The Colour of Magical Prose: Pratchett’s humour

I’ve loved Terry Pratchett’s Discworld sequence of novels for years, without really knowing why. I’ve always avoided trying to pinpoint exactly what it is about Pratchett’s prose that is funny: analysing humour is a bit like prodding a balloon with a pin – at some point, it’s going to burst.

But a moment of revelation struck me recently whilst reading Jingo, the twenty-first instalment in the prolific series.

People’s Exhibit A:  Corporal Nobby Nobbs, a member of the City Watch, is so awful to behold that he has been given a certificate to prove he’s actually human. He is endeavouring to express some difficult sentiments – i.e. his lack of attractiveness of girls – to Sergeant Angua, a female colleague.

“What I’m sayin’ is, as you get older, you know, you think about settlin’ down, findin’ someone who’ll go with you hand in hand down life’s bumpy highway.”

“But I just don’t seem to meet girls,” Nobby said.” Well, I mean, I meet girls, and then they rush off.” (p.56).

Brilliant. Here, it’s what’s missing in the last sentence that’s the key to the humour. Left unsaid is the whole ‘I meet girls but they’re traumatised by my being hideous’ sentiment; what the reader gets is the first part and the last part, but without the middle section linking the two. This means that the bit about girls leaving in horror comes a lot sooner that we expect; and  what a wonderfully concise manner of expressing it. ‘They rush off.’

People’s Exhibit B:  two more officers of the City Watch, Commander Vimes and Captain Carrott, have just had one of their number kidnapped, and need to give chase in a boat. But they don’t have one, so they need to commandeer one from a disreputable smuggler named Captain Jenkins. Vimes, ever the figure of reasoned action, opens proceedings.

“Ah, Captain Jenkins! This is your lucky day!”

“It is ?” he said.

“Yes, because you have an unrivalled opportunity to aid the war effort.”

“I have ?”

“And also to demonstrate your patriotism,” Carrott added.

“I do ?”

“We need to borrow your boat.”

“Bugger off!” (p.217)

In this passage, it’s the juxtaposition of smooth legalese-speak and blunt coarseness that creates the humour; Vimes’ wonderfully articulate, law-abiding sentences offering the ship’s captain a chance to redeem himself, and the captain missing this completely, comprehending only what is expected of him when told directly – we need to borrow your boat – and his blunt response.

It’s the ideas of concision and conflation operating in Pratchett that gives rise to the humour: juxtaposing two ideas which imply an awful lot that is left unsaid, and expressing them in a brief yet telling manner. And often these two ideas collide because they are almost antithetical: articulacy and vulgarity, logic and confusion, grace and slapstick, great wisdom and downright stupidity (the latter usually, in Pratchett, The Law).

Pratchett’s humour also implies that his readers are intelligent and able to work out the parts that are left unexpressed; you admire his humour and are also able to pat yourself on the back for having worked it out (as he wants you to). Clever, eh ?

I’m fully aware that this brief examination of how the humour works in Pratchett’s writing may not have convinced you. It may not have worked At All. But the real way for it to get you, as with music, is to experience it for yourself.  Read the books. They won’t let you down.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Larkin About: on inspiration

There’s a wonderful documentary from BBC Monitor in 1964, in which the poet Philip Larkin is interviewed by John Betjeman, and they are discussing the nature of poetic inspiration.

Larkin himself states, ”One doesn’t really choose the poetry that one writes.”” He reflects on some of his earlier poems, which he finds it uncomfortable to re-visit (calling it ”tripe”), and says that part of the reason he no longer likes it is because “”it seemed so unreal, and without any possible references to my own life as I was living it.””

Philip LarkinBoth these ideas are crucial, I think, to understanding part of the nature of artistic inspiration:  there is often little choice in the nature of the poem or music the artist is complled to write, and their experience is key. The composer Jonathan Harvey also picks up on this in his Music and Inspiration, where he writes that “only forms of experience that have a particular resonance for [the artist] will contribute to the artistic process” (1990:40).

In other words, artistic inspiration is linked to, or perhaps grounded in, personal experience, and the artist is at the mercy of being inspired, without necessarily having full control over the birth of suitable ideas.  My own experience of the process of writing, either music or poetry, bears this out: inspiration comes directly from moments of experience, a phrase suddenly overheard suggesting a complete poem, or reading a poem suggesting a musical response to it. It’s almost akin to archeology: I’m not writing the work, simply unearthing what is already present.

The writer Elizabeth Bowen puts it brilliantly: ‘the poet, and in his wake the short story writer, is using his own, unique, suceptibility to experience: in a sense, the suceptibility is the experience”” (cited in Philip Larkin 1922-1985: a tribute, ed. Hartley, Marvell Press, 1988: 272). To this, I would add little other than “”and the composer.””

The documentary is also wonderful for the chance to hear Larkin himself reading ‘Toad Revisited’ in his dolorous tones. And as a meditation on poetic inspiration, it’s invaluable.

Playing with time: Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

Published only after her death in 1886, Because I Could Not Stop for Death is a tiny masterpiece by the American poet Emily Dickinson. Its effect is completely disproportionate to the scale and manner of the poem itself, as is the concept with which an apparently disarming rhyming-scheme is dealing.  

The poem plays with time, or the perception of it: the narrator is far too busy for her activities to be halted even by Death, although it appears Death stops to collect her.  

Because I could not stop for Death,/ He kindly stopped for me;/ The carriage held but just ourselves/ And Immortality.  

The second verse then settles and creates a sense of calm, as the narrator escapes from the hectic passage of everyday time :  

We slowly drove, he knew no haste, / And I had put away / My labour, and my leisure too, / For his civility.  

The next verse continues the idea of time slowing and stretching, as well as portraying different times of the day: the morning of school, the lazy haze of a field of wheat as the afternoon and the setting sun of the evening creating a warm, pastoral image  

We passed the school where children played,/ Their lessons scarcely done;/ We passed the fields of gazing grain,/ We passed the setting sun.  

 The carriage stops beside her grave, which she calmly seems not to recognise:  

 We paused before a house that seemed/ A swelling of the ground;/ The roof was scarcely visible,/ The cornice but a mound.  

But it’s the final verse that really takes your breath away. Time suddenly contracts: there’s almost a sense of pausing, of suddenly becoming still as the narrator realises that she is dead, and the journey in the carriage is without end.  

Since then ’tis centuries; but each/ Feels shorter than the day / I first surmised the horses’ heads/ Were toward eternity.  

The same sense of dawning realisation which is striking the narrator is also striking you as the reader. It really is like being dashed in the face by cold water. The first time I read the poem, I felt slapped in the face: the implications of that last verse absolutely brought me up short.  

For me, this is akin to walking through a room and out onto a balcony: suddenly the view before you unfolds across a wider plane, and you realise the context in which you had been reading before is operating at a much larger scale than you could have previously imagined. As great poetry can, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Larkin’s musings on misery, the focus of the poem shifts in a flash from the specific to the universal in a way that pulls you up short and makes you reconsider.  

(There’s a setting by composer John Adams of the poem, as part of his piece Harmonium, which you can preview on his MySpace page here: click to open in pop-out player).  

Short, deft but astonishing: Dickinson’s poetic strengths in a nutshell. 

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.

Not another elf! The status of fantasy literature

It’s very fashionable these days to deride fantasy fiction. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has spawned thousands of derivatives, everyone is fed up with trolls and orcs: the apocryphal comment “Not another bloody elf!” uttered at one of the meetings of The Inklings, where Tolkien, Lewis and others read extracts from their books to each other, has become legendary, taken up by many.

Fantasy literature is often viewed with suspicion as much as anything: professing a liking for it is tantamount to admitting that your reading tastes have never matured, and you’re still reading what is often regarded as children’s fiction. It’s not Proper or Serious Fiction.

Beowulf (trans. Heaney)

This is a shame, because fantasy literature is quite capable, when done well, with intelligence, of grappling with all the issues that supposedly only serious fiction can take on. Scratch the surface of a fantasy novel, and underneath the same set of values can be found operating: moral issues, ideas about knowledge and learning, or politics. And it has been around for centuries: the gripping drama of Beowulf could have been written as far back as the eighth century. 

For Tolkien in particular, magic is inextricably interwoven with knowledge. Unlike pulp fantasy fiction by writers such as James Barclay, where magic is simply employed as a tool with no regard for cause and effect, for learning and wisdom, for Tolkien, this is exactly what magic is. Tolkien also claimed that the original impetus behind the writing of the Lord of the Rings was purely linguistic: he was interested in exploring language, and playing with back-formation to create a hypothetical ancestral language. Tolkien was an expert on Beowulf, and had delivered a seminal lecture on it, The Monsters and the Critics, that is often credited as being the most important piece of scholarship on the poem . He was also interested in creating a mythology for England, something which he felt it culturally lacked.

And fantasy literature is often pastoral in its imagery, which, in an urban age increasingly saturated by technology, reminds readers that there is landscape and nature around them.

A Game of Thrones
A Game of Thrones

Fantasy literature, it is true, is full of derivative pulp novels. But in the hands of someone like George R R Martin, whose A Song of Ice and Fire sequence of novels has stretched so far across five mammoth books and shows no sign of ending, it can become an engrossing study of the dynamics of political power, and an exploration of moral codes; it’s almost turning into the fantasy equivalent of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. Or Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, where the anti-heroic figure of Covenant rejects the fantasy world into which he is plunged and spends the novels fighting against it, a theme fueling the whole series.

Lord Foul's Bane
Lord Foul's Bane

Myth-making, linguistic invention, morality, an exploration of the implications of knowledge, political machinations: fantasy literature has the capacity to illuminate the same ideas as other fiction genres. It’s not just swords and sorcery: thankfully.

Posted by Daniel Harding, Deputy Director of Music at the University of Kent.  Click here to view his Music Matters blog.