Monday, May 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #138: The Folklore of Discworld by Pratchett and Simpson

Your fiction needs to be really popular before it spawns pseudo-non-fiction about it -- massively, bestseller-level popular. (It also helps if you're writing about an invented world: no one's yet done a guide to the legal universe of John Grisham or an explication of the weaponry of Alex Cross, since those are the same as the real ones.) It might surprise some Americans to know this, but Terry Pratchett is at that level, many times over.

And so there seems to be nearly as many books about Discworld as there are novels by Pratchett set in Discworld -- four volumes of The Science of, by Pratchett with two noted British scientists and science popularizers; a long sequence of annual desk diaries; several picture books for young readers as if they were directly from the Discworld itself; three editions of an encyclopedic companion; several fold-out maps with accompanying booklets; at least one quote book; and the indescribable Nanny Ogg's Cookcook. And, also, this book: The Folklore of Discworld, credited to Pratchett and folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, originally published in the UK in 2008 and brought to the US in its second edition just a couple of months ago.

It has sixteen chapters, covering the various supernatural (on Discworld) or folkloric (on Earth) aspects of life, from gods and demons to non-human races (dwarfs, elves, Nac Mac Feegle, trolls, Igors, vampires, zombies, golems, and some others), from Lancre and its witches to the slightly different Chalk and its witches, from the tales of mythical heroes (Cohen the Barbarian, for example) to DEATH, including three very miscellaneous chapters near the end to fit in "everything else" under larger headings. The treatment of Discworld matters is, of course, detailed and intricate, and the book treats the details of Pratchett's invented background as entirely true in all instances. The connection to world mythology is slightly more haphazard, made more difficult by the authors' decision not to actually look at how Pratchett turned real mythology into Discworld stories, but instead to pretend the Discworld is The One True Reality and that Earth mythology is a sometimes dark mirror reflecting it.

I suppose that's understandable: since Folklore of Discworld will sell entirely to Discworld fans, it makes sense for the book to go out of its way to schmooze them. This is amusing in small doses, but does tend to pall over five hundred pages: surely anyone capable of reading a book like this will realize that Pratchett actually created his Discworldian versions of dwarfs, vampires, witches, and "pictsies" from what he knew of Earth folklore, and not the latter? But any reader looking for Pratchett to actually delve into the details of his creation -- why did he choose one particular version of a folksong? how do his creepy villains derive from his readings of fairy tales? did he plan to make dawrfs and trolls such a clear racial allegory or did it happen unconsciously? where did Pratchett go for inspiration? has his thinking about folklore changed over the last decade as the series has been more influenced by Dickens and ideas of progress than by its traditional folkloric plot spurs? -- will be disappointed; Folklore of Discworld does not threat the Discworld novels as novels at all, but as absolutely true accounts of a world that really exists and is more important and real than our own.

So this is an amusing and intermittently informative guide to the supernatural details of Discworld and the bits of Earth folklore most closely connected with those supernatural aspects. If that's what you're looking for -- a more specialized Discworld Companion -- you will be very happy. If you were looking for something with any literary criticism or self-reflection in it, you'll need to keep looking.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment