Thursday, February 19, 2009
Small Gods by Terry Pratchett
This was the first Pratchett book I read, and I'm glad of it. While it has the humor and satire that is inherent in all of the Discworld books, it also has something else - something to say. It was evident, even from the first time I read this book, that Pratchett had put some real heavy thinking into it.
This book is, as the title suggests, about gods. Where do they come from? Where do they go? What keeps them moving? Ordinarily, gods don't like this sort of question. People who think are not what gods look for in followers. Gods want people who believe. That's where their power comes from. Gods with many believers are strong, great gods. Armies of priests and worshipers attend to their every needs, the sacrifices are plentiful and their dominion is vast. A great God wants for nothing.
A god with no believers, however, is a small god, a mindless thought blistering through the firmament, searching with single-minded fervor for one thing: a believer.
What happens, then, when a Great God finds out that, while he wasn't looking, he lost all of his believers? That's the thrust of this tale, the story of the Great God Om and how he became a tortoise for three years. It's about the difference between what is real and what is believed in, and how much difference that can make at times. It's about fundamental and trivial truths, and how to tell them apart. It's about eagles and tortoises and how much they need each other.
Above all, it's something of, in my opinion, a statement of faith. Many people ask me if I am religious, and I tell them no. That's partly due to this book and the thinking that it made me do. Spiritual? Sure. Religious? No.
This is, as I said, the story of the Great God Om, who discovered, about 300 feet above the ground, that he had been a tortoise for the last three years. Before this mid-air revelation he had been just chewing at melons and wondering where the next lettuce patch was. Suddenly, all the self-awareness of a Great God was put into his head, as well as the knowledge that he was probably about to die. Om had intended to manifest as a bull or a pillar of fire - something much more majestic and Godly - but for some reason, that hadn't worked. He had become a tortoise.
Now, in the presence of Brutha, a novice in the Church of the Great God Om, the god remembers who he was, and discovers that he's in a lot of trouble.
The Church of the Great God Om. There's something to talk about. Many people believe, upon reading it, that it's an allegory for the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. The Omnian Church permits no heresy. It permits no sin, no disbelief. Violating the precepts of Om and His Prophets can lead to death, in a lingering and painful manner. The Quisition cannot be wrong, for was it not Om Himself who put suspicion into their minds? It's a tactic that has been used by many religions over the years, often to justify acts that they know their god would not approve of.
I don't believe that Pratchett was trying to take a stab at the Catholics in this book. It's just an unfortunate coincidence that the Omnians and the Catholics bear a few points of similarity. A rigid hierarchy, for example. A penchant at one point or another for extracting confessions by any means necessary is another. It's all very efficient and effective.
There's a problem, though, as is pointed out by Brutha late in the book: if you beat a donkey with a stick long enough, the stick becomes all that the donkey believes in. At that point, neither gods nor believers benefit. The only people benefiting are those wielding the stick. Instead of becoming a tool for inspiration, the church becomes a tool for terror. People do not obey their god out of love - they obey their church out of fear.
This is the kind of church that could produce the Deacon Vorbis, head of the Exquisitors. He is one of those men who would turn the world on its back, just to see what would happen. He is everything that is wrong with the Church and, unfortunately, it seems that he is in line to be the Eighth Prophet.
In other words, Omnia is not a nice place to live. Its church is vast, its god is small, and neighboring nations want to take it down a few pegs. It's up to Brutha and his God to change the course of history.
As I said, there was a lot of thought put into this novel, as well as Pratchett's usual hidden research. For example, Brutha is called a "Great dumb ox" by his classmates, due to his size and apparent lack of intellect. The same epithet was thrown at Thomas Aquinas by his classmates, and he was canonized less than a century after his death. Like Aquinas, Brutha is not dumb. He is simply slow and careful in how he thinks, and his measured pace leads him far more surely to the truth than the hot-headed and passionate men who march with him.
Some people read this book as an attack on religion. Others see it as a defense of personal faith. I think Terry had a story to tell, and perhaps a point to make. The beauty of books such as these is that they can be whatever you want them to be. For me, it came as a kind of defense of gods. Humans, the book suggests, need gods. Now there is a growing atheist community out there who disagree with that idea, and I can definitely see where they're coming from. As I've said many times, I'm not entirely sold on the god idea yet. But the gods that are rampant in the Discworld aren't the kinds of gods that the atheists and the true believers fight over - the omnipotent creator of Everything. They are gods who are controlled by humans, who exist with humans in a kind of co-dependent relationship. Humans need gods, and gods need humans. In its way, this kind of theology makes gods more... realistic to me. I can't say for sure whether a god or gods exist, but if they did, I think I could live with this kind of arrangement.
What this book definitely is, in any case, is good. Very good. If you haven't read it, do so. If you have read it, do yourself a favor and read it again.
"Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Laste the Godde Dies.
Ande this maye notte be noticed."
- from the writings of the philosopher Abraxis, Small Gods
Annotations for Small Gods
Small Gods at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett's page at HarperCollins
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Small Gods at Wikiquote
Small Gods at Amazon.com