Revisiting the Discworld #1: The Colour of Magic

Here it is, the first Discworld novel. And the first one I ever read, as a matter of fact. I can still recall my parents asking me to choose a book to take away on holiday, and the cover art just really captured my attention. What more could a boy want than trolls, wizards, burgeoning smoke and a box with lots of little legs on it? I am well aware of the old adage, ‘never judge a book by its cover’, but it may have been one of the best things I ever did. Because it was from that very judgement that my fascination with the Discworld — and let me be clear, with reading in general — blossomed.

If you told me you were going to create a fantasy world full of dwarfs, wizards, gnomes, dragons and zombies, I’d probably laugh at you. ‘It’s all been done before’, I’d say. I’d presume it was going to be a JRR Tolkien rip off, and may not give it the time of day. It seems like every fantasy novel has to include its share of elves, dwarfs and wizards. But somehow, through his way with words, though his attention to detail, through brilliant characterisation, Terry makes what could be jaded fantasy staples come to life. The races and vocations that make up the Discworld populous take on their own little details that make them interesting and believable. They are distinguished from the fantastical creatures we find elsewhere, in Tolkien for example, in subtle and humorous ways.

Cue Rincewind, who is the perfect example of this. Yes, he’s a wizard. But he’s also technically not, because he didn’t really graduate from Unseen University. So he’s really a sort of half wizard anti-hero, which is so very refreshing and different to what one might expect. The plot follows his misadventures as he tries to protect the gormless but lovable tourist Twoflower on his holiday in Ankh-Morpork. Rincewind is really just a wimp who wants a peaceful life without any danger or hassle, which makes it all the more funny when he ends up in precarious situations, including bar brawls, sword fights, endless falls from great heights, and of course *shudder* his encounter with the soul devourer Bel-Shamharoth. I think what’s so likeable about him is that we can all relate to him. I just want a quiet life too, really. I also sometimes feel like I’m just pretending to be something that I’m not, and often feel completely unqualified to cope with the complexities and demands of modern life. Sadly, I’m not quite as good as Rincewind at running and so have mostly remained stuck in my little rut. I suppose I would be able to pick up some speed if I encountered the betentacled Sender of Eight, however.

One of the most remarkable things in The Colour of Magic is how genuine scientific principles, concepts and theories are explored in utterly hilarious ways. My favourite example would be Greicha the First, the great mage who was killed, but lives on in an undead state. His conversations are hilariously muddled, because, being released from life and its associated temporality, he is able to live transcendentally and see everything that was, is and will be. ‘Imagine every moment being at one and the same time a distant memory and a nasty surprise’. It’s an excellent example that highlights the concepts of infinity and atemporality in a very funny manner. This is a subject I’ve often thought a lot about myself. The idea of heaven I was presented as a child was a life that went on ‘forever and ever’, which must really mean it is infinite and timeless. If this is true, there would be no linearity, no movement in any direction, just all events that ever were and will be occurring instantly and indefinitely. For that reason I’ve lost my fondness of the idea of heaven. This is a complete aside, but it serves to highlight how deep concepts are explored with glorious flippancy and aplomb. I chortled aloud at the theory of the universe in which the giant turtles carrying worlds were moving slowly to the Place of Mating, wherein they would procreate and give birth to new worlds, the so-called ‘Big Bang Theory’.

Besides the intertwined science, there are some very unique concepts in this novel. We are introduced to the Discworld’s magic system and learn of the Octavo — the book of the Eight Great spells left by the creator of the Discworld. One of which, of course, lodged into a meddling Rincewind’s brain when he peeped at the book for a bet, and secured his expulsion from the University. The spell rears its head a couple of times, but we never actually learn what it is or what it does, which is both tantalising and excrutiating. Say it Rincewind! Of course, there are many allusions to the fantastic eighth colour, Octarine, which is visible to only wizards and hilariously is described as ‘a sort of greenish-yellow purple colour’. I particularly enjoyed the wizards who specialised in weather spells, the hydrophobes. Although their powers allow travelling over water and manipulating the sea, they ultimately die young and end up resenting themselves because, as you well know, we humans are mostly just squishy wet stuff.

I couldn’t talk about The Colour of Magic without mentioning that this is our first meeting with Death. Not personally, obviously. Death has a number of close encounters with Rincewind in this story, but never quite manages to claim his soul. There is a funny cat and mouse interplay between the two, with Rincewind appearing to possess nine lives and the ability to always land on his feet. ‘ILL GET YOU YET CULLY. SEE IF I DONT.’ Of course, in due course, Death would become one of the Discworlds most loved characters and one of my personal favourites.

The Colour of Magic is a superb fantasy adventure that introduces us to the Discworld, its magic, its lore and its science, and paves the foundations for the books to come. It is an enthralling novel full of bright humour, and one which I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting all these years later.