The Color of Magic: An Introduction to Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld

Most everyone who has read the Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett advises not to start with The Color of Magic. Terry himself said this book was “written in protest” about a genre that he loved, but contained “too many dark lords, too much lack of thought”. 

My fatal flaw is that I’m stubborn, so I will be ignoring the advice and reading the entirety of Discworld in publication order. I recently finished reading The Color of Magic (and watching the 2008 three part mini-series which covered more than that), and while I was not previously unfamiliar to the magic of Discworld, a refreshing baptism was a wonderful invitation back in. 

Sir Terry Pratchett published The Color of Magic in 1983. The first edition ran 506 copies, and in a 1985 speech, Terry described it as “an attempt to do for the magical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for westerns.” 41 books later and a year after Terry’s death, 2015 marked the definitive end of the Discworld anthology. What happened during those 32 years was a complete reinvention of the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Sir Terry Pratchett became a god among satirists, a league of authors filled with friends Douglas Adams, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many more. In 2009 he was knighted for his services to literature and immortalized as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire. He was an atheist, a humanist, an amateur astronomer, a philanthropist, an activist, and a personal hero. 

The Disc, as it’s referred to in the novel, is quite literally a disc. The flat planet is carefully balanced on the backs of four elephants – Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon, and Jerakeen – who in turn stand on the Star Turtle, the Great A’Tuin, as it swims through space. The sex of the turtle is unkown to the inhabitants of the Disc, and is the subject of continuous astrozoological research which is remarkably important to the plot. It is in this regard that we are first introduced to religion on the Disc. While academics believe that the turtle came from nowhere and will swim for eternity with no destination, those of religious persuasion favor the theory that A’Tuin is swimming towards other planet-bearing turtles to mate with and create new worlds. This theory is called the Big Bang. 

The entire novel is filled with quippy jokes like this that subvert common tropes, and all of it is incredible, the sheer magnitude of punning alone is impressive. Since the Disc is flat, there are no cardinal directions. Instead, the four directions are Hubwards (towards the Hub), Rimwards (towards the Rim), Turnwise (the direction that the Disc rotates in), and Widdershins (opposite to Turnwise). This leads to an endless onslaught of puns and geographical jokes. At the end of the book we discover the Circumfence, the rope fence that lines the edge of the Disc to help ensure no one falls off. There’s also the beauty of the Counterweight Continent – a land fabled to be made out of pure gold that exists to keep the Disc from tipping over. Everything we learn about the geography of Discworld is strangely cohesive while being entirely silly. 

But let’s get into the story. We follow Rincewind, the street-wise wizard that never graduated and only knows one spell, and Twoflower, the naive insurance salesman tourist from the Counterweight Continent with his sentient trunk. To say the pair are foils of Shakespearean proportions would be a gross understatement. Rincewind is a dropout of the Unseen University described by his colleagues as ​​”the magical equivalent to the number zero”. He only knows one spell from the fabled Octavo that’s so intense it scared away all other spells from his head. His talents include turning small problems into large problems, running away from said problems, and speaking languages. He meets Twoflower near a seedy tavern and helps the confused tourist survive the night. Rincewind is the only one who speaks Be-Trobi in the city of Ankh Morpork – Twoflower’s language – so it was a natural partnership. Twoflower offers to pay Rincewind to be his tour guide, a generous offer the wizard accepts only after the Patrician (Ankh Morpork’s King-like leader) threatens his life if anything happens to the tourist. Before they set off, Twoflower convinces the tavern owner to take out a fire in-sewer-ants policy which naturally leads to the entire city burning down in a fantastical blaze. 

Unbeknownst to them, their adventure across the Disc is the subject of a board game played by the Gods of Discworld. Because of this, they face trolls, dragon riders, human sacrifice, and the vast expanse of space. The intersection of religion and science is once again used as an interesting source of world building. After Rincewind and Twoflower are rescued off the Circumfence and taken to the kingdom of Krull, the Krullians try to get the God of Fate’s favor by using the pair as a human sacrifice.They intend on uncovering the sex of A’Tuin by launching a spacecraft over the edge of the Disc, but need a sacrifice to pave the religio-scientific way. Fate, who lost the board game earlier in the adventure, insists on this idea and demands their blood. The Color of Magic ends with Twoflower hijacking the spacecraft and Rincewind falling off the Disc alongside it, narrowly escaping Death once more. 

You read that right, Death with a capital “D”. Death in Discworld is a very active character, one with a special interest in keeping Rincewind’s appointment. As the stereotypical skeletal figure in a hooded cloak, “Death himself turns up to claim [wizards] ( instead of delegating the task to a subordinate, such as Disease or Famine, as is usually the case).” During every perilous, life threatening moment, Death is there with Rincewind, eager to help the wizard keep his appointment and speaking in ALL CAPS. As the series goes on, Death takes an increasingly more active role in humanity, eventually starring in his own novels and even guest starring in Good Omens co-written by Neil Gaiman. But for now, Death exists as a grumpy interdimensional figure with a specific interest in ending Rincewind and a drive to do a job well done. What exactly is the role of Death among science, magic, and gods? That’s for another book further along in the series, one that I definitely haven’t read yet. 

With Death leading the way, The Color of Magic is only as strong as its side characters, and that’s to say its strength is herculean. My choice to use the word herculean here was not an accident. Within the lore of Discworld, one of the most famous, if not mythical, figures is Cohen the Barbarian (an obvious play on Conan). Known far and wide for insurmountable bravery and heroic deeds, the reality of Cohen as an aging frail man was funny in its subversion. To him, there’s nothing better in this world than “hot water, good dentistry, and soft lavatory paper”. While he still dispatches cult leaders and rescues maidens, he’s nearing 90 years old, and it shows. We also meet the Patrician, Lord Havelock Vetinari, who has somehow made it this long with being assassinated, a problem the wizards at the Unseen University have let get far out of hand. 

While not technically a character, various Guilds exist in Ankh Morpork. They’re kind of like corporations in that they act as single entities. Long ago, the Patrician eradicated crime on the continent by legalizing it; citizens can now pay an annual fee to the Thieves Guild to ensure they won’t be robbed. If you think about it, regulating crime is the only way to control it. The Assassin’s Guild (formerly a male only school) runs in mostly the same way, it’s dishonorable to kill someone if you aren’t getting paid, so their contracts are airtight. The third Guild referenced in this book formed with the arrival of Twoflower: the Guild of Merchants. They look out for tourists’ interests, a role created out of recent necessity. Despite their uniqueness, all of the Guilds want Twoflowers ridiculous wealth and will do almost anything to acquire it. 

With that, I think I’ve covered everything. But you’re probably wondering, what exactly is the color of magic? It’s octarine. It’s the eight color on the Discworld spectrum visible in the Rimbow at the edge of the Disc. It’s described as a fluorescent greenish yellow-purple that only wizards and cats can see. Octarine means there’s magic present and it’s one of the many elements that literally hold the Disc together. 

I have 40 books left to read in the Discworld series, not including additional short stories and compendiums. Most people recommend reading the books by “genre” rather than publication order. That would mean reading the City Watch books, the Witch books, and the Death books as individual series rather than jumping between plots. But by taking the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach, I can ensure I don’t miss any jokes or references. I can watch Sir Terry Pratchett improve his Discworld in almost real time while always being “in the know”. The Color of Magic ends on a literal cliff-hanger that is continued in The Light Fantastic, the second book in publication order. I think it’s only fair to end on a cliffhanger her-

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