Magic, Good and Bad (2)

[Video: the first 2-1/2 minutes of the 2006 Hogfather mini-series]

A few weeks ago, a post here shared this one’s title. (At the time, I didn’t intend to do a follow-up, so the earlier one wasn’t numbered.) That post considered… well, the point of the fiction in fiction. If the underpinning of what happens in a story is “real” — the laws of physics and so on — then why make up any important details? (Other than special cases like keeping the material non-libelous, of course.) Writers invent not just names but entire casts of characters, family histories, geographies, historical events (both the core facts and the marginalia), languages…

And when you get into the fantasy and science-fiction genres — “speculative fiction,” as they say despite the tautology — well, even the laws of physics go out the window.* History gets re-written. Facts we know now are replaced by other facts we will know only in some particular version of the future. Things turn into other things (or seem to) just because someone waves in their direction with a hand, a wand of miraculous construction, or an infernal machine…

As I said in that first post, I didn’t intend to debate whether the use of impossibilities presented as commonplace was good or bad. I wasn’t trying to make a case for or against fantasy and/or science fiction. And the post drew substantial thoughtful comments from Froog and Marta (which I thought might happen, in both cases). I continued to think about the topic myself, too, since I hadn’t really drawn any conclusions.

And then the Christmas holiday drew near…

At our house we’ve almost completely sworn off watching TV programs at their scheduled broadcast times, and for that matter have almost completely stopped watching anything via DVD, too. We’ve got a DVR, for one thing, which lets us record both regular (satellite) TV broadcasts and, via pay-per-view and on-demand features, non-broadcast presentations like recent feature films and special events.

We also have one of those little Roku devices sitting beside the TV: a tiny box hooked up to the Internet and capable of streaming movies, entire TV series, music, and other content directly to the television set. Most of what we watch via Roku comes from my Netflix queue, which currently includes over 200 titles; I know we’ll never watch all of them — I just use the queue to flag items we (or just I) might want to watch, sometime. And I periodically go through Netflix’s recommendations (“if you liked X, you’ll probably like Y”) for new additions.

Which is how I came across three fairly recent Sky1 mini-series based on Terry Pratchett novels, each presented in two parts. Coincidentally, each of the three “means something” to me: Going Postal was the first Pratchett Discworld book I read (although it’s one of the later books in the series); The Colour of Magic was the first Discworld book in the whole series. And then there’s Hogfather… a perfect addition to the “getting ready for Christmas” list.

Hogfather is a reinterpretation of secular Christmas traditions as they might have developed on Pratchett’s comic Discworld. On this world — a flat disc, rather than a sphere, carried about through the heavens on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, are standing on the back of a giant turtle swimming in interstellar space — magic is the almost taken-for-granted norm. Wizards are common (and sometimes doddering and confused, and often viewed with annoyance by folks of a more conventional persuasion). Capital-D Death is one of the recurring characters on the Discworld (as he is here, haha), and one of Pratchett’s obvious favorites, and over the course of the series Death has acquired a personal history of his own. His giant white steed is named Binky. He has a (human) servant named Albert, and a (not-altogether-human) granddaughter named Susan, who works as a governess.

The particular premise of Hogfather is that the title character — Discworld’s version of Santa Claus, who flies about delivering gifts on Hogswatch Eve in a sleigh drawn by four giant wild hogs — has disappeared. Without getting into the details of why and how, suffice it to say here that his absence relates to human belief.

At one point near the end of both the book and the mini-series, Death gets into a discussion with his granddaughter about human belief in things like Hogfathers, and the tooth fairy. Death (who always, in Pratchett’s books, speaks in small capitals like this) says that’s it like saying the sun comes up in the morning vs. the world is illuminated by a flaming ball of gas. The conversation continues:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing.

“They’re not the same at all!”

You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet— Death waved a hand. And yet you act as if there is some ideal order in the world, as if there is some… some rightness in the universe by which it may be judged.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

My point exactly.

I’d just read Hogfather a few months ago. When I did that first “Magic, Good and Bad” post, for some reason I didn’t remember this obviously related passage — not until I watched the thing on TV the other day. Maybe Pratchett’s onto something. (Or maybe not: he’s such a kidder.)


* It just occurred to me: all metaphors, even dead (or moribund) metaphors like “X goes right out the window” — are a form of fiction. Nothing really goes out a real window.

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  1. TP here seems to be adopting much the same view that Vonnegut’s Bokonon did, that ‘Everything is foma‘.

    I don’t think he – or Death – is serious about this. And this jocular debate skips over the question of why we need to believe such outlandish lies (not ‘little ones’ at all, I wouldn’t say!); surely less extravagant, more plausible fictions could serve the purpose just as well?

    Besides, I don’t think we really do ‘believe’ that sort of story – not once we pass that ‘There is NO Santa Claus’ moment of revelation in early childhood. It’s more a case of, in certain circumstances, being prepared to ‘accept’ them, to pretend to ourselves that we believe in them for a certain period.

  2. Right out the window? Well perhaps only Waring Hudsucker (in the guise of recently departed Charles Durning) really goes “right out the window” literally and figuratively.

    • Ha ha — one of the truly great moments in filmed defenestration. I’ll take the liberty of inserting the clip itself into your comment!

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