LET’S GO SLEIGH THEM!
Terry Pratchett was truly one of the greatest authors who ever lived. So many fantasy authors over the years have produced tedious escapism, far removed from the real world, but Pratchett took a different approach. He reflected our world in his fantasy, using his books to comment on the absurdities of life. Most importantly, he made fantasy funny. So much fantasy, and sci-fi for that matter, takes itself far too seriously, but not the Discworld novels. That’s not to say they don’t have important things to say, because they do, but they tell their tales in an accessible and entertaining manner. Pratchett’s 20th Discworld novel, and my favourite of them all, was something of a Christmas special: Hogfather. It was made into a tv movie by Sky, which is a competent and watchable effort, but for my money nobody has ever captured the magic of Discworld on screen. It’s probably unfilmable, which is presumably why it took such a long time for anyone to even try. Discworld lives in the imagination.
Hogfather is the fourth novel to revolve around Death, Pratchett’s version of the Grim Reaper, who TALKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS. He makes hilarious cameo appearances in virtually every Discworld novel, but a select few use him as the central character, and they are in my opinion the best books in the range, as he is such a funny character.
In Hogfather, a member of the Assassin’s Guild has been employed to dispatch the Hogfather (a thinly-veiled parallel [all Pratchett’s parallels are thinly-veiled] for Santa Claus), and with the Hogfather/Santa out of action, Death has to take over his job temporarily. Meanwhile, Death’s granddaughter (yes, he has one of those) is busy trying to distance herself from her bizarre life, by taking up a job as a governess.
HAVE YOU BEEN NAUGHTY… OR NICE?
So we have Christmas on the Discworld, which gets thoroughly mashed up with fairy tales, looking at the motivations of the Tooth Fairy for good measure, and throwing in a dash of Mary Poppins. A repeated theme of the Discworld novels is the foundation of religions on the Discworld: if enough people believe in something, it comes true. This is fully explored in Small Gods, although it is the Discworld novel I most struggled to enjoy.
YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?
This all allows Pratchett to play with the origins of some aspects of Christmas, and fairy tales and children’s stories in general, in a sinister spin on cosy traditions. He takes a hilariously cynical look at several Christmas legends, and is particularly harsh on Good King Wenceslas, using him as an excuse to play on the selfish and transient nature of some charitable acts:
WERE YOU HERE LAST MONTH? WILL YOU BE HERE NEXT WEEK? NO. BUT TONIGHT YOU WANTED TO FEEL ALL WARM INSIDE. TONIGHT YOU WILL WANT THEM TO SAY: WHAT A GOOD KING HE IS.
And then there’s the carol singing from the Canting Crew, who inflict their singing on people until they are paid to go away. So it’s all quite amusingly dark, but Pratchett never loses sight of the magic of Christmas. Discworld is a fictional place that readers can escape to if they need to, but it functions so well as a mirror to our own world that it can also highlight something of the joy of our own hangups and traditions. Ultimately, Hogfather offers us just the right balance between fondness and cynicism. It’s a magnificent book. RP