Discworld: Unseen Academicals

I've just finished reading this, the most recent Discworld book. If you're spoilerphobic, be warned, thar be spoilers 'ere...

I was hoping for an excuse to blog about this book, and I wasn't disappointed - although the book doesn't have any particularly strong classical themes, there are classical references scattered throughout.

There's the 'orange and black' (i.e. either red figure or black figure, it doesn't specify) urn that reveals how ancient football is, featuring two nude men involved in a 'tackle' (it's not very Greek though - apparently, their masculinity is 'beyond doubt', but unless they're both manifestations of the god Pan, if it was really Greek, they'd be rather unimpressive in that department. Apart from vases actually showing people mid-doing-the-deed, but that's different). There's a description of ancient footballing traditions involving naiads dancing on the edge of the field, which the wizards confuse with Sirens (clearly, Unseen University does not have a Classics department). There's Pepe's description of the ancient combats that used to take place in the Hippo (i.e. the hippodrome - whcih is odd, since ancient hippodromes were for chariot racing, it was amphitheatres that hosted gladiatorial combats) which includes a reference to men with spears fighting men with nets (men with nets are retiarii, though they also had a trident and a dagger). All of these things remind us that, just as Discworld is a mirror of us, its past mirrors our past, that is, the classical past of Europe (there are many other influences from around the world on the Discworld, but Ankh-Morpork's history is essentially European. The Counterweight Continent, of course, is another matter all together).

Glenda, one of the protagonists, thoroughly disapproves of the Guild of Historians' attempt to reclaim the game of the streets for high culture, and it is implied that the discovery of the urn is rather excessively convenient. The idea is that it is easier to persuade people of the importance of something if it can be proved that it was done a long time ago. I hope no one tries this with some other ancient traditions... The goddess football was originally played for was Pedestriana. Tee hee. (From the Latin for feet).

The editor of The Times, William de Worde, also fancies himself as a classicist, and throws 'classical' (in this case, purely Discworldian, though throwaway references to random battles could come from anywhere really) references at will into his football report. Similarly, the University's Master of Music insists on composing football chants in 'Latatian', because it just isn't proper music if it isn't in Latin. All of these little snobberies on the part of the middle and upper class characters are totally lost on the protagonists (except Nutt) and on many of the wizards as well.

There are a few classical characters as well. There's a throwaway reference to there being a Medusa in the Watch. Of course, in ancient myth there was only one Medusa. By race, she was a Gorgon, but Pratchett names his awkward race, who must wear very thick sunglasses in public, by the name of the best-known example. More importantly for the story, Nutt is followed and harrassed by a group of Furies, employed by her Ladyship to keep an eye on him and protect those around him. In Greek myth, the Furies (or Erinyes) pursued their victims for the purpose of retribution, but in this case, the Furies are more like very loud, very irritating bodyguards. I'm not sure what inspired Pratchett to use Furies, but their apperance is nicely exotic and horrific (and I don't remember them being used in Discworld before) and - and perhaps this was the inspriation and the point - their birdlike voices keep squwking 'awk! awk!' when they mean 'orc! orc!'.

Erinyes, Apulian red figure krater, 4th century BC

Finally, a non-Classical reference, but one related to my work - when Nutt, in a moment that struck me as pure Movie!Gollum (and, to an extent, Book!Gollum as well, though it was the movie that came to mind) psychoanalyses himself, the pschyanalyst half of him speaks with a Germanic accent - a clear nod to Freud, the Austrian founder of psychoanalysis. (I look at Freud a lot in relation to dreams and to myth). Psychoanalyst!Nutt also has a distinct obsession with asking people about their relationship with their mother. I liked that bit!

There are lots of other things to talk about of course. 'Juliet' is so named because of a certain rather famous play, and her nickname is spelled 'Jools' most of the time, 'Jewels' when she's being a supermodel and, on one occasion where Pratchett's typist seems to have slipped up, 'Jules'. I spell it 'Juls', but that's a quirk of mine, from an old computer game that only gave you four letters for your name. 'Jules' is more common for girls and anyone who isn't Jools Holland.

Much as it doesn't seem very nice to point it out, this may be one of the last Discworld novels, so it was nice to see brief appearances by or mentions of lots of characters from Discworld history, even though the four chief protagonists of the novel were new characters. It was fun seeing Rincewind as a minor character as well - his books aren't among my favourites, but without him, there would be no Discworld so it's good to see him. I love books about the other wizards, too, and there are some very well-aimed jokes about academics, mostly revolving around big dinners and a reluctance to get involved in any actual lecturing. The attempt to create a football chant for Professor Macarona that include all his titles is very funny too.

I wasn't so keen on the new addition of Dr Hix, nor on the departure for pastures new of the Dean (though his rivalry with Ridcully is very funny), and this book contained quite possibly the worst-taste joke I've ever read, in Discworld or anything else (though I've seen worse on TV...). The use of an orc as a main character and major part of the plot is interesting - a bit cheeky, since I think Tolkien actually created orcs (though knowing Tolkien they come from some mythology somewhere) but very good, especially in its use for a nice story about nature and nurture. I'm not sure I'm quite on board with human/orc romance though...

I liked this book a lot - not up there with the absolute best of Discworld, but definitely one of the good 'uns. I especially loved how 'real' many of the characters felt - as if you expect to see them walking down the street before the next football match. Thoroughly recommended.


  1. I'm really looking forward to this, but I'll probably have to wait until we give it to my oldest daughter for Christmas and then jockey for reading position. (That's why I wasn't all too worried about spoilers; I will probably already have had all the good bits read to me by the time it's my turn.)

    I'm glad we get a look at some of the other denizens of Ankh-Morpork, since the next book is probably going to be Moist again. I actually like the Moist books so far, but we're really overdue for both Susan and the witches (Tiffany is good, but not the same thing, really), and another Watch book would certainly not be frowned upon.

    The fact that there is an ancient form of the game reminded me of the hoax article on apopudobalia that was included in Der Neue Pauly. I don't know if PTerry knows about that, but it certainly would have fit.

    Also, why do I have the feeling that the chant for Professor Macarona involves some really silly hand movements and the refrain "Hey, Macarona!"?

  2. Lol! That's would have been cool! Not, it plays on Maradonna, but includes ALL Macarona's academic titles. I know the next book is another Tiffany one, though hopefully it will include the other witches too (I wonder if Pratchett will remember his threat to kill off Granny Weatherwax..) I don't know of there'll be any more after that, but I think my vote would be for one last Watch book - not killing of Vimes now he has a small child - too cruel! - but doing something to round off all the Watch characters.

  3. I suppose "Hey, Macarona" would have been too dated. He's pretty good about avoiding flash-in-the-pan fads. But Maradona is also interesting. I can see him doing things with the Hand of God goal.

    A final Watch novel would be nice. Bring some closure to the Carrot/Angua thing maybe. I've also always had this feeling that Vetinari is grooming Vimes as his successor (although he isn't much younger than the Patrician). OTOH, that role could also fall to Moist; once he's done with the tax office (and I think I've read that Raising Taxes is already in progress), what's left for him to fix?

    Sigh, the truth is I was hoping for another 10 or 20 years of Discworld. There's still a dance in the old boy yet. I'll keep hoping for now.

  4. Urgh, I didn't realise the Moist thing was confirmed. I don't like the Moist novels so much - I just can't get into that character, or Dearheart.

  5. I've done some poking around, and it doesn't appear to be absolutely confirmed after all. But then, I can't even find confirmation that he's working on the next Tiffany book. Another title I've encountered as a possible project is Scouting for Trolls but with no clue as to what the topic will be. (I can see two ways of reading that title, and one interpretation could well be a Vimes story.)

  6. I have come over from Ph.D. Comics to say that "orc" is actually a very old word with, natch, a classical connection; it originally derived from "Orcus" (Roman god of the underworld) and eventually came to mean "devil," "demon," "hell-beast," "monster," and all that jazz. In fact, the word "ogre" is a descendant of "orc." Tolkien grabbed the word because he liked the way it sounded and applied it to his nasty goblin creatures, but it had been around for a long time before Tolkien, and I would argue that Pratchett uses it in its older sense. You might even see the attempts to convince people that Nutt is a "goblin" as a sly jab at Tolkien. The problem, of course, is that everyone now associates the word with Tolkien (and D&D).

  7. I had no idea 'orc' was classical - that's brilliant! I have been looking for a excuse to do some academic writing on Tolkien for years, now I have one! I figured he must have taken it from somewhere, but I hadn't come across that link before - in fact, I hadn't seen it in anything earlier than Tolkien (I'm not too familiar with medieval stuff outside of Beowulf). I haven't come across Orcus much either - the works I've read tend to stick to describing Pluto or Hades, though I'm sure that they occasionally mention Orcus and someone will now reply with a whole list of Orcus references I've missed... ;)

  8. Well, interestingly, Tolkien knew about the Orcus thing but figured maybe the terms weren't connected (etymological evidence says he was wrong). His own etymology of the word was dubious at best.

    The word "orcneas" actually does turn up in Beowulf, though another place you can find mentions of orcs (and, of course, ogres) is in fairy tales written down between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Tolkien read a lot of fairy tales and even published a relatively famous article ("On Fairy Stories") on them.

  9. I have On Fairy Stories kicking around somewhere - I read it years ago, but have only vague memories of it now. I'm planning to write an article on Narnia after Christmas and will probably re-read it then! May have a look into fairy storeis a bit more generally if I have time - I had vague plans to do some work on fairy stories and myth once upon a time, but that was nearly five years ago and it got a bit abandoned. I quite fancy going back to it if I can squeeze it in - though of course, I've forgotten everything I'd looked into now!


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