Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Small Gods, Part III

Things are about to get real philosophical in our chats with one of those particular Small Gods.

Summary

Om explains Abraxas’s philosophy around gods to Brutha, the fact that gods need to be believed in, but that people wind up believing in the structures around the god more than the god itself (the church, the quisition, and so forth); this ironically leads to the god’s death because people don’t believe in the god anymore. He tells Brutha that he can be the next prophet, which Brutha doesn’t believe for an instant. Vorbis calls and asks Brutha to go on a walk with him. Brutha asks to learn the truth about Brother Murdock, and Vorbis tells him that there are levels to truth, and the trivial truth is that the Ephebians did not kill him, but the important truth is that they did by refusing to listen to his preaching. He commands Brutha to take him out of the labyrinth, and makes it clear that everyone knows an army cannot cross the desert between Omnia and Ephebe—but that is also a different kind of truth. Vorbis has been sending small bits of their army further and further in, setting up caches of water for the others, well before brother Murdock even died. A third of their men have also died, but the ones left have made it to Ephebe through the desert, and now they can let them in. The fight is over in less than an hour, and Vorbis names Ephebe a diocese of Omnia.

Vorbis calls forward the person who wrote the treatise on the earth being flat. Didactylos confirms it was him, but when Vorbis asks him to declare this belief, the philosopher immediately renounces it, insisting that he will write a retraction—but then he turns to throw his lantern to shatter on Vorbis’s head. Vorbis tells guards to go find the old man and instructs Brutha to burn the Library. One of the guards catches up to Didactylos, but Sergeant Simony kills him; he’s sad to do it, but “the Truth is important.” Simony heads to the library next and tells Didactylos that he’s a friend, and that he and others have read his book and believe The Turtle Moves. He wants to save the philosopher and Urn, and kill Brutha, but Brutha has a different plan; he asks them to give him as many books as they can so he can memorize them before the entire library is gone. He passes out eventually from taking so much into his mind. (As the Library burns, the Unseen University’s Librarian traverses L-space to save some of the books about to be lost.) Brutha later wakes to learn that Simony gathered up Om as he asked, and they’re making plans to send Didactylos to Ankh-Morpork where he’ll be safe. Simony renounces Om formally and learns that Brutha knows the truth and, what’s more, knows that Vorbis lied. He wants to put the man on trial.

Becalmed in their unnamed boat that can still be seen from shore, Brutha wakes again to find that the books in his head are “leaking”—even though he cannot read, he has suddenly learned a great deal and his brain won’t stop. The Queen of the Sea comes to Om in his dreams and tells him that her price is the boat and everyone in it (except his believer, as is custom). Om doesn’t think that’s fair, then realizes that thinking in terms of fairness is awfully human of him. A hurricane starts up, lightning hits the boat’s copper sphere, and Brutha finds himself in the ocean with Om, but he can’t swim. Meanwhile, the Queen of the Sea turns her attention to the Omnian ship pursuing them—the ship is smashed, but the ghost of the captain learns from Death that Vorbis survived. Brutha and Om wake up on a beach and Brutha insists he’s going back to Omnia, even if Om thinks he shouldn’t. They come across Vorbis, bloodied and barely alive, and Brutha resolves to carry him back to Omnia so people can know what he’s done. Om is furious and resolves to leave him, but he rushes back to Brutha to find him nearly dead of heatstroke. He digs and digs until he finds water, and when Brutha comes to, he calls it a miracle. Om convinces Brutha that it would be better to go back to Ephebe, though he’s sure they’re going to die. They talk about ethics and about why people need to believe in gods when the gods need them more.

Didactylos, Urn, and Simony turn out to be alive, and Simony still wants to get Didactylos to Omnia where his “followers” are. Om leads Brutha to one cave, then to a lion’s den to find water; he hoped Brutha would let the lion eat Vorbis, but the lion turns out to be injured by Omnian spear and Brutha tries to tend its wound. Also, the den appears to have steps… Didactylos is led to a barn by Simony where many Omnians are waiting to hear his “gospel” about the turtle that moves the world on its back. The lion’s den is an abandoned temple to a god that got human sacrifices. There’s water and Vorbis is awake but not speaking, and Brutha tells Om that what Vorbis did is the god’s responsibility. Didactylos gives his speech, which Simony is disappointed by because the philosopher doesn’t give the people belief, but facts: The turtle exists, the world is flat, the turtle moves. But there are people who are willing to help them build vehicles to take down the church. Brutha and Vorbis and Om continue their walk through the desert.

Commentary

I’d like to start here with an aside because it kinda stopped me dead in my tracks. Brutha wakes up to find all the knowledge from the books he’s read leaking into his brain. Didactylos tells Brutha that it doesn’t make sense for the books to be leaking because he can’t read and doesn’t know what they mean, to which Brutha replies “They know what they mean!”

We love to talk about the concept of “death of the author” when we’re doing any form of lit criticism, right? For those who haven’t really latched onto that bit, “death of the author” is a critical concept/philosophy that tells us that all reading and critique which relies on thinking about the author and their meaning in creating a text is flawed. It tells us that all works have meaning when they are read and interpreted by others. Essentially, meaning changes because we should not be imposing limits on text, such as what the author wanted or cared about.

Like all tempered agnostics, I’m both for and against the “death of the author” argument. While I think it’s important to remember that all art will be absorbed differently by all people, it seems just a tad bit myopic to suggest that we can learn nothing at all by thinking about the author as a person and who they were and what they cared about. It’s a facet of criticism, and while I agree that it’s overused in analysis (and for some it’s the only point in criticism, which is tedious in the extreme), that doesn’t mean it has no value whatsoever. But here, Pratchett offers us a clever circumvent to the whole issue—neither the author nor the reader has the last say in this discussion. The book knows full well what it means.

I just love it a lot.

This section is full up of philosophy and ethics, and specifically the manner in which religious institutions often betray their own “premise” as it were. The philosophy written by Abraxas—that people come to believe in the structures around their god more than in god itself, which incidentally kills the god—seems to hit right on it in a takes-no-prisoners kind of way. When I was a kid I watched the movie Stigmata (for those giving me side-eye right now… fair point), and I remember talking with my dad about the end text as it finished: The film stated that when the Gospel of Thomas was discovered, it was declared heresy by the Catholic Church. I wanted to know why. My dad told me to think about the text: “Split wood, I am there. Lift up a rock, you will find me there.” And he said to me, if that is true, why would you need a church? Why would you need cathedrals and bells and robes for a Pope if you can find your god beneath wood and rocks? When, according to this writing, god is everywhere you are?

I was stunned, but the thought took root and bore out in all my continued education. Courses in art history showed me how Christianity got coopted by the Roman Empire, how their architectures and pomp overlaid the religion so that it might be more easily absorbed. (Cathedrals are just jumped up basilicas, after all, if you know what you’re looking at.) And the structure, it seemed, was always bound up in guilt, and fear again, and also money. Because you can’t keep the church looking fancy without coin. And when you start drawing together those conclusions, it’s hard for the whole thing not to come out looking grubby and far too human for its own good.

So what, then, is our alternative? That’s what we start getting at, once Brutha’s brain gets activated on all the books he’s memorized. He wants to bring ethics into his faith. Responsibility. Respect for life. These are the sorts of things that religious friends of mine talk about when they cite what their religion means to them. Importantly, to my mind at least, you don’t have to believe in any god at all to adopt those tenets. They are worthwhile codes for any human being. But some people want to, and that seems a worthwhile goal.

But then, what is faith? Or religion, for that matter? And is it really more like what Brutha says when he deigns Om’s ability to find water in the desert a miracle, and the god demurs by explaining how he found it:

“Sounds like a miracle to me,” croaked Brutha. “Just because you can explain it doesn’t mean it’s not still a miracle.”

There was a copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos in the Library, I see.

This is the piece that Sergeant Simony is missing as he tries to get Didactylos firing the crowd up against the Omnian church. Didactylos tells them it doesn’t matter if they believe the world is a disc on the back of a turtle flying through the cosmos: It exists. It’s not truth (because as Vorbis explained earlier to Brutha, truth is entirely circumstantial), but it is real. And Simony is upset because the philosopher is giving them facts, but just because Didactylos can explain how their world moves doesn’t mean it’s not a miracle.

Brutha is hitting on something, but we’ll have to wait and find out where it leads.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Of course, the Queen of the Sea saying “Life’s like a beach. And then you die” is a play on “Life’s a bitch, then you die,” but claiming life is like a beach is startlingly more accurate, don’t you think? Currents and tides and the ever-changing shoreline… weird bits of seaweed. Funny crabs.
  • That shoutout to Scott’s Antarctic expedition, with Brutha using the presumed last words of Captain Oates (“I’m just going out, I may be some time.”) is such a well-placed deep cut.

Pratchettisms:

You had to have a mind like Vorbis’s to plan your retaliation before your attack.

Brutha managed to get to his feet. The world revolved around him for a moment, adding a third astronomical theory to the two currently occupying the minds of local thinkers.

Brutha felt a sinful twinge of pride that Omnia still had anything he could be proud of.

He felt like a householder coming back unexpectedly and finding the old place full of strangers. They were in every room, not menacing, but just filling the space with their thereness.

Gods never need to be very bright when there are humans around to be it for them.

You gave a god its shape, like a jelly fills a mold.

Humans have always wasted handy protein ever since they started wondering who had lived in it.

I’m on break next week, but the week following, we’ll finish the book! See you then.

citation

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