SO, HERE WE ARE AT THE BEGINNING. The Colour of Magic is the first of forty-one Discworld novels and the first entry in the Wizards story-line. It is, at heart, a swords-and-sorcery-and-sandals parody. Even its arrangement—four parts, each with a brief recap—echoes anthologized pulp magazine storytelling. And it’s enjoyable from start to finish. However…
Full disclosure: having read later books in the series, it was hard for me to grapple with The Colour of Magic. While eventual Discworld protagonists like Granny, Vimes, and Tiffany possess a depth of character that defies one-word epithets, the heroes of this first book are people who can be summarized with relative ease:
The dogged Luggage.
These adjectives are not the end-all of their characters, but they do cover a lot of who they are. How strange that these beings inhabit the same world as Granny or Vimes. No, The Colour of Magic is not a book about characters but a book about a world. Its characters are there mostly to move us across geographies and among set-pieces.
And that’s OK. This may work for you, and that’s great. But I can’t help thinking that The Colour of Magic feels flawed. What do I mean by flaws? I want to highlight two in particular, as they will in fact become defining qualities that lend the Disc much of its literary beauty through the next forty books: humor and anger.
Humor, Humor Everywhere
One issue here is just how jolly The Colour of Magic is. Yes, I know, next I’ll be shooing teenagers off my grass while wielding a lawn-chair, but really this book is more jolly more than funny: instead of the sharp, laugh-out-loud humor of future volumes, we get a pervasive background radiation of comedy that prevents any one joke from standing out.
Still, I think it’d be a mistake to see The Colour of Magic only as it is sometimes received: merely a romping, gleeful send-up of Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, and Anne McCaffrey. The humor may be an uncontrolled test flight, but it’s hard not to appreciate the total mess of beautifully inventive set-pieces involving cities on the edge of the world, malignant tree spirits, and upside-down dragon mountain wossnames.
It’s great, it’s nuts, it’s beautiful, it’s too much. So what brings this bright-but-confused world into focus in later books?
The Anger of a Good Man
Consider, if you will, how Pratchett mainstays like Granny and Vimes rail against the world. They’re angry. As Neil Gaiman has observed, the man was himself not jolly but angry, with fury being “the engine that powered Discworld.” And if the fury engine is what makes the turtle fly, then The Colour of Magic is a countdown to liftoff.
Take Rincewind, for instance: for me, his cowardice makes him mildly endearing, his predicaments relatable, but mostly he’s frustrated at almost everything, constantly grousing that the world should be better organized.
And this is partly what makes him less interesting to me (at this point, at least) than Granny or Vimes. Those characters were angry at something, usually the injustices of one group of persons against another. In contrast, Rincewind’s grousing is so democratic and diffuse than he feels unfocused, like a rocket trying to take off while anchored to the ground.
While this characterization allows Pratchett to poke fun broadly at the window-dressing of Fantasy, it doesn’t allow him to wield the genre as an incisive lens on human nature. In time, I think we’ll see Pratchett use humor to channel his anger to a keen point of light, achieving a witty and at times profoundly satirical humanism. But not quite yet.
So It Begins
Of course, it’s a matter of perspective. What doesn’t quite work for me may very well work for you.
Honestly, I’m kind of fascinated by the differences. To me, The Colour of Magic feels like a developmental step toward the world in which semaphore towers twinkle at the night, Dwarves speak about gender in hushed tones, and steam engine time rolls across the Sto plains. Notably, a number of key Pratchett leitmotifs take their first bow here—stories begetting realities, a reverence for craft-workers, the problem of going home, a fascination with machines. Even though The Colour of Magic lacks the focus of future books, it connects many of the pieces. Sometimes backwards or upside down, but it gets the job done.
And, by the end of the book, a subtle transformation is underway. As Rincewind and Twoflower set off from an island where an ancient space-faring troll lives alone at the edge of the world, there is the sense of inexorable, subtly elegiac movement toward something brighter and sharper.
Welcome to the Disc.