Continuing my occasional read-through of Sir Terry Pratchett’s delightful Discworld series, one novel at a time.
This week, I’m covering the 20th book, Hogfather.
First appearances: The Hogfather
Introduced to Discworld: A whole lot of things that can temporarily appear when a big source of belief suddenly becomes available
Plot: It’s Hogswatch, the Discworld version of Christmas. Namedropped many times, the holiday involves the Santa-like Hogfather traveling all over the Disc onboard a sleigh pulled by four massive hogs, dispensing toys and candied pigs to good children everywhere.
So, naturally, that much personality proves problematic to the mysterious Auditors, who hate things with personality; they want him removed. They tried and failed to do that with Death back in Reaper Man, causing an excess of life to come around. Now they’re trying it with the Hogfather, causing an excess of belief to come around. All manner of things just pop into existence by their mere mention, ranging from the Oh God of Hangovers to the Cheerful Fairy to the small thing that eats all the pencils that just disappear.
But Hogswatch needs a Hogfather, so who shall it be?
Death will do the job. As he says many times, HO. HO. HO.
But Death can’t bring the Hogfather back. For that, he needs an agent. Just as the Auditors employed a human Assassin to kill the Hogfather, so Death needs someone to bring him back. It’s a good thing Death’s granddaughter Susan is available…
Commentary: Hogswatch sounds an awful lot like hogwash. Let’s just get the obvious out of the way first.
I think by this time Pratchett has found his comfort zone with Death. Death takes on a project, but he does so without understanding things like real world reality and metaphors and the like. Death takes to being the Hogfather a little too much. He wants everyone to have the ideal Hogswatch, which means trading food from Ankh-Morpork’s finest restaurant to the usual beggars that keep turning up (the group that includes Foul Ol’ Ron and probably Gaspode), feel outrage that poor families can’t have much, and actually give a little girl the pony she’s been asking for. It means rescuing the Little Match Girl before she freezes and handing her off to guest star Nobby Nobbs of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. It means crashing the local Shopping Maul (yes, it is spelled that way) and playing Hogfather for all the kids present, giving them all exactly what they want without any explanation or charge to their parents. It means finding people happy to see him for once. His manservant Alfred, along for the ride as the Hogfather’s pixie, sees nothing but trouble.
Fortunately, Death’s granddaughter Susan is available. Susan, working as a nanny for a middle class family, knows a thing or two about imaginary things, especially since they seem more real when she gets involved. Susan finds herself, after her grandfather more or less told her not to, looking into what killed the Hogfather. The answer is a group of thugs led by a particularly psychotic member of the Assassins Guild named Teatime (which he pronounces as Te-ah-tim-meh). Teatime is a one of Pratchett’s less honorable villains. Inclined not to leave witnesses and equally inclined to keep smiling and acting like a particularly disturbing friendly young man while doing so, Teatime has one of those classic features that sets him apart. Like Vorbis in Small Gods, Teatime does not have normal eyes. He seems to pop up where he wants to and frightens the heck out of most people who meet him.
One of the advantages, though, of being Death’s granddaughter is nothing is really scary.
Much of the action takes place at the Unseen University, where Archchancelor Ridcully and his staff are looking to figure out a thing or two. The Librarian seems to sleep off most of the book, but the senior wizards always make for fine comedy as they squabble over stupid things. The wizard “thinking machine” Hex even comes in very handy when Death learns of its existence.
The novel ends with a bit of Pratchett’s philosophy on why Death should care if there’s a Hogfather or not. I’d say more, but it might be best to let Pratchett’s text explain it. British television adapted a couple of Pratchett’s works in his lifetime, and the following clip is of the scene where Death tells Susan why he bothered. And yes, that is Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery as Susan.
Belief, you see, is important. Without believing in little things as children, it is harder to believe in big things that only exist because of belief as adults. Death understands this. Death likes this about humanity. And that is why Death saves Hogswatch. It’s perhaps a rather pessimistic outlook in someways, curbed by the idea that people can be better, which is one of the purposes of good satire. It’s just mixed in here with a lot of jokes about holiday traditions.
And somehow, even the Death of Rats finds a way to give his raven translator a present. Happy Hogswatch, everyone.
NEXT BOOK: Can there be a greater crime than war? Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch has some opinions on that. Come back soon for Jingo.