A Level of Hell that Dante Forgot: A Note from Discworld

Discworld by Terry PratchettTerry Pratchett is about as weird and wonderful an author as I could ever want. A master world-builder, he trades in irony, parody, and satire the way the TV show Glee trades in stereotypes. And yet, despite the constant self-degradation of the humour, there is great intelligence in his Discworld novels.

Unlike much of the satirical world, Pratchett creates endearing characters with real interest for the reader. Sam Vimes, Nanny Ogg, Rincewind, Granny Weatherwax, Twoflower, Sergeant Carrot… he even puts a human face on Death, not an easy thing to do for a black-clad skeleton who exists outside of space and time.

And there is also Pratchett’s ability to draw the canon of great literature into his Discworld novels. Pratchett echoes the Bible, Arabic, Jewish, Greek, Arthurian, Norse, and Egyptian mythology, and all the great English literature. Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, H.P. Lovecraft—all the greats find their way into Discworld. And a few of the more obscure, like Pascal, J.B. Morton, Stanley Kubrick, and Laurel & Hardy. He really loves Shakespeare, or at least loves playing with Shakespeare in new contexts.

terry pratchett eric book coverIn Dante’s great trilogy of the afterlife, The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself touring hell with the poet Virgil. Goethe’s classic closet-play Faust, which has its own echoes of Dante and the book of Job, is the story of a favoured son of God who sells his soul to the devil. Pratchett draws these threads together into the colourful tapestry that is the 1990 novella, Faust Eric. Yes, that’s the title.

In Faust Eric the Dante character visiting hell is Eric, a 13-year-old demonologist. The Virgil guide is the hapless wizard (“wizzard” on his hat) Rincewind, whose chief motto in life is, “I never look back. Looking back is the classic mistake of the professional coward.” Rincewind is summoned by the acne-ridden Eric so that Eric can have riches, women, and control of the whole world. Rincewind, however, is not really dead, and not a demon.

And it turns out Rincewind is pretty bad at granting wishes. So they spend time fleeing snake-god devotees, ancient Mediterranean armies, and the demon horde of hell. He also has a sandwich made by one of the relatively unimportant creators of the universe.

namb-screwtapeIn this great scene from Faust Eric Rincewind and Eric land in hell. I don’t know that Terry Pratchett has ever read The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce. As Terry Pratchett turns our expectations of the demonic world upside down—as John Connolly will later do in The Gates of Hell—he is writing in a tradition in which C.S. Lewis is a master. We know well of how the senior demon Screwtape turns our expectations of hell all the way around. Why be a maniacal fiend when cunning, advertising, and soul-crushing bureaucracy will do the trick? Part of the great surprise of The Screwtape Letters is this shocking reversal.

That same unexpectedness occurs in the afterlife dream story The Great Divorce. Hell is real, tangible, powerful. But it is barely so. Its size is incomparably small, its substance that of a ghost’s, and its power residing not in geography but in the human heart. 70 years ago today, Lewis published part of ch. 5 of The Great Divorce in The Guardian. In it we discover that the Grey Town was really hell. What reigns in Lewis’ hell is not pain, torture, and fire. Instead, it is apathy, dreariness, hopelessness, and the sheer bothersome reality of other people.

I would encourage you to read Faust Eric after you’ve read Screwtape and The Great Divorce. You’d be amazed at the echoes. Meanwhile, here is a great little scene with Rincewind guiding the prepubescent demon-binder through a hell that’s recently been taken over by a bureaucrat par excellence.

terry pratchett ericillustrated josh kirbyFaust Eric by Terry Pratchett

“The only thing is, we’re,” [Rincewind said,] “I think it’s quite possible that we’re in Hell.”

“Oh?” [Eric’s said].

Eric’s lack of reaction made Rincewind curious.

“You know,” he added. “The place with all the demons in it?”

“Oh?”

“Not a good place to be, it’s generally felt,” said Rincewind.

Rincewind thought about this. He wasn’t, when you got right down to it, quite sure what it was that demons did to you. But he did know what humans did to you, and after a lifetime in Ankh-Morpork this place could turn out to be an improvement. Warmer, at any rate.

He looked at the door-knocker. It was black and horrible, but that didn’t matter because it was also tied up so that it couldn’t be used. Beside it, with all the signs of being installed recently by someone who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t want to do it, was a button set into the splintered woodwork. Rincewind gave it an experimental prod.

The sound it produced might once have been a popular tune, possibly even one written by a skilled composer to whom had been vouchsafed, for a brief ecstatic moment, the music of the spheres. Now, however, it just went bing-BONG-ding-DONG.

terry pratchett eric flying sceneAnd it would be a lazy use of language to say that the thing that answered the door was a nightmare. Nightmares are usually rather daft things and it’s very hard to explain to a listener what was so dreadful about your socks coming alive or giant carrots jumping out of hedgerows.

This thing was the kind of terrifying thing that could only be created by someone sitting down and thinking horrible thoughts very clearly. It had more tentacles than legs, but fewer arms than heads.

It also had a badge.

The badge said: “My name is Urglefloggah, Spawn of the Pit and Loathly Guardian of the Dread Portal: How May I Help You?”

It was not very happy about this.

“Yes?” it rasped.

Rincewind was still reading the badge.terry pratchett eric book cover not subtle

“How may you help us?” he said, aghast.

Urglefloggah, who bore a certain resemblance to the late Quezovercoatl [recently deceased Amazonian snake-god], ground some of its teeth.

“`Hi… there`,” it intoned, in the manner of one who has had the script patiently explained to him by someone with a red-hot branding iron. “`My name is Urglefloggah, Spawn of the Pit, and I am your host for today… May I be the first to welcome you to our luxuriously-appointed -`”

“Hang on a moment,” said Rincewind.

“`-chosen for your convenience — `,” Urglefloggah rumbled.

“There’s something not right here,” said Rincewind.

“`- full regard for the wishes of YOU, the consumer -`,” the demon continued stoically.

“Excuse me,” said Rincewind.

“`- as pleasurable as possible`,” said Urglefloggah. It made a noise like a sigh of relief, from somewhere deep in its mandibles. Now it appeared listening for the first time. “Yes? What?” it said.

“Where are we?” said Rincewind.

Various mouths beamed. “Quail, mortals!”

“What? We’re in a bird?”

terry pratchett eric book cover demon“Grovel and cower, mortals!” the demon corrected itself, “for you are condemned to everlast – ” It paused, and gave a little whimper. “There will be a brief period of corrective therapy,” it corrected itself again, spitting out each word, “which we hope to make as instructive and enjoyable as possible, with due regard to all the rights of YOU, the customer.”

It eyed Rincewind with several eyes. “Dreadful, isn’t it?” it said, in a more normal voice. “Don’t blame me. If it was up to me it would be the old burning thingys up the whatsit, toot sweet.”

“This is hell, isn’t it,” said Eric. “I’ve seen pictures.”

“You’re right there,” said the demon mournfully. It sat down, or at least folded itself in some complicated way. “Personal service, that’s what it used to be. People used to feel that we were taking an interest, that they weren’t just numbers but, well, victims. We had a tradition of service. Fat lot he cares. But what am I telling you my troubles for? It’s not as if you haven’t got plenty of your own, what with being dead and being here. You’re not musicians, are you?”

“Actually we’re not even dea – ” Rincewind began. The demon ignored him, but got up and began to plod ponderously down the dank corridor, beckoning them to follow.

“You’d really hate it here if you was musicians. Hate it more, I mean. The walls play music all day long, well, he calls it music, I’ve got nothing against a good tune, mark you, something to scream along with, but this isn’t it, I mean, I heard where we’re supposed to all the best tunes, so why’ve we got all this stuff that sounds like someone turned on the piano and then walked away and left it?”

terry pratchett eric demonic scene“In point of fact -”

“And then there’s the potted plants. Don’t get me wrong, I like to see a bit of green around the place. Only some of the lads says these plants aren’t real but what I say is, they must be, no-one in their right mind would make a plant that looks like dark green leather and smells like a dead sloth. He says it gives the place a friendly and open aspect. Friendly and open aspect! I’ve seen keen gardeners break down and cry. I’m telling you, they said it made everything we did to them afterwards seem like an improvement.”

“Dead is not what we -” said Rincewind, trying to hammer the words into a gap in the things endless monotone, but he was too late.

“The coffee machine, now, the coffee machine’s a good one, I’ll grant you. We only used to drown people in lakes of cat’s pee, we didn’t make them buy it by the cup.”

“We’re not dead!” Eric shouted.

Urglefloggah came to a quivering halt.

“Of course you’re dead,” it said. “Else you wouldn’t be here. They wouldn’t last five minutes.” It opened several of its mouths, showing a choice of fangs. “Hur hur,” it added. “If I was to catch any live people down here -”

Not for nothing had Rincewind survived for years in the paranoid complexities of Unseen University. He felt almost at home. His reflexes operated with incredible precision.

“You mean you weren’t told?” he said.

It was hard to see if Urglefloggah’s expression changed, if only because it was hard to know what part of it was expression, but it definitely projected a familiar air of sudden and resentful uncertainty.

“Told what?” it said.terry pratchett eric book cover 3

Rincewind looked at Eric. “You’d think they’d tell people, wouldn’t you?”

“Tell them wh – argarg,” said Eric, clutching his ankle.

“That’s modern management for you,” said Rincewind, his face radiating angry concern. “They go ahead and make all these changes, all these new arrangements, and do they consult the very people who form the backbone -”

“- exoskeleton -” corrected the demon.

“- or other calcareous or chitinous structure, of the organisation?” Rincewind finished smoothly. He waited for what he knew would have to come.

“Not them,” said Urglefloggah. “Too busy sticking up notices, they are.”

“I think that’s pretty disgusting,” said Rincewind.

“D’you know, said Urglefloggah, “they wouldn’t let me on the Club 18,000 – 30,000 holiday? Said I was too old. Said I would spoil the fun.”

“What’s the netherworld coming to?” said Rincewind sympathetically.

“They never come down here, you know,” said the demon, sagging a bit. “They never tell me anything. Oh yes, very important, only keeping the bloody gate, most important I don’t think!”

“Look,” said Rincewind. “You wouldn’t like me to have a word, would you?”

“Down here all hours, seeing ’em in -”

“Perhaps if we spoke to someone?” said Rincewind.

The demon sniffed, from several noses at once.

“Would you?” it said.

“Be happy to,” said Rincewind.

terry pratchett eric book cover 2Urglefloggah brightened a little, but not too much, just in case.

“Can’t do any harm, can it?” it said.

Rincewind steeled himself and patted the thing on what he hoped fervently was its back.

“Don’t you worry about it,” he said.

“That’s very kind of you.”

Rincewind looked across the shuddering heap at Eric.

“We’d better go,” he said. “So we’re not late for our appointment.”

He made frantic signals over the demon’s head.

Eric grinned. “Yeah, right, appointment,” he said. They walked up the wide passage. Eric started to giggle hysterically.

“This is where we run, right?” he said.

“This is where we walk,” said Rincewind. “Just walk. The important ting is to act nonchalant. The important thing is to get the timing right.”

He looked at Eric.

Eric looked at him.

Behind them, Urglefloggah made a kind of I’ve-just-worked-it-out noise.

“About now?” said Eric.

“About now I think would do it, yes.”

They ran.

Hell wasn’t what Rincewind had been led to expect, although there were signs of what it might once have been – a few clinkers in a corner, a bad scorch mark on the ceiling. It was hot, though, with the kind of heat that you get by boiling air inside an oven for years – Hell, it has been suggested, is other people.

This has always come as a bit of a surprise to many working demons, who had always thought hell was sticking sharp things into people and pushing them into lakes of blood and so on.

This is because demons, like most people, have failed to distinguish between the body and the soul. The fact was that, as droves of demon kings had noticed, there was a limit to what you could do to a soul with, e.g., red-hot tweezers, because even fairly evil and corrupt souls were bright enough to realise that since they didn’t have the concomitant body and nerve endings attached to them there was no real reason, other than force of habit, why they should suffer excruciating agony. So they didn’t. Demons went on doing it anyway, because numb and mindless stupidity is part of what being a demon is all about, but since no-one was suffering they didn’t enjoy it much either and the whole thing was pointless. Centuries and centuries of pointlessness.

Fausto Eric Mundodisco terry Pratchett PortadaAstfgl, [the current Demon King,] had adopted, without realising what he was doing, a radically new approach.

Demons can move interdimensionally, and so he’d found the basic ingredients for a very worthwhile lake of blood equivalent, as it were, for the soul. Learn from humans, he’d told the demon lords. Learn from humans. It’s amazing what you can learn from humans.

You take, for example, a certain type of hotel. It is probably an English version of an American hotel, but operated with that peculiarly English genius for taking something American and subtracting from it its one worthwhile aspect, so that you end up with slow fast food, West Country and Western music and, well, this hotel.

It’s early closing day. The bar is really just a pastel-pink paneled table with a silly bucket on it, set in one corner, and it won’t be open for hours yet. And then you add rain, and let the one channel available on the TV be, perhaps, Welsh Channel Four, showing its usual mobius Eisteddfod from Pant-y-gyrdl. And there is only one book in this hotel, left behind by a previous victim. It is one of those where the name of the author is on the front in raised gold letters much bigger than the tittle, and it probably has a rose and a bullet on there too.

Half the pages are missing.

And the only cinema in the town is showing something with subtitles and French umbrellas in it.

And then you stop time, but not experience, so that it seems as though the very fluff in the carpet is gradually rising up to fill the brain and your mouth starts to taste like an old denture.

And you make it last for ever and ever. That’s even longer than from now to opening time.

And then you distil it.

Of course the Discworld lacks a number of the items listed above, but boredom is universal and Astfgl had achieved in Hell a particularly high brand of boredom which is like the boredom you get which is a) costing you money, and b) is taking place while you should be having a nice time.

The caverns that opened before Rincewind were full of mist and tasteful room dividers. Now and again screams of ennui rose from between the pot plants, but mainly there was the terrible numbing silence of the human brain being reduced to cream cheese from the inside out.

Eric_Josh_Kirby pratchett book cover“I don’t understand,” said Eric, “Where are the furnaces? Where are the flames? Where,” he added, hopefully, “are the succubi?”

Rincewind peered at the nearest exhibit.

A disconsolate demon, whose badge proclaimed it to be Azaremoth, the Stench of Dog Breath, and moreover hoped the reader would have a nice day, was sitting on the edge of a shallow pit wherein lay a rock on which a man was chained and spreadeagled.

A very tired-looking bird was perched beside him. Rincewind thought that Eric’s [pet bird] had it bad, but this bird had definitely been through the mangle of Life. It looked as though it had been plucked first and then had its feathers stuck back on.

Curiosity overcame Rincewind’s usual cowardice.

“What’s going on?” he said. “What’s happening to him?”

The demon stopped kicking his heels on the edge of the pit. It didn’t occur to it to question Rincewind’s presence. It assumed that he wouldn’t be here unless he had a right to be. The alternative was unbelievable.

“I don’t know what he done,” it said, “but when I first come here his punishment was to be chained to that rock and every day an eagle would come down and peck his liver out. Bit of an old favourite, that one”

“It doesn’t look as though it’s attacking him now,” said Rincewind.

“Nah. That’s all changed. Now it flies down every day and tells him about its hernia operation. Now it’s effective, I’ll grant you,” said the demon sadly, “but it’s not what I’d call torture.”

Rincewind turned away, but not before catching a glimpse of the look of terminal agony on the victim’s face. It was terrible.

There was worse, however. In the next pit several chained and groaning people were being shown a series of paintings. A demon in front of them was reading from a script.

“- this is when we were in the Fifth Circle, only you can’t see where we stayed, it was just off to the left there, and this is that funny couple we met, you’d never believe it, they lived on the Icy Plains of Doom just next door to -”

Eric looked at Rincewind.

“It’s showing them pictures of itself on holiday?” he said.

They both shrugged and walked away, shaking their heads.

Then there was a small hill. At the bottom of the hill there was a round rock. Beside the rock sat a manacled man, his despairing head buried in his hands. A squat green demon stood beside him, almost buckling under the weight of an enormous book.

“I’ve heard of this one,” said Eric. “Man who went and defied the gods or something. Got to keep pushing that rock up the hill even though it rolls back all the time -”

The demon looked up.

“But first,” it trilled, “he must listen to the Unhealthy and Unsafety Regulations governing the lifting and moving of Large Objects.”

Volume 93 of the Commentaries, in fact. The Regulations themselves comprised a further 1,440 volumes. Part 1, that is.

terry pratchett discworldRincewind had always liked boredom, treasuring it if only because of its rarity value. It had always seemed to him that the only times in his life when he wasn’t being chased, imprisoned or hit were when he was being dropped from things, and while falling a long way always had a certain sameness about it, it did not really count as “boring”. The only time he could look back on with a certain amount of fondness was his brief spell as assistant Librarian at Unseen University, when there wasn’t much to do except read books, make sure the Librarian’s banana supply wasn’t interrupted and, rarely, help him with a particularly recalcitrant grimoire.

Now he realised what made boredom so attractive. It was the knowledge that worse things, dangerously exciting things, were going on just around the corner and that you were well out of them. For boredom to be enjoyable there had to be something to compare it with.

Whereas this was just boredom on top of more boredom, winding in on itself until it became a great crushing sledgehammer which paralysed all thought and experience and pounded eternity into something like flannel.

“This is dreadful,” he said.

The chained man raised a haggard face. “You’re telling me?” he said. “I used to like pushing the ball up the hill. You could stop for a chat, you could see what was going on, you could try various holds and everything. I was a bit of a tourist attraction, people used to point me out. I wouldn’t say it was fun, but it gave you a purpose in the afterlife.”

“And I used to help him,” said the demon, its voice raw with sullen indignation. “Give you a bit of a hand, sometimes, didn’t I? Pass on a bit of gossip and that. Sort of encourage him when it rolled back and that. I’d say things like `whoops, there goes the bleeder again,’ and he’d say `Bugger it`. We had some times, dint we? Great times.” It blew its nose.

Rincewind coughed.

“Sgetting too much,” said the demon. “We used to be happy in the old days. It wasn’t as if it used to hurt anyone much and, well, we was all in it together.”

“That’s it,” said the chained man. “You knew if you kept your nose clean you’d stand a chance of getting out one day. You know, once a week now I have to stop this for craft lessons?”

“That must be nice,” said Rincewind uncertainly.

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Basketwork?” he said.

“I been here eighteen millennia, demon and imp,” grumbled the demon. “I learned my trade, I did. Eighteen thousand bloody years behind the pitchfork, and now this. Reading a -”

A sonic boom echoed the length of Hell.

“Oi oi,” said the demon. “He’s back. He sounds angry, too. We’d better get our heads down.” And indeed, all over the circles of Hades, demons and damned were groaning in unison and getting back to their private hells.

terry pratchett discworld video gameThe chained man broke into a sweat.

“Look, Vizzimuth,” he said, “couldn’t we just sort of miss out one or two of paragraphs -”

“It’s my job,” said the demon wretchedly. “You know He checks up, it’s more than my job’s worth -” He broke off, gave Rincewind a sad grimace, and patted the sobbing figure with a gentle talon.

“Tell you what,” he said kindly, “I’ll skip some of the subclauses.”

Rincewind took Eric by an unresisting shoulder.

“We’d better get along,” he said quietly.

“This is really horrible,” said Eric, as they walked away. “It gives evil a bad name.”

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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16 Responses to A Level of Hell that Dante Forgot: A Note from Discworld

  1. robstroud says:

    “…that peculiarly English genius for taking something American and subtracting from it its one worthwhile aspect…”

    Funny… and oddly insightful.

    Like

  2. jubilare says:

    “And there is only one book in this hotel, left behind by a previous victim. It is one of those where the name of the author is on the front in raised gold letters much bigger than the tittle, and it probably has a rose and a bullet on there too.”

    First off, spot the typo. 😉
    Third and lastly, I wonder how Pratchett feels about the prominence of his name on the covers of most of his books. If I were him, I’d be a bit annoyed. 😉

    This is fantastic. I haven’t read Eric, yet, but it seems I will have to.

    Like

    • First, that’s a great typo! Took me 3 times in my little email box to see what you mean. Wish I could take credit for that error in the original, or any other jot or tittle left out/added in, but this was from my ePub! Ah well,
      Third and finally, there is a “creep” effect of author’s names. You go by a single name, Jubilare, like Madonna. So that works on a title. But “DICKIESON” in bold is hardly artistic. I like the older Pratchett covers: chaotic, grotesque, colourful.

      Liked by 1 person

      • jubilare says:

        Lol, that makes it even better!

        I object, on principle, to the idea of an author’s name being bigger on a cover than the title, but alas, authors have little power over that effect. Still, if you become one of those authors popular enough to merit such a dubious honor, then DIKIESON will become far more impactful than you might think. 😉 After all, had he not become such an icon, who could imagine the power of a name like PRATCHETT on a cover. I mean, really?

        If I ever publish, I probably won’t use Jubilare. I probably won’t use my real name, either. I’ve considered something obnoxiously simple and vague, like “Set,” which is about 1/6th of my real name. I might have to come up with a suitably peculiar sur-pseudonym to go with it, though. 😉

        The old, chaotic covers certainly suit discworld…

        Like

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