The midwinter holiday on Discworld is Hogswatch rather than Christmas, and the Hogfather is the Discworld’s counterpart of Santa Claus. He climbs down chimneys, gives presents, says, “HO-HO-HO,” and drives a sleigh pulled by four flying pigs. Many children of the Disc believe in him, which is why he exists. (This is a fundamental characteristic of the magical system in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books.) Belief causes the thing believed in to exist, and when belief stops, that existence stops. Teatime, an assassin retained to do away with the Hogfather, plans to exploit this metaphysical law to accomplish his assigned task, but first he must break into the Tooth Fairy’s castle and get control of the teeth stored there. With them, he can influence the belief of their former owners through sympathetic magic. (That’s something of a spoiler, but if you haven’t read this yet, you may be thankful for it.)
Hogfather was the first Discworld book I ever read. This was back in 1999, I think. It could have been 2000. I’m not sure. I didn’t buy it. The book was given to me, not so much as a gift, but as a case of, “Here, I’m not going to read this again, but you might like it since I know you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
A few months later, I decided to give it a try. I didn’t know what to make of the book at first. It wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I recall thinking when I was about halfway in that I wasn’t sure I liked it. It was obviously fantasy, but it wasn’t like the epic fantasy stepchildren of Lord of the Rings or the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, which dominated the fantasy genre at the time. Those stories seemed to make a concerted effort to portray their fantasy settings as ‘real’ places, and they were chocked full of dragons, evil warlords and their minions, and powerful magic. Their plots often boiled down to simple, and often bloody, contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’. The reader didn’t have to think much for most of these. They offered an entertaining escape from reality, but not much else. The plots were often a bit like sporting events in which one side is ‘good’ primarily because it’s from your hometown (although there’s a good chance none of the players are). In some, the biggest difference between the protagonist and antagonist was the point of view that dominated the story.
In any case, that was the kind of fantasy novel I was used to. Hogfather is none of the above. It’s not even like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, but the person who gave me the book was right in one regard. If you like the Hitchhiker’s Guide, there is a good chance you will like Discworld. Both are satirical, funny, incredibly clever, and mind-bending.
But, back to what I was saying. Halfway through my first reading of Hogfather, I was confused. This book was far more complex than the fantasy stories with which I was familiar. The setting was comprehensible but bizarre. I mean—really—a flat world carried on the back of four elephants standing on a turtle? Come on! The plot confused me, and there were subplots and multiple points of view presented by an omniscient narrator. There were even footnotes! This wasn’t like watching a sporting event or a cartoon. I had to pay attention. This book was trying to make me (*gasp*) think! To be honest, I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge.
Then, about halfway through, I got it. I can’t recall exactly what scene or phrase caused my epiphany, but I finally caught a glimpse of what this story was doing, and it floored me. The author wasn’t trying to draw me into the story to the point of total immersion. The setting was absurd because I wasn’t supposed to believe it was possible. The story was fiction, and I wasn’t being encouraged to suspend disbelief to the point where I felt for a moment that it wasn’t. There’s a kind of honesty to that that I still find refreshing. Yes, the story is set on a fantasy world starring a counterpart of Santa Claus and an anthropomorphic personification of Death, complete with black cloak and scythe, but it’s not ABOUT them. It’s about us!
But at the same time, this ridiculous setting was rich and textured. It was unbelievably believable. And the characters, although they seemed exaggerated caricatures at first, had surprising depth and personality. I recall thinking that this Terry Pratchett fellow must be some kind of genius.
I’ve read all forty or so Discworld books since, all them at least three times, and I still think this is true.
Hogfather, like many of the Discworld books, is far more than it appears at first glance. Here are a few things I noticed:
• It is, of course, a parody of the Santa legend.
• It’s a cultural satire about our traditions and philosophies.
• It’s a not-so-thinly veiled criticism of holiday commercialism.
• It’s a morality tale about duty and the importance of family ties.
• It’s a philosophical statement on the nature of humanity.
• It contrasts rational and irrational ways of thinking.
• It provides a brief comment on emergent artificial intelligence.
• It’s a fantasy story that pokes fun at fantasy, while, at the same time, explaining why fantasy is both meaningful and necessary.
• Oh yeah, and it’s funny.
If you have not read any Discworld books yet, you should. Actually, my advice is to read them all and then to reread them. (I find that Discworld stories are often even more enjoyable the second time.) Before sitting down to write this post, I reread Hogfather for what was at least the sixth time. The Discworld books are incomparable. My only problem with them is that after reading the Discworld stories, all other fantasy stories tend to pale by comparison.
When reading Hogfather, one key point to remember is that time is not necessarily linear where Death (the Discworld character) is concerned. It can be frozen, and causality can work in reverse. The future can change events in the past or cause them not to happen at all.
Hogfather, however, is not the Discworld book I would recommend to newcomers to the Disc. Yes, it was my first, and each book can stand on its own, but Hogfather is a tough go without the background provided by some of the others. I hesitate to recommend any particular Discworld book to start with. I’ve seen some forums in which people can become quite heated about this, believe it or not. I highly recommend all of them, but I will say again that Hogfather probably shouldn’t be your first.
If you’re familiar with Discworld, but have not yet read Hogfather, I suggest doing so now. It’s a great book for the holidays. If you have read Hogfather before, it’s a great one to reread for the Holidays. You’ll be glad you did.
HAPPY HOGSWATCH, EVERYONE! HO-HO-HO!
P.S. Hogfather became a made-for-TV movie in 2006, and is now available on DVD. I have a copy, and I’ll be rewatching it sometime soon.
Some wonderful quotes from Hogfather: https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/583655-hogfather
My Problem with Terry Pratchett: https://dlmorrese.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/my-problem-with-terry-pratchett/
A Trailer for Hogfather, the movie… 🙂
It seems people have become overly sensitive about respecting one another’s traditions and beliefs, especially around this time of year. You can’t say “Merry Christmas” because this excludes those who aren’t Christian. But if you try to be inclusive and say “Happy Holidays,” there are those who say you are being disrespectful of their personal beliefs.
If you truly wish to extend warm wishes and voice a hope for “peace on Earth and good will toward all men” at this time of year, you may feel you are on shaky ground. If you know the particular beliefs of the person you are addressing, you can choose your greeting, “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Hanukah,” “Good Bodhi Day,” “Happy Samhain,” Happy Pancha Ganapati,” “Joyous Yule,” or whatever to match their beliefs. But what if you don’t know or are uncertain? What if you are extending the wish to multiple people with different beliefs? Personally, I’m just fine with “Happy Holidays” but given that some find this objectionable, let me try to extend my wishes for a warm and happy season to people of all beliefs and nationalities with all due respect for personal sensitivities.
Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, nonaddictive, gender neutral celebration of whatever festival or event you honor around the time of the winter solstice. At this time of year it is especially important to respect and remember the traditions of your particular religious persuasion or secular philosophy while also respecting the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.
I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2012, with all due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures.
These wishes are freely extended without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, nationality or sexual preference of the wishee.
This greeting is extended with the following terms and conditions:
- This greeting is subject to clarification or withdrawal.
- It is freely transferable with or without alteration.
- It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement any of the wishes for
her/himself or others.
- It is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher.
- This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first.
- There is no explicit or implied warranty that the recipient will actually, or even is more likely to, have a happy holiday (of his or her choice) or new year (if applicable) as a result of receiving this greeting although the recipient, if dissatisfied, may exchange this greeting for another exactly like it or for a different but similar holiday wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.
- This offer is void where prohibited by law (secular or holy as applicable).
Disclaimer: No trees were harmed in the posting of this message however a small number of electrons were slightly inconvenienced.