Death Might Be Your Santa Claus – Hogfather*

hogfather-2‘Well, I mean, damnit, it’s human nature, isn’t it?’ said Ridcully hotly. ‘Things go wrong, things get lost, it’s natural to invent little creatures that – All right, all right, I’ll be careful. I’m just saying man is naturally a mythopoeic creature.’

Auspiciously, I first opened my copy of Hogfather three weeks before Christmas and it was my final Discworld novel of 2014. The early indications were not great. Death has gone missing, again (this has happened in Every Single Novel featuring the Grim Reaper. Enough!). He’s had to step in for the Hogfather, who has also gone missing, and his granddaughter Susan has to take over the family business AGAIN. Meanwhile, the frankly terrifying Mr Teatime, an assassin too brilliant for even the Assassins’ Guild, has embarked on a seemingly impossible job.

I felt Hogfather was almost the perfect Christmas novel. It’s full of warmth, sentiment, laughter, generosity and is very very entertaining. It is also long, inconsistent, with some parts stretching on forever, overly ambitious, fails to deliver on its promise and by the time you are finished, you are somewhat exhausted and in need of a proper rest. It’s an absolute mess, a highly enjoyable one, granted, but a novel in sore need of a firmer edit.

Nevertheless, there is so much to love here. Teatime is a properly unhinged villain and one that flies in the face of a lot of Pratchett’s bad guys and girls. He’s not nuanced, you can’t see his point of view or sympathise with the actions he is taking. He’s just bad and it’s marvellous.

Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror,all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken.

The problem with Teatime is that he vanishes for around 200 pages about a third of the way through the book and the plot just stops. What we are left with is a lot of Pratchett messing around with Christmas themes. It’s not bad – after a brief dodgy run a few novels back, he can’t really do bad at this point – but nothing really happens and Pratchett at full galloping plot >>>>>>> Pratchett messing about.

There is a brilliant scene where Death gatecrashes a Santa’s grotto and hands out toys to all the girls and boys including a rather epic crossbow to the splendidly uncouth Corporal Nobbs from the Night’s Watch. The ramping up of hysteria, from the excitable children to the increasingly despairing parents, is a joy to read.

But it doesn’t really serve the plot. Pratchett at his best writes hilarious scenes that also propel the novel forward. His Watch novels are full of them although Lords and Ladies and Maskerade have decent shouts to being among his tightest stories. Hogfather is rather self-indulgent, although perhaps we can forgive him that at Christmas, moreso than any other time of the year.

It is only when Teatime returns that everything takes off like a team of Yuletide pigs pulling a sleigh. And it’s a killer finale with a fierce Victorian governess, a manic chase from hellish beasts in a bid to bring back San..the Hogfather, and a dizzying chase through the Tooth Fairy’s tower.

I feel Hogfather is a throwback to the period when he was first starting to fulfill his potential – the time of Moving Pictures. Those books were so very close to genius but were just let down by some loose plotting or blind alleys being chased. Hogfather’s opening ranks among Pratchett’s best, as Teatime is nothing you have seen before and his strange cosmic heist is as alluring as he.

Moving Pictures was the first great use of The Wizards but they are perhaps the easiest thing that could have been cut. I’ll always find Archchancellor Ridcully entertaining but there’s no real need for him or the faculty. It cuts space from the novel that could be better used pushing things forward. Teatime’s audacious way of killing the Hogfather, by stealing teeth from the Tooth Fairy and using them to control children, removing their belief in Father Christmas, is difficult to piece together from how quickly the reader is dragged through the final acts. It’s easy to miss amid the chaos.

It aims high and while it does not hit the heights of Small Gods or Lords and Ladies, it is an incredibly likeable novel. It teases out the darkness of Christmas, has an epic opening and final act and Susan’s proto-Buffy schtick, with her taking a poker to ghosts, ghouls and beasties to protect her wards, is several coffins’ full of fun.

And it’s a neat spin on the existing Pratchett seam. As Albert, Death’s gruff companion, keeps trying to drum into his boss’s thick skull throughout the novel, belief is not as simple as thinking the Tooth Fairy or Verruca Gnome exist. It’s offering hope and something for people to strive towards.

‘It’s the hope that’s important. Big part of belief, hope. Give people jam today and they’ll just sit and eat it. Jam tomorrow now – that’ll keep them going for ever.’

Like, I don’t know, being good throughout the year so you get presents come December 25th. Belief is valid and vital and what we see through the novel is the Discworld’s inhabitants believe in the right things. It is only when the Hogfather disappears, and there is a surfeit of belief to be filled, that we see craziness like the god of hangovers or a demon that eats spare socks.

It is somewhat sentimental, but so is A Christmas Carol and the darkness of Teatime is this novel’s Ghost of Christmas Future (and Past and Present). The Hogfather fits snugly into Pratchett’s hopes about what humans can and should be. His Watch novels show what they are. The tensions between the two is why Pratchett is such a great novelist.

IT IS THE THINGS YOU BELIEVE WHICH MAKE YOU HUMAN. GOOD THINGS AND BAD THINGS, IT’S ALL THE SAME.

Pratchett makes the power of belief more universal than the fantastical epic tone of Small Gods (as if the Grim Reaper stepping in for Santa with a sleigh being pulled by pigs is not fantastic). Believing in Santa Claus, or the Tooth Fairy, is critical in order to buy into the bigger beliefs like justice, mercy and duty. Interestingly Death characterises these as ‘LIES’. A dark twist amid an enjoyable but flabby winter’s tale.

*(Of all my rather hopeless music reference titles, this is probably my favourite. It’s an amazing compilation of very very early festive blues songs and well worth trying to track down. Maybe not a timely listen in the middle of March but worth putting to one side until December comes around again)

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One Comment

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