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… 🙂
I was reminded recently of a conversation I had with a friend back in May. He said Stephen Hawking’s statement that there was no heaven was “mean.” It’s mean? You could see it that way. It’s like telling a kid there is no Santa Claus. But is the lack of a white-bearded man residing at the North Pole mean there is no Santa Clause? It’s a matter of how you define it. Santa Claus, like heaven, is an idea. Both may lack a physical existence but both can have real effects. Both can provide hope and inspiration to their believers and can affect peoples’ behavior. In this way both are real. They are as real as things like Mercy, Beauty, and Justice.
There is a scene at the end of the movie “Hogfather” that I think sums this up quite well. You can see it here on YouTube. It’s less than two minutes long and well worth the time.
What Terry Pratchett is telling us in this scene is that belief in imaginary representations of ideals can help us achieve those ideals. We have to begin by believing in little lies so we can believe in big ones and make them become real. These fantasies provide ideals to strive for and inspiration for making the world a better place.
Belief in things like heaven and Santa Clause can also motivate good behavior in children or others who fail to understand intuitively that all people have the same feelings and the same rights, and that they are entitled to the same level of consideration as themselves. These fantasies can provide a selfish reason for people to behave unselfishly. This is not necessarily a bad thing considering the ample evidence of people who never seem to develop an internal moral compass.
So, is Hawking’s statement about the physical existence of heaven mean? Is his reminder that heaven is not a planet or any other kind of physical location in the natural universe somehow depressing? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it is important to be reminded of such things from time to time. It is far too easy to confuse myth and message, fact and fantasy, or knowledge and belief and doing so can have unspeakable consequences. Despite the fact that believing in fantasies can be a great motivator for personal and cultural betterment we also have to remember that these are fantasies; at least we do as we get older, have internalized the ideas those fantasies represent, and are able to understand the difference between things that are physically real and those that are emotional or philosophical ideals. If we don’t, they can be just as powerful motivators for hate, intolerance, and destruction.