No God, only religion – Small Gods

Small GodsHe thought: the worst thing about Vorbis isn’t that he’s evil, but that he makes good people do evil. He turns people into things like himself. You can’t help it. You catch it off him.

Small Gods is *the* book that you push into people’s hands if they ever ask you for a route into the Discworld. There is plenty to write about and I hope I can do it justice. But before I try,I want to tell you about my favourite bit of the book.

The highlight, in what is an astonishingly powerful novel, is a four and a half page segment. A boat chock full of hired goons under the control of the nefarious Vorbis is destroyed according to the whims of the gods. The crew, now all dead and having being raised in a country and culture that does not allow any sort of afterlife, debates what heaven they should explore. And then decide to set sail for that of a rival God.

I wish I could convey how much brilliance Pratchett squeezes into a few pages of…even describing them as minor characters would be overblowing their role in the book. But I reached the end of those few pages mentally screaming WHERE IS THIS BOOK? I WANT TO READ THEIR STORY!!!!

That’s how good Small Gods is – a concept some other authors would have hung a fantastic book on is dealt with in a couple of pages. Which is ok, because the rest is wonderful, challenging, thought provoking and Pratchett at his very best. It’s his second standalone book after Pyramids, which had been my favourite to date. And Small Gods covers a lot of the same ground, while deepening what was so enjoyable about the Ptales of Pteppic. In the three years between Pratchett had Pyramids published and this, he has had some six books(!!!!!!!) hit the market and is a considerably stronger writer than he was just a short time ago. (Although see the below comment. It turns out it was only six *Discworld* books)

Every time I thumb open the next secondhand Discworld book on my shrinking (only 27 books to go after this!) to-read pile, I try and remember to have a pencil to hand so I can highlight lines that leap out or scribble crazed thoughts in the margins. It’s like being back at school or university. The problem is, I tend to forget a pencil so each book is a zig-zag of pages where I mark something cool by folding the corner. By the time I closed it, Small Gods was an absolute mess, with consecutive pages folded at the top and bottom because I kept finding something noteworthy.

There’s just so much here that is interesting. But first, I have a plot to attempt to describe. We travel to Omnia, a repressive country whose religion follows that of Om, the bull God. The country is brutally run by the Quisition, the religious secret police who everyone expects to torture and repress its subjects, all in the name of Om. At the head of the Quisition is Vorbis, a stick thin autocrat (not named Vetinari, though…) who has a fervent and unshakeable belief.

Except no-one really believes in Om. Not anymore. They believe in the apparatus and ritual around the god. And because we know Gods in the Discworld are powerful precisely because of who believes in them, Om is very weak indeed and can only manifest as a tortoise. He remains bull-headed (sorry) and spends three years tracking down Brutha, a seemingly simple minded gardener, but someone with an eidetic memory and is the eighth Prophet of Om. Vorbis also comes across Brutha and uses him to try and help his aims to engineer a holy war with Omnia’s neighbours. There is much, much, much more but seriously: just read the book. This post will still be here when you are done.

Pratchett has been great at writing odd couples – Rincewind and Twoflower, the Archchancellor and the Bursar, Gaspode and Tugelbend (Gaspode and anyone, to be honest) – and Om and Brutha are no different. There’s the classic dramatic arc, where Om’s cynicism helps unlock the questioning nature of Brutha’s brain and Brutha’s innocence and religious devotion makes Om realise he too has a duty as a God. The word journey has been utterly sullied by waaaay too many weepy-eyed montages on The X Factor but Small Gods boasts two fascinating and hilarious protagonists with very different characters and motivations – their respective journeys are brilliant.

Like Pyramids, the book is not a simple attack on religion. Gods are real so faith is not foolish or misguided. Believing in Gods is as valid as believing that the Discworld is carried on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a gigantic space turtle. It is Gods that stop the seemingly imminent war at the end of the book but this is only because Om has seen enough of humanity through Brutha’s eyes that he knows they are not merely warring playthings that perform for the Gods’ amusement. He does what anyone should do in response and starts a barfight in heaven to bring his fellow deities to his school of thinking.

What is bad is the wrong kind of belief, that which is used for dangerous means. Om hilariously draws attention to this when he commands Brutha to take a rock and kill Vorbis. Brutha, terrified, refuses. The symbol of Vorbis and everyone he stands for has more power than an actual God. That’s why Om is a tortoise, because whatever it is that people believe in Omnia, it’s not the God; it’s everything around it.

Brutha is the core of the novel, a likeable, naive, hopeless lunk whose faith is challenged and questioned throughout the book, between Om carping at him and him meeting philosophers in Ephebe – Pratchett’s Greece, which was last seen in Pyramids. But his faith endures, his faith is justified and he becomes the greatest ruler Omnia has ever seen.

Despite Pratchett’s punning pyrotechnics, he is far more subtle than he lets on. I’m thinking of the wonderful death scene during Mort’s work experience a few books back, among many, many examples. He doesn’t make it explicit but you know from what you have experienced of him and the delightfully understated way he intends to get on with things…every day, that he was the benign ruler Omnia deserved, building the best non-magical library outside of the Unseen University and staying devout to the faith that made him who he is.

Vorbis surfs across the outer limits of what a complex character should be but doesn’t quite tumble into the one dimensional realms of Moustache-Twirling Supervillain. He is a cruel, sadistic torturer but his religious fervour feels relatable. He’s not acting out of sheer self-interest, he’s acting out of a misinterpretation of faith and in what he thinks is the best interest of the state and its subjects. It’s still wrong, it’s still horrible but the core of his belief *is* justified. As I’ve mentioned before, the best villains are those who don’t realise they are the bad guy and Vorbis is Pratchett’s greatest example to date.

But Vorbis is certain and certainty is one of the worst characteristics you can have in the Discworld. When he dies (after a supersonic Om crashes through his head after tumbling from an eagle – one of the best literary deaths period, let alone in the Discworld), he has to cross the desert in order to reach…well, whatever is next. But the desert is what a person believes in: Vorbis looked inside himself. And went on looking. He keeps on looking for 100 years, until he is finally redeemed by Brutha travelling to the afterlife when he dies and showing him the way. The ending, where Brutha tells Death that Vorbis changed people, for good or ill, but he can’t change him, is brilliant.

And wrong.

Instead of being certain that he has stayed exactly the same, Brutha has been changed; that’s why he fulfilled his destiny of the Eighth Prophet, because he learned the value of questioning his beliefs. Ambiguity is everywhere in the novel and the key thing Pratchett is demanding of the reader is to ask questions – whether it’s of Brutha or Vorbis, or any other character and their point of view.

Everything works here. The characters are rich, real and flawed enough to give the reader a satisfying itch to scratch. The novel juggles some hefty themes and skilfully avoids easy answers but leavens it with some Butch and Sundance-style humour and some brilliant set pieces. I really don’t think I have done this book justice at all and may well come back to it at a later date. At the time of unloading my thoughts on this, I am a week on and two Discworld novels from finishing Small Gods and it’s still bouncing around my head. As much as I liked it, I’m not going to say the same of The Light Fantastic.

Pratchett’s on a wonderful roll here. Instead of novels bursting with puns and jokes, they are alive with ideas, complex characters and muscular plots. His next step is to bring a close to his witches’ trilogy. Weatherwax, Ogg and Garlick are back in Lancre. Is all’s well that ends well? Find out next week.

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11 Comments

  1. Ha! All of my Pratchett books are a mess of folded pages. Sometimes I have to do origami on a page to highlight two or three sections on the same page. I love it, but my gf despairs.

    Excellent analysis too: Small Gods is among my favourites.

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    1. My paperbacks are probably about half as thick again because of the folds. Not great when trying to fit them beside the hundreds of other books I own!

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  2. NB. He didn’t have six novels come out between Pyramids and Small Gods. Small Gods was actually the TENTH book since Pyramids (plus at least 5 short stories). You were forgetting the non-Discworld books! In that time he’d also published the last two Bromeliad novels, The Unadulterated Cat, and Good Omens. He’d published the first Bromeliad a few months before Pyramids, and would publish the first Johnny Maxwell novel six months after Small Gods.

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  3. I only “vandalize” books I passionately love. That’s why I prefer my Discworld books in paperback. Well, on to Small Gods. I had a lot of false starts with Small Gods. But when I finally got it, I cried and cursed the gods for letting this book destroy me. I’ve been a non-believer for a while now, and sometimes have strong opinions against religion in general. But after Small Gods, somehow I just mellowed. People can’t help but believe. It’s what being human is all about, and I think we need more freethinkers like Terry Pratchett. Darn, just thinking of that scene with Brutha and Death and Vorbis makes me tear. :/

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    1. I’m right there with you. That last scene is remarkably moving, one that helped me mellow my attitude towards “blind believers”. That’s a remarkable achievement coming from one of the great satirists and humanist writers of modern times.

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  4. I’m just catching up on your previous reviews and it seems that, until NW was published, SG was most peoples favourite DW book. But I’m not too sure about it, in a way I prefer Reaper Man to Small Gods; there are some DW books that, for some reason, I don’t feel comfortable reading and I think, after reading your reviews from TCoM until SG I’ve worked out what it is.
    As Neil Gaimon stated, Terry Pratchett was a man that was frequently furious at, well, stuff; and in some of his later books that anger seems to permeate the whole book and I feel SG is one that suffers because of this. I feel that he saw, or read, or heard something that made him angry that motivated him to write Small Gods and as I’m reading it I can “feel” that anger coming through. For me, this “anger” or “rage” spoils the book to a degree; it’s hard to put into words but I get the same “feeling” from NW and Thud.
    I think I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like TP when I feel that he’s “preaching” *at* me and it’s the these books that I get that feeling from.

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    1. I do think he gets a bit preachy but it’s more towards the end of Discworld – Thud! is particularly guilty of this.

      We do seem to be at opposite ends of the scale, from previous discussions 🙂 I feel Small Gods is more about getting the reader to ‘think’, rather than ‘think this way’. That’s the book’s strength.

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      1. I’m not sure we’re quite at opposite ends but we do seem to like different things in DW books and, of course, that is the strength of TP’s writing; that the same book can be enjoyed by different people, and for different reasons.

        By the way I am enjoying reading your reviews very much, and do agree with you on far more than don’t. So thanks for taking the time to write them, I do appreciate the work, and thought, you’ve put into each one.

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  5. […] The ongoing debate about ‘literature’ and literariness actually reminds me of a Terry Pratchett novel. Like Walter, one of my favourite Discworld instalments is Small Gods (1992). It tells the story of Brutha, eighth prophet of a once-great god named Om. Brutha is quite possibly Om’s last believer. Though Om is fading away, and only has enough power to manifest himself as a turtle, Brutha persists in believing that his god’s actions are driven by careful consideration and divine knowledge rather than necessity. You can find a nice analysis of the plot here. […]

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  6. We lost so much when Pratchett passed on…. Vorbis last scene is even more deep, especially when you connect Lao Tzu to other Discworld books such as Night Watch.

    Vorbis certainty is contrasted to the general,private and crew deaths. The other Omnians are reject the certainty of their own beliefs and instead embrace humanity, that if you are good by some moral code, then the desert isn’t frightening. The ship crew realise that the empty religion of Om was questionable and seek to explore a new path.

    Vorbis on the other hand looked inside himself, for that cite of certainty that he KNEW was coming from god and realised there was nothing there,nothing but himself n his thoughts and it frightens him. DEATH telling him the desert isn’t empty frightens him still, as he complain it’s empty and highlights the loneliness of his human nature, an outcry to humanity.

    But Brutha… Brutha Cruz is humanity, intertwined with the goodness and dedication of religious faith. Echoes of Macduff is heard as Brutha points out that Vorbis, an agent of evil changes other, but Brutha cannot change his own nature. Just as he led Vorbis across the desert, just as he led his people and his GOD across the spiritual desert, Brutha still illuminates Vorbis path for one last time. Brutha, whose days were packed of activities, who said he kept living one step at a time, who enlightened his god with the teachings of philosophy when he says Here and Now, we are alive, as opposed to Quisition theology of torture and death for the purity of one soul in the afterlife.. Brutha is proved correct as he once again, offers Vorbis another chance of redemption…

    Powerful stuff, once you remember that Brutha was supposed to had died on the tortoise, becoming a Jesus like character. Lao Tzu and in this case, Pratchett assertion that narrativium is alive in the Discworld, that our personal choices affect the multiverse is a powerful message of hope.

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