And it came to pass that in that time the Great God Om spake unto Brutha, the Chosen One:
During a visit to Toronto, I met up with Cameron and we talked a bit about our shared love of the works of Terry Pratchett. We both agreed that he changed as a writer, as all good writers should, especially one getting thirty or forty novels under his or her belt. But we expressed slightly different opinions about which stage of Pratchett we preferred.
Early Pratchett books tend to have a wilder humour, as Pratchett mercilessly goes up against the conventions of fantasy. As he gets older, however, the humour mellows, and Pratchett’s subject matter deepens. It becomes contemporary British life that gets parodied, and he offers more insight into how the minds of people really work. Consider the development of the witches from Wyrd Sisters to Wintersmith. In the former, Granny Weatherwax doesn’t have the wearwithall to understand that a play is only a play. By Wintersmith, the serious side of witchery is well known, and Granny is quite a dark character, usually called to a bedside when Death is near.
Cameron preferred the wilder humour of early Pratchett, while I preferred the deeper characterizations of his later works. At the apex of this, however, said Cameron, was the book Small Gods, which he strongly recommended I read.
Small Gods is not a Pratchett novel I would have picked up in the early going. Even though it stands alone, it has none of the characters that usually marks fans’ entry into the Discworld. The story likely takes place at least a century before the “present day” of Discworld. There’s no Commander Sam Vimes. There’s no Granny Weatherwax. There’s certainly no Tiffany Aching. There is even no Ankh-Morpork. What there is, however, is Brutha, a young novice in the Church of Om, and a conduit that allows Pratchett to roll up his sleeves and tell us what he really thinks about organized religion.
It’s prophetic that I should read this book and write this review, just as an aging Pratchett writes up his own contemplations about God. He seems a decent chap, who doesn’t take anything too seriously, least of all himself, and is quite serious in that philosophy. In Pratchett’s view religion, as in all things fundamentally human, is flawed, ignorant, capable of casual cruelty, and yet retaining the fundamental goodness of your average human, and the possibility of achieving something spectacular. It is, at the same time, a cynical yet optimistic philosophy, and it imbues the pages of this book. But Small Gods doesn’t stop there, and creates the concept of “small gods”, turning the concept of faith on its head.
A wise philosopher in Pratchett’s Discworld speculated that while there may have been a supreme being, it’s unlikely that the supreme being created the world, as one can clearly see given how flawed the world is. Therefore, what more likely happened is that one of the supreme being’s underlings created the world when the supreme being wasn’t looking, and so prayers to the supreme being should perhaps be avoided, in case he happened to notice them, and came looking to see what was the infernal racket that had been created in his name.
But beneath the supreme being, living within the universe of Discworld, are a myriad of “small gods” — creatures of psychic energy that float about in the ether, invisible and unintelligent, until a chance encounter gives a small god a believer. By the power of human belief, the gods grow, and can foster further human belief through chance miracles, or even manifestations and smiting. Om is one such god, a being who seems to have the character of a bored college student waiting for his next kegger.
“Ossory, Ossory,” said the tortoise. “No… no… can’t say I—”
“He said that you spoke to him from out of a pillar of flame,” said Brutha.
“Oh, that Ossory,” said the tortoise. “Pillar of flame. Yes.”
“And you dictated to him the Book of Ossory,” said Brutha. “Which contains the Directions, the Gateways, the Abjurations and the Precepts. One hundred and ninety-three chapters.”
“I don’t think I did all that,” said Om doubtfully. “I’m sure I would have remembered one hundred and ninety-three chapters.”
“What did you say to him, then?”
“As far as I can remember it was ‘Hey, see what I can do!’” said the tortoise.
Om manifests periodically to do some smiting and miracle work (mostly smiting), and has feasted on the belief of thousands within the land of Omnia. So it is something of a surprise when, when manifesting again after a long time away, he materializes as a small one-eyed tortoise who, worse, thinks like a tortoise.
It’s only by luck that he finds Brother Brutha, whose belief allows Om to think like the god that he is. He is still trapped in the body of the tortoise, though. And this is a perplexing mystery: the Church of Om is still extremely powerful. There are no other religions (and the small gods they support) challenging the church for prominence. Any dissenting thought is ruthlessly rooted out by the Quisition. There are thousands of followers of the Church of Om, but it seems that Brother Brutha is the only human alive who actually believes in Om himself.
And so begins the criticism of organized religion: the dogmatic, hidebound institutions that will slowly substitute themselves for God in the minds of the believers if they’re not careful. Brutha has his preconceptions challenged, about his god, and about everything the Church has told him about what is holy. Some of this does not come as too much of a revelation, as Brutha is assigned to the entourage of the Exquisitor Vorbis, and sees first hand the official’s righteous evil. Everybody within the Church of Om is afraid of its power structure, and the subversive elements trying to overthrow it have to work very carefully. Brutha eventually realizes that he has to do something, but what? Fortunately, he has god on his side. Sort of. Maybe.
The attentions of Vorbis are focused on the neighbouring kingdom of Ephebe, which is a seat of learning (heresy) and a meeting place for a wide range of philosophies and religions (heresy). Indeed, shopowners are used to see naked men running down the streets, dripping from their bath, desperate for a tablet or something to write their new ideas down. This sort of freedom of thought is an affront to the will of Om (though Om himself disagrees) and must be stamped out. And only a mind like Vorbis could be so evil as to carefully plan out Omnia’s retaliation before Ephebe’s original “attack”.
There is something very compelling about the idea of gods needing humans more than humans needing gods, but it’s worth noting that Pratchett maintains a fundamental respect for the human desire to have something to believe in. Atheists are not spared his merciless satire, and are often struck by lightning from the gods that do exist. All the philosophers of Ephebe, bar one (Didactylos), are too wrapped up in their deep thinking to be really thoughtful. And while all the institutions of the Church are laid waste, Pratchett backs away from Phillip Pullman’s call for a Republic of Heaven, favouring instead a constitutional monarchy. Witness this snippet of dialogue when Om and Brutha debate establishing a new set of commandments.
“I Like One About Not Killing,” said Om, from far above. “It’s Got A Good Ring To It. Hurry Up. I’ve Got Some Smiting To Do”
“You see?” said Brutha. “No. No smiting. No commandments unless you obey them too.”
All of the touchstones of religion are mined, here. Brutha and Om have a long trek through the desert before them, and Brutha has his own cross to bear. There’s even a subtle and funny reference to Plato’s shadows as only Pratchett can do. And through this tale, an unassuming man will become Pope, and a god will learn humility. If that isn’t a remarkable literary achievement, I don’t know what is. Brutha, through it all, retains his faith, and shows a very Christian conviction about forgiveness and redemption. It makes him perhaps the most compelling character in the Pratchett canon.
Small Gods deserves more attention than it gets in the Discworld canon, as it is the apex of Pratchett’s depth of thinking and wildness of humour. It would be an ideal candidate for a movie adaptation, especially from the people who gave us The Hogfather and The Colour of Magic. Rarely do I encounter a story that makes me think and makes me care as much as it makes me laugh, but Small Gods has it all.
Read this book, or I will smite you.