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THE B-LIST: The deeper themes of Discworld

Pratchett’s philosophy beneath the surface satire

Sir Terry Pratchett poses for a portrait on Jan. 2, 2010 in London. The author died Thursday, March 12, 2015 at his home. He was 66.
Sir Terry Pratchett poses for a portrait on Jan. 2, 2010 in London. The author died Thursday, March 12, 2015 at his home. He was 66.

Tuesday marked the fourth anniversary of Sir Terry Pratchett's death at 66 from early-onset Alzheimer's.

More than any other author, Pratchett shaped me as a person. Four years later, his absence remains a sharp, painful hole.

I take comfort in his prodigious legacy, though, particularly in the 50-plus stories set in his Discworld universe. Discworld belongs in the same eschelon as Middle-Earth and Narnia, a place that looks like our world only slanted. Where all of the usual fantasy tropes — bearded dwarves and scatterbrained wizards and rocky trolls — live but prove to be much more complex than a first blush would suggest.

Like Shakespeare, Pratchett had a gift for witty wordplay and twisting established plots into fresh, vital, new stories. He riffed on the Bard frequently, as well as fairy tales, action movies, Hammer Horror, mythology and more. His books have at least three laughs a page, with their mixture of slapstick, goofy characters and unapologetic puns.

But they're also astonishingly deep. Pratchett is one of the few authors who can make you laugh, cry and seriously think all in the span of a chapter. While many are intimidated by the sheer size of the series, I'll never stop singing its praises or coaxing newcomers into this rich, wild, poignant world.

All of Pratchett's books have unsuspected depths, but here are six that are deeper than most, in no particular order:

1. "SMALL GODS" (1992, book 13). The great and powerful god Om manifests on the Discworld — unluckily for him, he's trapped in the body of a tiny tortoise. The only person who can hear him is the seeming simpleton Brutha, a young man with an eidetic memory. Through a variety of wacky misadventures that will look familiar to those who know the Bible, Brutha becomes Om's latest prophet, teaches the god to care more about his believers and averts a massive war sparked by religious intolerance.

Pratchett never pulled punches, especially when it came to religion. Atheists and true believers alike have praised this novel for its allegories and commentary on sects that blindly follow dogma to the detriment of wider society. More than one person has told me this book helped them through dark periods in their lives as a real "game-changer" of a story.

2. "FEET OF CLAY" (1996, book 19). Someone is poisoning the Patrician of Discworld's greatest city, Ankh-Morpork. Commander Sam Vimes must get to the bottom of the plot while also untangling a mystery surrounding the city's golems, giant clay men who toil ceaselessly for their masters, controlled by the words put into their heads.

At first blush, this is a classic police procedural. There's plenty of clues to be collected and shadowy cabals to be uncovered. But then the golem Dorfl appears, a voiceless slave trying to right a terrible mistake. Dorfl's struggle elevates "Feet of Clay" to a powerful commentary on slavery and the nature of personhood, leading to an emotional and triumphant climax: "Words in the heart cannot be taken."

3. "HOGFATHER" (1996, book 20). The jolly red-suited Hogfather has been assassinated on the eve of Hogswatch, so the grim DEATH (a kindly if skinny gent who speaks IN ALL CAPS GOTHIC FONT) must don his mantle and deliver presents to the good girls and boys while his granddaughter Susan pursues the killer. Because if nobody believes in the Hogfather by dawn, everything will end...

Belief — in religious figures, superstition and stories — is what ultimately powers Discworld, even more than magic. When belief fades, gods disappear. But as DEATH makes clear to the confused Susan, humans need to believe in the little things like Hogfathers if they're to believe in the big things like justice. "HUMAN BEINGS MAKE LIFE SO INTERESTING," DEATH says to his granddaughter. "DO YOU KNOW, THAT IN A UNIVERSE SO FULL OF WONDERS, THEY HAVE MANAGED TO INVENT BOREDOM?"

4. "THUD!" (2005, book 34). A dwarf rabblerouser preaching racial purity has been murdered, and the obvious signs point to a troll. But Commander Vimes smells a rat, and swiftly follows the trail to a monumental cover-up that began centuries ago. What really happened at Koom Valley? Has the age-old war between trolls and dwarves been nothing but a lie?

Pratchett loved to comment on the insidious consequences of othering people and casting an entire race as a monstrous bogeyman — the overtly frightening trolls are a handy stand-in for whatever group is currently being demonized on TV. Beyond the obvious themes of racism and ethnic cleansing, "Thud!" also touches upon the dangers of blindly enforcing gender roles — the always-outwardly-male dwarves are facing a feminist revolution headed by Corporal Cheery Littlebottom — and the destructive nature of impartial justice in the form of a quasi-demonic entity called the Summoning Dark.

5. "MONSTROUS REGIMENT" (2003, book 31). Teenaged girls of various species don male disguises to enlist in the army of Borogravia in order to save their brothers, lovers and patriarchal country from total destruction.

There are shades of Joan of Arc and the Napoleonic Wars in this condemnation of jingoism and female oppression as Pratchett pointedly makes clear that women have always been capable equals deserving of respect.

6. "SNUFF" (2011, book 39). While on vacation with his family at their country estate, Commander Vimes learns that a greedy noble plans to sell an entire colony of local goblins, a race currently classified as a "pest" rather than a sentient species.

Good ol' Sam Vimes. He's the angriest People's Champion, someone who defends the underdog no matter how smelly or weird that underdog is. When Vimes discovers an entire race of feeling, thinking people has been nearly eradicated and enslaved, he leaps into action while his good wife Lady Sybil deftly goes about changing the minds of Discworld's ruling elite with a handful of invitations. It's always a delight to see the Vimes family make the world a better place — both the Discworld and ours.

• ANGIE BARRY is a page designer and columnist for The Times. To suggest future topics for The B-List, which covers pop culture, history and literature, contact her at abarry@shawmedia.com.

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