I had a hair-brained idea for my blog: a discussion on magic in fantasy! Not just in one fantasy book, but across the broad spectrum that is my favorite genre. Of course, there is absolutely no way I could do something like that justice, so I put a call out for bookbloggers and authors to lend their unique perspectives. They have shown up in a huge way to kindly share their time and opinions.
Author and Youtuber Rob Edwards sharing his thoughts on a big addition to fantasy: Discworld. You can hear his discussion on YouTube.
Look, there in the dark.
It’s hard to judge size when the only comparison available is an endless stretch of inky dark nothingness, but the shape is huge. Beyond huge. Huge, and moving. Huge, moving and, on reflection, not just one shape, but a compound, complex set of shapes. Flippers. An impossibly vast shell. And standing on that shell, four elephants. Perched on their backs, it can only be…
Shape, then, is the wrong word. This has every appearance of being a place; more geography than geometry.
And this is a place steeped with magic. The sort of place the word “steeped” was made for. A place left to soak in an octarine infusion, like a tea bag left in a cup so long it…
This metaphor is getting away from me.
Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is quintessential gateway fantasy. It is a place of wonder, a place of life, of humour, sharp satire, beguiling stories, larger than life characters and a whole lot of magic. Both in the world, and the way it is described.
And yet, while there are multiple volumes about the Science of Discworld, if there is such a treatise on the magic of the Disc, I’ve not encountered it.
So, what then can I divine about the Discworld’s magic system? This is my interpretation based on many rereadings of the series, but only recent revisits of Eric and Reaper Man.
Three fundamentals drive all magic in Discworld: Purpose, Personality and Belief.
Magic wants to be used. We see it time and again across the series, from the single spell that Rincewind learned, to the magic of Moving Pictures and the mysterious globes in Reaper Man. Magic once manifested, needs to fulfil its purpose.
It is something that the Wizards and Witches appreciate. The more senior the Witch or Wizard, the more power they have access to, the less likely they are to use it. You don’t claw your way up the hierarchy of the Unseen University without learning a healthy sense of self preservation, and an appreciation that wotting things man was not meant to wot of, is just not the done thing. Much better to have a big dinner and then a long nap instead.
Which is not to say that Witches and Wizards are fakers incapable of magic. There are plenty of examples in the books where both engage in activities which can only be described as magical. But there is always a risk in the act, the chance that the Wizard or Witch might get carried away. Sometimes literally. The Dungeon Dimensions and the terrible horrors which live therein are always waiting to take advantage of the unwary. We see several times in the series what happens when magic is unleashed too freely. Calamity and Chaos are never far away.
With purpose, oftentimes, personality follows.
Death is the prime example of this. He is an embodiment of the most fundamental aspect of life, he has purpose to which he must attend, but more he has, he is, a personality. One of Sir Terry’s greatest creations, in fact, and one of the most beloved characters in the franchise. Which is weird when you think about it. He’s not the only example, though. The Hogfather, the Tooth Fairy all fill similar roles. And it’s not just the anthropomorphic aspects of reality that end up with personality. Almost anything infused with magic develops personality eventually, like Rincewind’s Luggage.
The final pillar of magic in Discworld is belief. Most obvious in the case of the Disc’s pantheon of gods, large and small, sometimes all that is needed to manifest something magical is enough belief. Pratchett lays it out specifically: the existence of gods does not result in belief in them, belief in gods results in their existence. Again though, the use of belief in magic is not limited to the gods. If you come in the door marked wossnames, that means you get treated as a wossname, right?
At the end of the day, Discworld is not the sort of series to have a regimented magic system. Instead, it’s a tool that Pratchett uses to fill a need in the story, a useful tool that can fit many shapes. Still, if the specifics of magic are malleable, I think it’s clear that the principles that underpin it are consistent.
About the author:
Rob Edwards is a British born writer and content creator, living in Finland. His podcast, StorycastRob, features readings from his short stories and extracts from longer work. He writes about coffee, despite not drinking it, spaceships, despite being down-to-earth, and superheroes, despite everything.
His debut novel, The Ascension Machine was published in 2020. His short stories can be found in anthologies from Inklings Press and Rivenstone Press.
A life-long gamer and self-professed geek, he is proud of his entry on wookieepedia, the result of writing several Star Wars RPG scenarios in his youth.
Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/StorycastRob
Check out his Podcast: http://storycastrob.co.uk/
Or YouTube: Rob Edwards
For more from this series:
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Wheel of Time
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- The Coldfire Trilogy
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Magic for Mercenary Kings
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- The Weather Warden
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- And Now This
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Blood, Fire, and Death
From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Teaching Physics to Barbarians
9 thoughts on “From Merlin to Mistborn: A Discussion on Magic- Discworld”
An excellent piece! I really want to reread Pratchett books – next readalong?
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