When the news broke last week that fantasy author Terry Pratchett had died at the age of 66 there was a great out pouring through social media from his fans around the world, myself included, with words, images and quotes from (arguably) his greatest creation, Death, being shared, liked and tweeted in abundance.
As the initial noise died down I picked up my well-loved copy of the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, for the first time in a few years, and as I did it got me thinking.
Along with the late great Douglas Adams, Pratchett’s writing has had a major affect on me, helping shape not only my reading habits and writing (if it weren’t for him, its likely this blog and my other writing work simply wouldn’t exist) but also my sense of humour and my general outlook on the world.
Even in this formative, first, work from his epic series its clear to see why.
Telling the story of a lowly wizard, Rincewind, and his adventures trying to protect and guide his naïve charge, the Discworld’s first tourist Twoflower, the book could easily have been a very minor footnote in the fantasy fiction world.
But, with this, Pratchett does something that takes a mundane and obvious genre piece and elevates it far higher than probably he even imagined back in the early 1980s when he began work on it.
Two things raise it up and they are its sense of the absurd and the way it uses its fantastic genre trappings to hold a mirror up to our world.
The absurdity draws on classic British humour developed by the likes of Spike Milligan and Peter Cook along with the Monty Python team. So, rather than the somewhat over serious and po-faced style that has often hindered generic fantasy, Pratchett seems to know that many of the things he depicts are inherently ridiculous and so subverts them.
He does this using the cynical, somewhat weary, worldview of Rincewind – a wizard almost incapable of even learning spells. This is contrasted with Twoflower’s wide-eyed optimism and in the meeting of the two Pratchett’s take on fantasy, that would persist for more than 40 books, was set.
Using ‘The Disc’ as a cypher of our world also begins early on and remains throughout the series as Twoflower is represented as a stereotypical tourist, the notion of insurance (and almost immediately insurance fraud) are introduced to the twin city of Ankh-Morpork – itself already a vague ‘version’ of London that would become more pronounced as time went on.
Pratchett also uses the notion that both magic and gods are real on the disc to paint a picture of how science and religion are used for good and bad in our world and, again, while this becomes more focused and pronounced later on its beginnings are still evident here as we meet some of the pantheon of the Disc’s gods as they are playing a literal game with our hero’s lives and, in the fourth portion of the book, the inhabitants of Krull as designing ways of exploring space.
What makes The Colour of Magic work so well as an enjoyable book though is that, with all this packed in, it’s an amazingly fast and enjoyable read with enough story, adventure and comedy that it rattles along at breakneck pace, while also managing to begin the creation of this most unusual and detailed world.
While it is a little rough around the edges in places, Pratchett’s concept of the Discworld isn’t quite complete yet and the episodic nature lead to a little too much repetition from time to time, the mix of comedy and fantasy, the position as the beginning of such a well-loved series of books and the fact that it is so easy to read, but not at the expense of content, make The Colour of Magic an undeniable classic both of its genre and of literature in general.