Reviews of The Colour of Magic (1983) and related work

The Colour of Magic (1983Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Read in 2022.

Rincewind, a failed wizard with a talent for languages, takes up employment guiding the Discworld’s first tourist around the Unnamed Continent.

This novel is the first in a series of 41 novels, plus a few short stories, written by Pratchett and set on the Discworld. It is typically comical, but it is atypical in many ways: Its plot is a disjointed picaresque, the characters are relatively thin, it ends on a cliffhanger, and its main subject of parody is the literary genre of fantasy itself. Plotwise, the first section—involving a fire in Ankh-Morpork—would have sufficed to fill one of the later novels. Foundational works parodied here include:

Pratchett’s tourist character, Twoflower, represents a social satire of contemporary behaviour that is more representative of the later novels. He’s an oblivious British 1980s tourist, with a camera and difficulty tracking his luggage. The name Rincewind, but not the character, is from J. B. Morton’s satirical work under the name Beachcomber. His alma mater, the Unseen University, is a pun on the 17th-century Invisible College, buried among Pratchett’s funnier astronomical puns.

Given the focus on genre self-parody, Rincewind makes a good protagonist. To me, he represents the kind of drop-out university student who has been disillusioned by a look at the true complexity of the world and the difficulty of understanding it. The irony is that in Rincewind’s case, he literally studied efficacious magic and was still disillusioned. By that trick, Rincewind also represents the petty, nit-picking reader like me who goes looking for self-consistency in a fantasy world. Pratchett crams in several good jokes about the laws of nature on the Discworld, making them at once self-contradictory in outline and conservative in effect. For example, the difficulty of achieving something by magic on the Discworld cannot be less than the difficulty of achieving it by other means, negating the fabulist idea of magic as getting what you want without the effort. Pratchett, himself a nit-picking SFF fan, would remain basically consistent in his own worldbuilding for the next 40 novels.

References here: Moving Pictures (1990), “Troll Bridge” (1992), After the Campfires (1998).

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The Light Fantastic (1986Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Read in 2022.

It turns out that the reason for Rincewind’s long misfortune was not the games of the gods but a scheme to prevent the abuse of the eight fundamental spells of the Octavo, by putting one of them out of reach until an apocalyptic event when they are all needed.

Pratchett starts converging on the more coherent, character-centric storytelling he would be famous for. The means are not yet elegant, but you can see the author’s thoughts turning gradually away from fannish in-jokes to a long-term project more able to stand on its own. For example, the part introducing Herrena the barbarian heroine parodies the sexist objectification of women on fantasy book covers. This is a funny bit, standing in contrast to Pratchett’s objectification of bare-breasted barbarian women in the previous book. Unfortunately, Herrena would never be an important character. Trymon, the villain, is also funny: A parody of scientific-management ideology infiltrating the baroque academy of magic.

References here: Men at Arms (1993).

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‣‣ “Troll Bridge” (1992Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Read in 2022.

Cohen the Barbarian isn’t keeping up with the times.

Cohen is, even more than Hrun of The Colour of Magic (1983), a parody of Conan the Barbarian. He’s introduced in The Light Fantastic. This story is about the passing of his age of heroism, which is inconsistent with the earlier novels where younger heroes like Hrun are still perfectly current. There are also bridge trolls still working in both The Colour of Magic and Equal Rites (1987).

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‣‣‣ “Troll Bridge” (2019Moving picture, 29 minutes)

Seen in 2021.

Crowdfunded, with end-credits filk. It has the same basic problem as Wyrd Sisters (1997), being too straight an adaptation, too literary, with almost no concern for differences in media.

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Equal Rites (1987Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Read in 2022.

Esmeralda “Granny” Weatherwax, an elderly witch in the Ramtops, takes in a girl named Eskarina, whose magical gifts are worrisome.

With this novel, Pratchett graduated from the first novels’ frenetic sightseeing and parody of SFF to a different mode based on original characters.

There are only faint signs of a reboot. For example, Galder Weatherwax was Chancellor of the Unseen University in The Light Fantastic. A man named Cutangle is now Archchancellor. He and Granny Weatherwax turn out to be childhood friends while Galder Weatherwax isn’t mentioned. He would later be crowbarred back into continuity as a cousin of Granny’s. One attempt by fans to account for this has Galder dying in the same year that Eskarina is apprenticed to Granny, and yet, Cutangle seems never to have heard of a magical Weatherwax from the Ramtops.

There is ample continuity in other respects. A parallel journey of 500 miles is fast-forwarded in the same sort of disjointed picaresque as the previous books. Bel-Shamharoth makes another appearance, and the Lovecraftian-fantasy creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions drive the plot as they do in The Light Fantastic. The only great change is that Pratchett plays to his strengths. He refers openly to Gormenghast, the original “fantasy of manners” that is the model of this and each subsequent Discworld novel. Granny, in particular, is a fully realized and rounded character that brings life to the setting for the first time.

References here: Mort (1987), Sourcery (1988), “Troll Bridge” (1992).

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‣‣ Wyrd Sisters (1988Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Most centrally, Macbeth (1606).

This is probably the first time Pratchett found a really rich premise for the Discworld. His witches are an improvement over Shakespeare and the trio in The Black Cauldron (1985), a similar compromise between stereotype and character. Of these witches, only Granny Weatherwax returns from Equal Rites, while the colleagues she had in that novel do not return here.

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‣‣‣ Wyrd Sisters (1997Moving picture, 140 minutes)

Seen in 2018.

Oddly faithful. It preserves even the most literary jokes, which doesn’t make sense for a film, and it animates the silent movie gags instead of using film. It’s also too cheaply produced to bring any visual pleasure to the adaptation, and it adds a few stereotypes (like the enhanced appearance of WxrtHltl-jwl, pronounced here) but its overall faithfulness is sort of endearing.

References here: “Troll Bridge” (2019).

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Mort (1987Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

The trunk of the plot here is a moral coming-of-age fantasy like Equal Rites (1987), replacing the feminism with a rebellion against fate, and the Lovecraftian horrors with more novel forms of pastiche. Pratchett was happier with this one, and it is indeed more elegantly structured, without Equal Rites’s picaresque middle section.

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‣‣ Soul Music (1994Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Like Moving Pictures (1990), it’s too thinly connected to the secondary world to achieve much.

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Sourcery (1988Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Read in 2022.

Sensing doom, Rincewind escapes the Unseen University before the arrival of a child unleashes the other wizards.

This is an improvement in tone and plotting over The Light Fantastic, but a regression relative to the two spin-offs that had already been launched up to this point. As in The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites (1987), the ultimate threat in the plot is the Dungeon Dimensions responding to the careless use of magic, and there is a lot of magic in this one. Pratchett’s descriptions of that magic, and his jokes, are on point, but the detour to Klatch is a slurry of tiresome orientalism and simplistic characters. It doesn’t quite make sense, for example, that Rincewind is still incapable of magic after the Octavo’s spell has left him; he’s just not allowed to develop. It’s fun to see the Librarian taking a more significant role for the first time, as a kooky humanist after Pratchett’s own heart, as well as Vetinari being named after his initial appearance in the first book.

References here: Eric (1990), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997).

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‣‣ Eric (1990Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

Read in 2022.

Rincewind meets a 13-year-old summoner of demons.

A relatively short Discworld novel, originally released in an illustrated form, perhaps for a younger audience. This one is a light parody without a major threat, starting with the Faust myth in something like Marlowe’s version, not Goethe’s later Faust, Part One (1808). Pursuing the wishes of the demonologist, Pratchess parodies Mesoamerican religion and the myths of the Trojan War. In the latter, the incident with the Trojan Horse is central, not anything that happens in The Iliad (ca. 700 BCE) or its sequel. Pratchett does make a wonderfully level-headed version of Odysseus though.

This novel takes a closer look at demons on the Discworld, but much of the content is recycled. The parody of the Divine Comedy (1320) done to depict Hell is centred on an impopular new manager who resembles Trymon in The Colour of Magic but uses bad slogans rather than scientific management techniques. Eric the summoner is a lot like Nijel the Destroyer in Sourcery (1988). Rincewind is his usual self.

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Pyramids (1989Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

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Guards! Guards! (1989Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

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‣‣ Men at Arms (1993Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

The silicon brain heat sink is the perfect symbol of Pratchett’s Discworld: The mad genius of a late-night D&D session, building a world by probing its limits, including its limits as fiction. Its foundations were laid in The Light Fantastic (1986).

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Moving Pictures (1990Text)

Terry Pratchett (writer).

This one has got little to do with fantasy. Both a still-picture camera and a parody of early space travel were featured in The Colour of Magic (1983), but in this book, the parody of moving pictures, a modern technology, is central.

References here: Soul Music (1994).

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