Welcome to Terry Pratchett Book Club! Are we all sitting comfortably? Preferably with a warm beverage of choice? Excellent, because it’s time to dive right in on the first Discworld novel: The Colour of Magic. We are plowing right through the opening segment, so let’s get to it!
The Prologue describes the physical nature of Discworld, which rides on the back of the turtle the Great A’Tuin, balanced on top of four elephants.
A barbarian and a thief, Bravd and Weasel, are watching the city of Ankh-Morpork burn in a great fire, trying to decide what set it ablaze. Eventually, a man appears on the path out of the city, riding a horse—this man is Rincewind the wizard, and with him is a man named Twoflower and a luggage case that walks on hundreds of small feet. Rincewind agrees to tell the duo how they came to be in this position if they agree to share their food and wine:
Twoflower—an insurance clerk—arrives in Ankh-Morpork on a ship with The Luggage in tow, a special suitcase made of sapient pear-wood. He came from the counterweight continent, toting an obscene amount of gold and a phrasebook of his own making, and has Blind Hugh lead him to lodging at the Broken Drum. There, he meets Rincewind, who is one of the only people who can understand the language he speaks. Twoflower asks Rincewind to be his guide through the city, and the wizard agrees in exchange for a hefty sum of gold (that Twoflower does not realize is an overpayment).
Thinking of running off with a new horse and a lot of gold, Rincewind is instead captured by the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, who explains that he is in contact with the Emperor of the other continent, and that he needs Rincewind to look after Twolfower. The two tour the city together with Twoflower’s small black box that makes “iconographs”, and the fellow eventually gets kidnapped by thieves Ymor and his right-hand Withel. At the same time, the Patrician of the city is informed by another powerful head of state on the counterweight continent that they would prefer Twoflower was killed rather than making his way back home and filling other denizen’s heads with dissatisfaction after seeing the big city. The Patrician sends the Assassin’s Guild after Twoflower.
There is a fight that breaks out where Twoflower is being held, between the thieves, the Assassin’s Guild, and the newly formed Guild of Merchants and Traders who mean to protect tourism in the city. Rincewind considers leaving Twoflower behind, but The Luggage (and the imp painting the pictures in Twolfower’s camera) won’t allow it. On his way back to find the man, Rincewind runs into Death, who was expecting to meet him tonight (though 500 miles away). The wizard arrives at the Broken Drum with The Luggage, hurling gold grenades in a rescue attempt. A huge brawl is underway, and Broadman, the owner of the tavern who recently bought a fire insurance plan from Twoflower, sets about trying to collect his insurance money by setting the place on fire—Death gives him a hand.
Rincewind is confronted by Withel right as the tavern explodes, allowing Twoflower to get the drop on the thief with his own sword. Withel is knocked out by Rincewind, and the wizard grabs the tourist so they can flee. Twoflower still does not understand that he had been kidnapped at all, as he can’t understand their language. They buy horses in a hurry and rush out of the city as it is consumed by flame, and The Luggage manages to find its own way out. Bravd and the Weasel leave them to it, and head to the city—Weasel steals Twoflower’s pocket watch, but chucks it when the time-telling demon inside proves less than good company.
Book Club Chat
Okay, it’s time to talk favorite prologues in fantasy literature because I’m very picky about those, and this is one of my favorites.
A lot of people love them no matter what and get annoyed when you admit to not being generally “pro-prologue” (I know the one in The Wheel of Time is a big deal! I promise I know!), but I stand by my pickiness. Most prologues are pointless or oddly indulgent or cannot be appreciated until you’ve read a lot more of the story, but this one is perfect. Gorgeously written, imparts important information, introduces you to how this fictional universe works. It’s also not too long. It makes sense as a prologue because it’s not relevant to the rest of the story except as a macro setup. And the fact that these are the first words about Discworld that ever appeared in the world is fitting.
The book begins with Bravd and Weasel, who are riffs on Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser. If you’re not familiar with Leiber’s work or these two characters in particular, he started writing them in the late 1930s and kept on writing them for the next 50 years. Leiber’s goal was to create a set of fantasy heroes who seemed more like normal human beings, instead of the larger than life figures of Conan and Tarzan, who were popular at the time. Fafhrd and Gray Mouser were based off of himself and a friend, a giant barbarian and a diminutive thief who spent their time drinking and brawling and going on great adventures. They were, essentially, heroes for hire.
Now, Pratchett is a smart guy with a lot of ingrained knowledge about fantasy, so it’s hardly surprising to see an homage of this nature in his work, even right from the beginning. But it’s a very particular homage as well, when you get right down to it—he’s letting us know what sort of characters he values. Normal people, working stiffs, none of that “chosen special cookie destiny” nonsense. Everything in this book reiterates those terms to us. Ankh-Morpork is a city, a city is full of average people just going about their lives. His characters are exceptional because exceptional things happen to them.
He even has a dig at the concept of heroes within the book’s first few dozen pages, Rincewind thinking of the strange abundance of drunk, gloomy men with giant swords that futz about with the astral plane. Discworld doesn’t put much stock in heroes. They have a place in the way of things, but that doesn’t make them better or more interesting than anyone else.
When I first read this book, I was younger, too young to fully appreciate Rincewind as a protagonist. Now that I’m older, I can see the error in that—when we’re small, we’re all about heroes. We’re taught that good stories are about uber-beings doing big deeds. As a very young child I didn’t feel that way, but that idea had crept in by the time I got my hands on this book. It didn’t make sense to me. But today? This quote messed with me on a fundamental level:
“But frankly,” [Rincewind] sighed, “no spells are much good. It takes three months to commit even a simple one to memory, and then once you’ve used it, poof! it’s gone. That’s what’s so stupid about the whole magic thing, you know. You spend twenty years learning the spell that makes nude virgins appear in your bedroom, and then you’re so poisoned by quicksilver fumes and half blind from reading old grimoires that you can’t remember what happens next.”
Just replace “magic” and “spells” with… anything? In life? The tragedy of being human is that our brains our incredible and complex and lovely, but also fallible and tired and made of meat. Rincewind is right, it’s not much good, any of it. The further you get in life, the easier it is to empathize with his point of view because you’ve experienced these phenomena for yourself. Rincewind was expelled from wizard school for learning one spell, and he doesn’t dare use it because he’s not even sure what the darned thing does. Conversely, there was a kid at my junior high who got suspended for writing a poem that the teachers thought included a metaphor for gay sex. A metaphor. At the time, none of the kids were even sure if the metaphor was intentional. So yeah, Rincewind’s lot rings pretty true.
And then there’s another aspect that I missed the first time around: In a world like ours, where we’re constantly wishing for magical solutions to our problems, here is Rincewind, a failed wizard who just wishes for science and reasoning. He keeps looking at Twoflower’s gadgets and hoping that there’s a mechanical principle behind them. He wants to harness lightning. He wants rationality and logic, he wants things to make sense. Unfortunately, the world that he lives in isn’t much suited to that desire.
But at least we got in a good joke about economics, right?
Asides and little thoughts:
- I love The Luggage. That is all.
- The way Pratchett handles language in this, particularly Rincewind’s ear for them, and how he details the involved descriptors in the language Twoflower is using, is a real treat throughout. (“Rincewind switched to High Borogravian, to Vanglemesht, Sumtri and even Black Oroogu, the language with no nouns and only one adjective, which is obscene.”)
- The fact that we’re introduced to Death so early on is just… ugh, it’s so good. Especially knowing what we’ll get later on.
- Do we want a favorite quotes section in this? There are so many distinct turns of phrase that I want to frame or embroider on throw pillows. Maybe a section for Pratchettisms?