper into Death, sympathetic and hilarious as well as inevitable? Whichever book you choose, the funnies comes thick and fast, and in every possible form – light and dark, juvenile and highbrow, situational and slapstick, garnished with dazzling wordplay that could as easily be a cheesy pun as a brilliant epigram.

The gags are so good, and so non-stop, that it’s easy to bowl merrily along and miss the substance that underlies the funny stuff. For me, every Pratchett explores the same theme: what it is that makes us human, and why there is hope for the future of the human race, because when the chips are down, there is a potential for greatness in ordinary human beings that transcends our many flaws – meanness, greed, pettiness, snobbery, arrogance, hypocrisy and blind, self-destructive curiosity.

He approaches the same question from so many angles, and offers so many insights into the human condition, that every book is a fresh read, and the books never descend into theme-mongering – there’s anger and joy, celebration and a spirit of honest inquiry, but no lecturing or finger-wagging.

Hogfather is classic Pratchett. It’s not the easiest, as Micki said yesterday, but it is the seasonal one. The premise is that Somebody wants to do away with the Hogfather, who goes missing on the eve of Hogswatch Night, and a cast of classic Pratchett characters must keep the show on the road, solve the mystery and restore the status quo to the Discworld.

The large cast of characters is fairly typical, but the story is harder to keep track of than some Pratchetts because there are multiple story threads – the team trying to get rid of the Hogfather (an Assassin and his unwilling helpers), the group trying to stop the world from noticing that anything is amiss (Death and his retinue), the rescue squad (Death’s almost-human grand-daughter Susan), the wizards of the Unseen University preparing for their seasonal celebrations – and the strands don’t get tied together until the end of the book. In essence though, it’s the Auditors v. Death, battling for the right to let humans be human.

The Auditors of Reality are plumes of smoke in gray cloaks who run the universe. They have no sense of humanity. They hate life because it is untidy and illogical and they are willing to break the rules of the world in order to regularize it.

Death is the anthropomorphic personification of death. He’s the traditional Grim Reaper, a skeleton with a cloak and a scythe, but he’s fascinated by humans and by life (without which he wouldn’t have a role), and he has a strong sense of fair play, so if the Auditors start cheating, he’ll step in. On this occasion he assumes the role and duties of the absent Hogfather, complete with pillow around the midriff, fake beard, hog-drawn sled and sack full of magical gifts, to ensure that the people of the Discworld continue to believe in Hogswatch.

It’s great fun because although Death is fascinated by humans, he knows everything about them from external observation, which means he often gets all the details right while entirely missing the point, usually because he makes sense and we don’t. So when a small child of indeterminate sex who seems to be mostly woollen bobble hat asks the department-store Hogfather for a big sword, that’s exactly what it gets, until Death’s human assistant comes to the rescue.

Michaeline talked yesterday about the subtext beneath the shiny surface: ‘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.’

What Micki said.

And for me, the key to the whole story is this:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING…

…. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE WOULD THEY BECOME?

Just wow. When I read stuff like that I think Terry Pratchett is so smart, I’m not nearly clever enough to do him justice. I’m doing my best, though, and I bet he’d be cool with that. In fact, I think that’s the whole point.

If you’ve never read any Pratchett, I hope Michaeline and I have convinced you to give him a try. If you’re as big a fan as we are, I’d love to know why.

5 thoughts on “Jilly: Hogfather – Holiday Fun and Humanity 101

  1. Ever since McD, I’ve been meaning to read Pratchett and have been acquiring his Discworld books so that I could take my time and read them in order. So far, I don’t have the entire collection. But maybe it’s time to make the push, get the rest, and get reading. Because I know I’d find him awesome, too.

    • Hi, Kay! Good idea to take your time, but I’d say no great need to read them in order. They’re more like a box of excellent chocolates, you’ll like some better than others and different people have different favorites. I’d say start with the guards – Guards! Guards! was the eighth Discworld book and the first about the City Watch. I love, love, love Sam Vimes. Or maybe try the Witches – Equal Rites (book 3) or Wyrd Sisters (book 6).

      There are character threads or mini-series so if you find a thread you like it might be more fun to follow it through a few books. There are lots of helpful lists on the internet if you decide to take this approach 🙂 .

  2. Hi, Kay! I’d like to second what Jilly said. I can make a case for publishing order: the first one is a tiny bit shaky (for a Pratchett), and he improves as he goes along. If you start in the middle, you may be disappointed when you go back to the first one. Or . . . you may not. Newbie Pratchett rang my bells like few veteran writers did.

    If you aren’t as anal, er, I mean completist as I was, then a lot of people choose a major thread and just read in that for awhile. There’s the Death books, the Guards books, the Witches books . . . a lot to choose from and according to your taste.

    And back to Jilly’s post. I like the bit at the end, too. Pratchett is so intensely interested in story, and how it affects the world, which in turn colors art, and so forth. For whatever reason, our brains make up stuff that other animals don’t. And we think it’s pretty cool stuff! Well worth living for. So much of it can get out of hand (superstitions, for one thing). But in the end, it’s pretty cool.

  3. You’ve convinced me to give him another shot. I’m even more anal than Michaeline, though, so I have to start with the first one.

    • The first two are Rincewind the wizard books, not my favorites, but as Michaeline says, Pratchett improves as he goes along. If you’re still underwhelmed after books 3 (Witches) and 4 (Death), maybe he’s not for you. My big love is Vimes (Guards), but you’ll have to stick with it to book 6 if you want to meet him.

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