Religion on the Discworld: Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Ah, Discworld! Going back for another adventure is like coming home to a comfortable bed after a long trip. I’m still saving up my unread Discworld novels but after one year of pandemic, various lockdowns, vaccination frustration (mainly because I’m still unvaccinated and the world is a corrupt shithole that would rather save rich people than the ones most vulnerable), it was time for a comfort read. A book I knew would make me smile and give me back some hope in humanity. Enter Terry Pratchett.

SMALL GODS
by Terry Pratchett

Published: Corgi, 1992
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Discworld #13
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

‘Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was: ‘Hey, you!’ This is the Discworld, after all, and religion is a controversial business. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods, of every shape and size, and all elbowing for space at the top. In such a competitive environment, shape and size can be pretty crucial to make one’s presence felt. So it’s certainly not helpful to be reduced to appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book.

In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast: for the Great God Om, Brutha the novice is the Chosen One – or at least the only One available. He wants peace and justice and brotherly love. He also wants the Inquisition to stop torturing him now, please…

Terry Pratchett’s writing always gives me warm and fuzzy feelings and somehow manages to regrow my hope in humanity. I have read just over half of the Discworld novels and with every one I finish, I get a bit sadder that there are fewer left I haven’t discovered yet. Then again, Discworld is not only re-readable but practically begging to be re-read because there are always references and jokes and little asides that you don’t get on your first read. What I’m saying is I am so grateful for Terry Pratchett and his books and this one is giving me a major book hangover and I want to just continue reading Discworld for the forseeable future.

As the title suggests, this book deals with religion on the Disc, specifically with Omnianism (at least at the beginning). We follow young Brutha, a novice at the Citadel, who has no aspirations to become anything higher than that because he has no aspirations at all. He is perfectly happy doing the jobs nobody else wants to do because he is secure in his faith and knows that somebody’s got to sweep the floor and pull out the weeds in the garden. People think he is slow or even stupid when in reality, Brutha is just quite and not particularly eloquent. He is alsounbearbly honest and people just don’t know how to handle that. When, one day, an eagle drops a tortoise into the Citadel garden where Brutha is working, and said tortoise turns out to be the Great God Om who immediately curses Brutha and everyone else who comes near him, things change. Brutha is the only one who can hear the tortoise-who-says-he’s-a-god and Om realizes that his mighty smiting powers aren’t what they used to be. In fact, no smiting is happening at all, no matter how hard Om tries.

Om, Brutha, and we readers are confronted with a mystery. Omnia is, after all, an entire country built on Omnianism, the belief in the One True God Om and his Teachings. Everybody prays to Om, there are priests and high priests and even a Quisition that takes care of non-believers in their own way (you have one guess). And since gods get their strength from the number of people who believe in them, Om should be perfectly able to do all the smiting he wants. And also to take a more elegant animal shape. Bulls or swans come to mind, so why is he stuck as a tortoise, the least dignified creature imaginable?
You’ve got to love Terry Pratchett for putting complex Roundworld ideas and concepts onto the Discworld and making them not only interesting but also funny. It becomes obvious very quickly that belonging to the church in some way does not equal believing in Om. Whether it’s fear of the Quisition and its terrifying leader Vorbis, or simply not thinking about it too hard and just doing what everyone else is doing (saying the prayer but not feeling it, and so on) – rituals and words may have originated from belief but they can very well exist without belief.

As with any Discworld novel, there are myriad little jokes and references, many of which I surely missed. But I did giggle at “Fedecks, the Messenger of the Gods” and the very familiar but slightly different Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah. Brutha and Om form a sort of friendship by necessity. Om realizes that he better hold on to the one true believer he has and Brutha is just a good guy who’s always willing to help. I came to care about Brutha so damn much and it goes to show again what a masterful storyteller Terry Pratchett was. Here you have a character who is presented as slow, whom others consider unintelligent, but who has the purest of hearts! And as is often the case with people who are underestimated, there is more to him than meets the eye. Because although he may not be able to read or write, Brutha has an excellent memory and can recite any of the great books written by Om’s prophets.
Brutha’s abilities are soon noticed by Vorbis, head of the Quisition, and he decides to take Brutha on a trip to Ephebe, the neighbouring country where many gods are worshipped. On this journey, we don’t just see the relationhip between Brutha and Om grow, we see a lot of charachter growth in general. Om is coming to terms with his own past actions and his frail existence as a (now) small god, Brutha is learning that church and belief aren’t the same thing, and Vorbis… well, Vorbis is the type of villain who is easy to hate and even easier to fear, mostly because he is so realistic!

[…]That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.

Humor is super subjective, we all know that. But there must be something about Terry Pratchett that almost everyone likes. Maybe it’s that he does so many different types of humor. There’s puns, there’s situational humor, there are funny lines and jokes, and there’s the comparison to our world that can make you laugh. So even if you hate puns, there’s still plenty of other funny stuff for you to enjoy. I’m someone who can be left quite cold when authors try their hand at quippy banter (or let’s say I only like a very particular type of quippy banter) but I giggled a lot throughout this book! I did laugh at the puns, I grinned at the references I got (someone shouting “Eureka!” and someone else asking if they’re going to take a bath), I laughed at Om’s outrage at being a tortoise

Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where the kings don’t expect them to be.

The theme of this book is religion, or rather organized religion versus true faith, and how the two are not the same thing. But dealing only with religion, corrupt priests, in/exquisitors, and misguided novices, isn’t enough for Terry Pratchett. In Ephebe, things get rather philosophical. Meeting Didactylos (the Discworld’s Diogenes) and Urn was so much fun. Through these two, something that looks a lot like our Greek philosphy turns up on the Discworld, and through Urn’s interest in mechanics and playing around with steam, you can see the first hints of an industrial revolution. And adding the atheist soldier Simony into the mix gives a nice rounded picture of the diversity of belief. Because although this book is very funny, Terry Pratchett never makes fun of religion or people who believe. He doesn’t judge faith, he only judges those who misuse it for their own personal gain, who pretend to believe in order to have power over others.

But the thing that always, always gets me most with Terry Pratchett is his characters and his deep insight into humanity. I cannot tell you how much I love Brutha and how he grew on me over the course of this story. I’ve made this book sound like it’s full of talk about religion and gods and philosophy, but don’t worry, there is also a rather exciting plot. Apart from Brutha’s journey to Ephebe (on a ship!), there is also a trip through the desert – as befits the theme of the novel – and a thrilling climax. There’s lots of danger and moments that made me hold my breath, mostly because I feared for Brutha and, occasionally, for Om.
I held back tears on several occiasions, especially when Brutha realizes something ugly about the world. Because what he does after that realization is understand that, while other people may be greedy and ruthless, that’s now what he is like. So even when he has the chance to let a properly evil person die, he won’t do it. Why? Because it’s not right!

I think every reader of the Discworld novels has their favorite sub-series (mine is the Witches). This book is a standalone, meaning there will be no more stories about Brutha or the other characters. That doesn’t mean that some familiar characters don’t show up. Some of you may remember a certain History Monk named Lu-Tze and – of course – Death himself. I am a little sad that this is the only book with Brutha I’ll ever get to read but it was so impactful and so much fun that I don’t doubt I will re-read it someday. And now I’ll curl up and nurse my book hangover while poring over my Discworld Mapp and maybe cooking something from Nanny Ogg’s cook book.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Bloody excellent!

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