In Praise of Pratchett: Pyramids


What distinguishes the Discworld series from practically all the others is that it’s not a single series but rather an umbrella, incorporating multiple sub-series that feature separate sets of characters. Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Death, all had appeared so far, and more were to follow, but there is also a non-series sub-series, and those are the ones where the characters don’t recur, where their stories are done and complete in one volume.
Obviously, in the early years, we didn’t know which were going to be which, but Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids is, retrospectively, the first of this indefinable subset. It’s also the one where the seeming convention that the odd-numbered Discworld books weren’t much cop is blown spectacularly apart.
Pratchett himself described Pyramids as ‘Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fall off’, which is a better description than anything I can come up with. In fact, it not only describes this particular book but it can stand for the series as a whole. It’s not a formula, but a fundamental approach. Future books will engage themselves with a theme, which Pratchett will then exaggerate to such an extent that its most elemental truths will start to shape themselves.
But for now, let’s concentrate on this single book. It stars Teppic, or more properly Pteppicymon, heir to the ancient kingdom of Djelybeybi, a river valley on the south side of the Circle Sea, that is 150 miles long and two miles wide, and stuffed full of pyramids.
In order to further his education, Teppic is sent by his rather doddering and increasingly distracted father, King Pteppicymon XXVII, to get an education in Ankh-Morpork, at the Guild of Assassins. Teppic learns many things at the Guild: style, self-possession, history, geography, an appreciation of the comforts of Western Civilization (Ankh-Morpork? Civilised?), how to kill people in any way imaginable whilst preventing them from killing you, and that he’s not cut out to be an assassin.
This last part is very important.
What Teppic also learns along the way is that absolutely everything he learns makes him less and less fit to become the next King of Djelybeybi, particularly with reference to Djelybeybi’s Gods. And their Pyramids.
This only starts to become a serious problem when Pteppicymon XXVII decides, in one of his less lucid moments, that being a God means he can fly. We then start to see a fair amount of the story through the eyes and ears of his ghost or, this being Ancient Egypt with the knobs off, his Mummy.
Teppic finds himself drawn back to take over as King, and God, to Djelybeybi, full of ideas about modernisation, comfort, and and a gentle acceleration towards catching up with the Century of the Fruitbat. However, he has reckoned without Dios. Dios is the High Priest. Dios has been the High Priest for as long as anyone can remember, indeed for considerably longer than anyone could possibly remember. Dios knows what is to be done, at any hour or indeed minute. And Dios is there to ensure that it continues to be done, despite the quite obvious attempts of the King to insert that hated and impossible word Change into the River Kingdom.
This starts to cause a serious problem when Teppic finds himself condemning his father’s favourite handmaiden, Ptraci, to death because she doesn’t want to be put to death as part of his entourage in his pyramid.
Actually, though Teppic doesn’t know it, the one time he throws himself into his role as king in a way that conforms with Dios’s requirements is when he orders that his father’s Pyramid be the biggest one in Djelybeybi, in fact twice as big as every other one. Because pyramids are dams in the stream of time. And one this size…
First, however, Teppic has to get Ptraci out of the dungeon into which he has thrown her. It’s an easy task for someone with the training of an Assassin, though it’s complicated by Ptraci’s underlying belief that, as a good citizen of the River Kingdom, she ought not to be going against the King’s commands.
It’s a richly comic moment, but it’s also a moment that allows Pratchett to articulate one of his most  serious beliefs, a kind of raging disbelief at how easily humanity surrenders its free will, its freedom to think, and to act for itself. Dictators don’t need guns and ammunition for we have this astonishing willingness to walk ourselves into cells, lock and bolt the doors behind us and resist to the death any idea of escaping.
Over and again, Pratchett will construct situations that demonstrate the bars in people’s heads, with consummate simplicity, relying only on our ability to recognise these things in everyday life to convince us that this fantastic disconnect is hard-wired into our heads. Discworld is less a reductio ad absurdum than an expansio ad absurdum (forgive the cod-Latin, please).
But Teppic has more than the fate of one handmaiden (who happens to be his half-sister) to deal with, more even than his own fate, condemned to death in his own name by Dios, who refuses to accept that Teppic is the King because Teppic does not act like the King. No, his father’s pyramid is far too big, it is storing too much time, and not flaring it off, until the whole thing rotates ninety degrees.
And so does Djelybeybi. Ninety degrees, out of existence in the ‘real’ world, locked into its own time, where the Gods are really real, the Mummys have woken up, and, outside, the River Kingdom that has been keeping the Empires of Ephebe and Tsort from (literally) rubbing up against each other and exciting themselves to War, the River Kingdom is the tiniest crack in the ground, visible only to camels in dire need of water.
It’s an almost identical situation, given the obvious differences, to R. A. Lafferty’s classic short story, ‘Narrow Valley’.
It shouldn’t really matter to Teppic. He’s gotten out at the last second, with Ptraci, and the Discworld’s greatest mathematician, a camel known mainly as You Bastard, and he doesn’t want to be King of Djelybeybi, any more than he wants to be an Assassin. But that’s not the point. He is the King, and that’s his country, and those are his people (not to mention his ancestors). And even the most reluctant of Kings has gotta do what a King’s gotta do, which is to get in there and sort it all out.
And sort it out Teppic does. The River Kingdom returns, Dios disappears to wherever he’s come from, which makes for a curiously circular journey, without a beginning but, at long last, an end, and Teppic abdicates in favour of Ptraci. There’s a new High Priest, also determined to maintain the daily ritual of life, but he’s no match for a former handmaiden who’s heard of Western Comfort and is determined on having it. There’s a pre-echo of Carrot in how Ptraci uses her ignorance to cut through opposition.
She even manages to persuade Teppic to stay in a curious ending that blatantly implies that she and he are going to settle down forever in what is openly going to be an incestuous relationship. It’s a weird, though not jarring ending, culturally apt to the River Kingdom (Pratchett jokes about it happily, earlier in the book), narratively apt given the boy-and-girl-against-the-world relationship of the pair. But it’s still incest, and nobody seems to have blinked an eye at it, ever.
That raises an interesting point. We’re not yet at the point where Pratchett begins to formally incorporate the theory of narrative as a shaping force in Discworld, but in Pyramids we start to see its unnamed outline. It’s an inevitable development: Pratchett began by taking the piss out of fantasy, which can hardly be done without a deep and sharp understanding of the forms of fantasy, its tropes and its stories, and as soon as he began to see the possibilities inherent in that approach, it’s hard to see how else Pratchett might have developed his craft. You can’t set out to paint a picture of Ancient Egypt turned up until the knobs fall off without paying due attention to the story shapes that make it thus.
Pratchett had begun to discover the way by which narrativium works. All that remained was to name it.

Incidentally, whilst honeymooning on Madeira in 2000, we saw a Portuguese language copy of this book on sale in the hotel shop. I was seriously tempted to buy it as a kind of primer on learning Portuguese. Silly idea, as I’ve never since been anywhere they speak the language. Obrigado.

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