top of page

Alternate History and Terry Pratchett, Part 3: Small Gods

By Tom Anderson

The Turtle Moves; An Ouroboros encircling disc carried by four elephants atop a great turtle.

Wood engraving after an ancient Hindu ceramic poster, published 1862.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Last time in this article series, I looked at Terry Pratchett’s innovative use of Alternate History (AH) as a storytelling device in the fourth Discworld novel, Mort. In this article we’ll move ahead (or is it backward? – read on) to the thirteenth, Small Gods, published in 1992. The use of AH ideas in this novel is not as significant as in Mort, mostly appearing only at the start and end as part of a framing device, but is still worthy of discussion.

As I have said before, the purpose of these articles is to analyse the use of AH in the books, not to review them, so I will not be discussing the characters or plot more than is necessary. While I will not make unnecessary spoilers, the reader is probably best advised to read the book (which I recommend) before this article. However, a brief sketch is appropriate for context.

The title Small Gods comes from one of the earliest Discworld books (it might be the first, in fact) in which Pratchett alludes to the city of Ankh-Morpork having a Temple of Small Gods. This is a typical Pratchettian pun on Rome’s Pantheon, the Temple of All Gods. In another Pratchettian touch, what began as a throwaway joke eventually forms the unexpected basis for a novel.

What is a Small God? In Discworld, as we learned in the last article , reality is so thin that the world runs on the basis of narrative causality – things happen because of stories – and many things exist precisely because people believe in them. People would die, regardless, for example, but the fact that there is the anthropomorphic personification of Death is because people created him from their beliefs about the act of death. The same is true of the gods in a Discworld context, “who are not so much worshipped as blamed”. Discworld separates the idea of contemporary squabbling kitchen-sink fantasy pagan gods entirely from the idea of a Creator (who exists before, and apart from, anything humans might think) and the little mentioned Old High Ones, who are more like true angelic beings.

Discworld gods, on the other hand, number in their thousands, millions; the Disc is said to have them in the way that our world has bacteria. The difference is that only a handful are ever in the position where enough people believe in them sufficiently that they cease to be mere wandering minor spirits and become powerful, eventually entering into the realm of Dunmanifestin (a joke about twee cottage name like ‘Dunroamin’) atop the peak of Cori Celesti at the centre of the flat world. The plot of Small Gods involves the god Om of the nation of Omnia and its state religion of Omnianism; unusually for Discworld, the Omnians do not merely claim their god is the best but are monotheists, claiming that he is the only one. Reflecting the country’s name (Latin for everywhere), the Omnians want to spread their faith across the world, through conquest if necessary. While the Omnians are often thought of as standing in for Christians (and I will discuss this further below) I always felt that Omnia’s theocracy seemed more inspired by contemporary Iran after the Islamic revolution of 1979. The church and the state are one, and the populace lives in fear of the Quisition (another typical Pratchettian idea – the Quisition has both inquisitors and exquisitors, the latter being a lot more scary).

The irony, we find, is that despite this apparent vast number of believers, when Om decides to visit his people and manifests, he ends up as a small tortoise – because in reality, only one person in the whole of Omnia, a seemingly simple-minded worker with a perfect memory named Brutha, actually still has a genuine faith in him. Everyone else has replaced it with either belief in the bureaucracy or fear of the Quisition. Om is especially afraid of Brutha dying and him reverting to just being a spirit on the wind, especially after meeting such a spirit who was once a great god himself and now barely remembers who he was after all his believers died out. Over the course of the book, Om eventually learns to overcome his arrogance and self-centredness and gains a sense of humility.

Manifestation of Om.

Brutha is co-opted by the sinister exquisitor and eminence grise Vorbis, who has an elaborate plan to conquer neighbouring Ephebe (a parody of Ancient Greece) across the seemingly impassable desert, which involves the use of Brutha’s memory. Brutha, who becomes more open-minded, ultimately helps Vorbis cross the desert back towards Omnia when the plan goes wrong, only to find Vorbis has changed the story and had himself made Cenobiarch (supreme leader). In the end, Brutha is saved from execution at Vorbis’ hands when Om risks his life to engineer a miraculous divine punishment for Vorbis which reawakens the Omnians’ faith and allows an invasion by the Ephebians and other free peoples to be averted. Om makes a new covenant with Brutha and his people.

Brutha goes on to live a long life as Cenobiarch, reforming the Omnian religion to be more compassionate, and dies exactly one hundred years after crossing the desert. While Discworld had previously stated that after death, people go where they believe they’re going (the power of belief again), this book starts a pattern by which everyone who dies in Discworld seems to go to a grey desert that appears moonlit, though there is no moon in the strange sky, and has to cross it. What lies at the end of the desert? JUDGEMENT, as Death tells several characters. I won’t spoil for you the twist of this, which we don’t discover till the end of the book.

Also significant to the book’s plot is a parody of the Galileo affair of the seventeenth Century. The Omnians believe the Discworld is round (‘a sphere, a perfect shape’) and an Ephebian philosopher named Didactylos’ book gets banned because he says it is flat and on the back of a moving turtle (which it is). All of thos was a lot funnier before real, actual flat-earthers started reappearing on the Internet like herpes, let me tell you. Vorbis forces Didactylos to recant at spearpoint, but then Didactylos throws his lantern at Vorbis and shouts: “Nevertheless, the Turtle Moves!” before fleeing.

The ‘Turtle Movement’ has spread throughout much of the Omnian hierarchy, but due to intense secrecy, each of the high-ranking officials in it thinks he is the only one (a funny factoid not actually mentioned in the book, but which appears in the Discworld Companion). Anyway, this obviously isn’t meant to be a straight swap for the OTL events because nobody in the seventeenth century was stupid enough to think the Earth was flat – it’s a parody of the heliocentrism vs geocentrism debate (or, as John Farman put it, ‘the old sun around the earth thing’). Unfortunately, it has been a bit undermined for me since I found out that a huge portion of the Galileo affair as it’s usually presented is made-up anti-Catholic propaganda (Galileo wasn’t indicted for believing in heliocentrism but for publishing a book about it in a way which embarrassed the Pope. He never said: “Nevertheless, it does move,” etc.) so it’s not exactly the best basis for a debate about scientific truth. Nonetheless, Pratchett’s reversal gag (also revisited in The Science of Discworld) does illustrate how arbitrary arguments for or against these things can be. One of the vaguer objections to heliocentrism in the real world was that Earth and humanity should be centre stage for the universe. Conversely, the Omnians argue that humanity is so small and humble before God that of course we are off in an obscure corner of space, and to suggest anything else is arrogance.

Personally, I never found Small Gods to be anti-religious in tone; while Pratchett wasn’t a Christian believer like myself, many of the points he makes are highly valid ones in a Christian context. The idea that ‘people start out believing in the god and end up believing in the structure’, for example, is a recurring problem in real life and the cause of many schisms. Om’s experience as a mighty god who experiences life as a humble and overlooked being, as well as being repelled by what has been done in his name, can also easily be read as a Christ allegory, though presumably not intended as such. Pratchett also pokes fun at extreme atheists of the Dawkins school by having Om state that Sergeant Simony, an Omnian atheist, is nearly as good as a believer for a Discworld god who feeds on belief – after all, nobody brings up God more than a hardcore atheist. About the only thing that really rings hollow is that Pratchett doesn’t really get the parable of the sheep and the goats, but then, being from a rural area himself, he had his own opinions about their relative merits.

That’s enough about the story itself; now the AH elements. As part of the introduction notes: “The story takes place in desert lands, in shades of umber and orange. When it begins and ends is more problematical, but at least one of its beginnings took place above the snowline, thousands of miles away in the mountains around the Hub.” The inevitable Pratchettian footnote adds: “Or, if you are a believer in Omnianism, the Pole”. In my last article on Mort, I mentioned that the titular protagonist meets the Abbott of the Listening Monks, a parody of Tibetan Buddhists who are trying to hear the echo of the Creator’s words when he made the world (itself a typically clever reference to how radio telescopes look for cosmic microwave background radiation as an echo of the Big Bang). Pratchett expanded or reused this parody for other order of Tibetan-like monks around the Hub, including the group who first appear here, the History Monks. “Things just happen, one after another. But history... ah, history is different. History has to be observed. Otherwise, it’s not history. It’s just... well, things happening one after another.” This is probably another reference to the quantum observer effect.

A Roundworld version of a History Monk.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It goes on: “And, of course, it has to be controlled. Otherwise, it might turn into anything. Because history, contrary to popular theories, is kings and dates and battles.” (A quote I am always reminded of whenever there is the never-ending AH writers’ debate about what kind of fiction we should be writing). “And these things have to happen at the right time. In a chaotic universe, there are too many things to go wrong. It’s too easy for a general’s horse to lose a shoe at the wrong time, or for someone to mishear an order, or for the carrier of the vital message to be waylaid by some men with sticks and a cash flow problem.” (Referencing classic Points of Divergence, in particular the fable of ‘For want of a nail, the shoe was lost...’)

The History Monks are the keepers of the giant books of History, which do not record history, but say how history should go (an echo of the ideas we saw in Mort). The later novel Thief of Time adds that they are also masters of time travel and time manipulation, but that is mostly not glimpsed in this book other than them having long lifespans. The Abbott assigns a senior monk named Lu Tze (a nominal parody of Lao-Tzu or Laozi, founder of Taoism) to go to Omnia. He is suitably vague about the mission for the readers’ benefit: “Things must be... carefully observed. There are pressures. Free will, predestination... the power of symbols... turning point... you know all about this.” (All of these ellipses are in the original text!) It note that it took Lu-Tze four years to get to Omnia: “He had to watch a couple of battles and an assassination on the way, otherwise they would just have been random events.”

Lu-Tze will get expanded as a character much later in Thief of Time and Night Watch, but in this book his role is superficially minor. He does not first appear in the main narrative, after his introduction, until page 77 when he appears as the gardener in the citadel of Kom. He barely speaks, communicating only by nods and smiles, and he is one of those people who have been in an organisation so long that nobody can remember a time before him. Such, it’s implied, do the History Monks carry out their missions; they are not in a hurry.

Lu-Tze then doesn’t appear again until page 316 at the end of the book. Didactylos’ inventor nephew Urn has invented a ‘Moving Turtle’, like a steampunk/Antikythera Mechanism version of a tank, and he and his compatriots plan to use it to overthrow the regime. Lu-Tze intervenes, firstly by sabotaging the tank’s control levers, and secondly by (indirectly) encouraging Brutha to confront Vorbis. This ultimately leads to Vorbis attempting to execute Brutha on the back of a giant bronze turtle and the climax I mentioned earlier. Lu-Tze is also implied to take out a brutish deacon preparing Vorbis’ investiture as Cenobiarch, hinting at the martial arts we will later see him use in Thief of Time.

After the climax, Lu-Tze then vanishes again until page 376, when he returns to his monastery at the Hub. The abbot is playing chess with Death (which eventually leads to the same serial reincarnation Dalai Lama joke Pratchett did in Mort with the Listening Monks) and debriefs him. Lu-Tze reassures him that things went very well. “I had to nudge things a little, though.” The abbot notes he wishes he wouldn’t do that sort of thing, and he’ll overstep the mark one day. “It’s the history we’ve got these days... I have to patch it up all the time,” Lu-Tze explains. This throwaway joke will be revisited in Thief of Time, when we learn that continuity inconsistencies (such as it being ambiguous whether this story is set ‘now’ or if the aged Brutha dying 100 years later is ‘now’) are explained away by history being shattered by an event and the monks having to repair it piecemeal.

In a twist ending, Lu-Tze notes: “You know the books say that Brutha died and there was a century of terrible warfare? ... It’s not entirely like that now.” The abbot tolerantly implies his eyesight is poor enough that he didn’t see what it said in the books, just so long as it turns out right in the end. The Discworld Companion elaborates on this by saying that the monks sometimes have to change the ‘correct’ version of history with the equivalent of Tipp-Ex (white-out). It’s another example of the same idea from Mort where, after much soul-searching about how to tinker with the course of an unjust history could destroy the whole world, a way is found to resolve things regardless. And in this case we see, as implied in the discussion of points of divergence earlier, that a few small actions by Lu-Tze were sufficient to send history down another track.

Next time, we’ll be looking at the discussion of AH in the book immediately following Small Gods, Lords and Ladies.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

among others.

Comment on this article here.


bottom of page