Terry Pratchett Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.