Indignant Turtles

I’ve seen a couple of movies based on Terry Pratchett’s books, and each time I was blinded by the fantastic kaleidoscope of disparate pieces brought together: flashes of colors and references to our world, mushed together and shaped into something at once recognizable and completely, radically different – not to mention wickedly sly.

I recently got around to actually reading one of his books, Small Gods, and it was just as good as the movies had been. It’s quite hard to find one aspect of the book to talk about – the collage of pieces moving together absolutely defies that. Instead, I’m going to talk about the whole SPLAT of what I enjoyed and what I thought about, organized into severely diaphanous categories. It probably won’t spoil the book for you, as there is a great joy in uncovering the great scattering that is Pratchett’s ideas.

The book begins with a history monk being put on assignment; he is told to go to the kingdom of Osmia, which is about to undergo a radical change he is to witness. The monk, Lu-Tze, embarks on his journey: “It took him four years to get to Osmia. He had to watch a couple of battles and an assassination along the way, otherwise they would just have been random events” (8). I love the idea that, like trees falling in forests, history is not history unless it is observed. Like how light is either a particle or a wave depending on how it is observed, like a cat is both alive or dead until it is observed, so too is history. If your mind is blown already, keep it that way.

Philosophers are described as generally useless and pedantic (in and out of this book). When the main character, Brutha, asks his god, Om, what philosophers are good for, when 99 out of 100 ideas stink like a skunk on ice, Om replies, “Because the 100th idea is generally a humdinger” (142). I could think of no more perfect definition of a philosopher.

Pretty soon after we meet the philosophers – who generally have a fetish for bathing (in reference to Aristotle’s ‘eureka’ moment) – their great library is burned down. I know. I just cringed too. Not only that, the fire was started by one of the philosophers – because, as he rationalized, a philosopher is the only sort of person qualified to raze a library. I have to admit, he has a point.

I did appreciate that Pratchett did mollify the hardcore book lovers: most of the books are saved in one way or another. One explicitly irrelevant episode of the book is included to mollify us readers: an ape-like creature apperates into the burning building, grabs scrolls off of the shelves, and disappears into thin air again. It is incidental that these tomes appeared in the Library of the Unseen University in Ank-Morpork. It has nothing to do with the plot and everything to do with a love of literature – and not wanting to lose readers like myself who are distinctly queasy about igniting the written word.

“Nothing makes a desert like a goat” (footnote, page 271). My thoughts exactly – and something I have seen in person. I do not like goats.

The bulk of the book is about religion – as much as it can be about anything – and is what I spent the majority of my time thinking about. Om speaks to Brutha, as Brutha is the only follower of the god who actually believes in him. Brutha is kind, has a precise and comprehensive memory, and follows his leaders. Om is stuck in the shape of a turtle because he lacks the power of belief of his followers, and is trying to regain support rather than fade into oblivion. Over the course of the book, Brutha learns about the true nature of religion, starting with the harsh reality of prophesy: “’But – but,’ said Brutha, ‘you’re saying that prophets were…just men who wrote things down!’” (55). And really – isn’t that the case?

(Please don’t pelt me with cabbages.)

Om goes on to insist that the religious infrastructure that Brutha has been blindly following has nothing to do with belief. Finally, Brutha believes this – but it doesn’t show well for Om, who has himself been pursuing power ruthlessly.

“’You could have helped people,’ said Brutha. ‘But all you did was stamp around and roar and try to make people afraid. Like…a man hitting a donkey with a stick. But people like Vorbis make the stick look so good, that’s all the donkey ends up believing in.’” (278)

I have known a few people – thankfully not many – who have had religion not out of belief, but out of habit or fear; to see it so clearly defined in this setting was jarring and deeply enlightening. For all that this story is a work of comic genius, it is also a serious indictment of a certain kind of authoritarian religion and of the kind of government that rises up around that system. It goes to show how careful we have to be about who we give power – and how we give it to them. If this keeps you up at night, I’ll keep you company.

The end of the book was brilliant. Brutha went on to live a long life, and only died when he forgot something – his age. He is met by the skeletal cloaked figure of Death, who speaks in capital letters. Death ushers Brutha into the desert he must travel to get to the afterlife; there Brutha meets his enemy, Vorbis, who had been unable to cross the desert alone. Death reminds Brutha that Vorbis had been a sadistic torturer and master manipulator. Brutha decides to lead Vorbis across the desert. Why? “’Because I’m me’” (380). It’s gentle, and it’s a masterstroke.

The biggest laugh of the book (for me, anyway) also came at the end. The abbot of the history monks sits across from Death, playing chess:

“The opponent looked long and hard at the board.
The abbot waited to see what long-term devious strategies were being evolved.
Then his opponent tapped a piece with a bony finger.


Terry Pratchett is capable of mass levels of humor, but also of nuance and empathy: this is the sort of comedy that makes you smarter for reading it. I’ll be visiting him again, for sure.


3 thoughts on “Indignant Turtles

  1. if the book is as entertaining as the review…he will have DONE it.
    Re the turtle and crossing the desert…
    there is an African myth about a snake and a scorpion. The scorpion wants to get the the other side of a big river…but knows he cannot swim…but the snake can. So he asks the snake to take him across the river. The Snake says>>>”OOOOh No! You are a scorpion and you would sting me”. The scorpions says “NOoooo you will be doing me a great favour by taking me across. I would never sting a friend.” The snake says…”you promise you won’t sting me…?” The Scorpion does …and the Snake allows the scorpion to get on his head and begins to swim thru the river. ” Ah, what a fine swimmer you are Snake” “Thank you” says the Snake. They finally reach the far shore…the scorpion gets off the Snake’s head …and then whips his tail and stings the Snake. “I took you across the BIG river why did you sting ME ” whispers the dying Snake …?
    “Because being a scorpion is my nature”, the Scorpion he replied.

    Hope the answer to how those little horse shaped things move is in there!

    Wonderful inventive, thoughtful, intelligent and funny look at this book.
    love IT!



  2. In the version I heard, the scorpion stung the snake before they reached the other side, so both went down, because the scorpion could not resist its nature even for its own survival.


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