Pratchett and Le Guin: A Comparison
I have a bookshelf I think of as my ‘grab in case of fire’ shelf. It is a collection of books that variously moved me to tears, changed the way I think, are just searingly beautifully written, and it does not contain any Ursula Le Guin or Terry Pratchett. They each get their own shelves.
Like two stars orbiting one another, they are my favourite authors. There was, recently, a thought in my mind. “Could I do a PhD on the similarities and differences between their work?” They wrote across the same period of time, both subverting what it meant to write science fiction and fantasy, and transforming both in the process. Pratchett usually comedic, Le Guin typically serious (though her essays include some gloriously dry jokes). This essay is me doodling down some thoughts - while I don’t expect to ever get to write such a PhD, I like writing essays to clarify what’s in my brain.
Apologies for errors in this essay. The cat it sitting on my lap, and she will not like it if I stand up to get a book to refer to. Alas, that means it only includes one quote.
Who are these people?
If you don’t know who either of them are, Wikipedia exists, and I applaud you for clicking on an article out of pure curiosity. For a starting point on Pratchett, try Monstrous Regiment, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, Small Gods or Hogfather, for a more festive take. For Le Guin, The Earthsea Quartet, The Word for World is Forest, The Wave in the Mind, or The Left Hand of Darkness for a festive feeling (in that there is a lot of snow).
I’m not sure if they ever met, though they were certainly aware of one another’s work (Le Guin paid tribute to Pratchett on his death; she herself died a few years later). There are at least three volumes where both were contributors (The Wizards of Odd, Legends, Meditations on Middle Earth).
Let’s Get Pretentious About Pratchett
In a comparatively brief way. I want to quickly sum up major features of each author’s work, because I think it’s useful to the interesting bit that follows. Skip it if you already know the author; I’m not saying anything too original.
Pratchett’s best-known creation is The Discworld (he made a few other worlds on the side, but The Discworld means I don’t ramble on about The Long Earth for too long). It’s a world, it’s a disc, and it’s carried through the space at the edge of reality on the backs of four elephants, which stand on a giant turtle named Great A’Tuin. The world is almost not-real, so magic can happen, and narrative forces are a recognised law of physics - “a million-to-one chance happens nine times out of ten”. The series was written across decades, constructing a huge world (which sits quietly in the background of the books; most work as stand-alone novels). There are three broad phases (which all filter into one another as a spectrum, but the idea is useful for analysis).
The first phase is a straightforward send-up of fantasy tropes. The Colour of Magic subverts the sword-and-sorcery genre of great mages and mighty warriors by using a cowardly and inept wizard as the protagonist, and a naïve tourist eager to meet real heroes (who turn out to mostly want soft lavatory paper and their own teeth). Equal Rites shows witches campaigning for… equal rights with wizards, while preserving their own kind of power, Mort introduces us to Death (the character, responsible for the proper order of the biological process, who genuinely cares about a humankind he never quite understands), Guards! Guards! is dedicated to the nameless City Watch mooks heroes usually kill unthinkingly, and so on. It’s hard to read or write sword and sorcery fantasy after Pratchett; the tropes all feel faintly ridiculous.
The second phase sees Pratchett shift into more direct social commentary. While previously the Disc did engage with social questions in passing, works like Feet of Clay, Small Gods, and Monstrous Regiment are directly about such questions (‘What is the right way to free an oppressed minority?’ ‘What are the corruptions of organised religion, and how can it become useful for humanity?’ and ‘How can country-blighting jingoism and zealotry be turned away from, and how can those persecuted by those ideologies escape them?’ respectively).
I think what sets Pratchett apart from many other allegorical fantasy writers is that none of those questions are only about the causes of such problems. They’re also about solutions - and none of the solutions are easy or final. Over the Discworld series, we see the freed golems slowly become recognised as independent people, but still have to fight for equality and find their place in the world. Although the Church of Om starts bringing more light into the world, it constantly schisms, and most of it turns to pointless infighting rather than doing good in the world. Borogravia ends one war, and allows women to fight, but at the end of the novel another war starts, and women still aren’t treated seriously. The world can be improved, but it takes hard work.
This leads us into the third phase - the Discworld-as-modern(ish)-world phase. Novels like The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, and Going Postal are still about real-world things (newspapers and the power of the free press, geopolitics, the impact of high-speed communication), but they’re also just stories that flow naturally out of things in previous novels (printing presses, a steady stream of Überwaldians coming to the big city, a neglected post office in said city).
By this period, the Discworld has its own lore, and characters move about in a world that is well-rounded and detailed. In some ways, it feels like the lore-laden world of other fantasy creations, though the lore is worn rather more lightly. A lot of these novels are about change - how the Witch of Witches, Granny Weatherwax, guides Tiffany Aching towards being her successor, or the world being joined together by the post and semaphore systems.
They’re also, importantly, the novels written as Pratchett struggled with the ‘embuggrance’ of his Alzheimers, knowing that the time to write was now limited. A constant theme is characters that readers had grown to know and love - Weatherwax, Vimes, Vetinari especially - growing old, and trying to take care of the world for those that would follow them.
The main problem with writing about Pratchett is that he’s incredibly funny, but also intensely thoughtful. It is very easy to write about the thoughts, but hard to convey the comedic tone in his novels. Like most great comedy, it switches between different flavours. Sometimes it’s intellectual references (Wyrd Sisters and Lords and Ladies are ripe with Shakespeare references), but the same page will see a shift to a bawdy joke about someone coming to the ‘Guild of Seamstresses’ and actually wanting their trousers repaired while they wait.
But where Pratchett excels is character comedy. Death trying to understand Schrödinger’s Cat and uncertainty, while being a creature who is, by nature, certain. Not to mention, rather intolerant of cruelty to cats. The Blue Fairy of Happiness weeping because nobody likes her jingly, glittery approach to creating jollity. The fear of one of Nanny Ogg’s children being asked to fudge the rules a bit for their lovely-but-don’t-you-dare-cross-me-you-bugger mother.
Getting On To Le Guin
That’s enough about Pratchett. Ursula Le Guin, master of science fiction and fantasy (master in the sense of craft, not of dominance). Creator of the Hainish Cycle (her ‘universe with holes in the elbows’), the Earthsea Sequence, and a few other worlds on the side. Essay writer extraordinaire. As before, skip this section if you already know her work.
Honestly, I’m not sure how I’d divide her work, so instead I’m going to talk about a few of her creations and what each does. Let’s start with the Hainish Cycle. It’s not written as a deliberate series - just a set of stories that happen to be in the same universe. The central idea is that all these human-like peoples across the universe are descendants of the Hain, who settled worlds and then left them behind. The Hain return millennia later, and interact with the locals.
The Hain are a (more-or-less) idealised star-crossing society. They believe in balance, and generosity of spirit, and supporting people to achieve the role that fits them best. They are (almost) never the protagonist of the story, and (almost) never the culture the story is set in. Le Guin’s Hainish cycle is about shifting the focus of traditional science fiction.
In The Word for World is Forest, humans from earth launch a genocidal colonisation of an alien world, just before the Hain make contact. In The Dispossessed, a scientist on a barren anarcho-syndicalist planet struggles to find a place where his invention will be accepted as a means of change, but not exploited for evil ends. Four Ways To Forgiveness shows an enslaved world moving to freedom, and how its people relate to the coloniser.
I could go on, but between these books are the core questions of the Hainish Cycle. While Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke showed gallant Anglo-Saxon Americans striding across the universe and colonising worlds, Le Guin asks “What does the story look like from the perspective of the native, not the coloniser? What is the story of the people subjugated by colonisation? How are they changed by the encounter with violence, and how can they protect themselves? How does Earth-humanity react when they are the ‘inferior’ culture to the Hain?” Most crucial are the twinned questions of “What viable utopias can we imagine in space? How does culture shape what a people can imagine and interpret information?” As with Pratchett, there are no easy answers.
The Earthsea sequence does, arguably, contain more definite answers. It is a fantasy archipelago, where wizards exist, ranging from wise scholars to hermits on mountains. Their power is channeled through the use of true names, gained through long and difficult study. Notably, the occupants of the archipelago are not white (except a few barbarians to the north). This is a world deliberately set apart from the tropes of crusader-type fantasy heroes, crushing anyone in their way.
Instead, the stories approach resolution through hard (often gentle) work. The protagonist Ged is pursued by his shadow, his magical force fails to stop it, and the journey ends when he finally, quietly, speaks its true name (his own). A dragon is turned back, not by violence and spellcasting, but by learning its name. It is a story that takes care of the ‘small’ people; it is only by realising that the insignificant doorkeeper is one of the 8 great mages that Ged’s training can be completed. Those who try violence drain themselves and suffer.
In other works, Le Guin creates glittering worlds - Orsina and Always Coming Home are both masterpieces of the form. The latter, in particular, shows Le Guin’s anthropological leanings, since it is mostly in the form of documents from an imagined future post-apocalyptic society. Not a gritty zombie-hunting world like The Walking Dead, but a small community living in harmony with a land that they know has been scarred by humans in former ages. It is a world of balance, rituals of life and death, and the avoidance of war. As with so much of her work, it centres people and ways-of-being often dismissed as ‘primitive’ or ‘savage’ in other fantasy and science fiction, proving them to be no such thing.
I would talk about her essays here, but so much of what she says in them is part of her conversation with Terry Pratchett that I will save them for the next section. Which, by coincidence, is here.
Pratchett and Le Guin - a conversation of letters
This is the bit that’s actually interesting (possibly). It’s going to be bullet-pointy!
Both, obviously, subverted their genres in a way that changed them forever. The Colour of Magic and A Wizard of Earthsea both ensured that the genres they challenged would have to transform to survive.
A question at the heart of both subversions is “who isn’t here?” Le Guin filled her world with the victims of other fantasies - the colonised, the locals, people who get massacred by blond-haired heroes in other works. Pratchett, somewhat distanced, fills his with cowardly wizards, guards, and small villages at the edge of a fantasy world, and gives each the respect of a full personality that they are denied elsewhere (while also being as capable of being the butt of a joke as anyone other character in Pratchett’s work).
They loved words, and the sound words made. Le Guin’s words tend to be more akin to a folk tale being recited, Pratchett’s to a sincere and chatty conversation filled with wordplay. But there is a shared love of what words can do.
Both also shared a similarly carefree approach to canon. Try though you might to codify them, the Discworld and the Hainish cycle have inconsistencies as the world is rewritten. They don’t matter. Unlike Tolkein, building a world for his languages to exist in, these are stories where what matters is the tale, not the lore.
And the tale is important. Both authors made work where narrative has power. Sometimes it’s obvious, as with narrativium, Granny Weatherwax fighting people with the power of stories, or Ged seeking true names. Sometimes it’s more subtle, with a power because of how it causes people to grow, as with many of Le Guin’s essays, the folk tales of her imagined worlds, or Death saying that people need to believe in The Hogfather in order to believe in the other lies. “TRUTH. JUSTICE. THAT SORT OF THING.” That awareness of the power of what they did - tell stories - can be felt both in their writing and what they chose to write about.
Both used tales and cycles to explore specific things. In Pratchett, there are distinct cycles within the disc for Rincewind, the Watch, Death, and the Witches. Each subset of his world has a different focus (broadly, the absurdities of fantasy, the nature of justice, the nature of being human, and the nature of being good, though all those themes appear across the board). Le Guin’s Earthsea cycle is more deeply rooted in concepts of balance and the correct use of power than the Hainish cycle, which deals more directly with questions of colonisation and freedom.
The tale can also be bent. Both authors’ clearly reflected on what they’d written in their early careers, and wanted to revisit the sexist/racist tropes used, or places where they’d overlooked groups. Unlike some authors, they didn’t retcon what had been written - they continued writing their worlds to consider how those inequalities had come about in-world, and how in-world they could be resolved. And so Tales from Earthsea asks why women didn’t get to have wizardly power, and how they could get it. Later works by Terry Pratchett show bit-part cultures of the trolls and dwarves elevated into having full and nuanced politics of their own (and having the ‘human’ right to be as stupid as everybody else where necessary).
It’s fair to say that Pratchett’s real-world-ish Others (the Agatean Empire, Hwondaland, Genua) aren’t as nuanced as Le Guin’s; a potential defence might be that nowhere on the Disc is based on a real culture, but on stock archetypes. What matters, as Achmed tells Vimes, is that every character, no matter where they are or what their species, is still treated as a human with an equal mind, and an equal potential to be good, hopeful, or a conniving bastard.
There are tropes they share. Wizards don’t use their power if at all possible, because it would upset the balance of the world.
The truly great hero is the one who is compassionate, and not mighty. Both Ged and Granny Weatherwax risk their own lives to go into the afterlife and retrieve the ‘little people’ who are lost there. Samuel Vimes and the Athsheans fight for justice on behalf of ordinary people against the powerful, because it must be done, but know and suffer the risk of falling into the dark.
There is balance. Whether in Le Guin’s Tao-influenced societies, or Pratchett’s witches making sure that cycles of life and death persist, the idea that there is a balance of light and dark is central to both authors’ work.
While there is balance, each thing contains its opposite. The truly good are not those without evil thoughts, but those who reject them every day. The truly wise are those who know how little they know. The truly evil are those who twist and corrupt what is good.
And there is such a thing as evil. When it is everyday, it is often ignorance. When it is in its most sinister form, it is treating other people as things; as not-people.
Because, at the heart of both, is a deep and abiding faith in humanity (whether human or not).
It’s at the heart of both authors’ characters. Ultimately, every person in both authors’ works has the potential to be good, though there is nothing more monstrous than a human who doesn’t make that choice. People struggle to do the right thing, and often succeed (at a cost). They do that because it’s worth doing. It is better to care for others, and be a lonely witch in a forgotten village/an under-promoted ambassador on a forgotten world, than it is to not show that faith in and care for the others around you.
It’s often why Pratchett’s characters are so funny, and then so moving - because they are sharply-drawn people, and people matter. Nanny Ogg isn’t just funny - when the mask drops, she truly cares and does what must be done. Death cares about humanity; The Blue Fairy of Happiness has one of the most tragic love stories on the Disc. It’s why Le Guin’s stories ring true, even on worlds lightyears away - because they’re still people, more so than in many sci-fi worlds. It is worthwhile to write about a woman at the end of her life living by herself rather than a laser-toting sci-fi hero; the unspeaking creatures of the world might just need listening to in a different way.
Even when writing about absolute evil, people who treat other people as tools to be used, they show the best in humanity. And that’s, ultimately, why they touch so many people. It’s not a fairytale faith in glitter. It’s not a carefully-crafted metaphor for an idea or principle. It’s something that the authors believe - that people are basically good, and worth struggling for, especially when nobody else can struggle for them - and it’s interwoven into every strand of their work, and every assumption they make about how the world works.
That’s the comparison. And that’s the end of the essay. Thank you for reading it.