Friday, June 25, 2010

Theological review of Mort and Sourcery (The Discworld Series, books 4 and 5)


Jewish date:  13 Tammuz 5770 (Parashath Balaq).

Today’s holidays:  Friday of the Twelfth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Ed Gein (Church of the SubGenius).

Topic 1:  Mort and Sourcery (The Discworld Series, books 4 and 5) by Terry Pratchett.


Mort is the more overtly religious of the two books, building upon the character of Death and his domain.  (And because much of what happens in this book is connected with Death, this is going to be a long, nontrivial review.)  Death’s domain is elaborated beyond parts of a building which Rincewind and Twoflower saw to include a surrounding area including a garden, moors, and mountains, only all in black.  Death created his domain, and it did not come out quite right.  Everything is only an imitation of the real thing, e.g., the mountains are fuzzy up close.  Even the time of Death’s domain is fake, as Death’s adopted daughter Ysabell has remained 16 for 35 years there, and his servant Albert has remained something like 91 for about 2,000 years.  The job of Death is also elaborated on.  There is an hourglass for everyone on the Discworld, and when the sand in the hourglass runs out, their soul needs to be removed with a special scythe.  (Keep in mind that the Death of Discworld is essentially the Grim Reaper, though the classic Grim Reaper does not ride around on a horse named “Binky”.)

In this book, Death takes on an apprentice by the name of Mort, who in his teens and something of a bookworm.  Ysabell correctly notes it makes no sense for Death to have an apprentice; it is not as if Death is going to die and need a replacement.  Nevertheless, Death trains Mort in his job of collecting the souls anyway, and there are strong hints that Mort is meant to also keep Ysabell company.  (She has Death, Albert, and some horses for company, no one particularly like her, so she is very lonely.)

Mort has moral qualms about his new job.  He is horrified to learn that when one dies, one experiences what one expects will happen to him/her.  E.g., if one believes one will go to Heaven, one goes to Heaven.  If one believes one will be reincarnated, one is reincarnated.  And if one believes one will go to Hell—well, you get the picture.  Mort decries this as unfair.  Though considering the power of belief on the Discworld (though not our own world), this does make sense.  And hold on to the notion of belief creating reality, because we will be dealing with it again in a moment.

Also problematic to Mort is how death is parceled out.  Death knows whose souls to take by reading the Nodes (or something like that) and checking hourglasses.  Who lives and dies is handed down from the Discworld gods, and whether anyone actually deserves to die apparently does not figure into it.  And this causes trouble for Mort.  When he is sent to collect the soul of Princess Keli of Sto Lat, he collects the soul of her would-be assassin instead.  In doing so, he splits reality in two.  In most of the Discworld, Keli is dead and the evil Duke has succeeded to the throne; but in Sto Lat, Keli still lives—sort of.

Though Keli is still breathing, eating, and moving about, everyone around her is in a state of confusion; left to themselves, they feel that someone important is dead and will act on it, and they will even act unaware of Keli’s existence, but they are not completely oblivious to her.  Keli consults the 20-year-old wizard Igneous Cutwell, who is probably the only one around who is not oblivious to her, and he is able to divine through the Discworld equivalent of tarot cards and I Ching her situation.  Refusing to simply live with being dead (so to speak), Keli charges Cutwell with the office of Royal Recognizer; his duty is to fix things so that everyone recognizes her as alive.  Knowing the power of belief, Cutwell unleashes a propaganda campaign, with images of Keli everywhere, hoping that by convincing people he can stabilize the local reality with Keli as being alive.  Only his success is mixed, and the bubble of local reality is shrinking.  Keli thus charges Cutwell with the task of officially crowning her queen before the bubble collapses completely, even though he has to highly abbreviate the ceremony, including forcing the half-blind high priest to rush through sacrificing an elephant to do so.  (And the elephant only gets a flesh wound on the trunk and escapes, so rest assured that no elephants were killed in the telling of this story.)

Mort has his own problems.  He has a crush on Keli and wants to save her, but Death has disappeared and someone needs to do his job—and Mort dares not not do “the Duty”.  (Ysabell and Albert would never let him.)  His solution to the moral dilemma is to do the Duty with Ysabell’s help and hope he can reach Sto Lat in time to do anything to save Keli.  In doing the Duty, Mort increasingly takes aspects of Death upon himself, in some aspect actually becoming Death.  Mort and Ysabell do arrive before the bubble collapse.  They try to stabilize the bubble through belief, appointing Cutwell a priest and having him crown Keli, but to no avail.  In the end, all four of them escape to Death’s domain on Binky.

In the meantime, Albert (previously the great wizard Alberto Malich) returns to Unseen University and terrifies the wizards there into helping him perform the Rite of AshkEnte, which summons Death away from his new job as a chef(!) and back to his actual job.  Death, being the magically reified personification of death, came into existence when the first living thing came into existence, and he will exist until no one is left and there is nothing else to do but (so to speak) to put the chairs up on the tables and turn out the lights.  This is a grim future for the Grim Reaper, and thus he hoped to escape it—or at least get a vacation from it—through becoming more human.  (One may quibble about whether being the last being left alive or dying earlier is better; this is arguably just a matter of taste.  But despair at the idea is quite understandable.)

Death, when he returns to his domain, is, of course, angry.  Thus he and Mort fight in the (very large) room full of hourglasses.  Every time an hourglass breaks, someone dies; Ysabell, Keli, and Cutwell thus work hard to save whatever hourglasses they can from being smashed.  Death gloats that Mort cannot win; even the Discworld gods are subject to him.  (And in this respect the Discworld gods are clearly of a very inferior sort of deity.  Discworld theology seems to be designed for humor, not to necessarily reflect any particular real religion.)  And the sand in Mort’s hourglass is running out.  Death regrets that he must kill Mort, but Mort claims he understands.  And then, as the last grain of sand in Mort’s hourglass runs out, there is a surprise twist in the plot:  Death turns the hourglass upside-down. And this makes sense:  if he is above the gods, then has to answer to no one for tampering with reality.  If he wants Mort to continue to live, Mort will continue to live, because no one can stop him.

Tampering with reality is not limited to Mort continuing to live.  Keli’s fate is also altered so that she lives—and the gods agree to this, being reportedly sentimental and just—though she must now unite the Sto region as the Duke was originally supposed to do.  (The Duke died when his hourglass was broken in the fight between Death and Mort, so he is no longer a threat.)  Mort and Ysabell also have their fate changed; they leave Death’s domain, get married, and become the Duke and Duchess of Sto Helit.  In short:  while there is fate on the Discworld, it is not immutable.

It also turns out the attempt to alter reality, independently of Death or the gods, was somewhat successful.  Death gives Mort and Ysabell a “pearl of reality” formed by the attempt.  This may become a full-fledged universe at some point.

The theology in Sourcery is more subtle.  The eighth son of an eighth son on the Discworld is a wizard.  Wizards are supposed to be celibate, and the reason for this having nothing to do with sex being bad for magic.  (Which may be good news for such implied pairings as Simon with Esk and Cutwell with Keli, should they figure this out.)  Rather, the eighth son of a wizard is a sourcerer.  Sourcery is a much more basic and powerful sort of magic than wizardry or witchcraft.  And we find out just why wizards did whatever they could to prevent the second coming of sourcery when outcast wizard Ipslore the Red marries and has eight sons, the eighth, Coin, naturally being a sourcerer.  Soon after Coin’s birth, Death comes for Ipslore—as he comes personally for all wizards—but Ipslore escapes Death temporarily by transferring his essence to his octiron staff.  Ipslore intends to instruct Coin from within the staff and make it that Coin will become Archchancellor of Unseen University and “show the world its true destiny, and there will be no magic greater than his.”  Death objects to predestination; there must be a way out of this fate somehow.  (Remember that in the previous book the judgement was that fate is not perfectly predestined, so Pratchett is being consistent.)  Ipslore reluctantly agrees.

Ten years later, Coin comes marching in to Unseen University with powers beyond anything that wizards have.  He takes over and subjugates and destroys anyone who stands in his way.  He is so powerful that he takes over Ankh-Morpork and magically renovates the entire city.  Furthermore, he wants to become Archchancellor.  Soon ambient magic levels rise sharply.  Every wizard becomes much more powerful.  Great towers start going up, and the wizards in the towers start fighting each other, wreaking enormous destruction.  Coin even dares to imprison the Discworld gods in a pearl of reality.  With the gods gone, the Four Horsemen of the Apocralypse gather together at a bar, and the Ice Giants decide the end of the world has come and start riding their herds of glaciers over everything they can.  Everything seems grim.

There is a complication to Coin’s plans.  To properly become Archchancellor, one needs the official Archchancellor’s hat.  The hat, which has absorbed something of the magic and personality of its previous owners, calls out to be stolen by Ankh-Morpork’s greatest thief:  Conina, daughter of Cohen the Barbarian, would-be hairdresser, and plausibly inspiration for Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena, Warrior Princess.  Conina not only steals the hat, but soon teams up (more or less) with the massively incompetent wizard Rincewind to get the hat to far-away Al Khali and away from Coin.  After some adventuring, they get to Al Khali, where the Seriph Creosote throws Rincewind in a snake pit and Conina in his harem.  In the snake pit Rincewind finds (unsurprisingly) a snake and Nijel the Destroyer.  Nijel is a barbarian hero-wannabe who is only slightly more skilled at being a barbarian hero than Rincewind is at being a wizard.  Conina’s experience in the harem is a parody of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, with Creosote trying to get Conina to tell him a story.  (Sorry, not the stuff one expects to happen in a harem.)  Creosote also has a tendency to (try to) flatter women in poetic language which sounds like something from Song of Songs or The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; Conina, who is frequently on the receiving end of the compliments, finds this annoying.  Also out of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights are a magic lamp (with an incredibly useless genie) and a flying carpet.  FYI:  make sure your flying carpet is right-side-up before using it; otherwise you will have to order it to go down in order to make it go up.  But I digress.

The Apocralypse does not come, not in the least because Conina, Nijel, and Creosote steal the horses of Pestilence, Famine, and War, leaving them stranded at the bar since Death does not want all four of them riding on Binky.  Conina and Nijel face off against the Ice Giants and their glaciers.  They do not really think that they have any chance of winning, but rather Nijel believes (despite all evidence to the contrary) that he really is a barbarian hero, and a real barbarian hero would never back down from a fight, no matter how hopeless it seems.  Their fight with the frozen foe never comes (though they do get a beautiful moment together), because of the actions of an even more unlikely hero:  Rincewind.  (I don’t make this silliness up.  I just comment on it.)  Rincewind, arriving at Unseen University on the flying carpet.  Rincewind attacks the octiron staff, managing to drive a wedge between the spirit of Ipslore and Coin and toss himself and Coin into the Dungeon Dimensions.  Death finally manages to collect Ipslore’s soul.  In the Dungeon Dimensions, Rincewind manages to send back Coin with the pearl of reality containing the gods, who put an end to the terror of the Ice Giants once released.  (Major rule of theology:  no one messes with the gods and gets away with it.)

Coin, realizing he is too powerful for the Discworld, leaves for a universe of his own creation.  Rincewind remains trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions, but I strongly doubt that Pratchett would allow such a great character to remain there indefinitely.

Next up:  The Wyrd Sisters (The Discworld Series, book 6).

Topic 2:  About a weeks worth of commentary on anti-Semitism (and I will lay off of this topic when the anti-Semites learn to shut up and stop blaming the Jews for everything wrong with the world):  1) The Dry Bones cartoons “Media Attention”, “Piracy”, and “Independent Women - the Dry Bones Blog”.  (Enjoy the irony.)  2) From HonestReporting:  “Behind Bars: Photo Bias Breaks Out of Gaza”, “Will the Media Remember Gilad Shalit?”, and “Scenes From the World's Biggest Concentration Camp”.  3) Assorted other people getting mad:  “An open letter to President Obama from Jon Voight - Washington Times”, “Geert Wilders: Change Jordan's name to Palestine” (which works historically, since Mandatory Palestine started off including what is now Jordan), “Weathering the approaching storm”, and “Joyce Kaufman. The 7 Reasons to Support Israel.”:

Topic 3:  Arguably creeping Islamization here in the United States, and yes, this is definitely against the Constitution:  “Dearborn Police: Defending Islam against the Constitution”:

Topic 4:  For today’s religious humor: “The battle between good and evil.”:
funny pictures of cats with captions

Peace and Shabbath shalom.

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