like Terry Pratchett’s, but taken seriously.
But Terry Pratchett’s is taken seriously. Like, a lot. And it’s basically all darkness-and-stone mysticism, there is nothing else.
I mean of course they have songs that go ‘gold gold gold’ and the right to kingship is handed down via a petrified loaf of bread with someone’s butt imprinted on it.
But in the same breath you’ve got the knockermen, who go down mine-shafts with no source of light on them to face fatal explosions, and the ones who come back are regarded as exponents of sainthood, because they’ve done the impossible. And they talk about what they’ve seen down there, and everyone knows seen has nothing to do with the senses, but with the kinds of things that come to you when you are alone in the silent bowels of the earth with no light. Which. If this doesn’t sound like the perfect setting for the birth of mysticism and religion, I really don’t know, man.
And this, this seen, changes the profession from something dangerous and full of fear into something sought-after, that young dwarves volunteer for. And then you’ve got an entire category of people believed to walk between life and death at all times and not really part of the mortal order of things. You enter this profession, your family will kiss you goodbye and think of you as if you’ve left this world.
And then there’s something that Tolkien doesn’t have - religion as politics. By tradition successful knockermen become kings. And other knockermen become fundamentalists to the point where they decree that the amount of time you spend above ground dictates whether or not you’re a dwarf. Like, literally this one thing would bring into question your own nature and, more importantly, whether or not you would belong to a community. You’ve got debates on modernity and traditionalism, the generational effects of immigration and who should rule an entire people and why. There are mentions of social practices that sound an awful lot like religion - like how when a dwarf dies their tools should be melted so they can never be used by a living one, or the fact that it does not matter if you are literally six feet tall, you can still be a dwarf if you performed certain rituals.
And the fact that all of this happens in one of the City Watch books and is pitted against champion doubter Sam Vimes and it still leaves you as a reader kind of speechless and wowed, is saying a lot.
I will argue this always and forever: compared to Terry Pratchett, Tolkien is a pretty lazy writer. A lot of what he did strikes you as extraordinary because he tried to do it systematically and on such a sweeping scale. But going into the smaller details of his world-building, I think the only things he’s ever taken 100% seriously are genealogies and made-up grammar. Tolkien does a lot, and I say this as someone who grew up as a fan of his work. But at the level of story-telling, he builds histories, not societies. He writes with the underlying assumption that we as an audience understand how his world works, because we’ve read what he’s read and have some notions that the Shire is pre-industrial England and the whole War of the Ring thing is basically feudal warfare blown out of proportion etc. etc. Tolkien’s world is fixed, lives in its own past, moves on in forms but not in substance. ‘The King has returned’ is really more of an end of history thing, because past that point evil has been vanquished and everyone will live in peace in an ordered world.
In Terry Pratchett’s writings history only shows up if it has to, sometimes as exposition, rarely as plot, mostly creeping up on you in the form of remarks like ‘Ankh-Morpork is built on Ankh-Morpork’. And this is because Terry Pratchett writes societies, with all that writing societies entails, including religion.
I have actually rarely encountered an author of fiction who takes religion more seriously, because what Terry Pratchett does is treat it as a source of world-organizing principles and by extension of political power. Which, underneath its substance of faith and hope and consolation, is what religion actually evolved as.
I feel like anyone trying to claim that TPratchett doesn’t take dwarf religion seriously hasn’t read The Fifth Elephant. Or should read it again.
Here’s the pertinent section of TFE:
Vimes saw the images in his mind as Cheery explained…
The miners would clear the area, if they were lucky. And the knockerman would go in wearing layer after layer of chain-mail and leather, carrying his sack of wicker globes stuffed with rags and oil. And his long pole. And his slingshot.
Down in the mines, all alone, he’d hear the knockers. Agi Hammerthief and all the other things that made noises, deep under the earth. There could be no light, because light would mean sudden, roaring death. The knockerman would feel his way through the utter dark, far below the surface.
There was a type of cricket that lives in the mines. It chirruped loudly in the presence of firedamp. The knockerman would have one in a box, tied to his hat.
When it sang, a knockerman who was either very confident or extremely suicidal would step back, light the torch on the end of his pole and thrust it ahead of him. The more careful knockerman would step back rather more, and slingshot a ball of burning rags into the unseen death. Either way, he’d trust in his thick leather clothes to protect him from the worst of the blast.
Initially the dangerous trade did not run in families, because who’d marry a knockerman? They were dead dwarfs walking. But sometimes a young dwarf would ask to become one; his family would be proud, wave him goodbye, and then speak of him as if he was dead, because that made it easier.
Sometimes, though, knockermen came back. And the ones that survived went on to survive again, because surviving is a matter of practice. And sometimes they would talk a little of what they heard, all alone in the deep mines … the tap-tapping of dead dwarfs trying to get back into the world, the distant laughter of Agi Hammerthief, the heartbeat of the turtle that carried the world.
Knockermen became kings.
(Fun fact: Knockers, also knackers, are mythical creatures that live/exist/dwell in mines. There are two schools of thought on the knocker: one holds that he is a malicious spirit who taps on the walls and props of the drift to cause cave-ins, and the other believes him to be a friendly and helpful spirit whose tapping and knocking on the walls is meant to warn the miners that collapse is imminent and to get the hell out. They are sometimes considered to be souls of dead miners, but whether they are tapping to get back into the world or to warn of impending danger is up for discussion.)
This isn’t even going into the whole Things Tak Wrote, or that Tak does not require dwarfs to think of him; he merely requires them to think. This kind of stuff that makes you blink and go o-oh… isn’t limited to the main Discworld books. Read The Amazing Maurice for another wonderful, creeptastic, moving description of religion: people going into the dark, alone, for the good of the clan; hearing things, coming back changed.
Aaaahhh I just fucking love Terry Pratchett ok
i honestly think terry pratchett is one of the best writers in the english language.
his greatness is disguised by genre; you’re not allowed to take fantasy seriously. but his grasp of human nature and society is a level above anything i’ve seen from even the ‘great authors’ you have to read in school. he groks people.
unfortunately, his most recent book was more like an outline than a novel; i think alzheimer’s has finally stolen him from us. :(
Pratchett’s view of religion and faith and how people work has always been stunning to me. He just seems to have a way of cracking open truths. I haven’t read his latest book, but the idea that his time with us is drawing to an end is heart breaking. (We were supposed to get a third Moist book!)
One conversation from Hogfather has always stuck with me.
Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers?
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
Susan: So we can believe the big ones?
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing.
Susan: They’re not the same at all.
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged.
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what’s the point?
Death: You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?
Too good not to reblog.