Terry Pratchett's Discworld: where we are all heroes

As a reader and a writer, I'm over the idea of the 'one true heir'. Fantasy does not concern itself with utopia, it's about fairness.

Kari Sperring
21 September 2015

Pratchett's Discworld rests on the backs of four elephants, which rest on the giant turtle Great A'Tuin. Credit:

The Nac Mac Feegle, the six inch high, aggressive fairies of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, believe themselves to be in heaven. With all its opportunities for thievery, brawling, drinking, trouble-making and adventure, what place could possibly be better than where they find themselves right now?

But fantasy in general does not concern itself much with ideas of utopia. I can think of some that do: J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion about Valinor, the perfect haven of the elves; the end of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, which is essentially a glimpse of heaven as Lewis imagined it. Both of these are older and written in part with a religious purpose, using fantasy settings as allegory.

A lot of fantasy is, however, concerned with justice and fairness and doing the right thing. Along with the Nac Mac Feegle, the closest thing we have in the genre to utopia just might be Discworld. 

As a species, we humans yearn for fairness. We want a world where the rules always work and where things turn out for the best more often than not. We want a world where we aren’t automatically trapped by our race or class or gender or sexuality or place of birth.

The problem is not just that the real world isn’t fair, but that everyone has different ideas as to what fairness is, and how to achieve it. That may be a long way to say that I don’t really believe utopia is possible in reality, and in fiction, it probably isn’t what we expect it to be.

My idea of heaven does not map too well with that of the Nac Mac Feegle, but when I stop and think about it, when it comes to Discworld, they’re on to something. I don’t yearn for thievery and poaching, but I do long for a fairer world. And Discworld is one of the fairest worlds I know.

It’s not a tidy kind of fairness. Discworld has rules and internal logic, which applies to everyone equally and often rather messily. The first inventor of a steam engine on Discworld was Ned Simnel, who failed to do his maths properly and managed to blow himself up in the process. Mr Hong failed to carry out the necessary research before opening his fish bar on the site of a former fish god temple, on an astronomically significant night in Ankh Morpork, with bad results. All that was left of him was one kidney and half an earhole.

As in reality, on Discworld, actions have consequences and they aren’t always pleasant, but they are logical and they pay attention (sometimes, anyway) to the intentions of the people involved. Mr Hong nearly precipitated a cataclysm but he didn’t mean to and in the end while he suffered, the rest of the city did not. Ned Simnel turned himself into pink steam but his son Dick read his notes, did the maths properly and invented a working, non-fatal engine. Most of the time on Discworld, carelessness does not cost multiple lives and tyrants fall (often embarrassingly).

The bulk of Pratchett’s heroes are ordinary people, not particularly clever or good-looking or advantaged. Some of them are kind and decent, like Captain Carrot of the Ankh Morpork Watch, the city's incompetent police force, or the witch Magrat, but a lot of them aren’t. They’re just people, with a full complement of flaws. But these ordinary people come up against big problems, familiar problems of injustice and cruelty and unfairness, and they fight back in a variety of ways (some devious, some dirty) and they win.

Many of the Discworld books deal with discrimination, particularly that based on race – species, on the Discworld – and the outcomes are fair. Things get better.

In Unseen Academicals, the protagonist is an orc, a species feared and despised by many. But it’s his skills and intelligence that save the day. This is recognised by those around him. Discworld is a highly moral universe, one in which the intent of actions is taken into account as well as their outcomes, in which the million-to-one-chance comes off (and the characters know this and play up to it), in which no-one gets a pass because they’re special or privileged. It’s a world in which the little people – the workers who run the Clacks system of communication, say – can take on Big Business and Big Power and win (this happens in Going Postal). And anyone who wants to set himself up as a tyrant is liable to come to a very sticky end.

Discworld is partly built with 'narrativium', the most common element found on that planet, (followed by earth, water, fire, air and surprise). Its job is to ensure that stories of all kinds come out properly. It’s helped out the by History Monks, an order that exists to make sure history runs as it should and who have the time bending powers needed to ensure this. The moral structure is built into Discworld from the start.

This is not so for most other fantasy worlds. I said earlier that fantasies tend to avoid utopia, but are often concerned with how we might build a more just society. Many of these tend to familiar paths – true heirs or characters with extra-special powers save the day for everyone else. These latter are not utopias – unless you consider the rather lazy trope of the true king to ensure utopia after the end of the book.

I prefer the ones that are more like Discworld, the ones that place ordinary people at the centre. To me, no society built on inherent inequality or dependent on a ‘chosen few’ can be true utopia, because it depends on the compliance of the many with the dominance of the few.

I don’t know if I want to live on Discworld – I’m not brave enough in the right way. But there are two writers whose worlds I do want to live in, for all that their worlds are far from perfect: Juliet E McKenna and Kate Elliott. Like Pratchett, both tend to focus on ordinary people as protagonists – shopkeepers and inn staff, peddlers, common soldiers, itinerant workers, servants, slaves and former slaves, farming people driven from their home by war, rape survivors, people dealing with disabilities. The characters are up against huge odds.

In McKenna’s 'Lescari' revolution books, ordinary people have endured years of endemic war under a harsh feudal system; in Elliott’s 'Crossroads' series, an ancient system of law and order is breaking down under years of apathy, under-resourcing, corruption and loss of knowledge. In both worlds, those with power and rank are happy to use their position to extract maximum gain for themselves and without thought or care for those under them.

In many fantasies of revolution or upheaval, the solution would be a true heir – in Lord of the Rings the hero Aragorn helps overthrow the evil Sauron, ascends to the throne of Gondor and All Is Well – or an external saviour: Lucy, Peter, Susan and Edmund defeat the white witch and become rulers of Narnia.

Both as a reader and a writer, I’m rather over this answer. It cheats: we are seldom told how these new leaders create their golden age. They’re just special, and that’s enough. And as an ending, it’s rather unsatisfactory. The underlying message is that personal agency makes little difference unless the plot – and the trappings of the right bloodline and the right background and the right sense of importance – are already on your side.

That’s a message we hear all too often in the real world and it’s part of the way hierarchies maintain their grip. What I love about McKenna and Elliott is that they stand up against this and tell the other story, the one where ordinary people fight back themselves, without need of a charismatic leader or a magical plot token. Elliott follows the stories of multiple characters through a time of upheaval in their world, showing the effects of wars instigated by the privileged on everyone else. Her characters range from an eagle-mounted reeve, who is meant to administer law, but finds not only society breaking down, but corruption amid his fellows, to a former slave who seeks only to survive, free his sister and make enough to keep them both. In McKenna’s books, a disparate group of commoners find themselves forced to foster revolution in order to survive.

No-one in either series is pure good or pure bad: protagonists make bad choices, get their hands dirty, compromise. But they have agency. They can create change and make it stick. They don’t have to wait for their lords, their leaders to allow them to speak or act. They are their own salvation. And in the current state of their worlds and ours, that’s pretty close to utopia.

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