Review: The Folklore of Discworld by Terry Pratchett and Jacqueline Simpson

Folklore of Discworld 2009When I was getting to know the brilliant Discworld series of comic yet profound fantasy, I soon noticed the books were crammed full of clever things I often missed on the first go. A lot of these were references to things I’d never even heard about. Finding out what they were, say by reading the Annotated Pratchett File, taught me all kinds of random things.

This book was written by Discworld author Terry Pratchett together with folklorist Jacqueline Simpson, whom he met at a book signing when asking people what they knew about the Magpie Rhyme — another thing I’ve only heard in a Discworld book, Carpe Jugulum. It goes through numerous elements in the novels and their connection to folklore. It’s a big list of things, from many mythological creatures through old violent football customs through landmarks through obscure languages to the origin of Santa Claus, and much more. It really shows how Pratchett did his research and used allusions everywhere. It’ll also teach you a lot of folklore, and about what it is (the short unhelpful answer is “just about anything,” but read it and you’ll see). And it teaches the important lesson about such beliefs that the Discworld itself is almost built around: that it’s never quite the way people think it is. All those ancient traditions that aren’t ancient, for example…

I just read this book a second time, and it was really fast going and entertaining — I can’t remember when I last read a nonfiction book that went so smoothly. Speaking of nonfiction, the book is still written as if the Discworld is real and the similarities to our world are coincidences or the result of ideas floating around the multiverse. I found this slightly tiresome, especially as it ended up repeating the same “jokes”. Also, for a nonfiction book, this book didn’t always say everything quite explicitly — whether because of the above or for something else like irony. This mostly works quite smoothly, but sometimes, it left me wondering about small details. There was a slight potential for confusion as to whether things said were true in our world, our folklore, the Discworld, or their folklore, or whether they were being said as part of the joke that pretends the relationship between these is different than it really is. But like I said, it was well written and this was hardly ever really a problem. It’s just not what I’m used to from nonfiction. I wonder if Pratchett could even have got away with writing in a more matter-of-fact tone.

While the book covered a lot of things, this edition at least (softcover, Corgi, 2009) seems gratuitously bulky; it’s 500 pages, but only because the font size is so large. I’d prefer it smaller to take up less space on my shelf. The cover is pretty, as are the other illustrations inside by Paul Kidby (as they always are), but the cover looks a little crowded with this edition’s text advertising that it has extra stuff about Unseen Academicals. (Much of that is repeated from the earlier parts.) Incidentally, the picture remains a bit of an inside joke, since the thing about how Nanny Ogg likes to say how maypoles are sexual symbols is not covered in the book.

It’s fun. It’s educational. It’s witty, almost too much for nonfiction. It’s really interesting to a fan who wants to understand more about the Discworld. I recommend it, at least to established fans who know what it’s talking about.

Rating: 4/5

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