In Praise of Pratchett: The Light Fantastic


Every year, when I went on holiday, in those days before television in the rooms became standard, I would take away with me books to read in the quiet evenings after a day on the fells. In September 1986, I badly miscalculated my reading times and ran out in midweek.
It was late in the evening, I was in Keswick, the bookshops were closed and I was running round the newsagents/giftshops that were open until 8.00pm, desperate to buy something I could enjoy reading. But I was struggling to find something that appealed.
There was another Terry Pratchett book about, The Light Fantastic, a sequel to The Colour of Magic (literally so, the only Discworld book to follow directly on from its predecessor). I was dubious of it but the hour was getting late. It probably wouldn’t be much cop, but at least I knew I would be able to read it, and besides I could always sell it on. So, better than nothing.
I have never seen such an improvement in a writer in just the space of one book.
At the time, I only knew Pratchett from the Corgi paperback of half a year earlier. I hadn’t even noted the hardback publication date, so as far as I was concerned, the writer had made this quantum leap in the space of six months. I roared my head off reading The Light Fantastic, knowing that I’d have to re-buy the first book.
What made such a difference? I can make a few points now, but essentially it was down to my instinctive impression on that night’s reading, that in the intervening space, Terry Pratchett had sat down and thoroughly analysed his ‘first’ book, seen where it didn’t work and had set out to do it right this time.
That it had taken him three years to work it out, not six months, doesn’t lessen the impact.
The Light Fantastic was in every way a better book. For one thing, it was a single, coherent story that went several steps beyond The Colour of Magic in developing several narrative voices across a number of characters. Rincewind and Twoflower are hauled back from their fall off the Disc via a resetting of Reality, whereupon they become the target of any number of Wizards from Unseen University, who want the Great Spell back out of Rincewind’s head.
Which is particularly important because Great A’Tuin, the galaxy-sized Turtle, is gradually swimming out of the Discworld Universe’s space towards a single red star. And people are panicking more than somewhat.
But the book had gained more than a plot, it had gained an authorial voice. Pratchett now sounds like Pratchett. He is still nicking tropes from fantasy fiction, but instead of parodying other people’s works, he’s taking archetypal situations and using them in a basically straight manner, whilst undermining them via the responses of his characters. And his jokes sound like Pratchett.
The version of Unseen University we meet here is very rough-edged, and inherently unstable. Pratchett is still a long way from discovering that the most effective form of magic is the one you don’t do, and the Wizards of this Faculty are still overtly competitive. The entire Faculty, the eight Heads of Orders that Pratchett quickly learns he can do without, are wiped out, Archchancellor Galdor Weatherwax (hmm. Significant name, that) by the Luggage, the rest by Tymon, the ambitious but ultimately grey Deputy.
Tymon is actually the most significant figure in this book. He may be magically apt, but he’s the anti-Wizard, Organisation Man, determined on an efficiency that takes the passion, the satisfaction, the fun out of everything. Pratchett finds his true voice, the true purpose of his talent, in inveighing against him as the antithesis of what is needed to be properly human. He still has to learn to let that voice go, to let the anger within form the solid backbone of Discworld, but this is where it first shows.
The Light Fantastic also introduces us to Cohen the Barbarian. Whereas Hrun, in the first book, is a generic barbarian, distinguished only by his unusually small head, Cohen is a far greater conception, the barbarian who has been a legend so long that he’s grown old in his trade: eighty-seven, bald, toothless and a martyr to arthritis, but still unkillable. In the clash between him and Herenna, the Henna-Haired Harridan (visually a more sensible take-off of Marvel’s Red Sonja), there’s only one winner.
We also are privy to that moment, early in the book, where a ball of wild magic rises through the library, transforming the Librarian into, well, The Librarian. His response is, naturally, Oook.
Rincewind comes out of it seemingly on top, supervising the clean-up at Unseen University, in position to take over as Archchancellor. It was never going to be that way, and Pratchett may well have known that already, but since Rincewind wasn’t going to be used in the next book, it was a sentimental gesture at the time, a tidying-up. Sometimes, writers develop a sentimental attachment to their characters, almost as much as readers do. There’s a scene in a much later book where Pratchett demonstrates by how much he learned to know better.
In short, a vastly better book, and more importantly, one on which Pratchett could begin to build the towering edifice that will become Discworld. It’s less the architecture that we see taking shape, than the attitude of Discworld, that of a world in which a certain literalness will forever undermine the fantastic, putting it into its proper place.
My eyes were now wide open for the next book from Terry Pratchett.

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