July 20, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #7: Pyramids


Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.

Up next, the seventh book Pyramids.

First appearances:  A bunch of characters who do not, to my recollection, appear in any other books.

Introduced to Discworld:  Change to a very ancient society.

The plot:  Teppic is the crown prince of the small, ancient kingdom of Djelibeybi, an Egypt-ish country known for its pyramids, pharaohs, and animal-headed gods.  He’s studying at Ankh-Morpork’s famed Assasins Guild when word reaches him via a divine seagull that his father has died.  Returning to the land of his birth, he finds being the king isn’t all its cracked up to be, mostly because everything is done via ritual and most real decisions seem to be made by the high priest Dios.  The first order of business, something neither Teppic, the ghost of his father, or anyone who knew his father during life, seem too keen on is building a pyramid for the recently deceased king.  And despite the fact the kingdom has in fact gone fairly broke building these endless pyramids, Teppic finds himself ordering the biggest pyramid ever built for his father.  Again, no one seems to want this except for Dios.

The problem is pyramids tends to absorb time and then spout it off at regular intervals, and building one that big means the pyramid will not be finished before it can spout off the extra time, and that would be Very Bad.

As such, it will be up to Teppic, a handmaiden named Ptraci, Teppic’s old schoolchum Chidder, and a camel named You Bastard (greatest mathematician on the Disc), to somehow save the kingdom before the two nations that Djelibeybi acts as a buffer to, Ephebe and Tsort, decide to refight the Discworld version of the Trojan War.

Commentary:  Terry Pratchett had a handful of Discworld novels that were essentially one-shots.  They were set mostly in other parts of the Disc involving characters that never really appear again after their initial appearance.  Pyramids is the first of these, and the basic subject of mockery here is ancient Egypt, with a bit of fun poked as ancient Greece (here appearing as the nation of Ephebe).  Djelibeybi has a seemingly never-ending number of animal-headed gods that do basic things, to say nothing of the title structures that have a mystical significance on top of everything else.

That brings me to the subject of Dios.  Dios, despite being the novel’s antognist, does not come across as an evil man.  There are evil people on the Disc, as seen with the duke and duchess from the previous book, Wyrd Sisters.  Dios just isn’t one of them.  He is merely a man who is completely incapable of change in any way, shape, or form.  The old man, real age unknown, is incapable of speaking in the past tense and conducts rituals not because he believes in the religion he represents (Dios actually thinks poorly of priests who actually believe in their own religion), but because he always has.  He is a man who speaks for the king he serves even if the king has said the exact opposite thing from what Dios has just loudly proclaimed, because the king couldn’t possibly have meant the thing he actually said.  The divine part of that king would not allow the mortal part to actually be the one who was right.

The problem for Djelibeybi is Teppic went to another country to get his education.  The Assassins School of Ankh-Morpork is often represented as the Discworld equivalent of an upper-class prep school; it just also happens to teach how to lawfully kill someone for profit.

Ankh-Morpork, of course, has legal versions of lots of different kinds of crimes in the real world because the various Guilds keep violent crime down better than the City Watch does.

But while he was away, Teppic learned about the advantages of beds not made out of rocks and mirrors made of glass instead of shiny bronze.  He wants to be more of a man of the people, not some distant figure in a gold mask.  That’s the sort of stuff Dios can’t comprehend or allow.  Kings don’t behave that way.  Dios has a special brand of insanity that won’t allow him to see things that way.

But, as I said, Dios is not necessarily presented as evil, just very set in his ways.  When Teppic accuses Dios of various acts of corruption (like enjoying a beef dinner after the sacrifice of a cow), Dios is actually offended in a way that suggests he himself would never do such a thing.  Dios wouldn’t give himself the luxuries of the outside world no matter what.

Pratchett will not go full-off on organized religion and the corruption involved until he gets to another one-off novel anyway, that being Small Gods.

Pratchett also introduces a very Douglas Adams type of joke on the subject of camels.  Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy stated mice were the smartest creatures on Earth, followed by dolphins and then humans.  Pratchett takes it a step further to declare not only are camels smarter than dolphins, they’re smart enough to hide from humans how good their math skills are so they don’t end up being used in experiments and as amusement park shows like dolphins are (as Pratchett also notes in a footnote, you should also never trust any species that smiles all the time…they’re up to something).  Camels almost have to be that smart just to figure out how to get their bodies to work right in Discworld narratives.  Plus there’s the added joke that camels go by the names angry humans are most likely to call them to get them to do much of anything, as seen here with You Bastard.

This novel was, I think, the first to go over 300 pages.  Pratchett in some of his later books seems to take his time ending things, and this book felt a little bit like that.  I do not recall ever visiting the characters in this book again, but the story was told and it’s probably for the best.

Next book:  There’s a dragon loose in Ankh-Morpork.  Who can stop it?  The brave (?) men of the City Watch!  Be back here for the first in the City Watch books, Guards!  Guards!  at some point in the future.

Previous entries:

The Color of Magic

The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites



Wyrd Sisters