If a Turtle Moves in the Void and No Ones Sees It, Does the Turtle Still Move?

‘It’s just that…you remember the trouble with the rats last year? That man who said he had a pipe that played music only rats could hear?’ ‘Yes, but that wasn’t really true, it was all a fraud, it was just the Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents—”

‘But supposing it could have been true?’

Reaper Man, p. 218

I have to admit I’d forgotten that Maurice first appeared in Reaper Man. He’s mentioned not once but twice, and both times when discussing human nature. Having now read The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, this seems about right.

This is an unusual book in the annals of Discworld, and not only because it is the first “children’s” book. It has a certain odd quality that I enjoy deeply but struggle to put into words. It’s a struggle I’ve had before in amplified form when reading the Tiffany books. The dynamics and themes here are—I hesitate to say it—simpler? I’ve heard this book called “simple” in more than one review, but that doesn’t seem right to me. Tiffany’s stories, and to a lesser extent Maurice, feel somehow sharper, more distilled, stripped down to something that feels true in the pit of my stomach. What do I call that? Not simple, not exactly. What am I feeling as a reader?

I struggled to name it. I delayed writing this post. I’m glad I did because I stumbled on the answer in the following passage from Carpe Jugulum:

Nanny licked a finger and held it up to the wind. Then she pointed.

‘This way. An’ shut your eyes.’

‘There’s no path,’ said Magrat.

‘That’s right. You hold on to my hand, Agnes will hold on to yours. I’ve been this way a few times. It ain’t hard.’ ‘It’s like a children’s story,’ said Agnes.

‘Yes, we’re down to the bone now, all right,’ said Nanny.

Carpe Jugulum, p. 132

Down to the bone.

It’s a gentle sensation in Maurice, and more like a river bursting a dam in the Tiffany books, but it’s there in both: the cartilage of fantasy has worn down, and we’re hard up against the bones of reality. Big themes, sharp shadows, no pretense.

So much of Discworld has a forensic quality, a kind of slow, cud-chewing rumination on good, evil, and human nature. Maurice does that, but in a more epideictic vein—that is, working out its big themes in a language of direct and unflinching praise and blame. You could argue that this is ultimately a reductive, simplified way to handle morality. But it works for me, partly because Pratchett has subtly shifted the world’s scope so that it, like the big themes, is closer to the marrow.

Consider, for instance, how Maurice handles the big Discworld concepts. A’Tuin and the elephants are nowhere mentioned, despite so often serving as a “Speak to me, O muse” opener to any given Discworld book. And while Ankh-Morpork is probably the noted “big city, with guilds everywhere,” it’s never named directly. Being the OCD personality that I am, I did a keyword search of all 41 books and can report that the only books that do not mention Ankh-Morpork directly are The Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, and, yes, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. The “young adult” books. Again, I refuse to believe that the absence of seemingly key parts of the world points to a “simplificiation,” however, as we get references to more minor locales, such as Sto Lat, Pseudopolis, and Uberwald.

For me, the obfuscation of fundamental Discworld elements allows the story to exist in a kind of purely local geography, where cosmology and astrophysics are not even passing concerns. This is an unabashedly provincial book. This feels important to me, as the directness of the morality could seem like pontificating except for these subtle little ways that Pratchett redraws the world and redefines what about it is meaningful. By making mighty people, places, and ideas of Discworld small, Maurice makes room for the little people to be big. In a sense, Maurice begs a question I didn’t know I wanted to ask, which is, “What, really, makes Discworld?” How much of the world can you strip away before it becomes something, somewhere, sometime else? Is this what Discworld is, the closer you get to the bone?

We’ve been doing this project for a while now, moving through this amazing world, straying ever toward those hubward mountains. We’ve watched our heroes battle corrupt wizards, creatures from the dungeon dimensions, demons from the inner circle of Hell, tyrannical rulers, cosmic entities, and time itself. For me, these exotic beings all pale by comparison to the very local villain that this very local book gives us: Spider.

It seems right and proper and deliciously Pratchettian that one of his most disturbing villains—a fused multi-rat monstrosity whose devolution has been abetted by human corruption—occurs in a “children’s” book. Despite the talking animals, we’ve come a long way from the high fantasy monstrosities of The Light Fantastic and Sourcery. Without them, I find this version of Discworld more lucid and decipherable, not because of how things have been stripped away but because Pratchett’s hatred of cruelty and inhumanity bubbles more palpably beneath the surface. You can almost feel it waving a middle finger at the darker side of human nature and trash-talking it into submitting to the light. That’s infinitely more Discworldian to me than Bel-Shamharoth and his ilk. In a sense, even the turtle is just window-dressing.

So there we are, then. I would like to think of Maurice as a test of the subcreation, its resiliency and identity. What number of elephants, how many leagues of turtle, how much of the mechanics of wizardry can you trim away before a story ceases to be a Discworld story? What is Discworld if not the above things? We’ve concluded already that Discworld is really less about fantasy and more about people—people muddling their way through by sheer force of will and narrative even when they’re down in the muck. We may not quite be down to the raw, red marrow of The Wee Free Men, but Maurice at least takes us to the spongy bits around it: this book makes a first and pretty solid argument that the turtle still moves even when there is no turtle.

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