Thursday, April 29, 2010

The theology of The Color of Magic (Discworld Series, book 1)


Jewish date:  15 ’Iyyar 5770 (Parashath ’Emor).

Today’s holidays:  Day 30 of the ‘Omer (Judaism), Festival of Ridvan (Bahá’í Faith), Feast Day of Catherine of Siena (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Tito Jackson (Church of the SubGenius).

Today’s topic:  The Color of Magic (Discworld Series, book 1) by Terry Pratchett.  


Before discussing religion in The Color of Magic—or the rest of the Discworld Series, for that matter—it is imperative to briefly explain the world that Pratchett creates.  The Discworld fictional universe is something like what would have happened if Douglas Adams had tried to write Oz books with all the systematics of J. R. R. Tolkien.  It is a well-constructed magical fantasy world in which it seems practically everything is lampooning something from someone else’s fantasy world or something in our world.  And since religion is a huge part of human thought and culture, religion receives the same treatment as everything else.

Discworld theology, so far as is presented in The Color of Magic, is a mishmash of religious ideas from many sources, particularly ones suitable for lampooning.  

The Discworld has a Creator, but He does not appear in this book.  Reportedly He is less mechanically competent but more imaginative than the Creators of other universes.  (And perhaps He is a plagiarist, too, considering what He created.)  His method of creation was magic, specifically with eight spells recorded in the grimoire Octavo.  One of these spells leaped from the Octavo and lodged itself in the head of (then) novice wizard Rincewind, forever keeping him from ever learning any other spells and threatening to force him to say it whenever danger presents itself.  Why the Creator ever left something as dangerous as the Octavo lying around is not explained, though since almost everyone in The Color of Magic is incompetent or crazy (quite common in lampooning), intuition suggests that the Discworld Creator is also incompetent or crazy; He may have simply been careless and forgot to remove the Octavo when He finished the Discworld.

The Discworld itself is a huge disk (hence the name), supported on the backs of four gigantic elephants, which are in turn supported on the back of the gigantic turtle Great A’Tuin.  (The idea of world-elephants comes from Hindu religious tradition, and the world-turtle comes from Native American, Chinese, and Hindu religious traditions.)  At the center of the Discworld is a ten-mile high mountain supporting Dunmanifestin, the abode of the Discworld gods.  (Shades of Mount Olympus).  The gods in this book secretly drive much of the plot by playing a game using mortals as the game pieces.  (Perhaps this is a parody of Albert Einstein’s famous quote “God does not play dice with the universe.”  These gods literally play dice with their universe.)

Note:  Though mortals do worship some of the Discworld gods, mostly they just blame Them instead.  This makes perfect sense considering the game.

Most of the Dunmanifestin gods are quickly knocked out of the game, which turns into a contest between just two gods who are personifications of contradictory principles:  Fate and the Lady.  Fate (unsurprisingly) is the god of predestination, while the Lady is the goddess of luck.  The result of this conflict is something even more cruel than the predestination scenario of Oedipus the King.  The mortals caught between these two gods are Rincewind (long ago expelled from Unseen University the Octavo incident), the tourist Twoflower, a small demon which lives in Twoflower’s camera, and Twoflower’s luggage (which is self-moving, made out of sentient pearwood, and extremely loyal to its master).  Fate is out to kill Rincewind and company, while the Lady is trying to keep them alive.  The result is for Rincewind and company to get stuck in one insanely dangerous situation after another, only to escape each time by the skin of their teeth.  The dark humor of this scenario is heightened by the fact that Twoflower is completely unaware that he is in danger and (even worse) actually seeks out dangerous situations.  Not to mention that Rincewind has to save Twoflower, despite being a coward and the Discworld’s most incompetent wizard.  The contest between Fate and the Lady eventually reaches such a pitch that Fate does something He never ever does:  He strikes a deal with the Arch-Astronomer of Krull.  In exchange for the sacrifice of Rincewind and Twoflower, the Arch-Astronomer is guaranteed success for a venture into space to discover the sex of Great A’Tuin. 

Fate and the Lady are not above enlisting (or drafting) other gods into their game.  The first such beings which act as trouble for Rincewind are dryads, who are angry since he damaged a tree and want to kill him.  The dryads are depicted as being made of a sort of animated wood and having a rather spacious domain inside trees.  Clearly breaking with ancient Greek religion, there are a few male dryads.

Even worse is the Temple of Bel-Shamharoth (AKA the Sender of Eight), an evil being lampooning the Cthulhu Mythos of H. P. Lovecraft.  (Because when it comes to insanely dangerous situations, an evil god is extremely hard to beat.)  The Temple of Bel-Shamharoth is supposed to be the most dangerous place on the Discworld and is avoided by everyone with even a smidgeon of sense who has a choice in the matter.  Bel-Shamharoth has a monstrous form with tentacles, sleeps in a special chamber (think “That is not dead which can eternal lie, / And with strange aeons even death may die”), and, at least when it comes to interior decorating, is pathologically obsessed with octagons.  Mentioning the number eight for any reason can wake Ben-Shamharoth.  How He is dealt with makes sense in terms of Him being a chthonic deity.

Even more blatantly plagiarized—and unexpectedly promoted to deity—in The Color of Magic is Death, who is essentially the Grim Reaper.  (A skeleton in black robes with a scythe who takes the souls of the dead.  Who else could He be?)  While Death has assistants, He always comes Himself to collect the souls of wizards (unless He is too busy).  Considering the constant danger Rincewind encounters, Death is always lurking nearby, suggesting that he not resist and accept death willingly.

Also to be noted is the power of will on the Discworld.  In our world, human will can only change reality by being expressed as action.  But on the Discworld, will can interact with magic to manifest itself rather more directly.  One of the places Rincewind and Twoflower visit is the Wyrmberg, an inverted mountain located in the middle of a strong magical field.  The royal family of Wyrmberg uses this field to manifest otherwise impossible dragons into existence, and Greicha the First manages to survive as a talking corpse after being poisoned by his daughter by refusing to die.

Overall classification:  Humorous fantasy.  Some content not suitable for children and may cause certain people’s heads to implode.

Theological rating:  Cookie Monster.  (This is an absurdist book.  It’s getting an absurdist rating.)


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