IN A DISTANT AND SECONDHAND SET OF DIMENSIONS, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the Disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
Astropsychology has been, as yet, unable to establish what they think about.
So begins The Colour of Magic (1983), the first volume of the eventually forty-one-book-long Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. I was lent this book (along with another Pratchett book, Strata (1981), which I’ve still never read — or returned, possibly) back in 1985 when it first hit US shores. He said it was funny and it was.
I hadn’t laughed much during earlier run-ins with fantasy and sci-fi comedies, save for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Too often, puns were what passed for wit and the satire was shallow. Returning to Colour for the first time in many years, I’m impressed with how sharp Pratchett’s eye was when it came to picking his genre targets and just how good his prose was. His writing would become more complex, deeper, and much darker over the decades, but already, it’s witty and effervescent. In an age of such po-faced seriousness, we could use more of it.
The Colour of Magic tells the story of Twoflower, the Discworld’s first tourist. A citizen of the Agatean Empire, he is the epitome of the naive and clueless tourist. He has traveled to the very Lankhmarian city of Ankh-Morpork in search of cultural sights, such as bar brawls, barbarian heroes, and maybe even a dragon. He is dressed in familiar tourist garb — “It was small and skinny, and dressed very oddly in a pair of knee length britches and a shirt in such a violent and vivid conflict of colors that Weasel’s fastidious eye was offended even in the half-light” — and carries a terrible phrase book and a camera. Well, not a camera, but an “iconograph” that houses a small imp with a set of paints. Most notably, he carries his possessions in a singular piece of luggage — called the Luggage — , a mobile chest made of sapient pearwood, a substance of immense value — “A large chest of it…Rincewind tried to work it out, and decided that even if the box were crammed with star opals and sticks of auricholatum the contents would not be worth one-tenth the price of the container.” Also, as the Agatean Empire lies on the distant Counterweight Continent, a place composed largely of gold, he has no sense of the exchange rates and even his smallest coins represent a small fortune.
The value of the Luggage and Twoflower’s free-flowing gold immediately marks Twoflower as a target for members of the Thieves’ Guild and the Assassins’ Guild. He also catches the eye of the book’s true protagonist, Rincewind, a failure of a wizard, but a man to talk to the tourist in a common language.
Rincewind switched to High Borogravian, to Vanglemesht, Sumtri and even Black Oroogu, the language with no nouns and only one adjective, which is obscene. Each was met with polite incomprehension. In desperation he tried heathen Trob, and the little man’s face split into a delighted grin.
“At last!” he said. “My good sir! This is remarkable!” (Although in Trob the last word in fact became “a thing which may happen but once in the usable lifetime of a canoe hollowed diligently by ax and fire from the tallest diamondwood tree that grows in the noted diamondwood forests on the lower slopes of Mount Awayawa, home of the firegods or so it is said.”)
After a sequence of events — threats of death, attempted and successful murders, and the first insurance fire in Ankh-Morpork’s history — Rincewind and Twoflower find themselves forced to flee and end up on a meandering trek across the Discworld. Along the way, they encounter a real barbarian hero and have a run-in with a cosmic horror. After a struggle against a squadron of dragon riders from an upside-down mountain, the pair learns exactly what lies beyond the Disc’s rim.
Huge shadows grew out of that light like pillars supporting the roof of the universe. Hundreds of miles below him the wizard made out the shape of something, the edge of something—
Like those curious little pictures where the silhouette of an ornate glass suddenly becomes the outline of two faces, the scene beneath him flipped into a whole, new, terrifying perspective. Because down there was the head of an elephant as big as a reasonably sized continent. One mighty tusk cut like a mountain against the golden light, trailing a widening shadow toward the stars. The head was slightly tilted, and a huge ruby eye might almost have been a red supergiant that had managed to shine at noonday.
Below the elephant—
Rincewind swallowed and tried not to think—
Below the elephant there was nothing but the distant, painful Disc of the sun. And, sweeping slowly past it, was something that for all its city-sized scales, its crater-pocks, its lunar cragginess, was indubitably a flipper.
Pratchett seems to have never intended Discworld to be a series, and in a way, it isn’t. What it is, is a setting for several series. In later books, readers were introduced to Death (present in Colour, but with a significantly different personality and disposition), the witches of Lancre, and the City Watch of Ankh-Morpork, among others, but Rincewind, a coward of monumental, if wholly justified, cowardice, is the first of Pratchett’s major protagonists and always remained foremost in my mind. Pratchett said Rincewind’s job was only to meet more interesting people. Perhaps, but I love the absolute and utter boldness of his cowardice. He, more than any of Pratchett’s characters understands the relentless cruelty the world can inflict on people. Others may stand and fight the world even in the knowledge of certain doom, but Rincewind knows how to survive. Pratchett felt limited by what he could do with an unashamed coward, but I wish he had featured in more books.
Look at him. Scrawny, like most wizards, and clad in a dark red robe on which a few mystic sigils were embroidered in tarnished sequins. Some might have taken him for a mere apprentice enchanter who had run away from his master out of defiance, boredom, fear and a lingering taste for heterosexuality. Yet around his neck was a chain bearing the bronze octagon that marked him as an alumnus of Unseen University, the high school of magic whose time-and-space transcendent campus is never precisely Here or There. Graduates were usually destined for mageship at least, but Rincewind — after an unfortunate event — had left knowing only one spell and made a living of sorts around the town by capitalizing on an innate gift for languages. He avoided work as a rule, but had a quickness of wit that put his acquaintances in mind of a bright rodent.
Neil Gaiman is on record declaring that The Colour of Magic is not the place to start reading the Discworld books as it’s only a collection of loose episodes and bad jokes. Revisiting Colour, I must disagree with him. Yes, it is lacking the “fine and beautiful plots built like Swiss watches” that were to become one of Pratchett’s hallmarks, but “so what?” is my response. Yes, it’s episodic, and that works for me. It reads like a fix-up composed of several short stories, each good in its own way. The book clearly gave Pratchett the opportunity to stretch his muscles by playing with bits and pieces of the genre and start to develop his style, one lavished with wonderful asides (which will bloom into seemingly endless footnotes in later installments) and the book, with the introduction of several characters who will reappear in multiple books across nearly the entirety of the series, places the book firmly in the series’ foundation.
If you haven’t tried Terry Pratchett, I would start with The Colour of Magic. It’s a stronger book than several later volumes (I’m thinking of Moving Pictures (1990) and Soul Music (1994) in particular). It also affords a reader to see where Pratchett started. If you keep reading, you’ll see quickly Pratchett realized what he could do with the Discworld and then did it. Within six years and eight books, the Discworld series that would go on to become a literary juggernaut selling more than any other books in England aside from Harry Potter, emerged between the triple pillars of Mort (1987), Wyrd Sisters (1988), and Guards, Guards (1989). It all started with The Colour of Magic and would continue for another 32 years and 40 more books, concluding with The Shepherd’s Crown (2015) and Pratchett’s untimely death from early onset Alzheimer’s.
I was prompted to pick up Colour because I just reread The Last Hero (2001), an extravagantly illustrated novella featuring characters from several series, but, most prominently, Rincewind. I’m seriously thinking of giving all the books a go. They’re quick reads, all, and among them are some of my very favorite books, and some of the very best genre writing of all time. If I do, I’ll be sure to let you know how some of them are here on Black Gate.
NOTE: The Colour of Magic and its sequel, The Light Fantastic, were made into a TV show starring David Jason and Sean Astin. It’s alright, but Mark Rigney did not like it right here on Black Gate.
Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column each first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.