Updated on July 8, 2018
24. ‘Small Gods’ by Terry Pratchett
Like so many people, I’d heard readers rave about Terry Pratchett for years, but I’d never got round to reading him myself. The most common problem, I think, is knowing where to start. Discworld is a vast collection of novels, some standalone, some part of ‘series’, and for a Pratchett newbie it can be difficult to know exactly where to dive in.
Then I found myself in a charity shop with dozens of Pratchett books for a quid each, and a man who has read a lot of Pratchett and was able to give me potted summaries of several of the books. He explained that Small Gods is about how, in Discworld, gods exist as long as you believe in them, and there are gods for all sorts of things, no matter how trivial. That sold it – I love religious satire and that premise was very appealing to me. So that’s how I came to start reading Pratchett with Small Gods.
Small Gods is one of the more standalone books in the Discworld universe, so I think it’s a pretty good place to start. I did feel, as I was reading, that references were being made to things that a true Discworld aficionado would understand, but that didn’t make this book any less enjoyable for me. In fact, I think it would be pretty cool to go back and read it again, when I have more Discworld stories under my belt, just to see what I missed.
This books is about a god, the Great God Om, who has unfortunately found himself stuck in the shape of a tortoise. For a god who usually comes to earth as something grand and terrifying, like an eagle or a bull, this is a very annoying turn of events, and he has to find a way to escape his tortoise body and present himself to his followers again, as powerful and frightening as ever. Om meets Brutha, a monk on the lowest rung of his sprawling Church, and also Om’s only true believer. Because, while he has been stuck as a tortoise, Om’s followers have been losing their faith: now they follow the institution of the Church, but they don’t really believe in Om any more. Only Brutha – obtuse but well-meaning Brutha – still believes and can help Om find his power again.
Pratchett does a brilliant job of sending up everyone in this novel. In his gentle, witty way he mocks believers and non-believers, the despotically religious and the brutally scientific. Nobody is safe from Pratchett’s twinkling mockery, and I think that’s why he has such mass appeal. This isn’t an angry, alienating attack on religion; the book uses fantasy to highlight how bizarre it is and how easy it is to lose sight of the point of religion (kindness and helping others) in favour of the institution.
Of course, Pratchett is funny. Everybody says he is, and I was glad to find that it’s true – parts of this book made me snigger out loud (rare), and he has an excellent turn of phrase that is both humorous and profound. For example: “he was talking in philosophy, but they were listening in gibberish.” Or, “gods like to see an atheist around. Gives them something to aim at.” One of the central conflicts in this book comes from the fact that Om’s Church preaches that the world is a sphere, but the philosophers have done their research and know that it is a disc, sitting on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space. The Flat Earth conspiracy is flipped on its head, and it’s brilliant.
The story follows Om and Brutha as they travel to Ephebe, a country that does not believe in Om, but worships multiple other gods instead. They travel with the tyrannical Vorbis, a high-up in Om’s Church who wants to convert the Ephebians, by military force. Brutha, who has an incredible memory, finds himself being used for Vorbis’ evil ends, and he has to decide whether to listen to his Church, his god, or his own gut feeling. This is what makes Brutha such an appealing character: he’s so good-hearted that you can’t help but root for him, and he really grows over the course of the novel. Through Brutha, Small Gods satirises blind, unquestioning belief and points to something with more humanity instead.
I did feel at times that the story was too long. The concept occasionally felt stretched, and I think it might have had a bit more impact over fewer pages, but I was still hugely impressed by Pratchett’s style and substance. I will definitely be reading more of his books (I also bought Going Postal at that charity shop), and I can’t wait to explore more of this rich and hilarious world.
“We get the gods we deserve.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
If you want to read it, you can buy Small Gods here.
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