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SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Discworld by Terry Pratchett.
Discworld is a series in the genre of comic fantasy by British author Terry Pratchett. Released in a multitude of installments between 1983 and 2015, it takes place on the fictional “Discworld,” a flat planet balanced atop the backs of four planet-sized elephants, who collectively stand atop a cosmic turtle. The series parodies and borrows from a number of canonical science fiction, speculative fiction, modern, and even pre-modern authors, most notably H.P. Lovecraft, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and J.R.R. Tolkien. They deploy a blend of themes spanning folklore, mythology, fable, and fairy tale, examining a number of social and political issues in contemporary Western life. Though each of Discworld’s forty-one installments is an independent novel, they share a handful of story arcs, often referencing them only obliquely. The series is considered an important contribution to modern humorous writing.
One of Discworld’s main story arcs examines Rincewind, a wizard whose lackadaisical wandering results in a tendency to confront strange challenges in life. The series’ first true protagonist, Rincewind is an antihero figure, desiring nothing of fame or fortune, but nevertheless, falling into situations in which he ends up taking heroic actions or becoming subject to extreme danger. In one such story, The Last Hero, Rincewind protests a petition for him to join an expedition set on exploring what lies outside the edge of Discworld. Rincewind realizing that his fate is to embark on the journey whether or not he protests, reflects on the irony of destiny. He goes on to save Discworld a number of times, even helping to create organic life on a desolate other planet named Roundworld.
Another story arc concerns Death, personified as a tall skeleton wearing a black robe, but parodies stereotypical depictions of Death in literature. Death rides a horse named Binky, speaks in his own special font, and speaks directly to individuals’ minds without vocalizing. Death is portrayed as highly interested in humans and the stories they embark on. At one point, he builds a house and tries to model a little human world for himself, briefly taking the place of a human. Death, strangely, also has a number of friends and family, including a granddaughter named Susan, a butler, a lesser Death who is only in charge of rodents’ souls, and a talking raven (in reference to the poem by Edgar Allen Poe). He also has an affinity for cats.
A third central story arc is that of the witches, whom Pratchett depicts not as mysterious or occult, but rather as apothecaries, judges, and oracles. Pratchett resists stereotypical depictions of witches, satirizes them through the exploits of his starkly contrasting ones. They opt out of using their magic powers, preferring instead to use psychology to influence others’ thoughts and decisions, a tool afforded to everyone. Discworld’s main witch, Granny Weatherwax, comes off as disagreeable and old-fashioned, yet is the most competent, responsible, and protective of the witches. Nanny Ogg, another witch, spends her time smoking, drinking, and singing raucously. These two mentor a number of other witches, and all become role models for future generations.
Many of Pratchett’s Discworld installments take place in a fantastical urban zone called Ankh-Morpork, which is looked over by the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. In these books, Pratchett responds to contemporary technology, postulating how it might result in absurd scenarios and relationships. He frames most of his City Watch stories as crime stories in which a protagonist, the street cop Sam Vimes, grapples with the case as well as its social and political implications. Sam is highly critical of his strange urban modernity. He eventually teams up with a “mountain dwarf,” who is really an adopted human, Carrot Ironfoundersson. The city learns that Carrot is likely the heir to the city’s throne, which allows Sam to gain approval to increase the police force.
A number of other characters’ storylines punctuate the Discworld universe. These include a chaotic clan of wizards who belong to an institution called the Unseen University; an ambitious young witch named Tiffany who has a turbulent coming-of-age; and a con man named Moist von Lipwig. Discworld thus contains a highly cosmopolitan, shifting universe, resisting any singular visual or literary language or hierarchy. Together, the stories reflect Pratchett’s conception of humanity’s liquid, rapidly evolving modern world.