IN THEORY, THIS IS A POST about The Light Fantastic
—about fantasy, about talking forests, about what happens to the sword-wielding hero after the story ends. Indulge me as I take the scenic road to get there.
I’m a nerd.
This is not shocking.
I own TARDIS Christmas lights and twelve editions of The Hobbit. And, as a nerd, I have over time developed various nerd tests—personal criteria for whether I’m interested in reading a given story, be it about exploding spaceships, misunderstood monsters, or pointy-eared elvish bastards.
One such test is about knowing when the world I’m reading feels like a particularly Good Fictional Universe. Put another way, why does reading Discworld make me want to travel to the pestilent, lecherous city of Ankh-Morpork? What dark literary magic is this, Sir Terry?
For me, a Good Fictional Universe presents a world so compelling that, rather than think, “This bit doesn’t match that bit—the author must have got it wrong,” I think, “Well, maybe we can explain this if we just consider…”
For me, the exemplar of the Good Fictional Universe is Tolkien’s legendarium. Tolkien has a bit of a head start here—his philological insight was such that English departments still teach his criticism today. He had an archaeologist’s eye. When fans wrote to him about inconsistencies in his fiction, Tolkien would treat such issues as historical conundrums and deliberate on possible resolutions. His knowledge of his world exceeded what he wrote to such a degree that, even with the occasional gaffe, his writings took on the feeling of an incomplete, sometimes incongruous, but not irreconcilable historical record.
And Tolkien revised that work obsessively, as though with more attention a more accurate translation could be rendered. We know more about Tolkien’s legendarium than about the storytelling traditions of whole cultures. Not without reason are the twelve volumes of Tolkien’s drafts and revisions named The History of Middle-Earth.
Why does he get away with it? What makes his world a Good Fictional Universe? Let’s take a look at the following exchange between Frodo and the elf, Gildor:
“I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,” exclaimed Frodo. “I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can’t a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?
But it is not your Shire,” said Gildor. “Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot fence it out.”
The Lord of the Rings, “Three is Company,” p. 97
And that, for me, is the test—one part trust and one part craft. The best authors make you believe that they know more than you but aren’t telling. They make you feel as though any inconsistencies are merely your lack of knowing—that, in a broom-closet-in-the-back-of-your-mind kind of way, if you just read a little closer, or reread just one more time, a new piece of the world would be revealed or a previously unseen castle would materialize in the fog.
Pratchett does this, too, albeit coming from the other direction. In The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, he creates lands, persons, and universal laws not with meticulous, Tolkienesque scrutiny but with riotous, soaring abandon.
To me, this just serves to make Pratchett’s achievement all the more wickedly brilliant. As he goes, he joins the scattered pieces with graceful ease, leaving just the right gaps to make us suspicious that he knows more than he’s telling, and maybe we should take another look just in case?
Of course, that feeling is just beginning to grow in The Light Fantastic. But I think—and I could be wrong (we’ll see)—that somewhere down the line that gleeful creation will hit critical mass, and the Disc will no longer be a place of standalone stories but a place where history has purchase, where things brighter and higher and older inhabit the darkness beyond the firelight, and the world is indeed much bigger than the words on the page.
For me, the later books may be more in my wheelhouse as a reader, but I admire just how rich The Light Fantastic is. Dark forests, talking trees, gnomes, candy houses. They really shouldn’t work, but they do. Maybe it’s how profoundly workaday all of this is. It isn’t a candy house, it’s an example of the unsuccessful Confectionary School of Architecture. That isn’t just a gnome, it’s a gnome who happens to be on the Forest Council. This isn’t a dark forest, it’s a forest called Skund, which means “Your Finger, You Fool” (so named because some explorer stupidly asked, “What is this?” while holding up a finger in front of the nonplussed locals).
And Cohen the Barbarian is not merely a parody of Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. He is not just the Disc’s greatest hero. He’s what happens when the hero grows old. He’s high fantasy made diminutive, a fairy tale brought in out of that darkness to warm its feet by the fire.
The world of The Light Fantastic is a world brought into being already gently used, like it existed before you and will exist once you have gone. This is not your world. You cannot fence it out.
So that’s that. The curtain falls on Discworld’s opening act. Unlike almost every other book in the series, I know exactly nothing about Sourcery. I look forward to seeing how the world grows.
Keep running, Rincewind!