Hogfather is one of my favorite Discworld books. Not only is it a delightfully unexpected kind of Christmas story, it’s also got everything I love best about Terry Pratchett–laugh-out-loud humor, poignancy, philosophical ponderings, and satire.
For those unfamiliar, let me give you the basics. The Discworld is shaped, as the name suggests, like a large disc. It rests on the back of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A’Tuin, as he swims through space. It’s a world very much like our own.
I won’t give away too much of the storyline, as there are several threads that come together in the end (par for the course in a Pratchett book). Here’s a brief summary: The big winter holiday in the Discworld is called Hogswatch, and it is quite similar to our Christmas. Every winter on the shortest day of the year, the Hogfather rides in his pig-drawn sleigh throughout the Disc, delivering gifts and spreading good cheer. Except for this particular Hogswatchnight. This year, though, the Hogfather has disappeared–and Death takes his place.
In Pratchett’s universe, Death is an anthropomorphic personification, a seven-foot-tall skeleton in a black robe who carries a scythe and rides an otherworldly horse (who is named Binky). Death is fascinated with humans, particularly with the odd little ways we’ve developed of making our brief span bearable–or unbearable, as the case might be. As Death impersonates the Hogfather, we see how much affection he has developed for humanity, though he remains baffled by the not so nice things that we allow. The jokes are many, to be sure, but there are also scenes like this one between Death and his assistant, Albert:
“But…little match girls dying in the snow is part of what the Hogswatch spirit is all about, master,” said Albert desperately. “I mean, people hear about it and say, ‘We may be poorer than a disabled banana and only have mud and old boots to eat, but at least we’re better off than the poor little match girl,’ master. It makes them feel happy and grateful for what they’ve got, see.”
I KNOW WHAT THE SPIRIT OF HOGSWATCH IS, ALBERT.
“Sorry, master. But, look, it’s all right, anyway, because she wakes up and it’s all bright and shining and tinkling music and there’s angels, master.”
AH. THEY TURN UP AT THE LAST MINUTE WITH WARM CLOTHES AND A HOT DRINK?
“Er. No. Not exactly at the last minute, master. Not as such.”
“More sort of just after the last minute.” Albert coughed nervously.
YOU MEAN AFTER SHE’S–
“Yes. That’s how the story goes, master, ‘s not my fault.”
WHY NOT TURN UP BEFORE? AN ANGEL HAS QUITE A LARGE CARRYING CAPACITY.
“Couldn’t say, master. I suppose people think it’s more…satisfying the other way…” Albert hesitated, then frowned. “You know, now that I come to tell someone…”
Death looked down at the shape under the falling snow. Then he set the lifetimer on the air and touched it with a finger. A spark flashed across.
“You ain’t really allowed to do that,” said Albert, feeling wretched.
THE HOGFATHER CAN. THE HOGFATHER GIVES PRESENTS. THERE’S NO BETTER PRESENT THAN A FUTURE.
I couldn’t suggest this book and not include a lengthy quote. Nearly every part of a Pratchett novel is quotable. I think the above gives you a good idea of the style and content of this book, particularly if you’ve not read any of Pratchett’s work before.
As is fitting for a holiday story, Hogfather has a lot to do with the notion of belief, and why belief is so necessary to humanity. Whether you believe in Santa, the miracle of the lights, the birth of the Savior, the power of family, all of the above and more, Pratchett presents the notion that belief, and fantasy, constitutes the very core of what it means to be a human being.
Happy holidays, everyone. Here’s a video for you.