Toying with fantasy: the postmodern playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels

@Josh Kidby

… In Pratchett’s books, narrativium and the narrative imperative are the forces responsible for stereotypical plot elements that ought to prevail: As a “sense of predestination permeates Discworld” (Pratchett and Briggs 119), cliches are a force to be reckoned with, especially for the protagonists. Many Discworld novels show their struggle with narrative imperative (6)–at his best, Pratchett undermines the narrative expectations of cliched fantasy novels with at times acerbic humour. Be it staged heroes challenging dragons in Guards! Guards! or corrupt fairy godmothers ruling the perfect fairy tale kingdom with a quasi-dictatorship in Witches Abroad, there are always serious topics addressed underneath the jokes (cf. Smith 186f & Butler, “Power” 299ff). Here, the Discworld shows if not postmodern then certainly meta-fictional qualities in its approach to storytelling: Pratchett “plunders popular culture” (Mason 55) but also myth and folklore to emphasise the stereotypical elements that characterise numerous works of fantasy.

Such playful rearranging also applies to the science of the Discworld. Apart from quantum physics and chaos theory, Pratchett has been inspired by a scientific story–the fictional element of phlogiston–to create his own fictional element called narrativium. Both this concept and its use in The Science of Discworld bear more than a passing resemblance to the role of narratives in real-world science:

‘Narrative’ is what is left when belief in the possibility of knowledge is eroded. The frequently heard phrase ‘the narratives of science’, popular in the new field of science studies, carries the implication that scientific discourse does not reflect but covertly constructs reality, does not discover truths but fabricates them according to the rules of its own game in a process disturbingly comparable to the overt working of narrative fiction. (Ryan, “Narrative” 344)

Using Niels Bohr’s model of an atom as a solar system, The Science of Discworld collaborators Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen point out the incorrectness of this model but at the same time acknowledge that the “[s]earch for understanding leads us to construct stories that map out limited parts of the future” (The Science of Discworld II: The Globe 248). In a similar very literal manner, Pratchett uses stories to ground his Discworld in the pseudo-scientific explanation of its existence. As we have seen, the Discworld stands on the margin between reality and impossibility, and narrativium enables the secondary world to exist at all, reflecting “Pratchett’s interest […] in the power of narrative expectation” (Mendlesohn, “Narrative” 264)–a power that pertains to reality no less than to fiction. Reminding ourselves once more of Tolkien’s essay, “creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun” (OFS 65) and not mere fancy. The Primary World provides the building blocks for a secondary world, remote or modified as they may be (cf. Attebery 3f). Therefore, it is only logical that fantasy is to a certain extent a mirror of our own world, and the Discworld is no exception to that. As the series progressed, this “world and mirror of worlds” (Moving Pictures 9) explored new topics and ideas. Perhaps at the core of this examination of our world through the perspective of a secondary world is, once again, narrativium. …

The entire text may be found at

Luthi, D. (2014). Toying with fantasy: the postmodern playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Mythlore. (33) 1: 125-142. Website: The Free Library


About humanitysdarkerside

Bibliophile, small-time activist, blogger

Posted on 2018-07-29, in Academia and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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