Small Gods (1992): Terry Pratchett


The Discworld Reread: Book 13

Having skipped temporarily out of order with Men at Arms and Going Postal, I decided to get the Discworld Reread back on track. Small Gods is one of the books I remember least from the first time around. I think at the time – and it holds true now too – it felt odd to be taken away from the characters who were increasingly becoming Pratchett’s ‘regulars’ into a completely new setting, with no familiar faces. Here we find ourselves in the Omnian Empire, a theocracy devoted to the Great God Om and ruled by its ferocious Exquisitor, the hawk-nosed Deacon Vorbis. Clumsy Brutha the novice is at the bottom of the heap, well-meaning, blissfully naive and – crucially – pure of heart. So when, one day, he hears the voice of Om speaking to him in a garden, he doesn’t know quite what to think. Especially because the Great God appears to have manifested in the form of a small, irascible and very disgruntled tortoise…

If Pratchett’s early Discworld books are riffs on self-contained themes – whether that’s Ancient Egypt, Hollywood, Macbeth, or Faust – Small Gods broadens its scope slightly. The butts of the jokes are identifiable, with the Spanish Inquisition, Galileo and Greek philosophy coming in for a more or less equal share of satire, but there are also serious questions about the nature of faith. Pratchett’s gods are divided between the raucous, Olympian-style pantheon of big-hitters up on Cori Celesti, and the ‘small gods’ of the title: deities of spring or field or minor cities, who have come into existence through the power of their worshippers’ devotions. A god might come into being when a shepherd builds a cairn in gratitude for finding a lost lamb; that same god might rise to become the titular deity of a great civilisation; but in time, as the civilisation fails and times change, the god shrinks back into nothingness. There is only power so long as there is belief and those gods who’ve lost their believers fade into chittering voices in the wilderness.

It’s this fate that troubles the Great God Om. He finds himself in the ridiculous situation of having tried to manifest as a bull (or similar impressive beast), and ending up as a tortoise. Suddenly he has realised that, despite all the trappings of grandeur that surround his temples and his priests, sheer, simple faith is lacking. People have come to worship through fear of the Exquisitors, rather than belief in Om himself. And this poses a problem, because Om is determined not to end up as a voice in the desert like all the other gods. He needs to find a way out of his predicament, and it just so happens that he chooses to call on the one person who actually does believe in him: simple, honest and painfully loyal Brutha. With Om urging him on from one direction, and the shrewd Vorbis keeping a sharp eye on him from another, Brutha must decide where his heart lies: with his god, or with his church.

Just in case this sounds a bit serious, you can rest assured that there are plenty of fun moments, largely provided by the philosophers of Ephebe (where Brutha travels with Vorbis). We have great thinkers running around the streets naked in the middle of their bathtimes, tortoises racing against hares, and wise men living in barrels; not to mention the quiet, underground spread of a dangerous new cult that dares to challenge everything the Omnian Empire has always taught about the world with the words, ‘The Turtle Moves!’ It’s a romp, but at times the balance between glorious farce and poignant pondering isn’t handled quite as smoothly as in Pratchett’s best Discworld books. Of course, there will be people out there who disagree, because the joy of the Discworld universe is that it’s a broad church (pun intended) and there’s space for lots of different reader preferences. But personally I’m looking forward to the next book in my reread, which takes me back into the delightful company of the witches of Lancre, and offers up yet another Shakespearean theme: Lords and Ladies.

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Previous book in this series: Witches Abroad
Next book in this series: Lords and Ladies

Here, instead of an illustration by Paul Kidby, I thought I’d share one of the beautiful illustrations by Omar Rayyan, created for the Folio Society edition of Small Gods. It’s fascinating to see how different Rayyan’s vision is from what Kidby might have come up with, and especially from the cover of my edition, designed by Josh Kirby.

Small Gods (Omar Rayyan)

Om, Brutha and Vorbis set sail © Omar Rayyan, for the Folio Society

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