Today I would like to speak with you about the end of the world.
Well, not THE world. More like worlds in general. And specifically, the narrative stakes involved in plots based around the end of the world.
I try to keep these posts self-contained to the book at hand, but this was definitely a topic I came to from reading Sourcery right after The Light Fantastic. Both works revolve around apocalyptic magical events, and with the inclusion of the Four Horsemen of the Christian apocalypse and the Ice Giants of Ragnarok, Sourcery underlines the cataclysmic elements present in The Light Fantastic.
Like our Four Horsemen, most cultures have their own end-of-the-world myths, but I’m going to be talking about the end-of-the-world narratives that are far more common, particularly in fantasy. By end-of-the-world narrative, I mean a story where unless the protagonist (typically prophesized, though not always) does/finds/overcomes X, the world will be destroyed and/or everyone will die—or worse.
In an end-of-the-world narrative, the consequences of the protagonist(s)’ failure would result in catastrophic consequences for (presumably) innocent people. Like, a lot of innocent people. A whole bunch. Probably some jerks, too, but mainly just regular people going about their regular lives.
The tragedy of the end of the world is every single person, gone.
On the surface, those are some pretty high stakes. But disaster on a large scale doesn’t always equate to a compelling story. In most end-of-the-world narratives, we never get a chance to care about anyone other than our main cast of characters. We simply don’t have the time or space outside of a Lord of the Rings Appendix (sorry, Ryan) to give everyone on the planet a backstory complete with an endearing human foible.
In the Discworld, trolls have a counting system that goes “1, 2, 3, many, lots,” and although it’s really just counting based on powers of four, the joke is that after a certain point, the mind cannot comprehend the amount of something—there’s just “a lot” of it.
When the scope of a disaster is big enough, one million individual names and stories and experiences become the number “1,000,000.” And while we know that 27 million is a bigger number than 25 million, it doesn’t really feel bigger.
So when the stakes are “the entire world,” without anything to ground us, to help us relate to that big of an idea, it becomes more difficult to care about the people that (presumably) we don’t want to die.
That’s a lot of preamble to get me to the scene in Sourcery that I really wanted to talk about. It comes about a third of the way through the book, when the end of the world is just in the beginning stages. It is presented from the point of view of one Ardrothy Longstaff, Purveyor of Pies Full of Personality.
It’s a powerful scene: unnamed wizards stride forth into the marketplace at Sator Square, blasting stalls out of their way as they do so. The wizards tell everyone to leave; one man, the brilliantly named Miskin Koble, fights back and a wizard wipes him from existence.
Ardrothy, clearly seeing the shape of the situation, offers the wizards a pie. A wizard creates a perfect and golden pie out of thin air, and Ardrothy, defeated, heads for the city gates.
It’s a relatively brief scene—there are no major characters involved—but it sticks out for me because it shows me the consequences of the wizards’ rise to power and how it harms the citizens of Ankh-Morpork. With the wave of a hand, it establishes that non-wizards are beneath notice, expendable, and obsolete. And because we see this through Ardrothy’s perspective, the gravity of the situation is made more meaningful and accessible.
Ideally, I would have liked to see a few more moments like this in Sourcery, particularly nearer to the climax of the book. We see impossible architecture shooting up from the ground, wizards destroying each other across oceans, the Ice Giants’ inexorable march from the mountains. At some point, I lost a sense of what was at stake.
After Nijel and Conina speak to the Ice Giants, there is a line that reads:
“The herd breasted another hill, scraping off quite a lot of it, and the Sto Plain, studded with cities, lay helpless before it.”
And don’t get me wrong, that’s a beautiful line. But in all of the world-destroying set pieces and heroic confrontations, I’m missing that connection to the world that is ending.
Don’t worry, folks, this isn’t the last time the Disc is threatened with the end of the world, although it happens less and less as the series progresses. I won’t write about this every time we read an end-of-the-world narrative, but it is definitely something to look out for as we move forward through the series.