Keeping Literature Alive (Essay)

Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are famous. Writing them has earned him a knighthood in 2009 for his services to literature. His novels are famous because they tend to receive a very strong opinion from the readers, either it is very positive or it is very negative. Any reader with a liking for humour in their stories will eventually wind up reading Pratchett. The Discworld is known mostly through the character Rincewind the Wizard, but Death is very well known as well. Granny Weatherwax the Witch is another easily mentioned character from the series. His stories involving Granny Weatherwax are known to liberally discuss literature works such as Shakespeare and fairy tales. Witches Abroad, the second novel starring Granny Weatherwax, is a novel which features many archetypes of fairy tales. It is through his Discworld novels that Terry Pratchett tries to keep literature alive. Pratchett’s use of parody allows him to comment critically on literature and thus keep them from getting forgotten. By adapting well known stories into the Discworld he tries to preserve them. As he re-writes parts of the stories he gives the readers a new view allowing them to re-read those stories with that perspective in mind.

            Other than that parody allows Pratchett to put humour in his novels, it gives him the opportunity to comment critically on the original. According to Linda Hutcheon in A Theory of Adaptation there are two reasons why parody is often used in an adaptation. The first discusses the relationship between a parody and an adaptation. “Like parodies, adaptations have an overt and defining relationship to prior texts, usually revealingly called “sources”. Unlike parodies, however, adaptations usually openly announce this relationship (A Theory, 3)”. Pratchett does not literally name the fairytales that are in his novel Witches Abroad. Mostly because he does not need to, the hints and name plays, such as Emberella, whose is nicknamed Embers, are very obvious and it will take readers perhaps half a second to realise which fairytale he is referring to exactly. The second reason was given in a discussion involving the legality of adaptations. “Parodies have legal access to an additional argument that adaptations cannot really invoke as adaptations: the right to comment critically on a prior work (A Theory, 90)”. In this particular novel, for instance, criticism is placed on the idea of happy endings and fairytale tropes such as fairy godmothers and wicked witches. Discworld is known for being an example of what could happen if certain things were actually true. In Witches Abroad that certain thing is the idea of stories being alive, having a will of their own. One of the important characters in the novel is Lily Weatherwax, sister to the more familiar witch Granny Weatherwax. Lily is a fairy godmother who thinks that she is the good one “‘I’m the good one. I can’t lose. I’m the godmother. You’re the wicked witch (Witches, 276)”. She has been working toward the goal of a happy ending, of letting the story happen. Granny summarizes it as well “she thinks she’s in charge of the stories. She bends them round herself. She thinks she’s the good one (Witches, 250)”. In his article Pratchett explains the idea a little more “those sitting in the circle of the firelight while the story is told are not passive listeners, but believe they have some rights in the story and that the story itself is a window into another world with a quasi-existence of its own (Imaginary, 159)”. In the story Lily feels that she has the rights to the stories, that it is her job, her destiny to do that.   Everything that Pratchett parodies in his novel is recognizable and because of this readers will often find that while reading this book they are reminded of the stories they were told during their childhood.

            In Pratchett’s attempt to preserve fairytales, he adapts them into his own work where he gives them new life. Linda Hutcheon quotes Priscilla Galloway from an interview with the author by saying that she “is motivated by a desire to preserve stories that are worth knowing but still not necessarily speak to a new audience without creative “reanimation” (A Theory, 8 (2004))”.  Pratchett thinks, and does, more or less the same. “But given what human beings have done, practised and believed in the last ten thousand years, it’s quite hard to make up anything new and it’s a shame to see the old stuff lost, since I doubt that a great deal of it is now electronic (Imaginary, 167)”. In Adaptation and Appropriation Julie Sanders mentions John Ellis’ opinion that adaptations can prolong pleasure connected to memory, in other words, adaptations extend the pleasure of the original but also of the adaptation because of the link between the two. In Pratchett’s work this is actually the case. The reader remembers the original that is played at in the novel, and derives pleasure from that, and the reader’s appreciation of the novel itself is heightened through the reader’s ability to make the connection to the original work. One such instance is the servant with the two fairy godmothers. Her full name is Emberella, but she is nicknamed by the befriended cook as Embers. This is actually the first hint that is given to which fairytale the witches are trying to stop from actually happening.  Later on the three witches find out that the Prince, who Embers is supposed to marry, is actually a frog. Granny Weatherwax is angry about Lily changing the world around her to fit the story. Lily changed the frog into a Prince, and later on she comments on him only having to be kissed by a princess. Unknowingly, of course, Embers is actually a princess, she was the daughter of the previous king, who was killed by Lily as well to serve her story. When the witches are travelling from their homes to the city that is under Lily’s control they come across various scenarios where Lily has tempered with animals, dwarves and humans. There is a girl with a red-riding hood on her way to her grandmother. A wolf was changed to think the way humans do so that he could kill the girl’s grandmother. There are several woodcutters in the forest acting as hunters. Completely out of nowhere a house falls on top of Nanny Ogg, one of the three witches. Seven dwarves have the urge to sing and had to take Nanny Ogg red boots. They are all really familiar but Pratchett put them all together to create something new. At some point the reader will start to wonder which fairytale they will encounter next. As readers progress through the story more fairytale elements come to life and become alive again in the mind of the reader. It would be a shame if people would forget about fairytales because they have grown up.

            The goal of any adaptation is to ultimately re-tell the original story and, where possible, highlight pieces and give them a new or a deeper meaning. In Witches Abroad Pratchett does not re-tell every fairytale, he gives the reader those snippets of information necessary for identifying the fairytale that is playing a part. In the article that he wrote for Folklore he even made a final comment about this. “If the signposts I can give can get a few people reading real books, and getting a feel for the depth of their society, then I think I’ll have done my job (Imaginary, 167)”. This signifies that although he may not want to re-write every single fairytale or story that there is, he does want to give his readers the knowledge that there is more to read than what they have been reading so far and that it is actually interesting. Julie Sanders discusses this idea when she says

The desire to make the relationship with the source explicit links to the manner in which the response to adaptations depend upon a complex invocation of ideas of similarity and difference. These ideas can only be mobilized by a reader or spectator alert to the intertextual relationship, and this in turn requires the deployment of well-known texts or sources (Adaptation, 22)

A little further down she comments on it further and discusses the idea that adaptations and appropriations are, in fact, crucial to keeping literature alive in the modern times. “It is, of course, in this way that adaptations and appropriations prove complicit in activating and reactivating the canonical status of certain texts and writers (22)”. The Discworld series is read very actively because the reader has to keep track of all the characters but when a signpost is found in the story the reader has to remember what it signifies and what the story behind it was. Only when the reader remembers the original story that is alluded to can the reading be continued until the next signpost is found. In this way readers are almost constantly being remembered of fairytales, in this novel, or plays or old cultures, in different novels. In short, Pratchett has more or less managed to put most of the English literary canon in his Discworld series but also references to many cultures around the world and by reading his novels readers become aware of what more there is to read and have an idea of what it is about.  

            The English literary canon is famous, but when people stop reading it out of fear for dullness or complexity than it is doomed to become forgotten and the only knowledge of its fame will be in name. Terry Pratchett tries to keep this canon alive by adapting it into his Discworld series. The parody in his novels serves to give him the possibility to comment critically on various fairytales and other works of literacy and by doing so keeps those fairytales alive in the minds of the readers. Pratchett tries to preserve well known stories by adapting them into his novels. His re-writes of the various stories allows readers to achieve a new or broader look on the old stories giving them the opportunity to re-read them with that look. A story is only alive for as long as it is experienced.


Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Pratchett, Terry. “Imaginary Worlds, Real Stories.” Folklore 111.2 (2000): 159-68. web.

Pratchett, Terry. Witches Abroad. London: Corgi, 1992. Print.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

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