Terry Pratchett humanizes the fantasy hero, and shows us there’s nothing wrong with being a coward, in the Discworld series.
The American pop cultural consensus on sci-fi/fantasy/action protagonists is that they, without exception, must be brave—or at least willing to throw themselves into extreme danger. Superheroes like Captain America, Spider-Man, and Daredevil distinguish themselves by being willing and able to throw themselves into potentially lethal circumstances without much deliberation or trepidation. Chipper fortune hunters like Nathan Drake from the Uncharted franchise and grumpy wise guys like Die Hard’s John McClane are the norm. Even when they are nervous, scared, or have serious doubts about the soundness of their decisions, they still eventually throw themselves head first into danger, because that’s just what heroes do.
The uniformity of this archetype’s reproduction in American cinema is why it’s so appealing to return to The Color of Magic, the first book in Terry Pratchett’s venerable fantasy-satire Discworld series, and its immediate sequel The Light Fantastic. Contrary to the archetypal American action hero, Discworld’s first protagonist is Rincewind, an impressively comprehensive failure of a wizard with an overwhelming instinct for self-preservation. In other words, he’s a coward, and this is shockingly, viscerally refreshing.
Weak in the Knees, but Quick on the Feet
In the very first scene of The Color of Magic, we are looking over the shoulders of two professional heroes, Bravd (poignantly, one letter away from “brave”) the Hublander and the Weasel, as they trade ruminations from the safety of a distant hilltop on the casualties of a fire consuming the city of Ankh-Morpork. Both seem utterly unfazed by the raging fire, evincing a sociopathic detachment from the human consequences. In one instance, one of the pair feels wistful nostalgia for the awful smells of the city, before brightening up at the realization that the fire killed one of their creditors, wiping away a small debt.
Neither of these characters is our protagonist, though they clearly fit the mold I described above: detached, cool, clearly unfazed in the face of various dangers. Instead, we see a wizard riding away from the city at full gallop on a horse. This, it becomes apparent, is Rincewind, who introduces himself by insulting the figures on the hill. Far from nerves of steel and taking the measure of them, Rincewind freely confesses:
“I’m so scared of you my spine has turned to jelly, it’s just that I’m suffering from an overdose of terror right now. I mean, when I’ve got over that, then I’ll have time to be decently frightened of you.”
Our wizarding hero is scared so shitless that he has no shits to give in a situation where he might otherwise shit himself.
We soon learn that Rincewind is a serial failure, a dropout from the world’s only wizarding university after a sophomoric dare got an ancient, arcane spell stuck in his head that scared all the other ones out. Unable to learn any other spells as a wizard, and lacking almost any other employable skills, his saving talent is a facility with languages—a talent that ultimately lands him a job as the guide for the world’s first tourist, Twoflower.
An Offer You Can’t Refuse
This is not at all to say Rincewind wants this job. Just the opposite, in fact. Upon getting a preemptive payment from Twoflower, he promptly tries to flee the city in order to avoid further association with the tourist. This is because Twoflower is pathologically naïve, and also happens to be hauling around absolutely absurd amounts of wealth in a seemingly sentient trunk with legs, called the Luggage. Moreover, he has no idea that the exchange rate renders his money that much more valuable, and so has no idea what kind of target the money paints on his back and the back of anyone who associates with him.
Unfortunately for Rincewind, fate intervenes in the form of the authoritarian ruler of Ankh-Morpork. He’s told that Twoflower is a citizen of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful empire, whose emperor warns that any harm to befall his subject will be punished with a ravaging conquest of Ankh-Morpork and much of the rest of the world. On the other hand, a happy journey will likely be rewarded with unimaginable riches. And so Rincewind, for the sake of the world and under pain of death, is conscripted to become Twoflower’s tour guide through the world.
This sounds like a terrible start to a fantasy adventure novel; how are we supposed to root for the hero if he doesn’t even want to be there? However, this is precisely the reason Rincewind is so much more compelling than a hero like John McClane. McClane is, supposedly, a normal schmuck caught in the wrong place who rises to the occasion. He’s called by circumstance, like the Campbellian heroes of yore, to a destiny in which he proves his meritorious, authentic manliness.
Rincewind has no authentic manliness to demonstrate. What is so exceptional about him is his almost total lack of merit. Ironically enough his only meritorious quality, a facility for languages for which he’s recognized and “offered” the job of Twoflower’s guide and translator, actually puts him in danger as he’s dragged into the orbit of the rich and powerful. He’s “chosen”, not by some grand destiny, but by the whims of a rich tourist and the violent threat of his government. In other words, wealth and authority—two concomitant forms of power—conspire to nail him in place.
This seems a lot truer to real life than the McClane scenario. After all, very few “ordinary” people would act like McClane does in the original Die Hard, quipping and wisecracking while he singlehandedly tries to evade and murder a large group of violent gunmen. Even fewer would succeed in doing so. An “ordinary” person, caught in that situation, is far more likely than not to lack any of the requisite talents for surviving that situation without enormous help. But more importantly, if some passersby were in possession of the talents to do such a thing, they would still be faced with the question of why they would ever willingly put themselves in such mortal peril. Rincewind knows the answer, and so he isn’t given the option to say no.
Scions and Rulers and Viziers, Oh My!
In fact, Rincewind’s story is mostly the story of various authorities butting into his life and conscripting him into doing their bidding, without offering him a choice in the matter, for variously obtuse, petty, and stupid reasons. Not only does the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork demand he serve Twoflower at the whim of a faraway emperor, that same emperor’s Grand Vizier also demands the Patrician kill the tourist under the same pain of conquest, so that no other citizens of the empire will get it in their heads that they can up and leave the empire’s jurisdiction. And so to satisfy the contradictory (but equally punitive) demands of the emperor and his Vizier, the Patrician sends assassins after the unwitting Twoflower and Rincewind.
Examples abound of various grand powers intervening in Rincewind’s fate like this. The gods are literally playing a board game in which Rincewind is merely a piece. Various kings and monsters demand Rincewind’s time and efforts to selfish ends of theirs in which Rincewind has no self-interested reason to be involved. Worst of all, Rincewind learns, the spell stuck in his head is actually a sentient member of a group of spells who conspired to monopolize his noggin, ruining his life and compelling his expulsion from the wizarding school, Unseen University, so that he might one day say the spell that would remake the world.
This facet of the Discworld expands from unique circumstance to structural insight when the story reaches the kingdom of Krull. After various adventures and diversions, Rincewind and Twoflower find themselves floating on the sea at the edge of the Disc, swept up by a net and shanghaied into slavery to the Krullians. The kingdom of Krull uses their slaves to build astronomical contraptions, like a ship tethered to the end of a rope that they plan to launch off the edge of the Disc with a ramp. Importantly, the Disc sits on the back of four giant elephants, themselves standing on the back of a giant sea turtle named Great A’Tuin, and the Krullians hope to use the ship to observe the sex of Great A’Tuin.
Notably, Rincewind and Twoflower are not the only slaves; we, the readers, are informed of the backstory of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. The artisan’s name derives from the fact that he is a world-renowned architect who, after building wonders for various kings, would be maimed to prevent him from building new works to rival his finished ones. In each case he fashions prosthetics and relearns his craft without his lost capacities, until the Grand Astronomer of Krull decides that the only way to preserve the uniqueness of the ship that Dactylos built is to kill him. In other words, Dactylos finds himself in the same predicament as Rincewind; his meritorious qualities put him dangerously close to fickle authorities. Rather than empowering and ennobling him, this costs him bits of his body, until it finally costs him his life.
Pratchett’s depiction of Krull conveys the insight that the dreams of adventure and power embodied by people like John McClane can only be reached by those who have access to privilege culled through coercion and authority. Tethis, a troll who captures slaves in the ocean because he himself is enslaved, explains it best in response to Twoflower’s dreams of space travel:
‘Amazing,’ said Twoflower, and leaned farther out over the Edge. ‘There are lots of other worlds out there?’
‘Quite a number, I imagine,’ said the troll.
‘I suppose one could contrive some sort of, I don’t know, some sort of thing that could preserve one against the cold,’ said the little man thoughtfully. ‘Some sort of a ship that one could sail over the Edge and sail to far-off worlds, too. I wonder…’
‘Don’t even talk about it!’ moaned Rincewind. ‘Stop talking like that, do you hear?’
‘They all talk like that in Krull,’ said Tethis.
‘Those with tongues, of course,’ he added.
Krullian dreams of knowledge and adventure are built upon a slave regime characterized by petty, coercive violence. Only those with authority and power in this regime, ‘those with tongues’, get to indulge in fantasy. The rest have to content themselves with not being shark food. It is in this manner that a few astronomers get to build a ship on the edge of a rope to shove off the edge so that two adventurers can gain a vantage point to determine whether or not a galactic turtle has a penis.
Money and Power
Pratchett furnishes us with another symbol of the foundations of power upon which privilege rests. The only reason Rincewind and Twoflower survive so long, despite the latter’s naivety and apparent attraction to danger, is Twoflower’s trunk, called the Luggage. The Luggage is an apparently self-aware furnishing made of sapient pearwood, a magical wood worth more than the contents of the Luggage could possibly add up to. An impressive feat, given that the Luggage’s insides are larger than its outsides (like Mary Poppins’ bag), and an indeterminate chunk of its insides are filled with gold. More importantly, the Luggage is nigh indestructible, and has the tenacity and general demeanor of an irritable Rottweiler.
Whenever Twoflower is in danger, the Luggage intervenes to eliminate the danger, often by devouring it. Whenever Rincewind tries to ditch Twoflower, the Luggage catches up to him to drag him back. And when the three are separated by literal divine intervention, the Luggage travels thousands of miles, bulldozing jungles and waylaying Lovecraftian sea monsters in a prescient beeline towards his master. As far as metaphors for the raw power and immunity to consequence that wealth can bestow, the Luggage is spot on.
The fact that Twoflower has an apparently sentient entity in unrelenting servitude to him is not a coincidence. When Twoflower demonstrates his iconography, a device for rapidly creating pictures, Rincewind wonders what technological marvel enables the contraption, before discovering that the mechanism is actually powered by a tiny demon with a talent for painting very well and very fast enslaved inside the device.
It is precisely the fact that Twoflower can depend on the servitude, coerced through various means, of the Luggage, the demon, and Rincewind that he can spend seemingly all of his effort daydreaming about riding dragons and traveling through space. The spare energy and time to fantasize drives him to megalomaniacal extremes, even getting irritated when an absurd goal seems beyond his reach. When he realizes what a vast and unknowable universe he lives in, Twoflower is more irritated than anything else:
‘Sometimes I think a man could wander across the Disc all his life and not see everything there is to see,’ said Twoflower. ‘And now it seems there are lots of other worlds as well. When I think I might die without seeing a hundredth of all there is to see it makes me feel,’ he paused, then added, ‘well, humble I suppose. And very angry, of course.’
While wealth and authority conspire to enable Twoflower’s contempt for the limits of his agency, Rincewind is dragged along by both, buffeted around by power like a leaf in a hurricane. It’s all the agency he can muster to stay alive and escape those who would brutalize him while he does his job. Moreover, when he’s finally had enough of being dragged around on dangerous adventures by a clueless tourist, he doesn’t have a cathartic moment of violence and control. He just says he wants to go home, and puts his foot down in the general direction of Ankh-Morpork.
Once More, Unto the Road!
Rincewind does get one moment of cathartic empowerment. As a climactic apocalypse nears, where the world-remaking spell inside his head will clamber out, he’s backed into a corner by the various forces that have conspired to make his life miserable until now. He ends up saving the world by fist fighting another wizard possessed by a Lovecraftian horror because he’s there and he’s trapped with his back up against the proverbial wall of an apocalypse that only he is equipped to avert.
In fact, the one moment of real, uncompromised agency Rincewind has in the whole story is when he frees himself of the influences that have manipulated his fate until now. When he finally opens the Necronomicon, the spell book from whence the spell in his head came, he proverbially stares down the spell and demands it leave. Moreover, the apocalypse that had the whole world suffering mortal terror, such that they started worshiping a growing red star in the sky, turns out to merely be a harmless instance of Great A’Tuin mating at a cosmic breeding ground. The world utterly fails to end, not with a bang, but with an ejaculation. So, with another kind of bang.
And isn’t that more true to an “ordinary” life than McClane waging a guerrilla campaign in a skyscraper? Heroes like McClane, Link, Captain America, or Nathan Drake are “ordinary” people “called” to some higher service that they gladly, or at least glibly, undertake. This mission is usually ennobling, enriching, or empowering, but whatever the case, they take on massive responsibility for the fate of the world. They firmly occupy the driver’s seat of their destiny and make good use of it to prove their meritorious mettle.
But seriously, who can relate to being absolutely in control of their own destiny? Such stories can be cathartic fantasies, but when they become an archetypal norm they start to feel oppressive and demanding. When everybody who doesn’t have all their shit together and their loins properly girded is merely an extra, it starts to feel like these stories aren’t really made for us, but at us.
By contrast, Rincewind is in the much more recognizable position of simply being employed. Besides the fact that few sane people would willingly subject themselves to extreme danger like Drake or Link, regardless of the calling, who can’t relate to being told what to do by people with more power than them for reasons above their pay grade? Individual agency is often circumscribed by nonsensical circumstances determined by petty and not particularly intelligent people who have more power than others by mere cosmic coincidence. That’s not an adventure, that’s just life.
Rincewind’s happy ending sees him moving on with his life, finally able to pursue his own ends with newfound wealth, as Twoflower bequeaths the Luggage as a parting gift. The adventure is not the moment where Rincewind’s agency is greatest. It’s the moment after that, where he has finally divested himself of a largely pointless higher calling and is able to pursue his own fulfillment on his own terms. That’s the kind of happy ending I want. Not one where I’m powerful, but one where I’m free.
Pratchett’s prose, when settling on the fate of an unnamed pirate captain who happened to stumble into the Luggage’s enraged wake out in the sea, puts it best:
“Some pirates achieved immortality by great feats of cruelty or derring-do. Some achieved immortality by amassing great wealth. But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”