Strange Lights – The Light Fantastic

TLF.coverHe wasn’t good or evil or cruel or extreme in any way but one, which was that he had elevated greyness to the status of a fine art and cultivated a mind that was bleak and pitiless and logical as the slopes of hell.

My memory for remembering the details of books is dreadful. Regardless of how fervently I push beloved paperbacks into the hands of friends, urging them that this is something they MUST read, within months of closing a book for the last time, it’s lost to me, beyond a firm sense of how much I liked or disliked it.

The Light Fantastic is a Discworld book that I’ve read before. I remember not liking it. Beyond that? Nothing. So I was rather surprised to find I enjoyed it.
In short, The Light Fantastic is The Colour of Magic but with plot. While its predecessor threw joke after joke at the reader to stop them from noticing that not a lot was actually happening, Rincewind and Twoflower, TCM’s protagonists, are trying to halt The End of the World, albeit in their usual cack-handed fashion.

Facing them is Trymon, the terrifying moderniser who is the subject of the quote at the top of the page. He has held a hostile takeover of the Unseen University, a Hogwarts for grown-ups where wizards study. In a sentence I never felt I would ever write, Trymon is trying to hunt down Rincewind to recover The Spell, one of eight of the most powerful pieces of magic and which will help stop a star crashing into the Disc, which, as you remember, is suspended on the backs of four elephants standing on top of a tortoise.

Like I said, there’s a plot. And this is without mentioning Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly and tiny legendary warrior who shlurs every esh he saysh and makes me think Sean Connery would have made an excellent hobbit, or a journey into the afterlife, where we find Twoflower teaching Death and the three other horsemen of the apocalypse how to play bridge, ritual sacrifices, Stonehenge as an ancient computer and how orangutans make the best librarians.

But The Light Fantastic is about power and responsibility. I’ll try and keep the Spider-Man references to a minimum but in Trymon we are shown a ruthless and ambitious mage set on modernisation, without actually thinking through the consequences. So when he packs the seven Spells into his head, he opens a portal through which the dreaded Things from the Dungeon Dimensions can travel through (plot, remember?).

So far, so straightforward, but where The Light Fantastic is interesting is how Pratchett explores the importance of the right kind of authority and knowing one’s limits. Galder, the magician Trymon usurps as the head of the Unseen University, is characterised almost as a benign dictator who keeps magic in check. Trymon craves management – if there was something Trymon really liked, it was organising – but it is in bringing this to bear on the University that all hell almost breaks loose.

People were craving order, and order they would get – the order of the turning screw, the immutable law of straight lines and numbers.

By putting the reluctant hero Rincewind at the centre of the novel, Pratchett looks at how a quiet life can actually be worthwhile: He supposed there were some people somewhere who had some control over their lives; they got up in the mornings, and went to bed at night in the reasonable certainty of not falling over the edge of the world. But Rincewind can’t have a quiet life; he has to save the world.

These tensions between how authority can be worthwhile as well as challenged, and between the dignity of a quiet life and what you should be doing are looked at in later books, the Sam Vimes novels in particular. But the seeds are here – this feels like the first Discworld novel because Pratchett has spent the time to build a fully functioning world that gives him a platform to have fun with.

There were three years between this and TCM but The Light Fantastic is the first of 13 novels Pratchett tore through writing across six years. It’s not the first great Discworld novel – that is to come – but it feels like we are properly under way. And the next novel was one of my childhood favourites…

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