Humor and The Uncomfortable Truths of Discworld

Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.-Terry Pratchett

This article is part of the #pfmessages project at The Yachtless, exploring personal finance messages in fiction. It does contain some affiliate links.

Sometimes, great truths makes you laugh and cry at the same time.

At least, if they are the uncomfortable truths explained to us by Terry Pratchett.

Sir Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors. The prolific and bestselling author, known best for his 41 book Discworld series, left us after a battle with Alzheimer’s last March. But he left us with an amazing body of work, full of humor and biting social commentary.

What makes Discworld great? It might be the Discworld itself, fantastic and yet so identifiable as it journeys through space on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin. It might be the memorable characters that you want to visit again and again, like the irascible witch Granny Weatherwax, the stalwart Ankh Morpork City Watch, Death, or the irrepressible conman, Moist von Lipwig. It might be the witty and insightful prose.*

Or it might be that Pratchett uses outrageous characters, situations, and phrases to make us look at the uncomfortable truths of the human condition. Economics, religion, racism, privilege, gender expectations…Discworld wanted to skewer and grill the sacred cows of almost every subject until they became tasty kebabs of wisdom washed down with a healthy tankard of irony.

Discworld (and Pratchett’s other works) made you laugh, because humor is so much better at teaching you than preaching (which is why the best preachers use humor regularly.) Then you’d think. Discworld was full of stories about common people with uncommon problems. Trolls, vampires, dwarves or goblins, Pratchett never let you forget they were all just people.

And that perspective, that all the Discworld denizens were just people, allowed him to show us our flaws. Like the people of Discworld, we can be heroic, loyal, practical, hopeful and resourceful. We can also be unthinking, prejudiced, foolish, ignorant, and corrupt, and we often are.

Truth. Uncomfortable truth.

*Spiced with relevant and highly entertaining footnotes, which might be better than the books themselves.

The Sam Vimes Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness

One of the best examples of an uncomfortable truth stated well took place in Men at Arms. Sam Vimes, head of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, is the main character of several novels. He starts out in Guards! Guards!
as the guy who just won’t give up no matter what the important people want, and stubbornly maintains his cynical demeanor and working class perspective even as he gains in reputation, wealth, and power in subsequent novels.

He’s my absolute favorite: the eternal watchman who doesn’t kowtow to anything but the law, and understands that the word of law should never supersede the law’s intent.

By the second Watch novel, Vimes is married to the richest woman in Ankh-Morpork. How do the rich stay rich? Vimes’s theory explains why the conditions of wealth and poverty so often work to keep individuals stuck in their place in the social hierarchy:

The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money. Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

Yes, good quality clothes last longer and generally have more lasting styles, which mean that you’ll spend less over time. The concept applies to so many other facets of life, though. People who can afford preventative health care get earlier treatment for problems, which is often less expensive and more effective. They spend less and are able to get back to their activities and work faster.

People who can afford car maintenance can make their cars last longer, while those who can’t end up with costly repairs, replacement costs, or missed work due to transportation problems.

A good beer is savored, rather than guzzled.

You don’t have to spend money wisely on things that will save you money. There’s plenty of opportunities to squander your money on lots of mediocre stuff instead of a few good items that will last longer. You don’t have to use your money to maintain your position just because you have it.

Having money gives you the opportunity to spend wisely, and gives you the luxury of a long-term perspective on spending money that you can’t have when you struggle meeting basic needs.

More Pratchett Quotes on Wealth & Poverty:

  • Only in Our Dreams are We Free. The Rest of the Time We Need Wages. (Wyrd Sisters)
  • There were two ways of looking at the world,but only one when you are starving. (Dodger)
  • Stories are not, on the whole, interested in swineherds who remain swineherds and poor and humble shoe-makers whose destiny is to die slightly poorer and much humbler. (Witches Abroad)
  • Money makes people rich; it is a fallacy to think it makes them better, or even that it makes them worse.’ (Dodger)
  •  ‘Money is not a thing, it is not even a process.  It is a kind of shared dream.  We dream that a small disc of common metal is worth the price of a substantial meal.  Once you wake up from that dream, you can swim in a sea of money.’ (Going Postal)
  • It’s only money.’
    ‘Yes, but it’s only my money, not only your money,’ Nanny pointed out.
    ‘We witches have always held everything in common, you know that,’ said Granny.
    yes,’said Nanny, and once again cut to the heart of the sociopolitical debate.  ‘It’s easy to hold everything in common when no one’s got anything.’  (Maskerade)

Ignorance may be an Excuse: Willful Ignorance is just Stupidity

Pratchett spends a lot of time talking about stupidity. His characters have little patience for stupidity, petty behavior and willful ignorance.

They deal with a lot of it, just as we do. Racism, demagoguery, mob behavior, foolishness: they all receive some of Pratchett’s best zingers. Most of Pratchett’s characters suffer fools poorly but often.

This is particularly true of Pratchett’s witches. The witches are the authorities in rural areas, mostly helping little people live simple lives better until, of course, the simple lives are invaded by fairies or vampires.

The head witch, Esme “Granny” Weatherwax, is one of Pratchett’s finest creations. You like this ornery impatient implacable woman, who believes “headology” trumps magic every time, but you know she’d never appreciate your appreciation. She might appreciate your common sense, if you could convince her you had any by, for instance, agreeing with her on practically everything. She’s a paragon when it comes to exposing uncomfortable truths, particularly about human behavior and shortcomings.

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it’s not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance. Equal Rites

How many of society’s problems are borne out of willful ignorance? How few people understand that there are things they just don’t understand, but don’t seek to know better and jump to conclusions based on no data?

And how much damage does that do?’

There are a ton of resources available to teach you anything you want to know. If you have a problem, don’t let lack of knowledge get in the way of improving your situation.

Struggling with debt? Need to learn how to save for retirement? Need to learn how to find a better job? Need to find out the truth about political issues, whether local or international?

There’s a book for that, probably at your free to use public library.

There’s a blog for that, or a hundred. Pick your favorites. Then go read the ones you think are nuts, because you need to know all of the sides of an issue. Learn, but also learn to challenge your assumptions.

There’s a course for that. Maybe a cheap course at your local community college. Maybe a free online course at Coursera, edX, Khan Academy or the Goodwill Community Foundation.

There’s a community for that. Try meetups, community groups, or a lecture series. Find a Facebook or Pinterest group. Find other people who are on the same journey.

But look. Listen. Read. Think. Explore. Expose yourself to uncomfortable truths.

Most of all. keep trying to keep ignorance at bay.

More Pratchett Quotes on Ignorance:

  • Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is. (Lords and Ladies)
  • It was amazing, he thought, how people would argue against figures on no better basis than ‘they must be wrong’. (Unseen Academicals)
  • It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things. (Jingo)
  • stupid clever people do much more damage than stupid untutored morons  (Johnny and the Dead)
  • Unfortunately, like many people who are instinctively bad at something, the Archchancellor prided himself on how good at it he was.  Ridcully was to management what King Herrod was to the Bethlehem Playgroup Association.  His mental approach to it could be visualized as a sort of business flowchart with, at the top, a circle entitled ‘Me, who does the telling’ and, connected below it by a line, a large circle entitled ‘Everyone else.’  (The Last Continent)

The Uncomfortable Truths of Life and Death

The character that appears in almost every Discworld novel is Death. The Grim Reaper escorts souls to the afterlife of their choosing.  Immortal, but not without a sense of humor, Death is the ultimate purveyor of uncomfortable truths.

When Death is a common character, there tends to be a lot of questions about life. What makes a well-lived life?

It’s not your wealth, which you can’t take with you. It’s not your power, because in the end we’re all the same. Forget those facts, and in the end all you’ll be left to is dust.

What’s important in life is the legacy you leave behind, the life you lead, the people you touch, the way you treat others.

It is said that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. That is true, it’s called Life.(The Last Continent)

Did you treat people with respect and love? Did you try to make the world better, even if it was just your little corner of the world? Or did you make it worse? Did you waste your time?

You get one life, and all too soon it’s passed you by. It’s over. What have you done? Better start today, because tomorrow isn’t promised. We all die in the end. Don’t leave things too late.

More Pratchett Quotes on Life, Death, and Making a Difference.

  • “Evil begins when you treat people as things. (I Shall Wear Midnight)
  • William wondered why he always disliked people who said ‘no offence meant’.  Maybe it was because they found it easier to say ‘no offence meant’ than actually refrain from giving offence. (The Truth)
  • No one is actually dead until the ripples they caused in the world die away. (Reaper Man)

The Discworld Genius that Makes Hard Truths Palatable

That’s a lot of uncomfortable truths to be laid at your feet. We don’t want to think about death, or ignorance, or poverty. Yet, Pratchett’s many fans go back to his works over and over again, because all of those serious troubling subjects are framed with outrageous stories written with the sort of humor that makes you giggle and snort uncontrollably as you read.

We visit over and over to visit with Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, Discworld’s “most enterprisingly unsuccessful entrepreneur,” or Nanny Ogg, the cheerfully lecherous old witch who is the Yin to Granny Weatherwax’s Yang.

We go to watch the wizards fumble around in their ivory tower at Unseen University, or to laugh at the rolicking machismo of the Wee Free Men. We go to imagine troll music (music with rocks) or the Hogfather (Santa but with pigs instead of reindeer).

We go to Discworld (and Pratchett’s other works) for entertainment, pure and simple. Only it’s not pure and simple, it’s subversive. It’s the spoonful of sugar that helps tolerance go down. It’s the inoculation against the flu of ignorance.

It’s the (Captain) Carrot that guides us toward uncomfortable truths. Truths gilded with golden laughter, but truths nonetheless.

Discworld is a huge and varied body of work. If you haven’t tried it, I heartily recommend not only the series, but this guide to the best entry points. 

What are your favorite truths (financial or nonfinancial) in fiction?

4 Responses to “Humor and The Uncomfortable Truths of Discworld”
    • Emily Jividen 12/09/2015
  1. Hannah 12/09/2015

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