“It was magic?”
The sensible thing to say about The Colour of Magic is that it was the slightly wonky first step into the Discworld that led to a gently spoken, floppy black hat toting gentleman becoming the bestselling author of the 1990s, Sir Terry, national treasure, social campaigner and an author so underrated he isn’t actually so. You can’t be described by AS Byatt as “a master storyteller” and be underrated.
But I’m not going to say the sensible thing.
This was my first experience of the novel as it stayed unread first time around. What I got when I read The Colour of Magic now is it’s a glorious celebration of the power of imagination, of reading and of books. On the surface, the novel is four, rather (actually, really) crudely stapled together quest narratives taking their lead from various iconic science-fiction and fantasy authors – whether it’s Lovecraft or Tolkien – and taking the piss out of them.
But underneath that is an author, so the story goes, realising that this was probably his last best hope of becoming a success and throwing everything into it.
And it worked.
Throughout the book, imagination is celebrated and cherished and a line is clearly drawn between the power of magic in the Discworld and the power of thought and creativity in this. Or as Pratchett puts it: A spell is still a spell even when imprisoned temporarily in parchments and ink. It has potency. To go a bit Chris Traeger from Parks and Rec, books are literally magic.
Wrapped around this is the magician Rincewind accompanying the wide-eyed tourist Twoflower to the edge of the world (and slightly beyond it), encountering barbarians, Cthulu-esque ‘beings’, trolls and gods along the way.
The flimsiness of the book is its main flaw and the plot is basically ‘double act goes here, then here, then here’. Only the first part of the book – where Rincewind and Twoflower escape the city of Ankh-Morpork, its thieves and assassins, and accidentally invent insurance fraud in the process – rattles along with a degree of urgency and momentum.
Nevertheless, The Colour of Magic remains a tremendous amount of fun, with Pratchett overloading pages with jokes, comic asides and deftly written set-pieces – the proto-Reservoir Dogs stand-off in The Broken Drum pub between our heroes and some of Ankh-Morpork’s most insalubrious is my highlight.
Another is his classic Lee-and-Kirby-esque vintage Marvel Comics introduction to The Discworld. Just read the bonkers wonder of the following:
In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the Turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
If this was his last throw of the dice, Pratchett seemed determined to go out by having as much fun as he could and any reader can tell the enjoyment he had in writing it on every single page.
While some have argued this isn’t a *proper* Discworld book, there are some strong hints of what will come in the series. The reluctant hero Rincewind craves a bit of order and structure to his life and feels magic may not be all it cracked up to be. Rincewind often suspected that there was something, somewhere, that was better than magic. He was usually disappointed. When Pratchett begins talking about science in later books, this theme is grasped in earnest. Death also makes an appearance but it’s not the death as we know it – the lovable protagonist of Mort or Reaper Man.
But what of our protagonists? There’s a neat contrast between Rincewind, who just wants a simple but enjoyable life but is much too passive and unengaged, and the endlessly impressed Twoflower, who is fascinated by everything but doesn’t really learn from his wonder. They make a very potent double act very early on – the Laurel and Hardy nod of using “that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into” is earned by the time it’s used.
Both are poked fun at by Pratchett but it’s a gentler humour than outright mockery. Like all great double acts, the ideal is somewhere between the middle – be curious but not to the point of foolhardiness, it’s fine to want to settle down but for God’s sake, get a bit of experience under your belt first.
The knockabout double act of Twoflower and Rincewind drags you readily along after them and the energy of Pratchett showing you as much as you can of this world he has dreamed up is infectious. But it’s a strange and rather thin start to the series, given what is to come.
Next up, The Light Fantastic. The one I didn’t like when I was younger. Oh dear…