Sunday, September 25, 2005

Teaching Hogfather

Starting Tuesday, I'll teach my first Pratchett novel -- we're reading Hogfather, and I wanted to give my class a brief introduction to both the Discworld and some of its controlling concepts. (For those of you not familiar with Pratchett's Discworld, Wikipedia's entries on "Discworld" and "Discworld (world)" are good introductions.

Since Hogfather is specifically about the power of belief, I focused on what The Discworld Companion calls the "physics" of Discworld: Life force, The Power of Metaphor and Belief, and Narrative Causality. (The Discworld exists on the edge of Reality where the real and the not real are in constant struggle, thereby allowing Discworld to exist.) In short, Life force means that since life has a tendency to exist, things that exist on the Discworld are alive (even things like thunderstorms and buildings, though most people don't know how to communicate with buildings and few people want to get up close and personal with thunderstorms -- well, that's not true, a malevolent thunderstorm (and is there any other kind?) can be a nasty thing. Likewise, metaphors are often literalized as real things and belief is a source of power (witch magic, as opposed to wizard magic, is based on "headology," the knowledge of how to use belief, both your own and others, to make things happen, and stories have power and can define what will happen (my favorite, if small, example is that a million-to-one chance tends to succeed because, narratively, million-to-one chances always work. And finally, narrative causality governs everything, but this doesn't mean much for most people most of the time because it's hard for those in a narrative to understand the larger narrative pattern, and because most people most of the time play narratively unimportant roles like the poor customer who unjustly suffers the wrath of the clerk because they happen to be the one in line behind a rude bastard).

While these laws govern all Discworld novels, Hogfather specifically plays with these ideas, and it's with this novel that we'll really start thinking about the social role of story telling and John Niles' theory of Homo Narrans. (Back in early August, I mentioned Niles' book and quoted from the beginning of Hogfather, which sets the stage for a story about the power of Story.)

Looking over the entry on Hogfather in Annotated Pratchett File v.9.0, I found a lovely quote from Pratchett. When he was working on the novel, someone asked him what the book was going to be about, and he replied:
"Let's see, Hogfather there are a number of stabbings, someone's killed by a man made of knives, someone's killed by the dark, and someone [sic] just been killed by a wardrobe.

It's a book about the magic of childhood. You can tell."

Without given away any significant plot point or really giving any hint of what the novel is about, Pratchett summed up it up well: "It's a book about the magic of childhood." And it is, in part. The fact that Story, the traditional stories that shape and give meaning to our lives and connect us to our past and our serve as the medium for our cultural knowledge, is often considered the domain of children is both of great interest to me and something that greatly disturbs me. As Tolkien tried to remind us almost 70 years ago in "On Fairy Stories," somewhere along the way we (adults in modern Western European nations) have forgotten the power and importance of Story. Niles' book Homo Narrans is about the power of Story, about story-telling as the defining characteristic of what it means to be human. Kevin M. Bradt's Story as a Way of Knowing is also another good take on the importance of Story (I write about it in the second half of an entry in a Notes from the Walter J. Ong Archive)post. The recovery of Story and its related elements is also behind what Shippey calls "the Grimmian Revolution" (comparative philology and mythology which began with the Grimm brothers) and will be the focus of Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth, the Festschrift for Shippey I'm co-editing with Andrew Wawn and Graham Johnson -- Story helped make the Western European nation states.

Story is so much more than the magic of childhood. And yet, even Pratchett who does know better, feels compelled to describe it as such. Well that's not entirely fair as the novel is about belief (or lack thereof) in the Hogfather, Discworld's version of Santa Claus. So, really, it is accurate to say that Hogfather is about the magic of childhood. But Pratchett's point, as was Tolkien's point, is that the magic of childhood is powerful, deep-down stuff. It's the magic that keeps the world going even if we adults, both the adults of the Discworld and adults in our world, have forgotten to pay attention to it.

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