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"The Civilising Power of Laughter: Shakespeare in a Fact/Fantasy Fusion" (Pratchett's Discworld)

First published in the UK in 2016 by
The British Fantasy Society
BFS Journal © 2017 The British Fantasy Society
Cover illustration © Peter Coleborn.
All contributions © their respective authors / artists
The moral rights of the authors and artists have been asserted.
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise be lent,
any form of binding or cover than that it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Allen Stroud
David Sutton
Neil Campbell
Imola Bülgözdi
Matt Barber
Kristine Larsen
Tej Turner
Chung Chin-Yi
Michael Brookes
A. J. Dalton
R. B. Watkinson
Tracey Holmes
Allen Stroud
Seda Peksen
Karen Fishwick
Steven Smith
Allen Stroud
Natacha Guyot
The Colour of Magic
, which was followed by thirty-nine more novels set on
the Discworld, over seventy million copies sold and the rise of one of the
most important contemporary satirists. The Discworld, supported by four
giant elephants standing on the back of an astral turtle and running on
the reading public for the past 30 years due to their humorous, but at the
same time more than eye-opening habits and views.
Pratchett’s collaboration with popular scientists and science writers Ian
Stewart and Jack Cohen resulted in the birth of a new genre in
The Science
of Discworld
of Discworld
world, “the only place on Discworld where magic doesn’t work” (Pratchett,
experiment after the successful splitting of the basic unit of magic, the
thaum (from Greek thauma, marvel) results in a lethal build-up of surplus.
This thought experiment is put into practice when an enormous amount of
magic has to be urgently used up by the wizards of the Unseen University
to avoid the explosion of the disc.
The wizards are frustrated by their creation, since the globe measuring
about a foot across on Discworld but containing our whole cosmos does
not at all behave as a decent disk-shaped world should. They witness the
formation of anomalous spinning globes, geological eras, catastrophes,
Discworld novelette focussing on the wizards’ exploration of Roundworld,
each followed by what the authors call “Very Big Footnotes on the science
planet via space elevators and spaceships, presumably, before the next
catastrophe, a new ice age and an enormous meteorite strike, but they only
The Science of the Discworld
II: The Globe
www.britishfantasysociety.o rg
they wish to be seen. Here they pose as members of the high society but in
that is “evil incarnate because they have no souls” (Pratchett, Stewart,
terror and superstition. It turns out the wizards were not the only ones
to interfere with evolution, since “at a pitch so strange that it entered the
brain without the need to use the ears” (17) the elves sang their song to a
group of monkeys, who became the ancestors of human kind, and hosts to
could create such monsters in its head” (318) as humans, which in turn
complex to leave the planet.
argument with the Archchancellor she points out that more people on
Roundworld believe in magic than on Discworld, although it does not even
work. “And thus they believe in it even more, while ceasing to believe in
consider saving Roundworld their duty, so with the help of Hex, the
Unseen University thinking machine, they go back in time and prevent the
even be called a tribe since they lack the imagination to make up stories
or rituals and are virtually incapable of abstract thinking and complex
turns Roundworld history takes in a more subtle way. As wizards, they
universe, the frame that held all the others, the thing that told the world
what it was going to be, that gave it purpose and direction” (Pratchett,
Roundworld, they once again enlist Hex’s help to read all the books on
the topic, resulting in the conclusion that “psyence” might be the guiding
there is very little science that would tip the wizards off on space elevators,
but let us not forget that Discworld is magical. Not surprisingly, all
libraries are connected, regardless of their time of existence.
Pratchett put the concept of intertextuality with a twist to new uses
when creating Library-space based on the equation “knowledge = power
Theory of Relativity in the same formula. This principle ensures that
all books are connected, since “books inspire other books written in the
future, and cite books written in the past. But the General Theory of
L-space suggests that, in that case, the contents of books as yet unwritten
can be deduced from books now in existence” (Pratchett qtd. in Pratchett,
periods Archimedes and Newton among others, the wizards sadly conclude
that science is dangerous and they want to have nothing to do with it,
and scholars anyway, “as people with minds like that believe all sort of
on common sense” declares the Archchancellor, then sit around moping,
It is through L-space that Rincewind, the cowardly but practical wizard
William Shakespeare in one of the many alternate histories of Roundworld.
The present one contains Arthur J. Nightingale, considered the worst
playwright ever, however, Rincewind’s visit to the theatre made him
conclude it was “a bad play but a good audience” staring with faces “locked
provides information on the impact books have on the world, it is a logical
step to try and “move this world into the path of history that contains
Shakespeare” (254).
However, the world also has to be ready for Shakespeare, which
involves plenty of time travel for the faculty of the Unseen University. They
start by teaching painting, pottery, music, ritual to cavemen to enhance
their imagination. Stewart and Cohen, in their discussion of human
evolution argue very convincingly for the seminal role of culture. In their
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view, mind is a combination of intelligence, which stands for the internal
transcends the capabilities of both, which apparently distinguished our
ancestors from other groups of hominids. Stewart and Cohen even propose
their own unorthodox theory of evolution based on the power of music and
art to change the brain.
Our brains have evolved to understand the world through patterns
which “are little mental models of the world” (Pratchett, Stewart, Cohen,
– isit not stories and stories and more stories we tell children? In this
light, the avice dispensed by Discworld’s most competent witch’s to the
Granny Weatherwax, an expert in ‘headology’ – known as psychology on
Roundworld. And indeed, “art does provoke changes. It makes us look at
the world in new ways” (277), which is exactly what Rincewind aims to
Rincewind plans to beat the elves at their own game based on two
at the right time, as attested by Library-space in the case of A Midsummer
Night’s Dream, while the other realisation comes through a closer look at
the idiom “seeing is believing.” He argues that “We don’t believe in things
we can see,” there is no need to believe in a chair you can sit on. “We
believe in things that we can’t see. […] now they [humans] can picture gods
and monsters. And when you can picture them, you don’t need to believe in
The task of making sure that William Shakespeare’s grandparents meet,
that he is born a male and survives infancy is far less demanding on the
assumes the wizards want to stop Shakespeare from writing it, as she
and does not heed her advisors’ warning that humanity has become more
questioning. She even sees to it that Shakespeare writes the perfect text,
not the garbled version his pub session with the well-meaning but drunken
wizards yielded, by simply appearing to him in the night and putting the
whole play in his mind.
Rincewind, however, was right. The representation of elves on stage
did have the desired effect, for who could be scared of a fairy named
Peaseblossom or a queen in love with an ass? It is in mischievous Puck that
we get a glimpse of evil but he is no match for the ones the wizards need to
the course of several centuries belief in them will dwindle as they
are moved to the realm of art and literature […]. They will become a
be severely curtailed but will never die away completely”
It is important to point out the parallel with Tolkien’s view on the
matter, who also notes that the various inhabitants of Faerie dwindled
On Fairy-Stories. Interestingly, he also devotes
attention to what he calls Faerie Drama, that is the representation of
fairies on stage in general, which he considers a failure from the very
on stage] a further fantasy or magic is to demand, as it were, an inner or
tertiary world. It is a world too much” even for a playwright as skillful
minuteness” of fairies to the process of rationalization, “which transformed
magic in this twice-removed world. Tolkien’s pessimism in this matter was
Pratchett, with his usual taste for a twist, managed to turn into a powerful
weapon, without resorting to rationalization in combatting the elves’
evil magic. In The Science of Discworld II, Shakespeare is given an
extraordinary role in the history of civilisation in the anthropological
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chivalry” meets “its match in the written principles of a tribal peasantry”
human culture, one dominated by honour, the other by tradition, are still
part of our lives. “Nations are internally tribal but present a barbarian face
to other nations.” Our extelligence tells us stories and we learn how to deal
with the world in different circumstances. It follows that Shakespeare is
persuasively that evil fails in the end, that love conquers, and that laughter
– the greatest gift that barbarism brought to tribalism – is one of the
138 ).
While Shakespeare’s genius is self-evident, elevating him to the position
of the saviour of humanity is an act of defamiliarisation to us. One might
wave the book away as nothing more than an ingenious account of human
evolution, highly entertaining due to the fresh and often eye-opening
viewpoints the wizards of Discworld propose. However, sociologist Stuart
as one of the four major processes responsible for the transition to modern
society along with the political, the economic and the social processes.
“It could not have occurred without them. No one process, on its
own, provides an adequate explanation of the formation of modern
societies. Consequently, no one process is accorded explanatory
priority in the analysis”
that Shakespeare, standing at the brink of modernity, as a cultural icon
representing civilisation was awarded his rightful place. The authors
provide an accessible and gripping explanation of the power of the story
and representation to the general reader, which many cultural studies
manuals devoted to the same topic do not manage.
Imola Bulgozdi is an assistant professor teaching American literature,
gender and cultural studies at the University of Debrecen, Hungary. Her
ers, is “Girls in Search of a Viable Identity in Eudora Welty’s The Golden
tested by her publications, for instance, “‘Some Genetics are Passed on Via
Pratchett, Terry, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The Science of Discworld.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tales from the Perilous Realm. Boston
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ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Tales from the Perilous Realm
  • J R R Tolkien
Tolkien, J.R.R. "On Fairy-Stories." Tales from the Perilous Realm. Boston