So, Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened last night, which is definitely not what this post is about. However, one point mentioned by many reviewers (alas, I have not yet seen the film) is particularly useful to what I have to say about this week’s reading, “Troll Bridge,” the first of our Discworld short stories. See, “Troll Bridge” is interesting. It packs quite a lot of world-building, character development, and feeling into rather few lines, once again reminding me of how delightfully talented Sir Terry Pratchett is.
Here’s the Star Wars bit. People who’ve seen the new film seem to think that it, much like the original series, gives us a world that seems bigger than the story being told. The background isn’t empty but brimming with all the little signs of a lived-in world in which you, the viewer, do not merely move through the scenery but in fact cross paths with many other stories that, being beholden to the protagonists, you will never know. In the original Star Wars, I’d point to the Mos Eisley cantina and the reference to the clone wars as examples of how to make interesting fictional landscapes: if you want me to be excited about your world, make it full of doors I can’t open and windows with curtains drawn. I may not remember every plot point later, but I will remember that dog-like alien with the pinprick red eyes, and wonder what its story is.
Which just makes me marvel at Pratchett. The world never runs out for forty odd books. There are always more locked doors. And in “Troll Bridge,” the using up of the world is precisely the point. It’s all rather Tolkienesque, which is not surprising given that the short story was written for After the King: Stories in Honour of J.R.R. Tolkien. If you know Tolkien, then you know that nothing set off Tolkien’s spidey senses quite like the using up of wild things. This being Pratchett, he manages to subvert Tolkien while maintaining Tolkien: yes, the bad old world was better than this good new world, but the use-uppers are our heroes, not our villains. Clever bastard.
Possible tangent: In no small way, Cohen and Mica are also proxies of the writer, or at least the writer’s anxieties. I’ve said too much. I’ve used up the world. I don’t know what other stories to tell. It’s all gone stale. Of course, if you’re writing “Troll Bridge,” you’re Terry Pratchett and therefore unable to feel such anxieties over the sheer force of your awesome, but for the rest of us…I digress.
Tolkien’s world feels bigger to me than worlds with a greater number of unusual names, more intricate places, and more detailed timelines because his world is mostly locked doors. One of the most visible characters in the story, Gandalf, is someone whose story you never find out unless you read Unfinished Tales, and even then it’s an apocryphal story. Tolkien’s world is bounded by a ragged border country, and things fall off, or flash at you ominously in the night, and you wonder what they are. Pratchett’s world drinks border country like water, uses them up, gives you more border country. Pratchett opens up the world so that he can take it away.
And that’s where I stand with “Troll Bridge.” Going in, I was fairly neutral about Cohen, who seemed rather a cipher. After this short story, I have a greater respect and affection for him. What kings did he fight for? Why would Cohen fight for any king? What does he feel as he crosses the wildernesses that are not wildernesses anymore? Cohen is this story’s Gandalf, the best kind of character: no matter how much time you spend with them, they still have locked doors. They are worlds unto themselves, and if those inner wildernesses have been settled, no report has reached us yet.