After Pyramids (review here), I decided to continue on the “Ancient Civilisations” path and picked up Small Gods as my next Discworld read. In this installment, we follow the formerly great god Om as he and his prophet Brutha as they battle zealotry, discuss the nature of belief, and try to restore Om to his former glory. As a classics nerd with an interest in philosophy and mythology, watching Pratchett throw around references to Archimides, Diogenes, and the Library of Alexandria is a ton of fun as well as a great challenge; every time I could whisper “I see what you did there Pratchett” to my book, I felt a small sense of accomplishment. See that Marcus Aurelius joke there? I caught that! Go me!
However, there is a lot more to this book than Horrible Histories-worthy slapstick. Like all Discworld books, Small Gods has a fundamental question at its core, only barely covered up by a layer of jokes.
As I have said in previous reviews, Pratchett is a humanist, and the relation between man and the Gods/Fate/the Universe/Death is a recurring theme in his work. In the Discworld universe, these powers not only exist, but can turn up at any moment to start debating with unbelievers. This makes the job of the philosophers a lot more difficult; after all, how do you question the very fabric of reality when the gods keep smiting you whenever you deny their existence?
‘Gods don’t like that sort of thing,’ said the barman. ‘We get that in here some nights, when someone’s had a few. Cosmic speculation about whether gods really exist. Next thing, there’s a bolt of lightning through the roof with a note wrapped round it saying “Yes, we do” and a pair of sandals with smoke coming out. That sort of thing, it takes all the interest out of metaphysical speculation.’
In the “Death” subseries (reviews here, here, here, and here), we watch Death fall in love with humanity and start to question his own place in the world. At one point he even quits his job and stops SPEAKING IN ALL CAPS. The Great God Om has a similar arc in Small Gods: when we first meet him at the beginning of the story, he is completely preoccupied with his own lack of power and believers. Pratchett explains:
Gods are not very introspective. It has never been a survival trait. The ability to cajole, threaten and terrify has always worked well enough. When you can flatten entire cities at a whim, a tendency towards quiet reflection and seeing-things-from-the-other-fellow’s-point-of-view is seldom necessary.
However, as Om’s journey progresses, humanity increasingly rubs off on him to the point where he starts asking questions about justice and fairness over blind obedience and devotion. At one point he finds himself begging the Sea Queen not to devour a ship full of people because it’s “not fair.” The Sea Queen struggles to grasp the concept:
‘Sounds like a human idea to me.’
‘They’re inventive, I’ll grant you. But what I meant was… I mean… they’ve done nothing to deserve it.’
’Deserve? They’re human. What’s deserve got to do with it?’
Om had to concede this. He wasn’t thinking like a god. This bothered him.
I feel like a broken record saying this, but amidst all the wacky sideplots, it’s these musings where Pratchett truly shines as an author. It’s all incredibly funny, of course it is, but Small Gods also has some of the profound writing you’ll ever read in the fantasy genre. This book is Om catching a fading whisper of an ancient, terrible deity in the wind. It’s a man slowly sagging to his knees as Death abandons him in the dark desert of the afterlife.
Pratchett’s prophet, Brutha, has seen the ugly side of humanity. He has experienced cruelty and abuse at the hands of men he blindly looked up to, and the holy scriptures he had dedicated his life to turn to have been written by liars and crackheads - but despite everything he has been through, Brutha still has the ability to forgive, to believe. Instead of letting the events of the story turn him harsh and bitter, he decides to break the cycle of violence and forge his own path. He finds strength in his own weakness.
In the final paragraphs of the book, Death takes Brutha to the desert of the afterlife. There he finds Vorbis, his former enemy, broken and defeated, lying in the sand, and for just a moment, he hesitates – but then Brutha takes his former torturer’s hand and pulls him to his feet. It is a haunting ending, and I cannot help but be reminded of one of my favourite literary characters of all time, Angels In America‘s Belize, who says:
He was a terrible person. He died a hard death. So maybe. A queen can forgive her vanquished foe. It isn’t easy, it doesn’t count if it’s easy, it’s the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet. Peace, at last.