Continuing my occasional series as I work my way through Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.
Today’s entry is on the 13th book, Small Gods.
First Appearance: The History Monks, particularly Lu-Tze.
Introduced to Discworld: the dangers of organized religion…to the gods
Plot: In the far-off empire of Omnia, the whole state is dedicated to the Church of the Great God Om. Omnia is constantly expanding, pushing its faith out into the rest of the world and terrifying plenty of people around with the dreaded Quisition, which often tortures people for the betterment of their own souls. You know the type.
As far as Exquistor Vorbis is concerned, there is a major problem with a heresy forming around the idea that the world is a flat disc atop four elephants atop a giant turtle. Omnians, see, believe the world is round. The fact that the Discworld actually is a flat disc atop four elephants atop a giant turtle doesn’t matter much to people like Vorbis. I should have plenty to say about him in the commentary section.
However, a lowly novice named Brutha is surprised to hear the voice of Om while working the gardens. Om seems surprised, too. He’s been stuck as a small, powerless, one-eyed tortoise for three years. Brutha is the first person to hear his voice in ages. What Om slowly realizes is there’s a good reason for that: out of the thousands of members of the church, Brutha is the only one who still truly believes in Om.
Can Brutha and Om revive true faith in the Church and stop a holy war Vorbis is set to start with neighboring Ephebe?
Commentary: Pratchett in life was an atheist. I find that fact interesting in how he approaches the subject of religion in the Discworld books. There are actual gods on the Discworld. They tend to be about as competent as everyone else, but Pratchett doesn’t use them to condemn religion here or anywhere else. On the contrary, his exploration of faith is actually rather moving here. The Church of Om has problems, but the problems are caused as much by the humans running it as anything else. Om’s biggest crime was being negligent and apathetic. Like many Discworld characters, Om learns from his mistakes and will be a better god when the story is over.
In fact, the hero of the book, Brutha, never loses his faith in Om. He does make changes, of course. Brutha basically points out that gods are only as powerful as there are people to believe in them. Since he is Om’s only true believer, he alone can hear Om’s voice, and Om is stuck in the shape of a lowly tortoise, something Om isn’t used to. Om, early on, shouts at people who displease him to be smited (smitten?) in various nasty ways, but those things never happen. Om takes a very Old Testament approach to punishment. Brutha takes him to task for not really caring about his followers, so Brutha eventually affects change in both the Church and its divinity, making both better and more humane.
That’s where the problems come from. The Church has many followers. But they follow out of fear of punishment from the Quisition. In a way, they believe in the Church, not in Om.
This leads us to Vorbis. Pratchett describes him as a tall, thin man, bald, with eyes that look like the lenses of sunglasses. Vorbis believes in the Church’s teachings, but he warps them to suit his own needs. As a villain, Pratchett tries to suggest he isn’t evil. Brutha says as much, and many of Pratchett’s villains are more well-meaning people who do things the wrong way than truly awful people. It is really hard for the reader to see that in Vorbis. Vorbis reminds me a little of Pyramids antagonist Dios. Dios could not change his routine, but he was a high priest who didn’t even believe in his own religion. Vorbis does believe. But Vorbis takes it to extremes. Any sign of superstition is heresy to Vorbis. He tortures blacksmiths for keeping a horseshoe nailed to a wall for good luck, will eliminate all believers in the flat earth theory, takes offense while in Ephebe when food is left out for the Omnian peace delegation on a fasting day, and talks about “fundamental truths” that are often not literal truths but seem to make a good excuse to do things like burn the Epheban’s library. Vorbis can and will twist everything that happens to him and the Church as a whole into a shape that fits Vorbis’ own worldview, despite any inconvenient facts to the contrary.
With all that in mind, the text tells us Vorbis’ biggest crime is not that he murders and tortures people at the drop of a hat. It is that something about Vorbis makes other people worse. Other people who spend time with Vorbis are influenced to be more like him. And since he runs the Quisition (and indirectly the Church itself), that just makes things worse for everyone.
By contrast, Brutha seems to bring out the best in people. Gifted with the ability to never forget anything, Brutha is a kind youth who just wants to do good. His presence makes Om a better god in the end. He’s the one who actually tries to save Vorbis from a fate pretty much every other character and most likely the reader think he deserves. At the novel’s end, when Brutha encounters Vorbis one last time, he shows the man a mercy that no one else could. Brutha’s growing disillusionment with the Church, finding out many of the prophets probably made up their books since Om told them very little (remember, Om was an apathetic god at best), lead him to being a stronger person who can actually tell off the deity he alone believes in.
Ultimately, what Pratchett does here is discuss how religions in general work. Discworld has many “small gods,” beings who are barely formed and need worshipers. Om may be stuck as a tortoise, in a book rife with turtle images, but he’s better off than the small gods who don’t even have that much and can barely speak. The worst for Om was an unnamed god who used to be big and powerful but now can’t even remember its own name. The relationship between gods and people is explained as a symbiotic one: gods get more from humans, but humans can still have gods that are worth worshiping from the looks of things.
I personally think Small Gods might be the ideal jumping on point for new readers. It’s a standalone book, with characters that don’t really appear again, and best shows Pratchett’s philosophy on life without disparaging too much on religious faith he himself lacked. Yes, there is the requisite appearances by Death, as well as cameos by the Death of Rats and the Librarian, and a few references to the nation of Djelibeybi from Pyramids, but there’s nothing here a new reader couldn’t get to while still covering what may be the best novel in the entire series. It may not be as funny as some of the others, but is the most humane.
If there is a flaw to this novel, it is the presence of Lu-Tze. Though the book suggested he had a vital role to play in the story, his role is actually rather small, and may appear inconsequential.
Next book: There’s a royal wedding happening as witch Magrat Garlick is marrying the king! Unfortunately, someone invited the Elves. They aren’t very pleasant. Be back for Lords and Ladies at some point in the future.