Terry Pratchett Essay - Critical Essays

Pratchett, Terry


Terry Pratchett 1948-

(Full name Terence David John Pratchett) English novelist and children's fiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Pratchett's career through 2004.

Pratchett's books have enjoyed enormous popularity in the United Kingdom over the past twenty years, and in that time frame he ranks second only to author J. K. Rowling in terms of commercial success. Responsible for 6.5٪ of all book sales in England during the 1990s, Pratchett's novels utilize fantastic themes and environments to offer humorous, often biting critical observations on popular trends and modern society. His “Discworld” universe—the primary setting of the majority of his novels—has been acclaimed for its engaging storylines, meticulously described fantasy worlds, and Pratchett's ever-expanding cast of recurring characters. Pratchett is often labelled as a humanist writer due to the detailed attention he ascribes to human foibles as well as his ability to imbue his unique characters with multi-dimensional personalities. His prose style carries an overt satirical bent, allowing him to discuss such important social issues as gender roles, religious fanaticism, war crimes, and violence without seeming to sermonize. This commentary style, combined with his trademark dry humor, has created a sensibility that resonates with his readers, giving him a devout following in England, and increasingly, worldwide.

Biographical Information

Pratchett was born April 28, 1948, in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England. The son of an engineer and a secretary, Pratchett did not display an interest in books until the age of ten, but soon became a regular visitor to the Beaconsfield Public Library where he developed a penchant for fantasy and science fiction, especially such books as The Wind in the Willows, which he often cites as a strong influence. After completing elementary school in 1959, Pratchett chose to attend Wycombe Technical High School rather than the local grammar school, believing that woodshop would be of greater interest to him than Latin. He wrote his first short story, “The Hades Business,” at age thirteen for his school paper. Pratchett later submitted the story to Science Fantasy magazine, becoming a published writer at the age of fifteen. While working on pre-college-level courses in 1965, Pratchett left school to become a journalist at the local paper, the Bucks Free Press. Pratchett has commented that his experiences in journalism have informed his career as a novelist and helped form the basis of his Discworld universe. In 1968 Pratchett was assigned to review books released by independent publisher Colin Smythe. During the course of an interview with Smythe's co-director, Pratchett mentioned that he had written a book of comedic fantasy and asked if Smythe would be interested in publishing it. Released in 1971, The Carpet People received scant popular attention, though the few reviews it garnered were largely positive. Encouraged by Pratchett's first novel, Smythe published two additional novels by Pratchett, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). Neither book was a best-seller, and Pratchett continued to work as a journalist, eventually moving to the Western Daily Press and the Bath Chronicle. In 1980 he quit journalism entirely to become a press officer for three nuclear plants under the direction of the Central Electricity Generating Board. The timing of Pratchett's career change, he has since observed, was made difficult by the near-disaster at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear facility in 1979. During this period, Pratchett came to believe that the fantasy genre was overstuffed with clichéd heroics and boring, repetitive copies of such defining series as J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. As a satirical response to the bloated convention of stereotypical fantasy fiction, he created Discworld, a surreal universe of real-life contrivances and flawed characters, which he introduced in The Colour of Magic (1983). A new publisher, Corgi, was granted the rights to the paperback edition of The Colour of Magic and arranged for the BBC program Woman's Hour to serialize the book as a six-part edition of its radio broadcast. Interest in Discworld soared after the airing, and Pratchett began devoting himself to writing full-time. The first book in his “Bromeliad” trilogy of children's novels, Truckers (1989), became the first children's book to appear on the British adult paperback bestseller list. Pratchett was honored with an appointment as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1998. In 2002 Pratchett won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for best children's book of the year for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001). In 2004 Pratchett won the W. H. Smith Book Award, in the Teen Choice category, for The Wee Free Men (2003). He resides in Somerset, England, with his wife, Lyn, and their daughter Rhiannon.

Major Works

Though he has released over sixty works of fiction, Pratchett's most enduring and successful legacy is his series of Discworld novels. An absurd planet populated with witches, wizards, trolls, and werewolves, Discworld is a flat circular world which lays on the backs of four huge elephants who, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, the Great A'Tuin. The turtle glides through space with no apparent feelings about the world resting upon his back. The majority of Discworld novels are situated around Ankh-Morpork, a massive cosmopolitan city-state, ruled by the powerful politician Lord Vetinari. At the center of Ankh-Morpork is the Unseen University, an educational institution devoted to instructing wizards and keeping an eye on magical activity throughout the Disc. The rest of the city is controlled by a variety of unusual tradesman guilds—including the Assassins Guild, the Thieves Guild, the Priests Guild, and so on—and law is only enforced by the hapless Night Watch, led by Commander Sam Vimes. Though such settings may seem suited to epic tales of adventure, Pratchett imbues Discworld with characters, situations, and anxieties that more closely resemble modern times. The wizards at the Unseen University fret over obtaining tenure, the Night Watch has frequent budget problems, and representatives from the Assassins and Thieves Guild attend city council meetings and argue over taxes. Despite being peopled with warriors and mythological creatures, Discworld is also filled with equally dangerous lawyers, politicians, and bureaucrats. Ankh-Morpork maintains international relations with several foreign lands, which are based on actual countries throughout history—Djelibeybi is modelled after Ancient Egypt, Quirm is based on Ancient Greece, and XXXX is a comic representation of Australia.

Beginning with The Colour of Magic, Pratchett's Discworld novels feature lively comic adventures that offer thinly veiled commentary on a range of topics, including the works of Shakespeare, patriotism, and religion. Pratchett employs a revolving cast of recurring characters that overlap throughout the Discworld narratives and which the author also uses to construct individual series within the larger Discworld series. For example, Guards! Guards! (1989), the first novel to feature Ankh-Morpork's police force, the Night Watch, was written as a crime thriller. Pratchett has written several subsequent crime novels within the Discworld series focusing on the investigations of the Night Watch, including Men at Arms (1993), Feet of Clay (1996), Jingo (1997), and Night Watch (2002). In Wyrd Sisters (1988), Pratchett introduces a coven of witches, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick, based on the legend of the mother, maiden, and crone. The coven became the lead characters in a series of Discworld stories—Witches Abroad (1991), Lords and Ladies (1992), Maskerade (1995) and Carpe Jugulum (1998)—which largely feature adventures that offer opportunities for the witches to remark on gender inequalities and feminism. Pratchett's other recurring protagonists include Death, a character who has appeared in every Discworld novel and possesses a patient, but exasperated curiosity about the living; Death's granddaughter, Susan, who is continually embarrassed about her well-known relative; Rincewind, a cowardly wizard's apprentice who is often challenged to save the world; Twoflower, a naïve visitor to Ankh-Morpork; and Cohen the Barbarian, a fierce though geriatric warrior. Pratchett's titles often incorporate puns and comic wordplay, such as Equal Rites (1987) or Mort (1987), and the direction of the Discworld books has become thematic, with each successive novel skewering certain aspects of life in the real world. In Moving Pictures (1990) Pratchett parodies celebrity culture and Hollywood films, and Small Gods (1992) presents a stirring representation of religious fundamentalism gone wrong. Pratchett's characters frequently play the role of the underdog, drawn into world crises of ludicrous proportions. Unsung and under-appreciated, the heroes of Discworld dwell in the obscure corners of society such as libraries, police precincts, or lowly branches of the Unseen University where they endure mundane lives until an occasion of paranormal significance lands on their doorstep, forcing them into heroic roles. Though the Discworld books attract audiences ranging from teenagers to adults, Pratchett began writing a series of Discworld novels targeted towards children, beginning with The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in 2001.

While the primary focus of his writing career has been Discworld, Pratchett has experimented with other formats, particularly juvenile fiction. His first novel, The Carpet People, written for younger audiences, follows the travails of a miniature society that exists within the fibers of a household carpet. Similar in tone and scope, Pratchett's “Bromeliad” trilogy—comprised of Truckers, Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990)—revolves around a band of tiny tribesmen who live within the walls of a department store. In the “Johnny Maxwell” series, starting with Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Pratchett's adolescent protagonist, Johnny, leads his band of awkward friends through a series of adventures, where Johnny's intelligence and pragmaticism allow him to outsmart the oblivious adults in his suburban community. In addition to his children's works, Pratchett also co-authored Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990) with Neil Gaiman, a comic novel in which an angel, Aziraphale, and a demon, Crowley, join forces to prevent Armageddon due to their mutual enjoyment of earthly pleasures.

Critical Reception

Commentators have frequently noted the disparity between Pratchett's unprecedented popular success as a novelist in the United Kingdom and the almost complete lack of critical attention paid to his works. Despite being one of the most read authors in British history, Pratchett only received his first major literary award in 2002 for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Some, including Pratchett himself, have argued that scholars and literary critics have marginalized Pratchett's writing due to his use of fantasy settings in his novels. Such reviewers have asserted that, because Pratchett labels himself as a “fantasy writer,” that his works can not be taken seriously and amount to nothing more than humorous diversions written in a literary genre known best for stories of entertaining escapism. However, Pratchett's novels have been championed by a growing number of critics who have asserted that the debate over his legitimacy as a serious novelist only arises due to the poor reception generally given to the fantasy genre. These supporters have commended Pratchett for using the surreal and exaggerated environments of Discworld to offer insightful commentary on the absurdism of the modern world. Pratchett's prose style has been noted for his penchant for wordplay, a talent that has prompted favorable comparisons to fellow humorists P. G. Wodehouse and Douglas Adams. Commentators have also lauded Pratchett's ability to retain a sense of freshness in his writing—particularly in the thirty-plus volumes of Discworld series—by varying narrators, locations, and thematic elements throughout his novels. Though some reviewers have argued that Pratchett's pop culture references and frequent puns unnecessarily date his works, audiences have continued to embrace the Discworld series as modern fantasy classics.

Principal Works

The Carpet People (juvenilia) 1971

The Dark Side of the Sun (novel) 1976

Strata (novel) 1981

*The Colour of Magic (novel) 1983

*The Light Fantastic (novel) 1986

*Equal Rites (novel) 1987

*Mort (novel) 1987

*Sourcery (novel) 1988

*Wyrd Sisters (novel) 1988

*Guards! Guards! (novel) 1989

*Pyramids: The Book of Going Forth (novel) 1989

Truckers (juvenilia) 1989

The Unadulterated Cat [illustrations by Joliffe Gray]...

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David V. Barrett (review date 3 January 1992)

SOURCE: Barrett, David V. “Into Terry Pratchett's Discworld: Serious Fun.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 1 (3 January 1992): 33.

[In the following review of Witches Abroad, Moving Pictures, and Reaper Man Barrett asserts that Pratchett's work is both fun and popular.]

Modern fantasy may not have been born with J R R Tolkien, who was himself born 100 years ago today. But for millions of readers of The Lord of the Rings, the great 19th-century figures like Lord Dunsany and William Morris have little significance. Few but elficionados read them any more, whereas Tolkien's name has become as much a household property as Hoover and Biro....

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Tom Shone (review date 22 August 1992)

SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “A View from the Back of a Giant Tortoise.” Spectator 269, no. 8563 (22 August 1992): 23.

[In the following negative review of Small Gods, Shone accuses Pratchett of relying on his popularity without providing an intellectual challenge to his readership in the novel.]

Genre fiction lends itself well to parody. Both Stephen King and James Herbert for instance, have in their two most recent novels lampooned the clichés of horror-writing (clichés with which, it must be said, they had previously picked little argument). It is partly a result of mid-career sag, boredom, a scarcity of supernatural oddities left to tackle—done rats, done...

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Gregory Feeley (review date 27 March 1994)

SOURCE: Feeley, Gregory. “Terry Pratchett.” Washington Post Book World 24 (27 March 1994): 11.

[In the following review of several Discworld books, Feeley laments the longer novels asserting that the stronger works are those where Pratchett practices brevity.]

Terry Pratchett's Small Gods tells of torture, religious repression, death, and the persistence of folly in human affairs. It is an unusual set of themes to come from a writer famous for his delirious comedy, but Pratchett—whatever his reputation as a hip writer of frequently side-splitting humor—has always been a humorist of the most mordant, darkest shade.

His earlier novels,...

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Boyd Tonkin (review date 25 November 1994)

SOURCE: Tonkin, Boyd. “Pratchett's Orient Excess.” New Statesman and Society 7, no. 330 (25 November 1994): 48.

[In the following review of Interesting Times, Tonkin praises Pratchett's use of word play.]

A Martian who scanned the bestseller lists would have no doubt about the identity of Britain's leading novelist. His last novel squats invincibly at the head of the paperback charts; his new one jostles for the hardback top spot. Yes: Terry Pratchett's Pythonesque parodies of sword-and-sorcery fantasy have reached their 17th episode, with Interesting Times Many critics on the quality papers have cheered his wit and wisdom, while sneering at unhip...

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Edward James (review date 23 December 1994)

SOURCE: James, Edward. “Unseen University.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4786 (23 December 1994): 21.

[In the following review of Interesting Times, James asserts that Pratchett has grown from parodist to a commentator on the world at large.]

When a new Discworld (or Discworld®) novel is published, it goes straight into the bestseller lists. Pratchett's loyal band of followers has, since the mid-1980s, grown into a dedicated army, and, in the past twelve months alone, it has been rewarded with two new Discworld novels, a series of audio tapes, The Discworld Companion and a detailed street-map of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld's greatest city (motto:...

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Andrew M. Butler (essay date summer 1996)

SOURCE: Butler, Andrew M. “Terry Pratchett and the Comedic Bildungsroman.Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, no. 67 (summer 1996): 56-62.

[In the following essay, using Mikhail Bakhtin's Rabelais as context, Butler argues that Pratchett's novels mix a carnival atmosphere with the concept of the bildungsroman to accomplish change in both the characters and the world they inhabit.]

It would be extremely interesting to write the history of humour. We would have to pay special attention to time: adventure time, carnival time, fairy-tale time, and of course, comic timing. And as time is relative to space, then we need to pay attention to...

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Renata Rubnikowicz (review date 5 July 1996)

SOURCE: Rubnikowicz, Renata. “Master of Flat Earth.” Times Educational Supplement, no. 4175 (5 July 1996): 1.

[In the following review, Rubnikowicz examines the enduring popularity of Pratchett's writing.]

For an author whose fantasy creation is the subject of intense Internet discussion, Terry Pratchett, inventor of Discworld, seems strangely unmoved by the electronic revolution. “If you are not careful, the Internet can be quite an expensive way of becoming stupid,” he says.

His eyes do light up at the word “book”—and it's not only because he has sold six and a half million of them worldwide. “A book is the ultimate interactive...

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Terry Pratchett and Elizabeth Young (interview date 24 October 1998)

SOURCE: Pratchett, Terry, and Elizabeth Young. “Terry Pratchett's Weird World.” Guardian (24 October 1998): 10.

[In the following interview, Young attempts to define the forces that drive Pratchett to write within the fantasy genre.]

Terry Pratchett has finally achieved the status of a national institution as our foremost comic novelist. He is the literary equivalent of John Peel—similarly known as a lovely man. Modest, unpretentious, ironic, both he and Peel emanate a comfortable sort of mild subversion, like a favourite woolly jumper at a black-tie dinner.

It would be worse than uncharitable to mutter, like the mother in the Louis MacNeice...

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Michelle West (review date April 1999)

SOURCE: West, Michelle. Review of Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett. Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 96, no. 4 (April 1999): 36-40.

[In the following excerpt, West argues that a seasonal novel such as Hogfather examines complex issues in addition to being a basic Christmas story.]

Speaking of strong affection, it's that time of year again. Pratchett time.

It's also a month away from Christmas at this writing, which makes Hogfather, the latest Pratchett offering, particularly timely. There isn't, so to speak, a Christmas tradition in Discworld—I mean, in a city like Ankh-Morpork, where suicide is defined as saying the wrong...

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Kay Douglas (review date 9 May 1999)

SOURCE: Douglas, Kay. “You Call That a Knife?” Washington Post Book World 29 (9 May 1999): 8.

[In the following review, Douglas contends that The Last Continent is not Pratchett's most compelling work, but like all of the Discworld novels, it is enjoyable.]

British author Terry Pratchett is sometimes referred to as “prolific,” a term used almost reproachfully. Not only is he prolific, but he also writes books which for lack of a better description are classed as fantasy. “Surely,” the Serious Reader sniffs, “you're joking.”

No, mate, I'm not. Welcome to the 22nd novel in Pratchett's Discworld series, The Last Continent. A...

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Terry Pratchett and Observer (interview date 24 October 1999)

SOURCE: Pratchett, Terry, and Observer. “The Books Interview: Terry Pratchett.” Observer (24 October 1999): 12.

[In the following interview, Pratchett discusses his goals in creating Discworld as well as the influences that prompted him to become a writer.]

Terry Pratchett owns up to being ‘born in what is very nearly the last century’, living ‘behind a keyboard’ in Wiltshire and becoming an overnight success after 15 years of writing.

[Observer]: You're probably the most successful novelist in the world, in English.

[Pratchett]: I cannot possibly believe that that is true. I would make no such claim. I've...

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Terry Pratchett and Locus (interview date December 1999)

SOURCE: Pratchett, Terry, and Locus. “Terry Pratchett: Discworld and Beyond.” Locus 43, no. 6 (December 1999): 4, 73-6.

[In the following interview, Pratchett discusses his hopes for humanity's future, his beliefs about the nature of science, and his feelings about the marketing of the Discworld series.]

Terence David John Pratchett was born April 28, 1948 in Beaconsfield, Bucks., UK, and attended High Wycombe Technical High School, where his story “The Hades Business” appeared in the school magazine when he was 13, and commercially in Science Fantasy just two years later. He studied Art, History, and English, but left school at 17 for a newspaper...

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Fritz Lanham (review date 9 April 2000)

SOURCE: Lanham, Fritz. “Terry Pratchett: Secret Success.” Houston Chronicle (9 April 2000): 14.

[In the following review of The Fifth Elephant, Lanham seeks to introduce Pratchett to American audiences unfamiliar with the novelist's work.]

Who was the best-selling living fiction writer in the United Kingdom during the last decade? Whose novels accounted for 6.5 percent of the hardcover fiction sales in that country in 1998? John Grisham, you guess? Or J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame?

Wrong. The answer is Terry Pratchett.

To which you might well reply, Terry who?

Pratchett is a 52-year-old...

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Helen Falconer (review date 18 November 2000)

SOURCE: Falconer, Helen. “Speaking Truth to Power.” Guardian (18 November 2000): 10.

[In the following review of The Truth, Falconer holds that Pratchett's abilities as a political satirist are growing.]

Terry Pratchett is famous for writing comic fantasy, but there is more to him than that—he has developed into a scathing political satirist. Thus, despite there being plenty of wizards around in Discworld adept at turning one element into another, in this 25th novel in the series [The Truth] those conjuring gold from lead are messing with reality in a far more dangerous way—they are producing Ankh-Morpork's first daily newspaper.


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Cherith Baldry (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Baldry, Cherith. “The Children's Books.” In Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, edited by Andrew M. Butler, Edward James, and Farah Mendlesohn, pp. 20-34. Reading, England: The Science Fiction Foundation, 2000.

[In the following essay, Baldry examines Pratchett's use of his children's fiction to “expand the thinking of his young readers by presenting them with new ideas.”]

Terry Pratchett's children's books amply fulfil the criteria that any child looks for in enjoyable fiction: they are exciting and they are funny. But it will be obvious to most children and all adult readers that they are more than just that. As well as telling an enjoyable story,...

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Andy Sawyer (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Sawyer, Andy. “The Librarian and His Domain.” In Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, edited by Andrew M. Butler, Edward James, and Farah Mendlesohn, pp. 66-82. Reading, England: The Science Fiction Foundation, 2000.

[In the following essay, Sawyer investigates Pratchett's use of the library and the librarian in his fiction, concluding that despite the parodic style, he believes Pratchett's treatment of each is one of respect.]

Evelyn: I may not be an explorer … I may not be an adventurer … but I'm proud of what I am!

Rick: And what is that exactly?

Evelyn: I'm a librarian!

The Mummy (1999)

‘[…] there is no higher life form than a librarian.’

(Pratchett, Stewart and Cohen, 1999: 10)

Libraries in fiction are useful and obvious metaphors for ‘the world’. Jorge Luis Borges's ‘The Library of Babel’ is wittily echoed in Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose and Gene Wolfe's ‘Book of the New Sun’ series. Even the ‘Introduction’ to Gene Wolfe's Book of Days turns out to be a brief but telling moral parable about a library's revenge on a book thief which plays on a Borgesian fusion between ‘world’ and ‘library’. Terry Pratchett's fiction takes a much more pragmatic stance: more openly comic, less apparently interested in the metafictional games of ‘literary’ writers. Nevertheless, the institution of the Library requires a mediator between the knowledge within it and the individuals who need that knowledge. Guardians/interpreters are necessary: people who understand the ‘universe of knowledge’ and can find their way about in it. Librarians in ancient Egypt were priest-scribes, ‘Keepers of the Sacred Books’. To imagine a librarian as a wizard is not, therefore, an inappropriate step to take.

Compared to opera, the police procedural, religion, and other targets of Pratchett's humour, libraries and librarianship are peripheral to the Discworld series. Peripheral, that is, in the sense that there are no novels entirely focused upon them in the same way as Carpe Jugulum parodies the vampire story or Maskerade the opera. But there are numerous references to libraries and books throughout the series: chiefly, of course, the library of Unseen University. It is this library, and more specifically its librarian, on which I intend to focus.

Libraries, as repositories of knowledge, and books, as ways in which knowledge is propagated, are important on the Discworld, and elsewhere in Pratchett's fiction. So many people depend on them. The Library of Unseen University is not the only major library on the Discworld. The second largest—until its destruction—is the library of Ephebe in Small Gods. Although its books are the work of philosophers and their purpose is to establish the academic credentials of their authors (‘These aren't books for reading. They're more for writing’: SG, 184), their contents establish the tension between the Ephebians' multivalued approach to metaphysics and the single vision of the Book of Om, which, at least according to the priests, is all its people needs. The philosophers are comic: the Omnian regime is threatening.

Throughout the Discworld series, Pratchett's attitude to ‘book-learning’ is at first sightly ambiguous. Characters like Nijel the Destroyer in Sourcery, learning how to be a barbarian hero from a manual allegedly written by Cohen the Barbarian, are figures of fun. Intellectuals and people who analyse literary texts get short shrift in Pratchett's fiction: he appears both to celebrate books and reading while dismissing those who seem to prefer books to ‘real life’. In fact, this attitude is defensible, and not as anti-intellectual as it seems. Nijel may be mocked, but Coin, whose response to a library of ninety thousand volumes is to order its destruction, is the book's villain. There is a kind of resolution in Small Gods—the saintly Brutha rescues the Library by memorizing it: he ‘reads’ but does not understand, saving the knowledge and opinions but uncontaminated by their pretensions. In Truckers, (the first book of the ‘Nomes’ series), Masklin begins the nomes' exodus from the Store by insisting that everyone who wants (including women) is taught to read: ‘“Anything we want to do, there's a book that tells us how!”’ (T, 113) We can see both stances—satire and a more considered justification—operate in Carpe Jugulum. Verence, the former Fool who becomes King of Lancre and marries Magrat Garlick, is a kind, well-meaning ineffectual sort of monarch who is gently mocked for trying to teach himself ‘kinging’ out of books. Although Verence is trying to do the right thing, he only goes as far as what is in the books, never thinking beyond them. He parrots political clichés to Nanny Ogg (CJ, 39) and out of the best motives almost brings disaster upon Lancre by inviting vampires into the country.

Also in Carpe Jugulum is Mightily Oats, a young Omnian priest whose passion for knowledge causes problems with his faith. Years of study in his country's new libraries (the story is set some time after the events of Small Gods) results in discovering that sacred texts contradict each other and reflect other texts which aren't sacred. Brought up to believe that the Book of Om is Holy Writ, Mightily nevertheless sacrifices it to keep Granny Weatherwax alive. Both Verence and Mightily are similar characters; naive and desperately well-meaning. It is Mightily, however, who shows the more mature attitude to knowledge. Knowledge is a process, not the mere learning of facts. Part of the danger of books is that they are seductive. They can trap us into believing that they are all that knowledge is. By turning this image into literal representation, Discworld reminds us that books can be dangerous. A book stolen from Unseen University Library in Guards! Guards! almost brings disaster upon Ankh-Morpork. The Library is full of tales about books which go out of control (Equal Rites) or perilous domains such as the Lost Reading Room (The Last Continent). If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then an entire library full of it is perilous indeed. It is fortunate that we have librarians to guide us.


Considering that both Casanova (who spent thirteen years (1785-1793) as a librarian for Count von Waldstein in Bohemia) and Mao Tse-Tung both worked as librarians (other celebrated former librarians include Immanuel Kant, J. Edgar Hoover and Pope Pius XI), it seems odd that the profession should be so remarkably obsessed with its image. A recent article in the journal of the Career development group of the Library Association listed numerous websites, from the political to the pornographic, which were designed with at least one eye on the image of librarians as repressed and neurotic (Brewerton, 1999: 158-164). Anthony Brewerton's splendidly-titled ‘Wear lipstick, have a tattoo, belly-dance, then get naked: the making of a virtual librarian’ gave us a wealth of websites including Stacie Marinelli and Tim Baker's ‘Image and the librarian: An Exploration of a Changing Profession’, Linda Absher's ‘Lipstick Librarian’ site and Joy Rutherford's folk song ‘The bold librarian’ which warns young maidens to ‘have naught to do with that roving blade who drives the library van.’ (See bibliography for urls).

Despite this, articles in the professional press concerning the image of librarians are almost obligatory (see also Stevens, 1995: 75-77; Fisher, 1994: 152-154; Brewerton, 1993: 22-23; Fisher, 1990: 52-55). While this article was being written a letter in The Guardian complained about a fashion show being built around the theme of ‘sexually frustrated librarians’ (The Guardian, February 21 2000). But then, librarians have never been fashionable, and perhaps the rather desperate attempts for credibility cited by Brewerton are justified. High Culture had Philip Larkin, Umberto Eco and Jorge Luis Borges to look up to. Long Overdue: A Library Reader (1993), overtly published as a celebration of the profession, was an anthology of snapshots from library life which included selections from these three writers and numerous others (including Terry Pratchett). Nevertheless while during the 1970s and 1980s horror writers such as Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell were featuring librarians as characters, the public image of a librarian in Britain was Ronnie Corbett living at home with his Mum in the TV sitcom Sorry (broadcast March 1981-October 1988).

The appearance of a new ‘librarian’ character in the books of Terry Pratchett was welcome. This may have had something to do with the revision of the traditional image which has resulted in websites such as ‘Lipstick Librarian’ and such figures as Rupert Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (diffident but cool), but the popularity of a librarian as an orangutan had as much to do with the way which librarians saw him as an ironic defence of the profession rather than as a comment on their image itself. There are suggestions about the relationship of librarians to the organisation of knowledge in Pratchett's work which go beyond images of librarians as bespectacled spinsters or henpecked males in tank-tops. The Librarian of Unseen University certainly presents us with some of the standard clichés of how a librarian acts and behaves, but he is also a standard-bearer. To understand why this is it is necessary to look at both librarianship and the Librarian and his domain and to see how the conceptual links between them result from the kind of parody which celebrates rather than satirises.

Pratchett at one point was certainly something of a cult figure among librarians, particularly those working with children and young people. His popularity can be put down to the fact that here were books which people of all ages could enjoy, which librarians could offer to young people with the feeling that they were allowing access to something both popular and worthy; which didn't need ‘promoting’ because their audience had already discovered them, and which attracted into libraries people who would not otherwise enter and turned them into avid readers. According to a recent survey, Terry Pratchett is still the fifth most popular author among British children, while two of his paperbacks are high in the ratings of ‘fastsellers’ for 1999 (The Guardian, January 3 and 8 2000). This ‘popularity’—linked with a sense among those who read him that here was a writer for whom the virtues of story, moral tale, a joy in language were important—was, however, the public excuse. More to the point was the fact that with the Librarian of Unseen University Pratchett had created a role model with whom librarians in the beleaguered 1980s could identify. With three hundred pounds of muscle, huge yellow fangs, a passionate devotion to his territory and a hair-trigger temper, here at last was a librarian for whom ‘budget cuts’ were something that happened to other people and to whom overseeing committees were suddenly extremely polite. ‘[I]t was the way he could roll back his upper lip to reveal more incredibly yellow teeth than any other mouth the University Council had ever seen before that somehow made sure [keeping his job] was never really raised’ (GG, 9). First appearing in The Light Fantastic (LF, 11), where the Head Librarian of Unseen University is accidentally transformed into ‘a small sad orang utang’ (sic), he becomes a source of parody not only of librarians themselves, but also of their patrons and the worlds in which they live. ‘Life as an orangutan was considerably better than life as a human being, because all the big philosophical questions resolved themselves into wondering where the next banana was coming from’ (ER, 150).

Parody is a particularly double-edged form of humour. It is not a matter of simply satirising a target: in fact, the most successful parody is hardly satire at all, for to parody a form or an institution effectively one has to understand it to the point of affection. Bad parody—I could take the opportunity here to cite Rich Parsons and Tony Keaveny's Colin the Librarian in which the eponymous hero is a nerdish role-playing game obsessive who fails his A-levels and has no discernable social skills whatsoever, so of course the only place he can possibly work is the local library—gets its facts wrong (Parsons and Keaveny, 1994). (No one as socially inadequate as Colin would possibly get a job in any public library I have worked [or interviewed] for. We may be inadequate, but we're not inadequate in that way.) By simply assuming that ‘librarian’ and ‘gamer’ are funny, Parsons and Keaveny miss what actually is parodiable about them—for instance librarians' obsession with professional status. And in any case, Colin is not a librarian. He is an unqualified library assistant. Pratchett, on the other hand inserts conventional ‘librarian’ jokes into his narrative but also builds up a structure which effectively describes a workable model of librarianship recognisable to librarians. In doing so, he parodies scholarship, librarianship, and librarians—and also the symbolic literature which rests upon them. In both the above description of Unseen University Library and the following discussion of what Pratchett's ‘library’ fiction is parodying, it might also be worthwhile to keep in mind that L-Space is not significantly different from the physical labyrinth described in The Name of the Rose: and that that library too offers physical and metaphysical dangers and is guarded by a librarian who alone has access to its contents.


As an institution, the Library share the antiquity of the University—in fact pre-dates it. We can trace the library as a systematic attempt to collect and classify all knowledge back to at least the library of Alexandria (built between 300 and 290 BC and destroyed AD 640) and almost certainly to Ancient Egypt (Thompson, 1977: 3, 102). A tomb dating from the days of Rameses II (c1304-c1237 BC), excavated in the nineteenth century, turned out to be that of that of the ‘Keeper of the Sacred Books’ and his deputy. During the Middle Ages of Western Europe, libraries were associated with cathedrals and monasteries and the preservation of knowledge. The custom of chaining books to the shelves was well-known and curses were placed on book thieves. (A copy of St Augustine's Opusculi, from the library of Mont-Saint-Michel in France, now in the municipal museum of the nearby town of Avranches, is inscribed thus:

If anyone steals this book or by any means removes it from the Church of the Blessed Archangel Michael […] let him receive the curse of God Almighty and the Holy Angels and all the Faithful of the Holy Church of God [my translation].

Pratchett's Librarian would certainly approve.

In these libraries—and in those of colleges and universities—the knowledge and literature of Classical times was kept alive, even if in fragmentary form. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the time of founding and consolidating major University libraries (the Bodleian Library was founded in 1602 and Harvard in 1638) and national libraries. The British Museum library was established in 1753, although an earlier proposal for a national library had come from the scholar and sorcerer John Dee in 1556 (Thompson, 1977: 31), and the Library of Congress was founded in 1800. During the nineteenth centuries, the movement to encourage public libraries in Britain, based upon the activities of voluntary self-help groups such as the various local Mechanics’ Institutes, resulted in an Act of Parliament in 1850 which empowered Town Councils to levy a rate for Free Libraries, and the 1964 Public Libraries Act is the framework of our current system. (Public libraries, though, have a much older tradition: they were known in ancient Rome, and during the Middle Ages some of the major monastic collections allowed the public, or at least those who could provide good security, access to their collections.)

‘Libraries’, of course, meant ‘collections of bound codices’ (or, in earlier days, manuscripts or rolls of papyrus). Considerable argument was engaged in during the 1960s and 1970s over whether rates-funded libraries should supply first, paperbacks, and then (as new media became available) recorded music, videos or computer software, but as card-catalogues were replaced by OPACs (On-Line Public Access Catalogues) first in academic and then in public libraries, the arguments over ‘new technologies’ rapidly became a non-issue. Material could be preserved by scanning and storing it electronically. The fact that a text existed as one particular artifact in a former monastic library did not mean that it could not exist as a multiple text stored on a number of CD Roms or hard drives. ‘Virtual’ libraries could be created. The world-wide web was quickly seen as a reference resource of inestimable value and the dream now is for the networks of the Web to become part of the networks which already have linked libraries of all kinds (see, for example the web-page for Project Earl, as well as the numerous ‘gateways’ which offer entrance into the academic library networks).

Perhaps the most important part of these networks is the concept of classification, which is part of what Pratchett calls L-Space. (The other part is this network of ‘virtual’ libraries and the electronic links between physical ones.) It is not part of this essay to discuss in any depth either the theoretics of librarianship or the minutiae of library classification schemes, but it is useful, if one is to appreciate the joke fully, to take some time to consider the topic. There is actually a closer relationship between Pratchett's parody and modern librarianship than many—or at least many non-librarians—might discern. Clearly, once a large collection of books have been brought together, some logical system must be put in place to enable users—librarians, or the public, or both, to find the books they need. This system can be as simple as giving each book a number and a place on a shelf as it is acquired (so that the first book is number one and the nth book is 1+n), or an ambitious attempt to categorise so that books dealing with similar concepts are brought together. The Dewey Decimal Classification, for instance—the one found in most public libraries in Britain and the USA—divides the ‘world of knowledge’ into ten main classes, and then proceeds to subdivide the elements within those classes: Science is 500, Mathematics is 510, Algebra 512, Algebraic equations 512.2 (Thompson, 1977: 150). The Library of Congress scheme, found in most academic libraries, is similarly concerned with dividing subjects, but is a more pragmatic scheme not based on an overall theory of knowledge. Other schemes, suggesting the relationship between the ‘world of knowledge’ and the physical world, are possible. In Eco's The Name of the Rose, for instance, the Abbey's library is laid out on precisely this plan: ‘the plan of the library reproduces the map of the world’ or, rather, the world as it should be (the books of grammarian Virgil of Toulouse are found with the Irish grammarians) (Eco, 1984: 314).

More important than the sense of a hierarchy of subject, however, is the fact that people simply want all the books about particular subjects together on the shelves. In some eyes, practical librarianship is a form of hermetic magic designed to prevent people from actually finding books, by losing them in an artificially constructed maze of symbolic logic. Would it not be easier to have one long sequence of books listed by author and title, or date of acquisition? That question, however, assumes that the reader knows which book he or she wants and can ask the librarian for it. Such an approach falls down in the face of an enquiry which goes something like ‘I need something which will tell me about “building”’: an enquiry which brings together technology, town planning, architecture, the biographies of individual builders or architects, and numerous other applications of the concept. A system like Dewey goes only so far to bring such books together. In contrast, ‘faceted schemes’ analyse subjects into component classes: to quote from the International Encyclopedia of Information and Library Science, ‘the activity of building may be composed of the facets “thing built”, “building materials”, “method of building”, etc’ (Feather and Sturges, 1997). Faceted schemes are thus more concerned with abstract matters: not where a subject fits in with a theoretical model of knowledge-as-a-whole but how something is built up from relationships with other things. Crudely speaking, a librarian classifying by an enumerative scheme such as Dewey needs to find the right number for the subject: a librarian classifying by a faceted classification needs to consider the relationship of the various ‘parts’ of the subject to enable the class-mark to show what the book is about.

Class-marks can be little more than hieroglyphs. ‘Books’, of course, are not ‘subjects’. Books are amalgams of subjects which are constructed in different ways, and few books can be bound down to the idea of a single, specific subject. Should a book about the history of technology in the United States be classified as Technology in the United States, or as United States History? A detailed classification scheme, although it could only place the physical book in one place on the shelves, should be able to suggest all major—some would say, ‘all possible’—variations of approach. However, circumstances change. New subjects emerge (from the 1960s onwards it became embarrassingly obvious for those using the Dewey Decimal Scheme that there was no logical slot for computers and computing) and perfectly adequate geographical subdivisions are called into question by countries subdividing or amalgamating. In most libraries, the requirement of the reader—to find where the books about French are—is usually subordinate to that of the classifier—to show in the overall scheme the relationship between French and other languages (that it is, for instance, a Romance language). Nevertheless, the tension between the two approaches is constant in all classification schemes, and could only be partially resolved with the use of detailed analysis and vast card catalogues. Librarians had to wait until the hyperlinks between concepts could be crystallised by the use of computer-generated indexes: where it did not actually matter that records had been listed one way because the simple change of a sort order could suggest new relationships.

So, libraries are now able (at least in theory) to preserve material, disseminate copies, and create new relationships between concepts—and thus, create new concepts, which is, perhaps one definition of magic. But librarianship is also made up of librarians. The history of modern librarianship is full of figures who fought against immense odds to establish library systems, not only to acquire and build up major collections of books but to develop schemes with which to catalogue and classify them. In the history of the British Library we have Edward Edwards (1812-1886), who came from humble origins (and returned there—he died in poverty in the Isle of Wight) to be appointed to assist in the preparation of the British Museum Library catalogue. Following a series of disputes with his employer Antonio Panizzi (1797-1879), an Italian refugee who became Keeper of Printed Books in 1837, Edwards was dismissed, to become Librarian of the Manchester Free Library, a post he was forced to resign after eight years due to his ‘insubordinate and disrespectful’ attitude to his supervisory committee. Panizzi himself, who was responsible for building the celebrated Reading Room of the library, had annoyed his Trustees on first appointment by overspending his grant allocation, and by 1853 the Library had to suspend purchase of books because there was no room for more.

The American library system owes much to Melvil Dewey (1851-1931) who showed his early genius for librarianship at an early age by classifying the stores in his mother's larder, and who devised the Dewey Decimal Classification, based upon the divisions of the universe of knowledge into related sub-divisions, taking perhaps the first steps into L-space by numbering the subjects of books rather than the books themselves. Dewey was also a propagandist for spelling reform—which he extended into the practice of writing the manuals for his classification scheme—and was not a popular librarian of Columbia College because he insisted on opening the library school he founded to women and making professors as well as students pay fines on overdue books. His association with a private club which discriminated against Jews makes a less happy chapter to his career (Wiegand, 1988). Like Edwards and Panizzi, Dewey eventually found himself forced out of his post, accused of ‘gross insubordination’. All three, we are delighted to hear, ‘were pugnacious, quarrelsome and impatient’ (Thompson, 1977, 137).

Another spiritual forebear of the Librarian might be Shiyali Ramanrita Ranganathan (1892-1972), who was the first Librarian of the University of Madras. As well as taking library classification further into L-space by devising a ‘faceted’ classification scheme called Colon Classification (there is probably room for a Discworld type joke here). Ranganathan also devised the ‘Five Laws of Library Science’:

Books are for use.

Every Reader his book.

Every book its reader.

Save the time of the reader.

[The] Library is a growing organism.

(Ranganathan, 1957: 9)

While the Librarian might quarrel with some of the implications here (such as that readers ought to be encouraged to wear the books out by looking at them), he is an example of Ranganathan's contention that librarianship is a service and not (despite what the ancient Egyptians might have thought) a priesthood. As we will see, The Librarian serves his clients and defends his library. It is merely his methods that are unorthodox.


Upon the Discworld, where magic has a habit of leaking out of the more occult books to form a ‘critical Black Mass’ (LF, 29), the job of librarian at Unseen University, where the Discworld's wizards are trained, is a high-risk operation. Unseen University Library is ‘probably the only library in the world with Mobius shelves’ (LF, 29), where the books have to be chained to the shelves, not to prevent them from being stolen but to stop the magic escaping, and where unwary readers of dangerous texts can find themselves not reading, but being read. Books contain stories—and it is through story, whether it is fiction or the interpretive stories that we call ‘non-fiction’ that we make sense of the world. Perhaps one of the most interesting examples of this comes not in the main sequence of the Discworld novels but in Pratchett's collaboration with scientists Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart, The Science of Discworld, where they write: ‘Narrativium is powerful stuff. We have always had a drive to paint stories on to the universe’ (Pratchett, Cohen and Stewart, 1999: 14).

Elsewhere, we might consider how Borges plays with the very stuff of fiction to have, for instance his author Pierre Menard rewrite Don Quixote for the twentieth century in exactly the same words as did Cervantes in the seventeenth, or how Pierce Moffet, in John Crowley's Aegypt is told ‘There's more than one History of the World’ and pitches his idea for a book exploring the way Renaissance mages misunderstood the second-century Gnostic ‘Hermes Trismegistus’ manuscripts to an editor who almost but not entirely completely misunderstands what he is talking about (Crowley, 1987: 73, 182-194).

Magically transformed into an orangutan, the Librarian develops through the series from his initial ‘small, sad’ throwaway persona to become, like Death (whose eternal efforts to understand the human condition become part of a running sub-plot through the Discworld series), a touchstone against which to test the dramatis personae of the Discworld. He is one of the most prominent examples of an initially minor character becoming one of the pivotal personalities of the Discworld. As a non-human, he has by definition a different perspective to that of the humans who surround him: ‘It wasn't that he was unaware of the despair and nobility of the human condition. It was just that as far as he was concerned you could stuff it’ (S, 16). In particular, however, we see him in contrast to the rest of his community: the wizards of Unseen University. Here he acts as a foil in a similar way as do Granny Weatherwax and the rest of the witches, as part of a moral economy which has the wizards at its centre, and it is worth summarising this moral economy.

In a series of short articles published in The Discworld Chronicle before the second Discworld Convention in 1997, Victoria Martin made some interesting points regarding terms like Right, Good and Nice as they apply to the Discworld's characters (Martin, 1997, 1998). Granny Weatherwax, for instance, is Right, but not Nice. So is the Patrician, who will sacrifice the few for the good of the many. Carrot is Good, but the potential for totalitarianism in his Goodness makes him hardly Right or Nice. Vimes, rather surprisingly, is Nice: he shares with the Patrician and Carrot a passion for the politics of communal living, but is neither as manipulative as one and as idealistic as the other. I would like to extend this to the Discworld's characters' attitude to Knowledge, while bearing in mind that this is more of a spectrum of stances than a series of distinct categories.

At Discworld's heart, as I have said, are the wizards. Unseen University as an institution has been described elsewhere, so I will only briefly consider the wizards as, through their status, owners of knowledge. The Wizards, then, are Clever. Their knowledge is for Knowledge's sake. They have the same relationship to knowledge as priests have to gods: they make sure everyone knows about their ‘special relationship’ and hope that the bluff will not be called. In fact, while wizards and priests are rivals, the confrontation between priests and wizards in Reaper Man shows that they are literally brothers under the skin (RM, 72). Perhaps the most overtly stereotyped characters in the series, the wizards are ‘what everyone knows’ about tradition-ridden Oxbridge Dons. Pratchett's most satirical humour—discounting the Discworld's ‘bad’ characters who use people for their own ends—is directed at academics who claim authority but lack practicality, or who use jargon to cover the fact that they don't really understand what they are saying (although his own humour is frequently centred around that most pedantically academic of literary devices, the footnote).

Wizards can change the world through the practice of magic, but they have no real moral concept of what they are doing. Hived off in their Ivory Tower, neutralised by the manipulative politics of the Patrician and the jealousy of the other Guilds, they have become the most slapstick of the character-sets. When their knowledge is channelled, as by Coin in Sourcery, it is dangerous. (And Knowledge rather than Magic is central to this structure: the plot of Men at Arms is centred around the equal Cleverness of Leonardo da Quirm, who invents weapons of destruction as an intellectual exercise.) Only the increasingly important character Ponder Stibbons (note his first name) actually wants to find things out. Ponder is described in Lords and Ladies and The Last Continent as ‘Reader in Invisible Writings’, using the advantage of a magical library to study those books which have not been written yet: a wonderful metaphor for someone who actually wants to articulate something which has not as yet been articulated.

In contrast to the Wizards, we have characters who can be described as Skilful. These are characters who have a function—a practical trade or craft. Examples could be the Guilds, such as the Guild of Assassins, who can be seen in the early chapters of Pyramids and elsewhere. Their raison d'être is to be good at a particular task. They are practical, unlike the wizards who are primarily theoretical. But practicality itself is not necessarily an unmixed blessing. Death is, more than anyone, an expert. Significantly, in Lords and Ladies he speaks to Jason Ogg ‘as one craftsman to another’ (LL, 5). As we see in Mort, he has a trade—he even has an apprentice—but his horizons are limited by that trade. While he possibly knows more about the eternal verities than anyone else on the Discworld—after all, he is one of them—he has no idea about why people behave as they do.

Linking ‘Clever’ and ‘Skilful’ are such characters as Bloody Stupid Johnson, an unparalleled genius of a craftsman who constantly gets things wrong in the design stage to result in such surreal creations as a maze which is so small people get lost looking for it, and Hodgesarrgh, the falconer in Lords and Ladies and Carpe Jugulum who is not so much incompetent as incapable of controlling his vicious birds (MA, 57-8). In a fine act of applied metafiction, David Hodges (the model for Hodgesaargh) has since written The arts of falconrie and hawking: a beginners guide, carrying on the spirit of the joke: although written in the persona of the Discworld character it is a sound overview of the subject.

Finally, there are the Knowledgeable characters such as Granny Weatherwax or the Librarian, who act as direct foils to the wizards, who could not function effectively without them. The distinction between them and the Skilful is that they are aware of more subtler social nuances than the workings of their specific trades. The Witches are broadly Knowledgable, (Granny, for instance, uses ‘headology’—her understanding of people—to effect change) although Magrat as junior Witch is Skilful, part of a spectrum which includes the title character and the demon king from Eric, or Nijel the Destroyer from Sourcery, who believe that a how-to guide conveys mastery of a subject. Although she grows to learn differently, Magrat works, literally ‘by the book’, not quite realising that witchcraft is as much about understanding and manipulating people as it is about ‘doing things’.

The wizards have the job-descriptions and the status: the Librarian, by virtue of his job-description, is the means by which they operate as wizards. Without him, Unseen University could not operate. Whenever a problem arises which can be solved by information, he knows where it information is, or how to get it.

The Librarian—in a satiric sense—is eminently practical. The eternal verities for him come down to where the next banana is coming from. Like most librarians, he is paid peanuts but, finding himself in a physical form where that is more an advantage than not, he is content. He has a healthy scepticism for the capabilities of his academic colleagues—‘the librarian indicated with some surprisingly economical gestures that most wizards would not find their own bottoms with both hands’ (GG, 101)—because he, unlike them, is aware of the physical and metaphysical structure of the world of knowledge. Only he can control the books: his illness in The Last Continent results in chaos among the volumes as the contents of the books leak and interact (LC, 23) Unlike any other wizard (or librarian), not only does he understand L-Space, but he can travel in it.

In the set-piece in Guards! Guards! from which the immediately preceding quotation is taken, the Librarian reports a crime to Carrot of the Watch. With a vocabulary little larger than ‘Oook’ he is reduced to frantic sign-language to portray to the unfortunate Carrot the enormity of this crime. ‘“Worse than murder?”’ (GG 91; my emphasis). Carrot arrives at the library expecting at the very least to find a body, but (as Edward James describes elsewhere in this book) Guards! Guards! is a parody of the hardboiled detective rather than the genteel English murder-mystery, so this ought to be the last thing we expect. In fact, when we discover that the crime is the theft of a book, our initial reaction is something like that of Carrot's: the joke, of course, is aimed at the stereotype of the librarian who is overly possessive about ‘his’ books—the librarian who insists on silence in the library, clean hands, and believes that folding down the corner of a page to mark your place ought to be a capital offence. ‘The librarian gave him the kind of look other people would reserve for people who said things like “What's so bad about genocide?”’ (GG, 101).

The point (rather than the joke), however, is something more subtle. Within the context of the story, the theft of this particular book is ‘worse than murder’ because the book, which thanks to the Librarian's frantic charades the reader has understood (some time before Carrot) is called The Summoning of Dragons contains the solution of a murderous problem. This punch-line, however, merely indicates the larger joke, which is that the Librarian's resources are actually important. We see in Jingo the Librarian fulfilling Ranganathan's Second Law as he hands over to Vimes the book on Klatch that he requested: Tacticus's book on war. ‘It paid to look at any book the orangutan gave you. He matched you up to books’ (J, 206). Vimes, of course, is a policeman rather than a soldier: what he learns from his experiences is how to keep the peace rather than how to wage war: it is not necessarily what is in the book what is valuable, but how the contents confirm what Vimes intuitively feels about militarism and diplomacy. In Moving Pictures on the other hand, the Librarian saves the day by consulting the forbidden Necrotelicomnicon and interpreting Victor's book about Holy Wood. Again, however—and this is quite literally the case—the question is how to read the book rather than the actual contents of the book itself.


In the mundane world, ‘serious’ librarians talk earnestly about metadata, clumps and distributed catalogues, hybrid libraries and elib projects (see for example Merrick, 1998; Fisher, 1998; Brophy, 1999; Pinfield, 1999; Soper, 1999). All these are jargon terms which sound daunting but are for the most part easy enough to understand (although translating these concepts into working programmes is somewhat more difficult: hence the plethora of conferences and articles about them. Librarianship in the real world today involves more than a knowledge of how to change a date-stamp and how to find the books on cookery and garden design. The opportunities offered by the World Wide Web offers librarians a chance to ‘bring together a range of technologies from different sources in the context of a working library, and also to begin to explore integrated systems and services in both the electronic and print environments. The hybrid library should integrate systems and services in both the electronic and print environments’ (Chris Rushbridge, quoted in Fisher, 1999: 2). This ideal is reached through a number of techniques: library catalogues can be brought together on the web to provide either a geographical resource (all the resources within a particular metropolitan area, for instance, or a resource based upon subject domains or interest-groups). This is what is known as ‘clumps’. ‘Hubs’ or ‘Gateways’ offer one-stop shops for entry into these domains. ‘Distributed Catalogues’ using the Z.39.50 protocol can search across a number of catalogues and display the information to the user. ‘E-Lib’ (electronic library) programmes can combine these cataloguing and indexing protocols with document delivery systems and access to electronic journals. ‘Virtual library’ systems can be built up using the increasing number of electronic texts placed on the web by such projects as the Gutenberg Project or various ad-hoc conversion systems (See http://promo.net/pg/index.html). ‘Meta-data’ is the ‘data about data’ which enables mark-up languages to be created so that electronic resources on a network can be identified, described and located. This leads us to further terms such as ‘Dublin Core’, and ‘Encoded Archival Description’, but at this point it is probably better to turn to librarianship on the Discworld, which involves fewer electronic resources, an almost equally complex system of relationships, and more jokes.

Librarianship here is concerned with describing and locating. Librarianship on the Discworld involves, instead, a fundamental knowledge of what books actually are and how they interact through space and time. We have already discovered that books are dangerous. Governments throughout history have shown that the fear of the contents of a book escaping is one which is only too real. ‘Knowledge is power’. Pratchett extends the joke even further, by introducing the concept of L-Space: the phase-space which links all library catalogues and books together. In ‘real’ library systems, this linkage is only virtual, the metaphysical/metaphorical connection of linking threads between areas of knowledge which major classification schemes such as the Dewey Decimal System trace. Although not always accurately: according to the Bold Librarian:

‘But dost tha truly love me?’ the farmer's daughter said.

‘What d'you mean,’ said the librarian, ‘Just because we've been to bed?

In my most high profession love and sex cannot combine, [spoken] Because SEX is 612.6 and LOVE, which I classify under virtues not otherwise accounted for, is 179.9.

But in the Discworld, this connection is far more than metaphorical. Between the shelves of libraries roam creatures evolved to exist in the environmental conditions of L-Space (such as the Critters who graze on the contents of books ‘leaving behind them piles of small slim volumes of literary criticism’ [GG, 191]) and L-Space itself embodies the very spirit of librarianship. The jokes are, largely, simply what happens: ‘[E]ven big collections of ordinary books distort space […] the relevant equation is: knowledge=power=energy=matter=mass’ (GG, 8). And so, in a library full of magical books, some very strange things indeed occur. Collections of books warp space and time, perhaps because a book itself is an exercise in warping space and time. Reading Tolstoy's War and Peace, for instance in some ways brings us to nineteenth-century Russia, just as Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men takes us millions of years into the future. Books, moreover, are written from, under the influence of, or against other books. Collections of books are a tangled mass of wormholes (or ‘bookwormholes’) linking the space-time continuum like the holes in a piece of Swiss cheese: this also explains why second-hand bookshops all look the same (and all have the identical copy of Charles Lamb's Essays of Elia). The Librarian can follow the lines of connection back through time to retrieve a missing book. L-space is what libraries in the ‘real’ world aspire to. Theoretically, libraries are the putting into action of Rangana-than's axiom ‘Every reader his book: Every book its reader.’ Through the inter-library loan system and the increasing number of on-line catalogues, we are able to track down the locations of even the most obscure book and (sometimes) ensure that is available for a reader. On Discworld, inevitably, things are much simpler. Instead of the libraries being connected by physical networks the Librarian merely has to traverse space and time to fetch the book himself. Librarianship has always been a matter of tracking down the right book: it is just that on Discworld ‘tracking down’ isn't a metaphor. ‘Very senior librarians, however, once they have proved themselves worthy by performing some valiant act of librarianship, are accepted to a secret order and are taught the raw arts of survival beyond the shelves we know […] all libraries everywhere are connected in L-space. All libraries. Everywhere’ (GG, 171).

Librarians, then, are members of a hermetic brotherhood (or sisterhood: most librarians are female): guardians of knowledge, practitioners of a complex system of signs, symbols and relationships. If magic is action at a distance, then books, which allow the possibility of change of geographical and temporal spaces, are inherently magical and those who care for and establish the relationship between books are necessarily wizards. It was not for nothing that the early designers of the internet coined the terms ‘sprites’ and ‘daemons’ for their search engines. But this particular metaphor strains even as it is conceived. It may be true in a metaphysical sense—just as doctors who heal are godlike figures—but how far does it make sense of the Libraries We Know, where bureaucracy and budgets are the watchwords? Such a metaphor is, in the end, idealistic but faintly pompous. It can only be implied by parody and this—more than anything else—suggests why this vital character quite literally apes the hermetic model of librarianship I have described.

The Discworld Librarian, however, is not meant to be an ideal role model for the profession. He is being parodied. TV sitcoms apart, Librarians are parodiable, and just because this librarian is an ape on a Discworld does not stop him from displaying the traits librarians see in each other. Like many librarians he is not good at the universal ideals which two writers in the Library Association's Public Library Journal (in articles on the concept of ‘social exclusion’) saw the profession neglecting for a safer, white, middle-class, academic culture (Vincent, 1999: 93-95; Muddiman, ‘Everyone on board?’, 1999: 96-98). The Librarian may offer encouragement to Esk in Equal Rites, but he is distinctly discouraging to Windle Poons in Reaper Man: “‘He won't let me in because I'm dead!’” (RM, 122).

Above all, he has the correct librarian's attitude to books and their users: The librarian was, of course, very much in favour of reading in general, but readers in particular got on his nerves. There was something, well, sacrilegious about the way they kept taking books off the shelves and wearing out the words by reading them. He liked people who loved and respected books, and the best way to do that, in the Librarian's opinion, was to leave them on the shelves where Nature intended them to be.

(MAA, 231)

Compare The Name of the Rose (Eco, 1984: 185), where Adso notes that the very act of reading a book destroys it as pages are worn by contact with air, dust, and the action of page-turning. Nevertheless there's much to admire in him. He is a traditionalist: ‘Good’ characters in Pratchett are nearly always traditionalists. He fetches books for his colleagues even if he has to traverse the space-time continuum to do so. They respect him (even if it is partly because they don't understand exactly what it is that he does and are intimidated by his whipcord muscles and huge fangs). He has an active social life (we shall skip over the hints regarding whatever it is he does with the Patrician's menagerie, but he is a regular drinker at the Mended Drum and an expert player of B. S. Johnson's organ—in fact, we learn in Soul Music that he played keyboards in the Discworld's first rock band). Despite an unfortunate attitude to the Vitally Challenged, he otherwise does not take prejudice and insults lightly: “‘You don't use the ‘M’ word. Gets right up his nose’” (GG, 146).

Only once, in the series so far, does he become a purely slapstick figure, although neither the Librarian nor Pratchett are to be blamed for the climax of Moving Pictures. A parody of Hollywood which includes an ape and a starlet among its dramatis personae, and has the possibility of a huge climbable building already built-into the scenario can only end one way. Here, Pratchett has been overcome by the sinister shaping power of story which Lily Weatherwax exploits in Witches Abroad. Just as—unless she struggles against ‘the theory of narrative causality’—a Cinderella figure can only marry the prince, so ape, starlet and tower are going to have to meet at the end of the book. Nevertheless, the Librarian does use a book, or his understanding of how books are constructed, to save the world (MP, 306).

In general, common sense saves the day when the wizards are flapping hysterically. Modern librarianship, increasingly connected through the Web, is L-Space in action.

The Librarian is a central figure for three main reasons. First, he is practical. From a ‘bit part’ he becomes a major character. He is a foil to the wizards of Unseen University and a reminder of how much academics need librarians—especially these academics who are bumbling, impractical and in general stereotypical ivory-tower boffins who are of course nothing like academics in real life. Because he is not human, he shows us how ridiculous human beings are.

Second, he illustrates the importance of knowledge: or of the right kind of knowledge. Somewhere between data—raw facts—and knowledge—understanding of how these facts are related—is information. There has always been something of a rivalry between ‘librarians’ and ‘information scientists’: similar (we must construct analogies) to the relationship between the traditional Wizards and the younger advocates of new technologies such as Ponder Stibbons. Information can be described as ‘facts to which a meaning is attached’ (Feather and Sturges, 1997: 185): in other words, communication. The Librarian's job is to communicate: to allow chaotic material to find its way to its users—without, preferably, allowing them to stray, metaphorically or literally, into domains such as the Lost Reading Room or places where ‘an absorbing read’ is not a sign that a book reviewer is groping for something to say. The irony of the fact that he communicates through sign language and a single sound which can mean anything he chooses it to mean is not lost upon the reader, nor his fellow-characters. His skill, however, is to mediate between knowledge-seeker and sought knowledge. The complexities of L-Space reduce, in the end, to the simple matter of the right piece of information arriving to the right person at the right time.

And third—as a coda to his narrative and thematic importance—he follows the fashion for reclaiming an image by emphasising or distorting the received version of it. Just as rap music and its successors allowed black artistes to call themselves ‘Niggers (or, more sensitively, ‘Niggaz’) With Attitude’ and ‘Queer Theory’ thrust itself in the face of homophobe and liberal alike, so librarians allowed themselves to have fun with Pratchett's jokes at their expense because the twist was in the tail:

The three rules of the Librarians of Time and Space are: 1) Silence; 2) Books must be returned no later than the date shown; and 3) Do not interfere with the nature of causality.

(GG, 201)

The revenge of the stereotype is finally seen as the role model returns with three hundred pounds of muscle and huge yellow fangs.

List of Abbreviations

CJ: 1999. Carpe Jugulum. London: Corgi.

COM: 1985. The Colour of Magic. London: Corgi.

CP: 1993. The Carpet People. London: Corgi.

D: 1991. Diggers: The Second Book of the Nomes. London: Corgi.

DC: 1995. Discworld Companion. London: Gollancz (with Stephen Briggs).

DD: 1999. Death's Domain.

E: 1996. Eric. London: Vista.

ER: 1987. Equal Rites. London: Corgi.

FE: 1999. The Fifth Elephants. London: Transworld.

FOC: 1997. Feet of Clay. London: Corgi.

GG: 1990. Guards! Guards! London: Corgi.

GO: 1991. Good Omens. London: Corgi (with Neil Gaiman).

H: 1997. Hogfather. London: Corgi.

IT: 1995. Interesting Times. London: Corgi.

J: 1998. Jingo. London: Corgi.

JB: 1997. Johnny and the Bomb. London: Corgi.

JD: 1994. Johnny and the Dead. London: Corgi.

LC: 1999. The Last Continent. London: Corgi.

LF: 1986. The Light Fantastic. London: Corgi.

LL: 1993. Lords and Ladies. London: Corgi.

M: 1988. Mort. London: Corgi.

MAA: 1994. Men at Arms. London: Corgi.

MP: 1991. Moving Pictures. London: Corgi.

Msk: 1996. Maskerade. London: Corgi.

OYCSM: 1993. Only You Can Save Mankind. London: Corgi.

P: 1990. Pyramids: The Book of Going Forth. London: Corgi.

RM: 1992. Reaper Man. London: Corgi.

S: 1989. Sourcery. London: Corgi.

SA: 1993. The Streets of Ankh-Morpork. London: Corgi (with S. Briggs).

SG: 1993. Small Gods. London: Corgi.

SM: 1995. Soul Music. London: Corgi.

T: 1990. Truckers: The First Book of the Nomes. London: Corgi.

W: 1991. Wings: The Third Book of the Nomes. London: Corgi.

WA: 1992. Witches Abroad. London: Corgi.

WS: 1989. Wyrd Sisters. London: Corgi.

Nickianne Moody (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Moody, Nickianne. “Death.” In Terry Pratchett: Guilty of Literature, edited by Andrew M. Butler, Edward James, and Farah Mendlesohn, pp. 99-111. Reading, England: The Science Fiction Foundation, 2000.

[In the following essay, Moody reflects upon Pratchett's literal personification of Death as a lead character, asserting that Death serves as an anchor to the fantasy occurring around him.]

When the outline of this book was first plotted, the obvious way in which to structure it was to invite contribute chapters on the relatively discrete sequences which have emerged. Consequently, this chapter is intended to consider the sequence in which Death takes the...

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Terry Pratchett and Marianne Brace (interview date 18 November 2001)

SOURCE: Pratchett, Terry, and Marianne Brace. “May the Turtle Swim for Ever: Discworld without End; Not for Nerds.” Independent (18 November 2001): 16.

[In the following interview, Pratchett discusses his feelings about the neglect critics have for the fantasy genre, as well as their seemingly poor opinion of his output.]

While interviewing Terry Pratchett my recorder taped an hour of white noise and my watch lost a day and 25 minutes. Was the Thief of Time at work or were the Auditors of Reality, shady figures who ensure the Discworld universe functions efficiently, trying to tell me something?

Time must be a precious commodity to Pratchett. His...

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Andy Sawyer (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Sawyer, Andy. “Narrativium and Lies-to-Children: ‘Palatable Instruction’ in The Science of Discworld.Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 13, no. 1 (2002): 62-81.

[In the following essay, Sawyer explores the collaboration of science writers Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart with Pratchett in The Science of Discworld, arguing that the fields of science and science fiction only serve to strengthen one another.]

Hugo Gernsback made no bones about claiming science fiction as instructive. His propagandizing editorials form the backbone of Gary Westfahl's defense of Gernsbackian science fiction in The Mechanics of Wonder: The Creation of the Idea...

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Frances Spufford (review date 13 July 2002)

SOURCE: Spufford, Frances. “The Rat in the Hat.” Guardian (13 July 2002): 30.

[In the following review of The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Spufford praises the selection of this book for the Carnegie Medal.]

A talking rat is fighting for his life against a terrier, inside a circle of excited men who whoop and roar and snarl. Another rat bungee-jumps down from the rafters to rescue him. In the instant of astonishment before both rats are whisked skyward, the human onlookers just have time to notice that the rescuer is wearing a tiny boater on his head. He lifts it. “Good evening!” he squeaks.

This is a scene from The...

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Terry Pratchett and Robert Hanks (interview date 13 July 2002)

SOURCE: Pratchett, Terry, and Robert Hanks. “Books Interview.” Independent (13 July 2002): 20.

[In the following interview, Hanks commends Pratchett's ability to write for children without being condescending while still appealing to adult audiences as well.]

There is an undoubted suggestion of the cat who got the cream about Terry Pratchett when I meet him in a hotel room in west London. He is, I would say, feeling just the teensiest bit smug—as most of us would if we sold as many books as he does, and had just won the Carnegie Medal for an outstanding book for children.

The pleasure is enhanced by his genuine surprise at winning. For two...

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Terry Pratchett and Sally Weale (interview date 8 November 2002)

SOURCE: Pratchett, Terry, and Sally Weale. “Life on Planet Pratchett.” Guardian (8 November 2002): 6.

[In the following interview, Pratchett insists the relative lack of critical praise for his Discworld books, and his writing in general, doesn't bother him.]

Terry Pratchett, millionaire bestselling book writer, is something of a conundrum. Here is a man who is probably Britain's most fanatically followed novelist. He has sold 30 million books worldwide and has been translated into 29 languages. He regularly tops both paperback and hardback bestseller lists and is the only author to have topped adult and children's lists simultaneously.

In the...

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Chris Barsanti (review date November-December 2002)

SOURCE: Barsanti, Chris. “Terry Pratchett's Flat-Out Success.” Book (November-December 2002): 26.

[In the following review of Night Watch, Barsanti compares Pratchett's writing style to that of British humorist G. K. Chesterton.]

It shouldn't come as any real surprise who England's bestselling author is: J. K. Rowling. But unless you're either British or a fairly serious devotee of science fiction, you're probably not all that familiar with Number Two. His name is Terry Pratchett, he has dozens of books in print, and the foundation of his fan base goes just a bit deeper than Rowling's does. (The BBC recently determined, for example, that he was the...

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Sara Ludovise (review date 7 November 2003)

SOURCE: Ludovise, Sara. “No Laughs for Monstrous Regiment.America's Intelligence Wire (online news site), (7 November 2003).

[In the following review of Monstrous Regiment, Ludovise voices her disappointment in the novel, asserting the book is a one-joke effort lacking the soul of previous Discworld novels.]


It's not easy being a girl in the land of Borogravia. You can't wear pants, can't join the army, and certainly can't run away from home on a madcap quest to find your dearly departed brother and save the family inn—at least, not unless you blatantly ignore public opinion and continue on your journey amidst the uproar.

So begins Monstrous Regiment, as it sets out to satirize the military, the media, women and minorities who serve in the armed forces. The title represents the latest effort in British satirist Terry Pratchett's popular “Discworld” series, a set of semi-sequential novels that occur on an imaginary planet which is being towed through space on the back of a gigantic flying tortoise. Yes, that's right—a gigantic flying tortoise.

Though all the novels take place on the same planet, Discworld (which Pratchett often uses as a stand-in to satirize our own society), the books tend to rotate through various casts of characters from volume to volume, allowing the author to play with a variety of character archetypes and settings within the same world. Characters from one novel often pop up in another, and the author's most popular creations occasionally get featured tales of their own in the form of later books.

Monstrous Regiment is unique among Pratchett's “Discworld” books because it features a cast and an environment created solely for this novel. It is set in the country of Borogravia, where the national pastime of waving to one's sons as they leave for war has only declined in popularity because of the drop in the number of qualified males available to fight. It is a place where the great god Nuggan has declared everything from women—owned businesses to onion farming to be an Abomination and therefore outlawed.

The story begins when the protagonist, a young girl named Polly Perks, takes off in typical Mulan fashion and runs away from home, disguising herself as a boy so she can join the Borogravian army on a mission to find her long-lost brother.

The story starts off in a promising enough fashion as the audience is introduced to Polly's fellow soldiers and the inanity of army life, but the humor gets old quick. It's easy to laugh at the appearance of the badly-disguised vampire, the Igor-like zombie, and the troll (the Borogravian army has a “Don't ask, don't tell” policy when it comes to recruiting the undead), but the jokes wear thin even before the reader discovers the secrets of the remaining recruits. At its heart, Monstrous Regiment is truly a one-gag book, and this becomes evident so early on that one can easily predict the eventual conflict and resolution by the end of the fourth or fifth chapter.

Pratchett's strength as a writer has always been in his ability to both humanize and satirize, but the lack of characterization in this novel and his failure to develop even his protagonist make his attempts to poke fun at the military's shortcomings fall far short of their goal. One-dimensional characters can't carry a story, and while stupid protagonists might be endearing given the right set of circumstances, plot constructions that rely on the audience being as unintelligent as the hero just make a pointless novel even more frustrating to read.

At many points during the course of the story, it seems almost as if the subject matter itself is at fault. While the military lends itself to being easily satirized, there are only so many crazy 'Nam jokes one can make before the hallucinating vampire and the aging sergeant become wearisome. Pratchett is more than capable of poking fun at society's shortcomings, but in several instances the jokes in this novel are so infantile that they drag amidst his obvious talent.

It doesn't help that the plot is so convoluted that it would be difficult to follow it even if the novel were clever enough to warrant the reader's full attention. There is no insightful commentary on society here, no intriguing characters, not even a gripping mystery to slip its tendrils around the audience. Rather, the book is a fairly simple parable that could have easily been told in 35 pages instead of 350, had Pratchett simply chosen to exclude a few of the more extraneous and confusing details.

At its core, Monstrous Regiment lacks in the warmth and development that gives so many others Pratchett novels their soul. Clearly it is not the author's talent that is lacking here, but rather the convoluted story and poor choice of subject matter that make the novel seem so stale. Pratchett's fans can start praying now to the great god Nuggan that the popular author manages to bounce back in his next endeavor.

Faren Miller (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Miller, Faren. “Terry Pratchett: The Soul of Wit.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism 197, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Miller observes that Pratchett's Discworld series presents the author as a satiric and ironic observer of twentieth-century social mores.]

Since The Colour of Magic made its debut in 1983, Terry Pratchett's Discworld fantasies have been arriving at the rate of one or more a year. 2004 raises the count of adult volumes in the series to thirty1 with Going Postal...

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Brian Stableford (essay date 2004)

SOURCE: Stableford, Brian. “Terry Pratchett.” In Contemporary Literary Criticism 197, edited by Tom Burns and Jeffrey W. Hunter. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale, 2004.

[In the following essay, specially commissioned for Contemporary Literary Criticism, Stableford presents a critical reading of Pratchett's background and body of work, focusing on the dominant recurring themes in Pratchett's Discworld series.]


Terry Pratchett was born in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, on 28 April 1948. He attended Wycombe Technical High School before working as a journalist, initially on the Bucks Free Press, then on...

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Further Reading


Avery, Gillian. “Fantastic Invention.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 3661 (28 April 1972): 475.

Brief plot synopsis of The Carpet People.

Cassada, Jackie. Review of Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. Library Journal 115, no. 15 (15 September 1990): 104.

Short, positive review of Good Omens.

D'Ammassa, Don. Review of Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett. Science Fiction Chronicle 14, no. 9 (June 1993): 34.

Brief review of Witches Abroad.


(The entire section is 649 words.)