He’s had a near-death experience!
We all have. It’s called ‘living’….
Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather was a Cannonball Read book exchange gift to me from Malin. On my wish list, I had indicated that I hadn’t read anything by Pratchett, and Hogfather is a delightful introduction to his world, aka Discworld. It’s a twisted and sometimes demented place, which means it’s quite a lot like the world we inhabit, except for the magic, gnomes, talking animals, etc. The action here is set on Hogswatchnight, which is like Christmas Eve. Hogfather (Santa) has gone AWOL and Death picks up the reins for him (literally) in order to make sure that the children get their gifts. But what has happened to the old guy? And how did Death get involved? Death’s granddaughter Susan, a no-nonsense governess who knows her way around a poker and isn’t afraid to use it against bogeymen or monsters, has to unravel the mystery before the universe gets thrown completely off balance.
The novel opens with the introduction of Mr. Teatime, a member of the Guild of Assassins whose particular psychopathy has put him on the fringes of that organization but has made him the go-to assassin for a shadowy group known as the Auditors. Teatime has a job to do which requires a special skill set coupled with ruthlessness. The reader doesn’t know exactly what the job is, but Teatime surrounds himself with a group of professional thieves and lockpickers, and he does not hesitate to rid himself of those who prove useless. Meanwhile, at Unseen University, whose professors are wizards, preparations are underway for the Hogswatchnight feast when a series of unexpected visitors begin to arrive, much to everyone’s puzzlement and consternation. Governess Susan, expecting a usual, “human” sort of night with her young charges finds instead a raven and the mouse of death in her room. They inform her that her grandfather, Death, is dressed up as Hogfather and acting his part. With his sidekick Albert the gnome dressed as an elf, Death has taken to visiting the local mall to let children sit on his lap to tell him what gifts they want, and he and Albert are riding rooftop to rooftop behind a sleigh of hogs delivering justice in the form of appropriate gifts. Needless to say, chaos ensues. Susan pays a visit to the university to see if she can figure out what is going on and then sets out to find the real Hogfather and ultimately face off against Teatime.
Hogfather is a screwball send up of the commercialism of the holidays as well as a consideration of the beliefs and/or tall tales we readily latch onto as children but outgrow as adults, whether it be the tooth fairy or bogeyman or monsters under the bed. Death and Albert’s escapades are my favorite parts of the completely delightful novel. Death really takes his role of Hogfather seriously, but never quite gets the complete hang of it. He does, however, see the injustice of the system that continues to give the wealthy more stuff while the poor make do with less. Death may not understand the nuances of Hogswatchnight, but he does have an understanding of humanity that is pretty deep. Near the end of the novel, he and his granddaughter Susan have a wonderful discussion about humans and the purpose of belief. Among Death’s many gems, this one stood out as especially lovely (and true):
Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
And this, which sounds like the writers’ mantra:
You need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else can they become?
Hogfather is an extremely funny read that also deals cleverly with some rather deep issues. At heart it is a book about belief and fantasy, and about what makes us human. I honestly could see this being a useful book to use in a religion or philosophy class, or an anthropology course. As Pratchett tells us through Death, “It is the things you believe which make you human. Good things and bad things, it’s all the same.” That’s something to think about.