We begin in media res, falling off the Disc into the endless expanse of nothing below. The Octavo, half a world away and mourning the loss of its eighth spell, readjusts reality to bring Rincewind and Twoflower back onto the Disc, which accidentally turns the librarian into an orangutan. Meanwhile, the wizards of Unseen University perform the Rite of Ashk-Ente to summon Death. Death tells them that the red star growing larger in the sky is coming to end Discworld unless the eight Octavo spells are read in time. In a panic, the wizards travel to the forest of Skund to find Rincewind and the eighth spell.
It’s important to know how wizards and magic work in the Disc. In every way that witches are powerful and competent and practiced, wizards are not. Wizards have a great disrespect for witches, because they perform magic without really knowing the science. They also think that priests and gods in general should not be taken too seriously. While witches aren’t present in the early books, their magic is said to come from the earth and wizard magic comes from the sky. This may be one of the reasons the citizens of Ankh-Morpork decided to form an angry mob outside the University when they noticed the approaching light from outer space. That’s some wizard mischief, surely.
It’s also important to note how wizard society is structured. You’ll be happy to know that there is a large amount of upward mobility, any half-wit magician can study to become a wizard and one day become the archchancellor of the Unseen University. The only prerequisites are growing a beard, donning a pointy hat, and of course murdering your way up the ladder. This is an ancient practice known to career arcanists as “Dead Man’s Pointy Shoes”, but luckily for our antagonist, Ymper Trymon, this practice has mostly fallen out of practice in favor of five meals a day and naps in between.
Unluckily for Rincewind, the eighth Octavo spell currently being housed in his head wants desperately to reunite with the rest of the spellbook back in Ankh-Morpork. Throughout the novel, Rincewind is dragged into a sort of dreamlike realm full of disembodied voices, a place where even he himself is smarter than before. Metaphysically, his consciousness travels into the Octavo where he is able to speak to the other spells, and where they give him warning and instruction.
The Octavo is interesting for many reasons, but since its existence predates the universe, it serves as a fun tie between magic and science. The spells distinctly remember the beginning of everything, but bicker back and forth about what actually started existence. Was it a cough? A sigh? This of course begs the question, whose cough or sigh originated the world, but being a wizard, Rincewind doesn’t really care.
In fact, wizards care so little for science, they consult an astrologer about the approaching star. Later in the book, a group of Druids discuss astronomy and astronomers, so the mere idea of having a court astrologer rather than an astronomer as the resident expert on the secrets of space is uniquely a wizard idea.
Rincewind and company meet this group of Druids right as they’re performing a ritual sacrifice on a willing virginal victim, Bethan, who was upset at being rescued. These druids are computer hardware consultants forever working on Stonehenge as a way to calculate the answers of the universe. Twoflower says, “Where I come from priests are holy men who have dedicated themselves to lives of poverty, good works and the study of the nature of God.” Without human sacrifice, Rincewind replies “They don’t sound very holy to me.” Sir Terry Pratchett, atheist, has written some of the most incredibly compelling religious commentary I have ever read.
Besides religious commentary, the socio-political musings and subversion of fairytale tropes are what make Discworld, Discworld. As far as politics go, wizards are democratically elected into leadership – despite Rincewind preferring the tradition where the dead cast votes as well. Ankh-Morpork is run by the Patrician, an overlord sort of leader with a firm grasp on the state of affairs. We learn in later books about monarchy on the Disc, but for now, politics is the stuff of magic and wizards.
Cohen the Barbarian as an 86 year old man whose main quest in life is to find better teeth, yet still getting the girl at the end of the adventure turns the traditional idea of a “hero” completely on its head. And while this was the first true instance we see of the fairytale, the best one in The Light Fantastic was the brief visit to a gingerbread house in the woods. Here, Rincewind and Twoflower “blame the parents” for how kids today behave. The poor old witch hasn’t been seen in ages, what a shame.
Not that it has much to do specifically with witches, but the infamous gender commentary truly begins with this novel. The first instance, I’m not going to lie, is a pun. Trymon sits the wizards down for a meeting and presents them with the first ever agenda. One wizard asks “what’s a gender?” Although this is a delightful joke, it sets the tone for the conversation of gender vs sex in Discworld. In later novels, we meet Dwarves – a bearded people where its socially impolite to ask someone’s sex, so everyone has to figure it out on their own.
But in The Light Fantastic, Terry Pratchett addresses sexism head on by telling writers to take a cold shower and lie down when describing women, especially women in armor. He acknowledges she was wearing leather boots only because Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan wore leather armor, but was otherwise sensibly dressed. This delighted me to no end, and made me realize that other male authors truly have no excuse. This book was published in 1986, “wokeness” is called decency and it isn’t new.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the new facts uncovered about the Disc. We start with a note of religion: the moon orbiting the Disc produces its own light due to staffing shortages and Creator inefficiencies during the creation. This doesn’t seem to have any significant impact on the world, but serves as a fun splash of flavor. We also learn that the magical field surrounding the Disc is so thick, light moves slowly through it – a downside when fighting trolls during dusk. There’s also a widely accepted multiverse. When asked what a shopkeeper will do once the star destroys the Disc, he replies “I’ll go to another universe, there’s plenty around.” Could one of the universes be ours?
After narrowly avoiding the destruction of Discworld and beating Trymon, our heroes and the residents of Ankh-Morpork watch in delighted unison as the approaching star bursts open. Instead of ending all life and emptying the dungeon dimension into the Disc, four baby turtles emerge from the egg/star and swim away into space, ready with their own Disc to bear through the galaxy, transforming this nontraditional fairytale into a creation myth of its own caliber.
And so the Light Fantastic ends with happiness and hope. The Light Fantastic – the chaotic light from the Octavo- calms and dies down after the passing of the star. Twoflower gives the trunk to Rincewind and returns to the counterweight continent, Rincewind re-enrolls in the Unseen Academy, excited and eager to learn more spells now that the Octavo has left him alone, and Cohen finds a pair of dentures and a wife in Bethan. The Octavo hints at Carrot, a possible heir to the throne we’ll meet in a future book, and thus ends the Rincewind/Twoflower duology. I’m sure this isn’t the last time we’ll encounter any of these characters, but it was a delightful baptism by fire introduction to the world of Terry Pratchett.