This book marked a sea-change in my Discworld collection.
Up to this point, I’d been buying Pratchett’s books in paperback, putting up with the six month delay from first appearance to when I could get hold of the next story when Corgi reprinted it. Until I did some work for a mate who, as a gesture of gratitude, bought me the latest Discworld book in hardback, that being Lords and Ladies.
Now, as I have mentioned from time to time, I am something of an anal retentive when it comes to collections. Mixing hardback and paperback was not really psychologically acceptable, nor was jumping about in a series that I had already been reading in chronological order for half a dozen years. Besides, the last one was still not out in paperback.
So I went out and bought the hardback of Small Gods. After that, there was no going back. Patience was one thing but the kind of wait this would mean for the fifteenth Discworld book in paperback? No way. I set about replacing the first dozen with hardback copies. I even joined a book club for the introductory free offer that could net me five Pratchett’s for a pittance (the fact that I could also get Tolkien’s Morgoth’s Ring for a fraction of what I would otherwise have had to pay meant I would come out ahead on the deal no matter what other crap I might be required to buy. Though I’d baulk at calling A Brief History of Time crap, not that I understood it).
Small Gods, like Pyramids before it, is one of those non-series books, its protagonist’s story complete in these pages. And indeed, despite a reference to the Century of the Fruitbat, Brutha’s life takes place many years and decades before the generally contemporary Now of all the rest of Discworld.
In the immediate aftermath of Terry’s death, a great many people pointed to this book as one of his most important, and most insightful, although I have never known the reasons behind this true claim be debated by anyone outside the circle of Pratchett fans. For the theme of this story is Religion, as well as Gods, and Pratchett makes it amply clear that the two are not merely very different, but that there is an unbridgeable disconnect between them.
Nor, in either aspect, does Pratchett offer any great inducement to believe in either. No, Small Gods is deeply irreligious, heavily (but not heavy-handedly) humanist, and excoriating in the anger that ripples through it from start to finish.
The actual story is relatively straightforward, though it is extremely difficult to relate it without launching into the issues Pratchett takes as structural to any discussion of God/religion. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to outline the plot as a precursor to making Pratchett’s points for him.
The story is primarily set in the country of Omnia, on the south side of the Circle Sea, a semi-desert country that is home to Omnianism, the worship of the Great God, Om. Though the choice of Om as the God’s name hints as cultures that incorporate meditation, Omnianism owes a lot to Catholicism, in having an Inquisition, the latter being headed by the Exquisitor, Deacon Vorbis, a man frequently described as having the mind of a steel ball, a man who will turn a tortoise on its back, wedged to prevent it from righting itself, just to see how long it will take to die.
Said tortoise is, in fact, the Great God Om, trapped unknowing this past three years in a tortoise’s body and only lately returned to consciousness of who he is after being dropped by an eagle onto the kitchen compost heap. More pertinently, he’s been dropped within the presence of the Novice Brutha.
Brutha, who has been terrified into worship of Om by his deeply religious grandmother, is an oddity. He can neither read nor write, has no abilities or purpose, is fit for nothing and is even physically awkward and a little unprepossessing. He has two things going for him: a perfect memory that Brutha doesn’t even know is perfect in every degree, and that he is the only one left in the whole of Omnia who still believes in the Great God Om.
A lot is happening. Omnianism is awaiting its Eighth Prophet. An heretical movement has formed claiming that the world is not a sphere but a disc carried on the backs of four elephants, themselves on the shell of a colossal turtle (which is true but far from the point). And War is brewing with Ephebe, over its martyring of an Omnian Missionary (which we will learn is completely untrue, but is even farther from the point).
When Vorbis learns of Brutha (who cannot get anyone to believe him when he says the God is speaking to him), he takes the rapidly promoted Sub-Deacon to Ephebe, to use Brutha’s eidetic memory to get out of the impassible Labyrinth and lead in an Omnian army, enabling Vorbis to take over Ephebe.
The disturbed Brutha finally rebels when Vorbis orders Ephebe’s legendary library be burned. Brutha memorises it, an incredible feat, with the intent of preserving it. Pursuit follows, until an intervention by the Queen of the Seas causes a shipwreck that leaves Brutha, Om and a catatonic Vorbis stranded in the desert. Brutha insists on getting Vorbis back to Omnia, where the truth can be both revealed and seen to be revealed, but fails to realise the depths of Vorbis’s insanity and his craving for power.
It is Vorbis who is to become the Eighth Prophet, his ‘truth’ that will move Omnianism forward, and Brutha who will be the first sacrifice of the new era. But a well fore-shadowed twist of fate ends Vorbis’s reign and restores the congregation’s belief in Om, just in time for Brutha to face a combination of armies whose shared purpose is to wipe Omnia off the map.
And thus Omnia is saved, Brutha becomes, rightly, the Eighth Prophet and, in himself, changes the course of both the religion and the history so that it doesn’t end up the way it was written in the books of the History Monks but, as in Mort, something a lot easier on people.
Even that deliberately simplified account of the story still ends up spilling too many of the beans, but now’s the time to be explicit about each of the deadly points that Pratchett enumerates.
The Great God Om is the God of a fantastically powerful religion, but three years before, indulging the urge to manifest himself as some kind of powerful, symbolic animal, a great horned bull, he found himself capable only of becoming a tortoise, and one that has no inkling that it is or was anything greater. Not until he is dropped near the one person left who believes in him, who believes in Om, the God.
Because Om, the God, has been replaced by Omnianism, the Religion. Day by day by month, year, century, the shell of the church, the structure of the buildings, the hierarchy of the officiants have been constructed, have grown around the God, drawing off belief, syphoning it off for the benefits of the Church, for the values of the minds that constitute it.
Until only one person, an overgrown, uncomprehending, useless boy remains who believes in the God, because he’s too dumb to know any better. Because that’s what religion does, it replaces the seeming source of its power with something self-sustaining that services the interests of its priests before it comes anywhere near considering the welfare of its adherents.
Pratchett doesn’t just show this, he says it, explaining it for us as if we are too dumb to understand, which, on the evidence of the last several millennia, is probably true.
But he doesn’t stop there. Vorbis is busy constructing a truth that he takes care to describe as fundamental, meaning that it’s a big, fat, stinking lie. It’s not just the persecution of those who speak only the literal truth about the Discworld’s structure, as long ago Galileo Galilei was persecuted for pointing out that the Earth went round the sun, it is demonstrated by Vorbis in a greater degree.
First, his own putting to death of the unsuccessful, indeed mocked missionary, Brother Murdock, is perverted into a cassus belli against Ephebe, a war already lost presented to Omnians as an ongoing campaign.
Then Vorbis steps in to steal Brutha’s crossing of the desert to launch himself as Prophet in order to yet further advance a truth that lies only in his own head.
Pratchett’s anatomisation of Religion is of a thing corrupt, on all levels, something that no person with any genuine sense of truth, decency or justice could have any truck with, and though this takes place in a fictional world subject to rules and conditions that are sketched out as a deliberate joke, on this occasion the mirror he is holding up to our world and our lives and our religions is not distorted, but plain and unblinking.
Nor do Gods do any better. For Om, the Great God, even at the height of his power, as Omnia discovers it believes in the God himself, is still utterly dependant upon human beings. Because Gods are created by men, who put a shape upon the merest atom of potential, the grit in the oyster upon which the nacre of the pearl, belief, is layered. Om is Great, but the whole point of the book is that he has one believer, ONE believer, and unless he is within a certain range of that last believer, Om does not exist.
Gods are not real, they don’t exist, they are creations of Man, things that are given shape in the insides of our ignorant heads. Om doesn’t love his worshippers, he doesn’t want to do anything for their benefit, he only thinks of himself. Gods take, not give.
It takes Brutha to change what seems to be inevitable, to divert the tide of history, and he does so by changing Om into a religion without a God, a religion without a Religion. Man creates his own Gods, and this unique individual orders his to do his will, not His.
It’s a stunning, powerful book. Those of a religious bent, who believe too much to accept or understand what Pratchett is saying, will have to work hard at not reading this properly to enjoy it. To me, and thousands others, it is an expression of thought that does the world a very great favour by being so open, so clear, so identifiable, and so funny.
One final, almost irrelevant point. I compared the book’s ending to that of Mort, where a pre-ordained, dictatorial future is displaced in favour of peace, harmony and the business of people going about their own business and not dying in hordes. Small Gods introduces the History Monks, and especially Lu-Tze (and his sweeping brush). Not, on the surface, as we will get to know him, but already subverting history to the benefit of the common man.
And not for the last time, even as Brutha’s long life ends with a final act of beyond the grave compassion fit for what religion should be about, if only you can get it away from Gods.