If we don’t fix this soon, the sun’s not coming up. So let’s get to it.
Susan has figured out that the pile of teeth is being used to control the children they were taken from (and some adults too at this point). Teatime’s crew are falling prey to their childhood fears while Susan and Bilious run into Violet and try to figure out what’s happening. They get stopped by Peachy, who wants to take them to Teatime. Medium Dave tries to tell Teatime what’s going on and the group’s wizard tries not to tell him that there’s probably no way he can unlock this door for ages, even using magic. Bilious flirts with Violet, telling her that he’s a god who fills in for other gods when they need a break. Chickenwire gets eaten by a wardrobe he feared as a child, and then his corpse is spat out of the Bursar wardrobe at the University, where Ridcully has been talking to Death about what’s going on. The senior wizards have all been playing childish games to make the Cheerful Fairy happy. Death asks Hex about whether the sun will come up if people don’t believe in the Hogfather and Hex agrees if won’t. Death tells Hex to believe, and it does and then writes out its letter for Hogwatch.
Mr. Sideney gets most of the locks picked and rushes away only to get caught in his own childhood. Susan finally meets Teatime, and he immediately nicks Death’s sword from her. But as they’re talking, Susan gets the measure of him; she reveals what they’re doing to the Hogfather, which upsets Banjo, and then gets Teatime upset enough to insult his mother, which upsets Medium Dave, and suddenly he has to worry about fighting three people. The specter of Ma Lilywhite shows up and makes her sons cry, and Medium Dave vanishes. Teatime tries to use the sword on Susan, only it doesn’t work—because as Susan realized, there’s no death in this realm. They fight and Susan gets him flipped over the rail of the staircase, holding onto her. She kicks him away and he falls and vanishes. Banjo pulls Susan up, and she sends him home, telling him to sweep the teeth out of the circle before he goes. Susan gets confronted with the image of what she’d thought her grandmother might be like, and that’s when she realizes that the thing terrorizing everyone in this realm is the bogeyman, the very first one. This bogeyman eventually changed into the Tooth Fairy, wanting to protect children it used to frighten. But it’s dying now, and Susan watches it vanish.
Seeing Banjo cleaning up properly, she tells him that she thinks it would be a good idea if he took over the Tooth Fairy’s job, which he agrees to. She finds Bilious and Violet and tells them to help, hoping that Violet’s belief in Bilious’ story about being a stand-in god will work once the Hogfather returns. The Auditors are beginning to realize that their game is up. Susan means to go home, but Death materializes in front of Binky and stops her—she needs to bring the Hogfather back, or the sun won’t rise. The wizards are eating their feast when Mr. Teatime arrives on their table. He wakes and takes up Death’s swords and rushes off. Death takes Susan back to where the Castle of Bones was, and they find a hog running from dogs, only this hog is the Hogfather, and if he’s caught he will cease to exist. Susan must fix this because only a human can do it, so she jumps onto the hog’s back, directs it, eventually is thrown off then gets a tree branch to fight off the dog shapes coming after them. When the dogs try to run, a snowman bars their ways (which turns out to be Death). He tells the dogs to change their shape back to what they are—the Auditors. Death dispatches them and Susan finds a dead boar, but the sun rises and the boar turns into a man.
Susan bandages his wound and dislodges a bean from his throat. She sees him cycle through the many different versions through history before appearing to be the Hogfather she recognizes. He gets in his sleigh and departs. Susan asks Death to tell her if the sun really wouldn’t have risen and he explains that it wouldn’t—a flaming ball of gas would have risen. He tells Susan that humans need fantasy to be human, and that we start by believing little lies so that we can believe the big ones: Justice. Mercy. Duty. Susan isn’t sure she likes that answer, but she tells Death she’s lost his sword, and he assures her that he can make another. Death takes Susan back to her charges, and she offers him a cup of hot cocoa before he goes. Teatime brings her back into the room, holding Death’s sword. He insists on calling the children out, so Susan calls for Gawain and Twyla, and Teatime tries to get them to admit that Death is scary so he has an audience to his righteous killing of Death… only they’re not the least bit cowed. Susan takes up the fireplace poker and runs Teatime through, then tells Death to stop time. He takes Teatime’s body away and gives Susan her Hogswatch card. Ridcully finally finds out what’s wrong with the private bathroom, Gawain gets a marble for Hogswatch, and the beggars have a beautiful holiday.
The thing is, most people who enjoy Christmas (or adhere to the religions that celebrate it) really do want to believe that Christmas stories are universal. And aspects of them can be, for sure. I’m a big fan of A Wish For Wings That Work, for example. The Nightmare Before Christmas, also. The Polar Express. In the interest of perfect honesty, I’ve got at least a dozen favorite Christmas stories, and they all manage to make me pretty damned emotional. The holiday excels at drowning us in those feelings until we can’t help but play along. But in actuality, most Christmas stories lack that universality they’re hoping to create because they demand a buy-in on certain concepts that are religiously specific in nature—even when they’re trying to distance themselves from said concepts.
So when I say that this book gets the closest I think anyone has ever gotten to a secular, universal Christmas story, I want the full weight of my meaning to be clear here.
IT IS THE THINGS YOU BELIEVE WHICH MAKE YOU HUMAN. GOOD THINGS AND BAD THINGS, IT’S ALL THE SAME.
Pratchett created a story that riffs on Christmas tropes and wound up giving us a tale that examines how people use beliefs to construct literally everything. Not just religious mythologies, but our most base philosophies—duty, mercy, justice, and he could have kept going from there (love surely applies in that category). Essentially, he’s making an argument for how consciousness works in us, as a species, highlighting precisely what separates us out.
And I think that the reveal at the end about the sun is key to this framing; Susan asks Death if the sun really wouldn’t have come up if she hadn’t rescued the Hogfather, and he finally admits that a ball of flaming gas would have risen regardless. Susan gives him flak for using wordplay and Death assents to that read of things. But the sun isn’t only a big flaming ball of gas to humans, is it? We’ve made the sun into anything and everything you can think of throughout history: a god, a guardian, a warrior, the moon’s longing lover, a metaphor, a giver, a realm, a home for a different sort of life, I could go on. Who knows what version of the sun might have failed to rise if the Hogfather hadn’t survived? I’d argue that Death agrees to Susan’s insistence on wordplay because he knows that his granddaughter would take no other answer. But he knows what failure might have meant.
Belief shapes everything in this story to prove the point. It makes Bilious try to change his manner of godhood so he can stay with Violet. It makes Banjo the Tooth Fairy. It made the first Tooth Fairy from the Disc’s first bogeyman (and that bit makes me cry, okay, don’t even look at me). It makes Death’s sword ineffective when it might have killed Susan. It makes Teatime a monster that can be slain with a fireplace poker, and Death the sort that said poker sails right through. It remakes the Hogfather and unmakes the Cheerful Fairy.
The power of belief even changes how people die in the Tooth Fairy children’s drawing realm: Susan notes that Death has perceived a difference in the way adults talk to children about death, which means that no one can actually die up close and bloody whilst there. And that bit is clever because it shows us how beliefs can change based on who is helping to shape them. If this story had taken place one hundred years previous, death likely would have been an option in that realm. As Death said, beliefs don’t have a moral alignment by nature; they simply are.
And it’s beautiful, really, that at the center of a story like this we have Susan and her grandfather. A woman determined to believe in nothing but facts, and constantly weighed down by the unfathomable nature of her existence. Susan, who doesn’t seem to realize that she already knows what Death is telling her, somewhere deep down. After all, if she didn’t know, she wouldn’t be killing monsters with a fireplace poker.
As is usual in these situations, I’m heartbroken over the tiniest things at the end—specifically the fact that Death never gets his cup of cocoa. Sorry, I’m just emotional over the relationship an anthropomorphic personification has with his granddaughter, who he wanted to see more of while she was growing up. It’s always gonna get me. But then again, they’re wonderfully matched in terms of emotional availability: Death because he doesn’t exactly have emotions, Susan because she doesn’t want them most of the time. And there’s really nothing more family than that.
Asides and little thoughts:
- Chickenwire is talking about there being a face in his wardrobe keyhole as a throwback to childhood fears and I love this because seeing faces in objects is scarier when you’re a kid, but there’s also a name for this, and plenty of cultures do it on purpose in their artistic forms. For example Celtic art contains countless “Cheshire Cat faces” where shapes arrange to create the suggestion of a face that you don’t always notice right away. Sorry, it’s art history nerd hours now because I just think they’re neat.
- Susan thinks about how she’s rational in emergencies and then thinks It’s probably some kind of character flaw. and, girl. You don’t need to meta-analyze yourself right now, please. Why are you like this.
It wasn’t man-shaped. It was something like an ostrich, and something like a lizard on its hind legs, but almost entirely like something made out of blades.
It’s amazing how people define roles for themselves and put handcuffs on their experience and are constantly surprised by the things a roulette universe spins at them.
Worlds of belief, she thought. Just like oysters. A little piece of shit gets in and then a pearl grows up around it.
It was better than nothing. It was nothing with snow on it.
Death didn’t know many things about the human psyche, but he did know protective coloration when he saw it.
The little shopkeeper stopped in mid-remonstrate and started up in mid-greed.
“I don’t actually think,” he said gloomily, “that I want to tell the Archchancellor that this machine stops working if we take its fluffy teddy bear away. I just don’t think I want to live in that kind of world.”
Next week we start Jingo! We’ll read up to:
“Have a quiet look around at things. Get to the bottom of things. And trust no—Trust practically no one. All right? Except trustworthy people.”