Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

I've been on too long a break. This has been lying in my drafts, sad and unfinished for a while now. It is only fair to post it on my favourite author's sixty-fifth birthday. Do I have to say it? Discworld is awesome and even if it seems impossible, this book is just as awesome. I am a big fan of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them or Quidditch Through the Ages and I didn't think companion books could get any better. And then this came along in the mail. A little bit of Discworld was already spilling out from the middle of its delicious red cover. I couldn't wait to dive straight into it.

The Folklore of Discworld: Its Legends, Magic and Customs
with Helpful Hints from Planet Earth has just what its title promises. Discworld, for those of you who haven't read it (morons.) is a land somewhere in space - a turtle swimming idly through space carries on its back four elephants and on their heads rests the Disc; a world, which is quite like ours, but with magic. Accompanying the over thirty novels set in this world are a few other books, like the Science of Discworld and this book.

The Folklore of Discworld isn't a non-fiction, quite unlike it, actually. It tells us about the uncanny similarities between the Earth's legends and those of the Disc. About myths on the Earth that are actually real on the Disc and naturally, the other way around. You learn about the vampires, witches (and wizards, who are very different, of course) and zombies, the Luggage and the Feegles, the gods and Death. Our world and the Discworld do seem to have a lot in common and some of the reasons the author hypothesizes for this are: the constant drifting of particles of knowledge or through cosmic space, or the simple consideration that some or all of these creatures existed in all the worlds at some time or the other, and are now extinct. Read this book if you've read any books of the Discworld series, the fewer the better because a lot that is already in the books is repeated. But that doesn't really matter as it is all very interesting and alo quite informative. For instance, I never knew that a story right out of Hindu mythology played with the idea of four elephants standing at the four ends of the world, holding it up, or something to that effect.

Pratchett's writing is, as always, cheerful and witty. Good Omens told me that a collaboration isn't really a bad thing and that Pratchett could really pull it off. The Folklore of Discworld doesn't show any obvious there-are-two-authors-ey clumsiness, either. It is the kind of book that you can just open up to any page and start reading and before you know it, you're buried nose-deep inside it.

As it has the word "folklore" in it's title and everything, this book should qualify as my next read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge. And because I found this book extra nice, I have quoted an entire two pages - the story of how Ankh-Morpork, only the most horribly great city on the Disc, came to be. Read and laugh.

"Any self-respecting city has to have a legend about its foundation. Ankh-Morpork, as is right and proper for the oldest city on the Disc, has two.

The first is the official one. According to this, there were once two orphaned brothers, mere babies, who had been left on the shores of the Ankh to die. There they were found by a she-hippopotamus, who suckled them. When they grew up, they decided to build themselves a home, and so founded what must at the time have been a very small city indeed. In memory of this, the shield on the coat of arms of Ankh-Morpork has as its supports deux Hippopatames Royales Baillant, un enchaine, un couronne au cou. Which, stripped of its aristocratic herald-speak, means two royal hippos yawning, one wearing a chain and the other with a crown round its neck. The conventions of heraldry do not permit the sex of the beasts to be clearly indicated, but in view of the tale we can safely state that at least one of them is female. The legend is also commemorated by eight hippo statues on the city's Brass Bridge, facing out to sea. It is said that if danger ever threatens the city they will run away.

Some people have expressed doubts over this ancient and uplifting tradition. Why and how, they ask, would a she-hippo suckle human babies? And how could they thrive on this eccentric diet? Did they but know it, these doubters could find a tale on Earth proving that such thing are perfectly possible. It tells of twins, Romulus and Remus, who were the sons of Mars the God of War and a human princess. Their evil great-uncle, having just usurped his brother's throne, seized the boys and threw them into the Tiber, for fear they might grow up to challenge him.* But the river washed them safely to the bank, where a she-wolf fed them with her milk until a kindly shepherd found them. Later they built the city of Rome. Considering what wolves normally eat, this tale is even more wondrous than that of the hippo, but the Romans had no difficulty in believing it. And, naturally, making a statue about it.

The second legend is not told quite so often by the citizens of Ankh-Morpork, but is surprisingly widespread in other towns. It is said that way back in the fogs of time there was once a great flood sent by the gods, and that a group of wise men survived by building a huge boat into which they crammed two of every type of animal then existing on the Disc. After a few weeks the combined manure was beginning to weigh the boat low in the water, so - the story runs - they tipped it over the side and called the heap Ankh-Morpork. Anybody who doubts the truth of this should go and stand on one of the bridges over the Ankh, preferably on a warm day, and breathe deep.

* Tyrants insist on doing this, despite the fact that it never works."


Anonymous said...

This sounds ridiculously fun. As, of course, it would be--I mean, Discworld! I love folklore and myths, and I'm sure Pratchett must do wonderful things with them...

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