Magic and Mayhem: The Genius of Terry Pratchett’s Magic
I know Terry Pratchett put out a lot of books, and they were pretty thick on British humor and silly footnotes, but that doesn’t change the fact that fantasy writers (and readers) can learn some goddamn important stuff from him.
First off, let’s read a passage about worldbuilding and magic from his book of essays, A Slip of the Keyboard:
Apply logic in places where it wasn’t intended to exist…If there is magic, where does it come from? Why isn’t everyone using it? What rules will you have to give it to allow some tension in your story? How does society operate? Where does the food come from? You need to know how your world works.
I can’t stress that last point enough. Fantasy works best when you take it seriously…taking it seriously means that there must be rules. If anything can happen, then there is no real suspense. You are allowed to make pigs fly, but you must take into account the depredations on the local birdlife and the need for people in heavily over-flown areas to carry stout umbrellas at all time. Joking aside, that sort of thinking is the motor that has kept the Discworld series moving for twenty-two years.
Despite building Discworld on a wink-and-nod approach to the fourth wall, Pratchett was aware of what makes an immersive, well-structured secondary world, and that becomes readily apparent when it comes to his magic—the very nature of magic in the Discworld illustrates the divide between conventional fantasy magic and magic done right.
Witch Magic Vs. Wizard Magic
Wizards in the Discworld are the stand-in for your run-of-the-mill, cliché-ridden fantasy: the magic they use is flashy (fireballs, enchantments, and big spells), beset by fantasy tropes (gotta have the wizard hat and staff), and similar to an occult form of science (they even try to isolate the smallest unit of magic, the thaum, like it’s an atom). Pratchett is generally irreverent when it comes to wizard magic, because it’s just a parody of what he might call EFP—Extruded Fantasy Product.
On the other hand, witches in the Discworld go out of their way not to perform magic—they stay conscious of how magic changes the balance of the world and use their knowledge of people’s natures to change events instead. Witches watch the boundaries of the world, and perform magic that is much subtler—for example, a shamble. Shambles are improvised tools used by witches and composed out of random bits of string and detritus. The witch Miss Level describes them like this:
“The way you tie the knots, the way the string runs – the freshness of the egg, perhaps, and the moisture in the air – the tension of the twigs and the kind of things that you just happen to have in your pocket at that moment – even the way the wind is blowing. All these things make a kind of… of picture of the here-and-now when you move them right.”
The shamble itself isn’t magical, nor is it doing anything overtly supernatural. It’s more like a seismograph for reality, and therein lies the key to Pratchett’s genius.
Most people think of ‘fantasy magic’ in terms of its effects, rather than its nature. They come into fantasy looking for levitation, necromancy, or lightning bolts and judge how good the magic is by how novel or interesting its mechanics are. But what I think elevates magic from an interesting gimmick into something that sticks with you after you close the book has more to do with evoking what’s called the sublime.
One way of looking at it is comparing the feeling of awe when watching a pyrotechnics show to the sense of reverence brought on by looking down on the world from the top of Mt. Everest. One inspires a sense of “Wow, cool!” and the other evokes a sense of almost religious awe and terror deep down in your soul. That Everest feeling comes from the sublime, and doesn’t have to be spurred by something supernatural; it comes from the world itself. A great example of this in the Discworld books is Lu-Tze in Thief of Time.
Lu-Tze and Masters of Magic
The character Lu-Tze is built up to be a legend within the monastery of the History Monks, but his apprentice Lobsang Ludd is initially disappointed to find that Lu-Tze doesn’t use any magic or incredible martial arts (except for deja fu).
This goes back to the way Pratchett presents his magic: the wisest masters of magic in the Discworld seldom need to use magic at all. Instead, problems and obstacles seem to resolve themselves without the masters exerting much effort at all. There’s actually a similar concept in Taoism, called wu wei, or action through inaction, and it works on the same idea: mastery of magic usually leads people to understand the way the world works, and the wise ones inevitably end up acting in harmony with it. If you think that’s some New Age bullshit, consider the fact that “Lu-Tze” sure sounds a lot like “Lao Tzu,” one of the major figures of Taoism.
Anyway, all this wu wei stuff means that the moments when a master is forced to use magic are especially meaningful.
When Lu-Tze finally does reveal his supernatural skills at ‘slicing’ time, it’s mind-bending and terrifying. Time-slicing is the ability to move at normal speed through smaller and smaller units of time—sort of like what Quicksilver does in those X-Men movies. Though time seems frozen, the user is actually moving extremely fast, to the point that air molecules need to be pushed out of the way and blades of grass can slice a person like razors.
Slicing Time and the ‘Wall’
The difficulty ramps up the thinner Lu-Tze (and Lobsang) slices time, demanding more and more focus and energy. In addition, the world becomes steadily colder and seems to become tinted different colors (due to light undergoing red and blue shift) until they characters are left in a freezing world of darkness. By showing this progression in the story and warning us of the dangers, Pratchett leads us deeper and deeper into extremes, establishing stakes and danger. What makes slicing unique, however, is what happens when a time-slicer gets close to the thinnest possible slice of time, called ‘the Wall’.
During the events of the book, Lobsang is almost overwhelmed by the strain of slicing, but suddenly finds that after a certain point it gets paradoxically easy—this is Zimmerman’s Valley, an anomaly that exists in time-slicing, kind of like the paradoxical warmth one feels just before freezing to death. The Valley was named after a monk who was incredibly good at slicing, and who theorized there was another valley even closer to the Wall. Zimmerman died trying to find the second valley, but to save the world, Ludd and Lu-Tze have to fight against the fabric of time itself to get to it. The strain is so extreme that Lu-Tze himself passes out and almost dies—though he is a legend, he’s still human, and the margin just before the second valley is where the world finally overcomes him.
The actual mechanics of time-slicing are cool and interesting, but instead of exploring it in detail, Pratchett focuses on the part that inspires dread and wonder: pushing toward the Wall demonstrates what happens when humans try to touch the boundaries of the infinite, and it’s the sense that the universe itself is about to annihilate Ludd and Lu-Tze that makes the time-slicing scene so memorable. They’re not fighting an evil lich or a powerful mage, they’re fighting against the world. And it’s the world that ends up creating that feeling of awe.
The Bottom Line
There’s a lot more to say about how Pratchett infuses his worlds with touches of the sublime, but the main point here is that magic isn’t really magical because it’s powerful, flashy, or interesting, it’s magical because it’s tied up with making the reader feel a sense of wonder, which often has less to do with what it does and more to do with what it is. Inevitably, answering the question “What is magic?” brings you back to the structure of the world itself.