Myths of Blood and Survival: Reading Hogfather

‘Halflings!’ laughed the Rider that stood beside Éomer. ‘Halflings! But they are only a little people in old songs and children’s tales out of the North. Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?’

‘A man may do both,’ said Aragorn. ‘For not we but those who come after will make the legends of our time. The green earth, say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day!’

—”The Riders of Roham,” The Two Towers, JRR Tolkien

Over the past couple weeks, I’ve been taking a break from my rereading of Pratchett (and, not without some relief, from school) to dabble in other matters. It’s been a time of movement—running errands, visiting friends, cat-sitting, cleaning my house, cat-sitting, cycling—and thus has afforded me time to listen to interesting things en route from place to place. My current addiction has become the various online lectures, Let’s Plays and fantastic podcasts put out by the estimable Prof. Corey Olsen of the Mythgard Institute. What this means is that my mind is geared for literary analysis of the symbolic and mythic, and that’s what I want to talk about in today’s entry for Hogfather.

Hogfather 5

General sentiment seems to be that Hogfather is a delightful comic romp through Yuletide tropes. I’ve also heard it remarked that the book is wonderfully polished even for Pratchett, and I can’t disagree: note, for instance, how the Bogeyman that supplies the novel’s major twist points to the twist on page one. For a rhet/lit guy, that’s deliciously well crafted storytelling.

But what I like best about Hogfather is its philosophical complexity, class critique, and examination of myth, belief, and justice. The book is so much more than a jovial winter comedy. In fact, I would like to suggest that Hogfather may be the, or one of the, axial turning points in the whole Discworld series, and that its importance to the saga has to do, in fact, with how it approaches the idea of myth.

So let me ask the Big Question for today’s entry: What does myth, legend, and deep history look like when your characters walk in the grass under sun (to quote another great author) alongside the myths themselves—gods, demons, and wizards? Where does your mythology go from there? It seems to me that the question has implications for what kind of universe the Disc is.

Sourcery: The World that Was

To work through the myth questionI think you can really look to two Pratchett precedents: Tolkien and earlier Discworld. In Tolkien, who dramatically influenced Pratchett, Middle-Earth’s mythic past is in large part built on older, now-ruinous Middle-Earth and surrounding regions, very much like the world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings but mightier, more beautiful and terrible. There’s also the meta-historical answer: Tolkien’s world grows from a range of Northern European storytelling and linguistic traditions.

In contrast, Pratchett gives only hints about the Discworld’s mythic past—The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Sourcery suggest at a past world of surplus magic, ice giants, wizard wars, and common people bearing the brunt of the fallout. In terms of meta-history, these stories are not terribly interested in claiming a real-world historical storytelling tradition so much as rummaging through the everything box of contemporary high fantasy.

As Anne and I have discussed many times now, this meta-history is true far more of the earlier books than the later ones. We’ve been searching for turning points at which the universe outgrew its beginnings or otherwise was altered. Anne smartly identified The Last Hero as one such point, and I’d like to posit that Hogfather’s conception of myth and history makes it another such point. In fact, I would suggest that this book represents a re-configuring of the world necessary for its continued development beyond that initial box of high fantasy.

Which brings us to…

A Naked Wizard Singing About Deer

From the first page of Hogfather, Pratchett begins to revise the mytho-history established in Sourcery. We get the ice times, when there were only small people and not children. We get the Bogeyman. We get seasonal pagan rites about the sun. We get the sober admonishment that all stories are, at root, about blood—even when the fact has been forgotten.

And we certainly get blood and the sun as plot points throughout of the story, but we also get them in a far subtler, more diminutive form. When Ridcully takes his ill-fated bath, he sings about “the rising of the sun, and the running of the deer,” a song that we are told “evolves somewhere on every planet where there are winters.” And hey, what do you know? These lyrics are suspiciously similar to the lyrics from “The Holly and the Ivy,” a traditional British folk carol. The earliest records of the song I’m aware of are from early nineteenth-century England, with oral tradition predating it (Wikipedia agrees with me, but I will admit I’m no expert).

So we have a nineteenth-century song standing in for a fundamental and primal human experience. At this point, I could give a complicated analysis of Hogfather to show what this means, why it matters, and how it helps answer my initial question about myth, but in fact the full stanza to which the above lyrics belong does the job rather nicely, as quoted in Sharp’s 1911 English Folk-Carols:

The rising of the sun
And the running of the deer,
The playing of the merry organ,
Sweet singing in the choir.

Note the prepositional statements in the latter two lines—singing in the choir, playing of the organ. The song doesn’t say that the organ played, which would occlude the human agent, but rather seems to require an unseen actor. Could we perhaps read the running of the deer not as an act of the animal but as the act of an unstated agent—to (make) run or to hunt the deer? While I intend no claim about authorial intent, I do suggest that we can without much wrangling come to both pastoral and primeval readings of this line. And so even a quaint nineteenth century carol can be understood, in a sense, as being about blood.

Whether this reading is at all appropriate for the carol, I don’t know. It’s idle play on my part. However, the dualism suitably represents the world as sketched out in Hogfather, which takes a pseudo-Victorian Yuletide landscape and injects Saturnalia and Wren Day references that suggest a history that is grim in a different way than in Sourcery. Here, human suffering through the ages is not the result of magic so much as the pure fact that humans exist, and that the world does not care.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds
You twisted, twisted Victorians. By an unknown engraver [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The (Re)Shaping of Discworld

If not a revision of the history suggested in Sourcery, this telling certainly imposes a new reading on top of it, and one that supports the trajectory of this series far more effectively than that given in earlier books.

And let’s look at that trajectory. For reference, here are the first twenty Discworld books, in order:

  1. The Colour of Magic
  2. The Light Fantastic
  3. Equal Rites
  4. Mort
  5. Sourcery
  6. Wyrd Sisters
  7. Pyramids
  8. Guards! Guards!
  9. Eric
  10. Moving Pictures
  11. Reaper Man
  12. Witches Abroad
  13. Small Gods
  14. Lords and Ladies
  15. Men at Arms
  16. Soul Music
  17. Interesting Times
  18. Maskerade
  19. Feet of Clay
  20. Hogfather

If we were to construct a meta-history of these first twenty books, the first five would all take high fantasy literature and film as their primary influence. This pattern shifts with the sixth book, Wyrd Sisters, which is far less interested in high fantasy than in Macbeth. Of the books that follow, the Wizards stories shift toward light social satire, and the Death books critique consumerism and popular culture.

But I don’t think it’s too daring of me to say that the powerhouses of the series are the Witches and Watch books, however, which dominant the entire run of Discworld.  Each of the Witches books after Wyrd Sisters continue to respond primarily to works of the theatre and stage, or to fairy tales and folklore—often both at once. In turn, beginning with Guards! Guards!, each of the Watch books introduces noir, crime drama tropes. For the most part, none of these novels subscribes to the high fantasy meta-history established in Sourcery.

So, in a sense, the world plods along for quite some time, bouncing between folkloric takes on theatre and rather Victorian crime drama without having a clear foundation text for what kind of world these stories take place in. Sourcery’s world of ice giants and wizard battles may work for the barbarian age of The Colour of Magic, but it is hardly a functional palimpsest for the Elizabethan and Victorian folklore, theatre, and thriller that comes to characterize the Disc, let alone its industrial revolution.

And then we come to Hogfather. More so than Sourcery’s high fantasy past, and with more finesse than the tonal mismatches of Reaper Man and Soul Music, Hogfather’s grim, hardscrabble mytho-history encapsulates the kinds of stories Pratchett is telling at this point in his career. It’s not really about the magic. As though it were the series condensed, Hogfather is staunchly Victorian in its Yuletide imagery, deeply concerned with folklore, intrigued by new technologies, and framed by a slow-burning mystery. Maybe more than any book before Raising Steam, this novel is all the shades of the Disc in 416 pages.


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