Terry Pratchett’s acceptance speech for the award for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
I’m pretty sure that the publicists for this award would be quite happy if I said something controversial, but it seems to me that giving me the Carnegie medal is controversial enough. This was my third attempt. Well, I say my third attempt, but in fact I just sat there in ignorance and someone else attempted it on my behalf, somewhat to my initial dismay.
The Amazing Maurice is a fantasy book. Of course, everyone knows that fantasy is ‘all about’ wizards, but by now, I hope, everyone with any intelligence knows that, er, what everyone knows…is wrong.
Fantasy is more than wizards. For instance, this book is about rats that are intelligent. But it also about the even more fantastic idea that humans are capable of intelligence as well. Far more beguiling than the idea that evil can be destroyed by throwing a piece of expensive jewellery into a volcano is the possibility that evil can be defused by talking. The fantasy of justice is more interesting that the fantasy of fairies, and more truly fantastic. In the book the rats go to war, which is, I hope, gripping. But then they make peace, which is astonishing.
In any case, genre is just a flavouring. It’s not the whole meal. Don’t get confused by the scenery.
A novel set in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26, 1881 is what– a Western? The scenery says so, the clothes say so, but the story does not automatically become a Western. Why let a few cactuses tell you what to think? It might be a counterfactual, or a historical novel, or a searing literary indictment of something or other, or a horror novel, or even, perhaps, a romance – although the young lovers would have to speak up a bit and possibly even hide under the table, because the gunfight at the OK corral was going on at the time.
We categorize too much on the basis of unreliable assumption. A literary novel written by Brian Aldiss must be science fiction, because he is a known science fiction writer; a science fiction novel by Margaret Attwood is literature because she is a literary novelist. Recent Discworld books have spun on such concerns as the nature of belief, politics and even of journalistic freedom, but put in one lousy dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.
This is not, on the whole, a complaint. But as I have said, it seems to me that dragons are not really the pure quill of fantasy, when properly done. Real fantasy is that a man with a printing press might defy an entire government because of some half-formed belief that there may be such a thing as the truth. Anyway, fantasy needs no defence now. As a genre it has become quire respectable in recent years. At least, it can demonstrably make lots and lots and lots of money, which passes for respectable these days. When you can by a plastic Gandalf with kung-fu grip and rocket launcher, you know fantasy has broken through.
But I’m a humorous writer too, and humour is a real problem.
It was interesting to see how Maurice was reviewed here and in the US. Over there, where I’ve only recently made much of an impression, the reviews tended to be quite serious and detailed with, as Maurice himself would have put it, ‘long words, like “corrugated iron”‘ Over here, while being very nice, they tended towards the ‘another wacky, zany book by comic author Terry Pratchett’. In fact Maurice has no wack and very little zane. It’s quite a serious book. Only the scenery is funny.
The problem is that we think the opposite of funny is serious. It is not. In fact, as G K Chesterton pointed out, the opposite of funny is not funny, and the opposite of serious is not serious. Benny Hill was funny and not serious; Rory Bremner is funny and serious; most politicians are serious but, unfortunately, not funny. Humour has its uses. Laughter can get through the keyhole while seriousness is still hammering on the door. New ideas can ride in on the back of a joke, old ideas can be given an added edge.
Which reminds me… Chesterton is not read much these days, and his style and approach belong to another time and, now, can irritate. You have to read in a slightly different language. And then, just when the ‘ho, good landlord, a pint of your finest English ale!’ style gets you down, you run across a gem, cogently expressed. He famously defended fairy stories against those who said they told children that there were monsters; children already know that there are monsters, he said, and fairy stories teach them that monsters can be killed. We now know that the monsters may not simply have scales and sleep under a mountain. They may be in our own heads.
In Maurice, the rats have to confront them all: real monsters, some of whom have many legs, some merely have two, but some, perhaps the worse, are the ones they invent. The rats are intelligent. They’re the first rats in the world to be afraid of the dark, and they people the shadows with imaginary monsters. An act of extreme significance to them is the lighting of a flame.
People have already asked me if I had the current international situation in mind when I wrote the book. The answer is no. I wouldn’t insult even rats by turning them into handy metaphors. It’s just unfortunate that the current international situation is pretty much the same old dull, stupid international situation, in a world obsessed by the monsters it has made up, dragons that are hard to kill. We look around and see foreign policies that are little more than the taking of revenge for the revenge that was taken in revenge for the revenge last time. It’s a path that leads only downwards, and still the world flocks along it. It makes you want to spit. The dinosaurs were thick as concrete, but they survived for one hundred and fifty million years and it took a damn great asteroid to knock them out. I find myself wonder wondering now if intelligence comes with its own built-in asteroid.
Of course, as the aforesaid writer of humorous fantasy I’m obsessed by wacky, zany ideas. One is that rats might talk. But sometimes I’m even capable of weirder, more ridiculous ideas, such the possibility of a happy ending. Sometimes, when I’m really, really wacky and on a fresh dose of zany, I’m just capable of entertaining the fantastic idea that, in certain circumstances, Homo Sapiens might actually be capable of thinking. It must be worth a go, since we’ve tried everything else.
Writing for children is harder that writing for adults, if you’re doing it right. What I thought was going to be a funny story about a cat organizing a swindle based on the Pied Piper legend turned out to be a major project, in which I was aided and encouraged and given hope by Philippa Dickinson and Sue Coates at Doubleday or whatever they’re calling themselves this week, and Anne Hoppe of HarperCollins in New York, who waylaid me in an alley in Manhattan and insisted on publishing the book and even promised to protect me from that most feared of creatures, the American copy editor.
And I must thank you, the judges, in the hope that your sanity and critical faculties may speedily be returned to you. And finally, my thanks to the rest of you, the loose agglomeration of editors and teachers and librarians that I usually refer to, mostly with a smile, as the dirndl mafia. You keep the flame alive.
Webb, Caroline (2015); Fantasy and the Real World in British Children’s Literature: The Power of Story; New York, Rutledge, (p. 20-23); Cached dokument
Pratchett’s first Discworld novel marketed to children, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, makes very clear his engagement with the problem of fiction. On the one hand, stories generate dreams, even ideals, through which people can imagine and construct a better future; on the other, taken too literally, they can produce false expectations, with dangerous results when readers trust to the happy ending of fairy tales to bypass the power of actual evil. The story of The Amazing Maurice holds both ideas in tension. It offers a beguiling story, or set of stories—the story of two children outsmarting a gang of thieves, aided by a cat and some rats; the story of a homeless boy and a homeless family, who happen to be rats, finding places to live—but at the same time it critiques the conventions of story and asks pertinent questions about how we not only think about but think with and through stories to shape our lives.
The novel’s premise seems to answer one of Pratchett’s characteristically faux-naïf questions: if you pay someone to remove rats, isn’t it in his interest to make sure there are always rats to take away? Thus we are introduced to a young traveller whose bags contain a clan of intelligent rats—or, as they prefer to be known, educated rodents (Pratchett, The Amazing 87)—whose role is to provide the impression of a rat plague that the young man, known for the first part of the novel simply as “the kid” (12), can then triumphantly remove from each town by playing his pipe. The absurd rightness of this scenario is heightened when the reader realises that the brains of this operation is a cat, the amazing Maurice, who magically gained intelligence at the same time as the rats, but whose cat instincts for making the most of a situation remain well to the fore.
As is characteristic in Pratchett’s work, the ideas presented and indeed the structure of the opening pages of the novel are highly significant to his project. In this case, the novel’s opening highlights the extent to which The Amazing Maurice is “a story about stories” (10). First, we are presented with an epigraph drawn apparently from a children’s book called Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure. Second, the opening lines echo Browning’s famous poem, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”: “Rats! They chased the dogs and bit the cats, they—” (Pratchett, The Amazing 9). The reader is immediately, and doubly, projected into story, whether the imitation Beatrix Potter of the epigraph—the fictional source text of which turns out to be significant to the plot—or the quotation from Browning. However, the narrator interrupts his own sentence, commenting “But there was more to it than that” (9) before quoting, this time, the title character himself—“As the amazing Maurice said, it was just a story about people and rats” (9)—and observing, significantly, that “the difficult part was deciding who the people were, and who were the rats” (10). The final one-sentence paragraph before we are introduced to the central characters underlines the metafictional aspect of what we are reading: “But Malicia Grim said it was a story about stories” (10). This layering and contrasting invites readers to keep in mind several ideas in reading the novel: that we are reading a story that may be interpreted in different ways; that the story may provide a comment on story itself, as underlined by the epigraph and quotation as well as Malicia Grim’s assertion; and, importantly too, that it may involve a confusion between good and evil, distinguishing the “people” from the “rats.” This Orwellian difficulty is explored in the later stages of the novel, but it is intriguingly literalised in the opening pages. The reader discovers that some of the “squeaky voices” heard by the coachman belong not to humans but to rats—but rats who are definitely “people” (10). The novel at one level imitates the many children’s stories featuring animal characters, but this is not simply naturalised; through Pratchett’s initial use of the coachman as focaliser, the reader is left guessing the identity of the “voices.” Pratchett thus introduces us to the world of the novel, in which animals are not expected to have voices—but may turn out to—and in which not only the characters but the narrator may conceal information from the reader.
This element suggests an ethical dimension to the novel that is further established in the immediately following action. The “fair-haired young man” (10) who is the only person the briefly focalising coachman can see, asks, “Maurice? [. . .] You don’t think what we’re doing is, you know . . . dishonest , do you?” (11), 3 and is fobbed off with the unseen Maurice’s glib arguments. The young man’s awareness that “some of those towns looked pretty poor” (12) generates an argument about the nature of the group’s activities that is ironically punctuated by a more explicit theft than the scam the characters are clearly running, as the coach is held up by a highwayman. Only when the highwayman is in turn attacked by beings that “ran up your trouser legs [. . .] Typical rat trick” (16) does he, and the reader, realise that the hidden Maurice is a cat—and that the other speakers, apart from the young man, are rats. We, like the now vanished coachman, and the highwayman who enquired whether his intended targets were wizards, witches, vampires, or werewolves but did not think of intelligent rats or cats, have been deceived, and our awareness of this deception is focused by the continuing discussion. Clearly we are reading not only a story about stories, but a story that will constantly engage with questions of right and wrong—and with judgements less between good and evil than between the greater and the lesser evil. After all, no one expects the heroes of a story to be rats.
The Amazing Maurice highlights two approaches to fiction. In the first, an individual may lose sight of the world—and his or her place in it—through belief in the literal truth or the universal applicability of a story. The rats, who have taught themselves to read after suddenly becoming intelligent, believe in the reality depicted in Mr Bunnsy Has an Adventure. Malicia Grim, meanwhile, has immersed herself in stories; she is fully aware that the stories she reads are fiction, but her admiration for story results in her endeavouring to turn everything she encounters into the shape of a story. People turn around to watch her being inconspicuous (112). As a result, although Malicia sees a lot more than do the townsfolk around her, she misses seeing some obvious facts because she is convinced that she knows how the story ought to go. Importantly, the human beings she meets do not behave as she expects they will, as when the villainous rat-catchers beat up her and Keith, the kid—who does not bounce back displaying superhuman powers—and shut them in a prison that lacks an obvious escape route. The rats, on the other hand, have been using Mr Bunnsy as their guidebook: they believe there must already be a place where people and rats relate to each other as described in Mr Bunnsy.
Both views misinterpret the ways in which stories can tell the truth. Stories do not provide the literal truth about events. What good stories do, as the rat Darktan eventually recognises, is to provide “a map of . . . where we are and where we’re going” (Pratchett, The Amazing 227). Mr Bunnsy does not describe the world as it really is; it is, as Malicia points out, a rather silly story that ignores not only social realities, such as the enmity of humans and rats, but physical possibilities, as it depicts a snake wearing a collar. But just as Darktan could use the idea of a rat in a jacket, depicted in Mr Bunnsy, to invent something that is not a jacket but is a version of a jacket that might be useful to a rat—a harness of straps and pockets—so he and the other rats can use the idea of a place where animals and humans can live with and help each other to start to make that happen. In the novel’s denouement, the intelligent rats negotiate a way in which they can cohabit with the humans to the benefit of both. Malicia, too, turns out to have learned at least some useful things from stories—she is able to manipulate hairpins to open locks because she has practised this storybook skill, and her decision to provide the villainous rat-catchers with the same emetic as fake antidote that they have been given as fake poison is, as she observes, “narratively satisfying” (214). And Keith, the “stupid-looking kid” (31) who initially claims that he just wants to be allowed to play music, but by the end has not only helped to track down the villains but also been clever enough to defeat and then do a deal with a real rat piper, is last seen speculating about how long it might take to become mayor. Keith, who expressed scepticism about story in his discussions with Malicia, has also learned from story by the end of the novel, in this case about the possible future of a boy who arrives in a town with a clever cat. The rats and Keith, as well as the humans of the town, have used story to imagine and to begin to construct new ways to live their lives.
The Amazing Maurice, like a number of Pratchett’s novels, highlights both the inevitable falsity of stories and their power. At the end of the novel Malicia’s father, the town’s mayor, remarks, “Stories are just stories. Life is complicated enough as it is. You have to plan for the real world. There’s no room for the fantastic”; the response “ ‘Exactly,’ said the rat” (313) underscores the extent to which this practical conclusion is emerging within a fantastic scenario. Stories in this novel turn out to be more than “just stories,” and planning for the real world entails an idea strikingly akin to Sir Philip Sidney’s suggestion that “her [Nature’s] world is brazen, the poets only deliver a golden” (216). The “golden world” only available through art becomes an exemplar for real life to follow. Pratchett’s story simultaneously warns against a simplistic investment in the literal truth of story and provides what might seem a wonderfully escapist fantasy that in fact educates its readers in how to learn from what they read.
The entire study can be found on Amazon