Terry Pratchett never fails to delight me with his Discworld books. And at this point, my favorite story of that series is Hogfather, a decidedly demented take on Christmastime and holiday traditions in general. I’d never forgive myself if I didn’t review this novel before Christmas this year, so this’ll be my last post for the year 2011.
The Story: When Death Takes Over A Holiday
The Hogfather is the equivalent of Santa Claus (or Father Christmas if you’re English) in Discworld. And apparently, he’s gone missing, presumed dead as it were. Some anthropomorphic personification has to fill his boots, so Death and his assistant Albert have to do the job of running Hogswatch. In the meantime, Death’s granddaughter Susan Sto Helit gets involved, investigating just what happened to the Hogfather and why a whole bunch of nonsensical little fairies and spirits like the Verruca Gnome and the Oh God of Hangovers are popping into existence in his absence.
The Cast: Crooks, Wizards, Spirits, And One Determined Governess
Where to begin? There’s quite a lot of characters in this story. Our clearest protagonist is Susan Sto Helit, Mort‘s daughter and Death’s granddaughter. She wants only to be a governess to a decent family and have a normal life, but her powers and perception of the bizarre makes life anything but ordinary. Then there’s Death himself, who tries his best to understand human beings and their irrational beliefs and customs in Hogswatch. He also makes for one entertaining Hogfather (the bit in the shopping mall is the best scene in the whole book).
We also get to see a Hogswatch celebration by the wizard faculty at Unseen University, who have to deal with a bunch of random fairies and creatures popping into existence. Some of them–like the Bursar–are just comically pitiful, while others–like Ridcully–are actually decent if misguided. Some of their banter can last for half a page and go off on incredible tangents.
And while the hooded and mysterious Auditors are supposed to be the true antagonists, Jonathan Teatime is the most shining example of a villain. His appearance is unnerving, his antics are psychotic, and his every movement seems to defy the laws of physics. It says a lot when he has trouble keeping his own crew of thugs in line on account of how terrifying and unpleasant he can be, being that so many people end up dead by his hand in the blink of an eye.
The Theme: Belief Determines Truth, Which Shall Set You Free
Give Pratchett credit for being an author who both deconstructs the whole holiday craze and then reaffirms why we celebrate these things in the first place. His story is one that looks at some of the silliness behind a spirit figure who brings gifts to children and all the weird things we do with friends and family at the end of the solar year. It’s also a story that says it’s all okay to believe because it’s these beliefs that keeps us as a species going.
I believe Death and Susan’s dialogue near the end puts it beautifully:
You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.
NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–?
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
So we can believe the big ones?
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
They’re not the same at all!
REALLY? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY… AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point–?
MY POINT EXACTLY.
Final Verdict: An Affectionate Parody of Heartwarming Holiday Cheer
There’s nothing more I can say except that this is both one of the most irreverent and reverent Christmas tales I’ve ever enjoyed. It’s funny enough that you can read it anytime year-round, but it’s best for the holiday season and one of Pratchett’s best works.
And on that note, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, one and all! Here’s to a great next year!
Bibliography: Pratchett, Terry. Hogfather. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1996.