Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1996
Length: 354 pages
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars
It’s the annual solar festival on the Discworld, but something’s gone terribly wrong. The Hogfather — a mythical being in a red and white suit who brings good children presents on Hogswatch Night, if any of that rings some bells for you — has gone missing. And Death has, against all sensibilities, decided to fill in for him until he can be retrieved.
And who has to retrieve him? That task falls to the unwilling Susan, Death’s granddaughter (it’s complicated), who just wants to live her blissfully normal life as a governess without having to deal with supernatural cataclysms interfering. It isn’t a matter of choice, though, and Susan’s journey leads her to discover just what has happened to the Hogfather. A group of beings called the Auditors have put a hit out on him with the Guild of Assassins — the Auditors appear in more than one Discworld novel, often in opposition to Death. The Auditors hate life and wish it had never been. They govern the universe, making sure things like gravity and centripetal force work, and would much rather that the universe was nothing more than rocks moving in circles, without these horrible little bundles of spontaneity and free will getting in the way. They’ve set their sights on the Hogfather as something too irrational to be endured and want him eliminated. The Guild gives the job to Mr. Teatime (pronounced Te-ah-time-eh), an Assassin who somewhat embarrasses the rest of them by enjoying his job a little too much. He’s the sort of person who has, in fact, devoted time to figuring out how to kill anthropomorphic manifestations, and anyone who cheerfully admits to that has to be functioning without some essential components of sanity.
But he is good at his job, and he sets to work immediately. Without giving too much away, because the way Pratchett teases around the concept is so enjoyable, he finds a way to control belief — and with that control, eliminates the Hogfather from it. It’s an interesting commentary, really, since in our own world, it seems like children stop believing at younger and younger ages. But Teatime has an opponent more than he bargained for in Susan Sto Helit, who is one of Pratchett’s more wonderful creations. Much though she tries to be normal, she has certain supernatural abilities inherited from her grandfather — like the ability to stop time, or walk through walls, or remember the future, or use Death’s voice to scare the everliving daylights out of someone. She’s eminently sensible and practical, but in a way that makes her dangerous rather than boring. She can see things that are really there, and she lacks the human ability to edit out things that are illogical. She’s well-educated but sees that as a possible hindrance to understanding rather than a benefit, and many of her comments on methods of education and teaching principles are particularly hilarious to someone, like myself, who works in the field of education also:
Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.
Susan is close to being my favourite thing about Hogfather, just because her voice is so distinct and such a joy to read.
What Hogfather does best, though, is explore the correlation between belief and being human. This is something Pratchett ponders on frequently in his works (as does his friend Neil Gaiman) — the idea that belief creates gods and other figures. That is not new, though it’s given a delightfully weird edge in Hogfather, as the wizards of the Unseen University start accidentally creating the Oh God of Hangovers and the Cheerful Fairy and the Eater of Socks (in whom I fervently believe now) out of the extra belief left sloshing around by the Hogfather’s absence. But what Pratchett really does magnificently here is tie that capacity for belief with what it means to be a human, what it means to be this marvelous sentient creature, this marvelously narcissistic creature who thinks the whole universe is inside of its head and secretly believes the whole universe was created just to lead to its own existence. Things like the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy are stepping-stones of belief, the training wheels of childhood so that a human can believe in the really big imaginative things later on. Death sums this all up for Susan (and us) near the end of the novel:
HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMANS. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO A FINE POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET– Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE UNIVERSE, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.
“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or else what’s the point—”
MY POINT EXACTLY.
She tried to assemble her thoughts.
THERE IS A PLACE WHERE TWO GALAXIES HAVE BEEN COLLIDING FOR A MILLION YEARS, said Death, apropos of nothing. DON’T TRY TO TELL ME THAT’S RIGHT.
“Yes, but people don’t think about that,” said Susan. “Somewhere there was a bed…”
CORRECT. STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A…A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.
OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.
“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…
NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death.
There’s a nice counterpoint to all of this at Unseen University, where young wizard Ponder Stibbons is desperately trying to drag Discworld into a place where things like advanced physics make sense. He’s created an artificial intelligence called Hex, which broadly resembles one of the first computers, except that, as with most things in the Discworld, it’s slightly askew — requiring honeycombs, mice, and other oddities to function. Hex is meant to be what the Auditors want, really — the epitome of rationality and predictability. But it isn’t. It goes wrong. Hex understands itself and humanity a little too well.
+++ Humans Have Always Ascribed Random Seasonal, Natural, Or Inexplicable Actions To Human-Shaped Entities. Such Examples Are Jack Frost, The Hogfather, The Tooth Fairy, And Death +++
“Oh, them. Yes, but they exist,” said Ridcully. “Met a couple of ‘em myself.”
+++ Humans Are Not Always Wrong +++
“All right, but I’m damn sure there’s never been an Eater of Socks or a God of Hangovers.”
+++ But There Is No Reason Why There Should Not Be +++
So, as the plot rolls on, Pratchett explores these concepts, along with a host of others — gift-giving, various traditions, the origins of some familiar carols, the commercialisation of holidays — all with his usual crisp humour and delightful oddities. That said, I don’t think the book is totally flawless. My attention wanders a bit during some of the sections involving the crew of thugs that Teatime recruits. The last hundred pages aren’t quite as tightly plotted as they might be.
For what it’s worth, the move adaptation (currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly) is magnificent. It’s remarkably true to the book, and what few cuts there are are ones I don’t notice, because they trim all those parts of the books I tend to forget about anyway. They tighten and streamline the plot without losing the quirky sense of serendipity that governs Pratchett’s world. It’s joined the ranks of my must-see holiday films.
I heartily recommend this book to anyone looking for non-standard holiday fare. If the radio’s been driving you mad and you’re feeling the compulsion to spear someone through the ear with a sprig of holly, pick this one up. It has a delightful way of restoring holiday spirits with just the right blend of snarkiness. No one said you had to be nice in order to believe, after all.