Discworld is perhaps the quintessential example of worldbuilding. Decades of imagination by the late author Terry Pratchett went into creating a land so rich with depth that it has become a lens into our own world.
Discworld is one of the most detailed and storied worlds in the realm of modern fiction. It’s a place where fantasy and science fiction intertwine with folklore and philosophy and historical nonsense. It is perhaps the quintessential example of world building, of how much we can create with our imagination.
For those unaware, Discworld is set in a fictional universe created by author Terry Pratchett. There are dozens of Discworld novels. The stories have been adapted to audio, the stage, movies, and television. This magical land is populated by hapless wizards, barbaric barbarians, countless gods both large and small, witches, weirdos, and sentient luggage.
Let’s take a look at Discworld from a worldbuilder’s perspective.
A worldbuilder, in the sense of which we are speaking, is the creator of a fictional world or universe, a paracosm. The late Sir Terry Pratchett spent the greater part of his life constructing Discworld through story, adding layer upon layer of depth with each new narrative. In fact, he coined the term “narrativium”, describing it as the elemental substance of a story. In his novel The Science of Discworld, Pratchett said that narrativium “was the glue of the 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.” He also said that, “You could detect narrativium, in fact, by simply thinking about the world. Without it, apparently, everything all was just balls spinning in circles without meaning.”
You see, in Discworld nothing exists without a story to say that it does. This is true from not only our own perspective, but also from the perspective of the characters in the world. Belief and story are the forces which manipulate life on the disc. Once a story or idea is believed by enough people, only then does it become true.
In this episode we will uncover Discworld’s construction by peeling back the layers of imagination that form the world, and peer into the creative mind of one of the most revered worldbuilders of our time. I am your host, Arthur McMahon, and this is Paracosms.
What does the turtle stand on? Well, nothing. It’s a turtle. Turtles swim. They don’t need anything to stand on.
In exploring the layers which comprise Discworld, let’s start with the physical world itself.
Discworld, the material existence of it, is an amalgamation of several different Hindu and Chinese theologies, as well as a bit of actual history and pseudoscience. It’s all pieced together in a way that just makes sense.
The world itself is a flat disc of continents and oceans that is held up on the backs of four giant elephants. The elephants stand upon the Great A’tuin, which is a Giant Star Turtle that swims through the cosmos.
Back on the disc itself we have Cori Celesti standing in its center, a 10-mile-high spire of rock which acts as a home for the great gods much like our own mythological Mt. Olympus. The area around Cori Celesti is know as the Hub, a frigid and mountainous place, acting as a sort of polar region as it is the furthest landmass from the rim-rotating Sun. The land is not evenly distributed across the disc, but a heavy counterweight continent is placed in such a way as to prevent the disc from flipping to one side and off of the backs of the elephants.
The world is constructed as it is because, as Pratchett put it, it just makes sense. The planet is flat so that the people do not fall off. The elephants are required to hold up the disc because something has to do it, and the elephants need something to stand on, so that’s why the giant turtle is there. What does the turtle stand on? Well, nothing. It’s a turtle. Turtles swim. They don’t need anything to stand on.
This is narrativium in effect. The stories say that this is what Discworld is. The people of Discworld believe it. So it becomes the truth.
Gods in Discworld are not infallible, and many are just dumb.
The narrative of Discworld was inspired by a great many things. Pratchett was an amateur astronomer. He enjoyed reading history books, literature, and exploring the natural world. Our pop-culture and folklore had great influence over Discworld’s creation as well. The Science of Discworld states that Earth, otherwise known on the disc as Roundworld, exists on the same rubber sheet of the space-time continuum as Discworld. Because of this our Earthly stories have crossed over and become a part of the Disc’s narrativium, forming an important layer of the paracosm.
Many, if not all, of the cultures and races on the Disc are inspired by Roundworld folklore, far too many to go over in a single podcast episode. On this disc you can find goblins, vampires, orcs, elves, dragons and almost any other common fantasy life form, most borrowed or transmuted from Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Mother Goose’s Rhymes. The people of Discworld celebrate Hogswatchnight, which is a hogwash version of Christmas, they have warrior heroes remarkably similar to Conan the Barbarian, Kings as legendary as Arthur, and gods like Zeus.
One of the oldest and most popular vehicles for story telling is religion, and this is also true of Discworld where thousands of different gods vie for people’s attention and belief. The Great God Om is now known as an omnipotent deity in the country of Omnia and is perhaps the strongest god on the disc, but there was a time when he was insignificant and neglected by his own followers. As detailed in the Discworld novel Small Gods, the people of Omnia sort of forgot about their god and instead put their beliefs into the superficial teachings of the Omnian church.
Gods don’t often speak directly to their followers, and so the church’s clergy decided to fill in for their absent god. Commandments were followed which Om had never agreed to. Teachings were shared which Om had never actually professed. The clerical hierarchy of the Omnian church became exceedingly powerful and violent, torturing and even putting to death those who were suspected of following another church. Meanwhile The Great God Om accidentally transformed himself into a tortoise with the last of his divine power and found himself stuck as such for years.
With the help of Brutha, his last remaining true believer, Om learned that smiting annoying humans with lightning bolts and ignoring their pleas was not the best way to grow a population of followers. Through a grand gesture of divine intervention involving a flying reptile and a confused eagle, Om was able to save Brutha’s life and gain a nation of believers in one fell swoop. He escaped his tortoise shell prison and agreed to stop smiting mortals, at least for a one-hundred year trial period.
The story of Om is one of redemption and personal growth. Those who are only familiar with the infallible Christian God may not be accustomed to such divine transformation. But if you take a look at any of the polytheistic beliefs such as Hinduism or Greek Mythology, you will find them rife with such stories. Gods in Discworld are not infallible, and many are just dumb. There is a god of the ocean, a god of hangovers, and a god of short bits of string. Countless small gods compete with each other for the power of influence over such things as an intersection of two marching lines of ants.
There are Dark gods influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s hideous monstrosities and thunder gods reminiscent of Norse Mythology. They’re not always all that godlike though and are not often seen as much more than meddlesome people with weird powers.
But more than just divine stories are borrowed from Earthly folklore. There are personified entities which, through the power of belief, are endowed with the powers we think they should have. When we think of the physical manifestation of Death, what do we see? A walking skeleton, probably concealed in a black robe with a hood. He usually carries a scythe, doesn’t he? And because this is what we believe Death looks like, so he is as such on the Disc. Death shows up as a character in nearly every Discworld novel. He appears to each unfortunate creature that sees him as they expect him to look, and he shows to them the path to the afterlife that they expect to see.
Our folklore, in a sense, is the driving force of story on the Disc. It creates silly characters, like Quoth the talking Raven who refuses to give in to stereotypes and say the word ‘nevermore’, but it is also the foundation of narrativium. If Discworld were a house, our Earthly stories would be the big block of cement that it stands upon. It takes magic for our Earthly stories to transform, to create something new. Magic affects all life on the disc and exists in every narrative. It is what brings the stories to life. It is another layer of the world.
There are other lifeforms on the disc that can use magic as well, but only a sourcerer can create magic.
Magic is to Discworld much like science is to our own, a force of mystery which both influences and is influenced by its own universe. Though wielders of magic can come to possess great powers on Discworld, it is not because of the magic itself, but rather because there are many people who believe in the power of magic. Magic does not exist without belief that it does. The same can actually be said about our science. You see, science is a human construct. We’ve used science to disprove a great many things of course, but proof and truth are prone to the natural subjectivity of the human mind. No one has ever found a lump of science. It is not a physical object, but a process of thought. Science very much exists in our world because it lives in our human minds. This is how magic exists on the disc.
There is a field of energy which surrounds and penetrates Discworld, similar to Earth’s magnetic field. When magic is concentrated it can be seen as octarine, which is the color of magic. Pratchett describes it as a fluorescent greenish-yellow purple that can only be seen by wizards and cats.
Speaking of wizards, they are much like our own scientists. Those born with a talent for magic are sent off to university to study it, to hone their skills while conducting research and performing experiments. There are other magic users on the disc, such as the witches. A witch is different than a wizard in that witches on the Disc do not often perform magic. They know it well enough, but witches are usually women, and women are not allowed to attend the wizards’ Unseen University, so what witches do learn is passed down in a master to apprentice type of system.
There are other lifeforms on the disc that can use magic as well, but only a sourcerer can create magic. That is a sourcerer with a u in the middle of it. The eighth son of an eighth son is born a wizard, but a wizard’s eighth son is born a sourcerer, an entity stronger than just about any other on the Disc. Wizards don’t often involve themselves in romantic affairs in order to avoid this dangerous phenomenon, but it has happened a few times and it is how new, wild magical energy is born unto the Disc.
No one layer is sufficient enough to make a believable world.
Magic can be broken down into its elementary particles. The basic unit of magic is a thaum. To put the unit into perspective, a thaum is how much magical energy is required to conjure up one small white pigeon. A thaum can be thought of like an atom. In The Science of Discworld the wizards of the Unseen University attempted to split a thaum for academic purposes, resulting in a release of so much magical energy that they were able to harness enough of it to create a new universe. Our universe. The one you’re in right now.
We were created by the wizards sort of on accident, and sort of on purpose. By harnessing the magical energy of a single thaum our universe was cast within a small glass sphere and placed upon a shelf in the university. The wizards imposed upon our universe the rule that there would be no magic in its existence so that they could study what life would be like without magic, or if life could even be created without it. They brought a universe of science into existence, and thus added a new layer of depth to their own world.
The wizards watched as our universe expanded endlessly within the glass sphere. “Why are the planets made of balls?” they would ask. “Why do the balls spin?” Living on a disc was the reason for their confusion. They had no experience with scientific law. “You mean that the planets are round? Well then wouldn’t everything on their bottoms just fall off? And where are the turtles?” Science just did not make any sense to them. The wizards continued to study our universe as life was born on Roundworld, watching as it was wiped out again and again by universal forces, only to spring up anew after each catastrophe.
In a meeting set to discuss the academic findings on the Roundworld universe the wizards were afraid that they were doing things wrong. When approached with that concern the Dean of the university asked how such a thing could be possible when they were the ones who made the universe. “Well,” said the aptly named wizard Ponder, “it’s made up its own rules.” The Archchancellor refuted that foolish statement, saying, “No, no, it can’t do that. We’re intelligent creatures. We make the rules. Lumps of rock don’t make rules.” Belief didn’t matter in our universe. Things existed simply because they did, because science said so.
Therein lies the beauty of Discworld. It is an imaginary place so vast and rich with depth that it becomes a lens into our own world. Discworld is a land of Earthly parodies and Roundworld stories. It is created of our minds and hearts. No one layer is sufficient enough to make a believable world. Folklore, geography, religion, science, magic, it all builds on on top of one another and embeds itself into the souls of the characters and the world. Narrativium is the glue that binds the layers together.
For some of us Discworld is a real place, sometimes even more real than Earth beneath our feet. The worlds we create can become a needed escape, a source of joy, inspiration, and even sadness. Real emotions and ideas are created by our interactions with these other worlds. Would you call that science or, perhaps, magic?
This has been an episode of Paracosms. Discworld is one of my favorite places to visit. This was a tough episode to put together. It was actually the first episode I wrote for this podcast, but I struggled to call it complete. I was so excited to talk about Discworld that I had a tough time parsing it down into layers and figuring out what was most important to talk about. There’s just so much to the world worth sharing. If you haven’t read any of the books yet I recommend starting with The Colour of Magic, it’s where I started at least. There is no true order to read the books in, though you can find suggestions online.
If you feel like sharing your own thoughts on Discworld, leave a comment on this episode’s blog post at ArthurMcMahon.com. Or find me on Facebook or Twitter. The links are all on my website. Feel free to make episode suggestions as well. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting Discworld down the road.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed this world and I look forward to seeing you at the next.