“If complete and utter chaos was lightning, then he’d be the sort to stand on a hilltop in a thunderstorm wearing wet copper armour and shouting ‘All gods are bastards!” – Rincewind
In 2011 I watched a two-part film in a fantasy world, not entirely unlike our own. It featured an intrepid traveller with an affinity for finding disaster and chaos, a cowardly wizard, a hero and a tribe of dragon-riding warriors. When you put it like that, it sounds like almost every other children’s fairy tale to a lesser or greater extent. But it wasn’t. Add in dry wit, sarcasm and a good serving of dark humour and it becomes something more. Further characters such as a murderous piece of luggage that will homicidally protect its’ master and the oft-despairing countenance of Death, and I was hooked.
This film, of course, was the adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld-debut – The Colour of Magic. This started my love affair with the series, right through to the most recent, and penultimate book. Speaking to other Discworld fans, a great deal of them would argue against this book as a starting point for anyone who hasn’t read any of the series. Many posit that it isn’t Pratchett’s finest work. That may be true, but back in 1983 it is very likely the author had no idea this one book would become a forty-book series beloved by many, let alone having any fully-formed idea of how it would all look.
The Colour of Magic introduces the idea of The Discworld – a round, flat world perched on the sunburned shoulders of four enormous elephants, who in turn stand on the shell of a giant space turtle – Great A’Tuin. Sounds a little like the old-world view of a flat Earth (save for the elephants and giant turtle!). This isn’t the only Roundworld connection though, as the series does a fantastic job of parodying Earth.
The Colour of Magic introduces a couple of characters that feature heavily throughout the series – a skeletal figure of Death who tries to understand the human condition, and Rincewind – a failed wizard who tries to avoid danger at all costs. Rincewind inadvertently finds himself employed in the roll of guide to the Disc’s first tourist, Twoflower. The tourist is an inquisitive fellow that seems to attract trouble; mostly due to a valuable piece of luggage on legs and a large stash of gold coins he carries that is worth far less in his home than here in Ankh-Morpork.
As a result of this hitherto unseen wealth, the tourist does not go unnoticed in the largest city on the Disc. The ruler of Twoflower’s home land would rather he not return, lest others gain a sense of wanderlust and head out for pastures new. This leads to the Guild of Assassins being contracted to ensure he disappears. At the same time, the Guild of Thieves have become very aware of the newcomer, and naturally aren’t happy at the prospect of his possible demise. In a show of truly Earth-like entrepreneurial nous, a new guild is formed. The Guild of Merchants forms, seeing the benefits of keeping the wealthy wanderer alive so he might spend his gold in the twin city.
Amidst the chaos, and subsequent burning-down of Ankh-Morpork, the hapless duo makes haste in leaving the city. This leads to a trek around the Disc with plenty of misadventure and danger to boot. Run-ins with barbarian heroes, encounters with a tribe of dragon riders and escaping other-dimensional deities are just some of the troubles the pair face. And let’s not forget the culmination of their disasters – a plunge over the edge of the Disc.
In another nod to the real world, the Discworld is home to a great many Gods and Godesses. And religion, too, is not immune to Pratchett’s satire. In a very tongue-in-cheek manner, Rincewind, who is very much not religiously-minded, makes sure to make an offering from time to time to some of the numerous deities – after all, you never know when you might need one.
So maybe this particular book isn’t the strongest in Terry Pratchett’s series, but I cannot think of a better place to start. It is dark, witty, laugh-out-loud funny and if nothing else, it is where it all begins.
I think I will follow Rincewind and Twoflower over the edge of the Disc now, and set out on my next read in the series, The Light Fantastic.