What would happen to the world if Santa died? Would the sun ever rise again? Those are the ostentatious questions being asked in Terry Pratchett’s novel the Hogfather. But as always with him, there’s always a bit more to it than that–and every inch of it fun. ^^ This book gets a 4/5 on philosophy, a 5/5 on characters, and a 5/5 on plot.
Themes/Questions: Is it better to tell a story or the truth?
The only way to describe the plot, I think, is with a question. Otherwise this would get too complicated. So: if you were hired to kill Santa (the Hogfather as it may be, giver of presents on Hogswatchnight), how would you go about doing it? And if you were Death (you know, the robe and scythe and all), how would you go about stopping him from dying? And if you were Death’s granddaughter, with a stable job as a nanny and no desire to do anything too unusual–would you help your dear old granddad?
That’s basically the gist of it. Enter the Assassin’s guild, the tooth fairy, the Soul Cake Duck and other shenanigans as you like them.
When reading a Pratchett novel I’m always torn between whether the philosophy is blatant or a bit more shrouded and difficult to figure out. This is primarily because he never says anything outright and to your face–he shows you beautifully, using other common reference points to expose the irony or fallacies of our different ways of thinking. It’s often a very cynical view of humanity, but not one without laughs. The Hogfather is no exception, wondering about the basis of our world and what belief does for us.
Everybody believes in Santa Claus, in some way. He might not come dressed in red with a big white beard and a truckload of reindeer, but he’s there nevertheless. But all the while in the back of your mind there’s a lingering doubt that he doesn’t exist. Or maybe you don’t believe in him, but there’s still that niggling feeling in the back of your mind–that he does.
The Hogfather does a remarkable job of highlighting the benefits and drawbacks of believing in something. Susan and Death have different views on what belief means, and I think both are valid. Susan believes that scary things, fantastical things, exist because they simply do–so rather than ignore them we must face them head on and deal with the problem (with a poker, if necessary). Death, on the other hand, believes the fantastical exists because without it, we wouldn’t be able to handle the bad.
Our assassin, Teatime (pronounced tee-ah-tim-eh) has another take on it: he doesn’t care whether it’s real or not–but would use people’s belief to destroy their world. It made me wonder how many people in our world would do the same, use our belief against us to tear us down.
I suppose my favorite part–or perhaps the part I’m most conflicted about–comes at the end, when Death faces off against the Auditors with the aid of Susan. Potentially, if the Auditors succeeded and killed the Hogfather, the sun would not rise the next day. After they succeed, Susan has a conversation with her grandfather, about believing in the fantasies of the world. It’s best said in the words of the author himself:
(Death): YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
(Susan): “So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
~ ~ ~
Not exactly a positive outlook, right? But just moments earlier the same character, Death, admits that like it or not things exist. They will exist regardless of our belief. The sun will continue to be the sun, story or no. Of course, he believes it is the fantasy about the sun which leads to fantasy about Truth, Justice, etc. But it’s still the sun.
(Death): WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IF YOU HADN’T SAVED HIM?
“Yes! The sun would have risen just the same, yes?”
“Oh, come on. You can’t expect me to believe that. It’s an astronomical fact.”
THE SUN WOULD NOT HAVE RISEN.
“Really? Then what would have happened, pray?”
A MERE BALL OF FLAMING GAS WOULD HAVE ILLUMINATED THE WORLD.
~ ~ ~
To finish off, I think I’ll leave with just one more quote from the book, one that I believe wholeheartedly. After Death’s cynical expose on the moral state of the world, he leaves his granddaughter with these words:
All in all, I enjoyed my second (third?) reading of this book just as much as the first. And, incidentally, there’s also a rather good movie adaptation as well.
My Rating: 10/10
Thanks for reading,
from smh.com (I laughed too)
featured image from omphaloskepsis. Incidentally, they also did a review of the movie (quite a good one, imo)