White Knowledge and the Cauldron of Story: The Use of Allusion in Terry Pratchett ‘s Discworld.
Terry Pratchett is a remarkable writer, one who would need no introduction in Britain, and only an occasional one to the rest of the world that is involved in popular literature. He has become the bestselling living fiction author in England for the past ten years (White par. 1), with no signs of losing popularity anytime soon. While at first dismissed as a genre writer of humorous fantasy, Pratchett has become his own industry, and he has done so, in part, by his successful use of what he refers to as “white knowledge” and creative allusion to popular culture.
In the past eighteen years, Pratchett has released twenty-eight Discworld novels (along with several supplemental Discworld works [maps, computer games, an encyclopedia, comic book adaptations, etc.] and at least eight non-Discworld novels). One bookseller report said that “ten percent of all science fiction sold in 1993 was fantasy, and ten percent of all fantasy sold was Terry Pratchett” (James 202). Pratchett himself has received letters from librarians that say, “What is so marvellous is that you get people into the library so that we can introduce them to real books” (Pratchett and Briggs 1994, 266). There is also “a lot of evidence that he has a big following among young teenage boys–particularly those who, as we saw in one librarian’s happy phrase, ‘don’t read’” (Pratchett and Briggs 1994, 286). With this success rate, one might wonder what sets Pratchett’s works apart from others.
One of the primary features that Pratchett’s fans appreciate is his use of allusion. He states,
If I put a reference in a book I try to pick one that a generally well-read (well-viewed, well-listened) person has a sporting chance of picking up; I call this “white knowledge,” the sort of stuff that fills up your brain without you really knowing where it came from. Enough people would’ve read [Fritz] Lieber, say, to pick up a generalized reference to Fafhrd, etc. and even more people would have some knowledge of Tolkien–but I wouldn’t rely on people having read a specific story.
I like doing this kind of thing. There are a number of passages in the books which are “enhanced” if you know where the echoes are coming from but which are still, I hope, funny in their own right. (qtd. in Words from
the Master pars. 228-29)
A Handbook to Literature states that allusion “seeks, by tapping the knowledge and memory of the reader, to secure a resonant emotional effect from the associations already existing in the reader’s mind. [. . .] The effectiveness of allusion depends on a body of knowledge shared by writer and reader” (Harmon and Holman 14). Pratchett has created the term “white knowledge” to describe the concept of myth and white noise. White knowledge, the building blocks of knowledge that weave and bind a culture together, creates the best and most important reference base for an author, and Pratchett has tapped it masterfully. In the process, Pratchett has connected his novels to the reader through the cultural fabric, making them more recognizable and more interesting, whether as parody, satire, pun, or generalized allusion. Pratchett alludes widely, including such topics as Shakespeare, fantasy literature, movies, rock music, mythology, Arthurian Legend, modern authors, literary genres (mystery fiction, for example), and computers.
While some may suggest that Pratchett excludes part of his readership by having heavily allusive books, others would argue that the range of his allusions gives all readers recognizable reference points. Obviously, readers will not understand all of Pratchett’s allusions, but more literate readers will take great pleasure from them. The less “culturally aware” reader will still get the feeling that Pratchett has planted these ideas, and will often search them out actively. As reviewer Tom Shone stated in 1992, “what has ensured Pratchett’s success is that you don’t have to have read Tolkien to know what he’s poking fun at. As he has happily admitted, his fiction requires no specialized knowledge on the part of the reader whatsoever” (23). Though his fiction requires no specialized knowledge, a broad knowledge base does enrich a reader’s enjoyment. Even without the references, though, Pratchett produces quality writing that people enjoy and re-read frequently. Pratchett states, “With Moving Pictures, the film industry is common to everybody; fairy tales [Witches Abroad] are common to everybody; with Wyrd Sisters everyone knows Macbeth even if they’ve never read or seen it” (qtd. in Enright, Million Article par. 62). While some of Pratchett’s references remain more obscure than others, this paper will focus on and illustrate his use of white knowledge for popular effect, and will examine the connection between allusion and Discworld readers………………………………………………
Abbott, William Thomas (2002). White Knowledge and the Cauldron of Story: The Use of Allusion in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 630. https://dc.etsu.edu/etd/630