Death dons the false beard

© C A Lovegrove

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett.
Penguin Books, 2022 (1996).

Was the Hogfather a god? Why not? thought Susan. There were sacrifices, after all. All that sherry and pork pie. And he made commandments and rewarded the good and he knew what you were doing. If you believed, nice things happened to you. Sometimes you found him in a grotto, and sometimes he was up there in the sky…

On Discworld every Hogswatchnight the Hogfather is expected to take his sledge drawn by four pigs to visit  every child and deliver appropriate gifts. But this particular Hogswatch there is a problem: the figure widely believed to be merely a figment of the collective imagination appears to have been assassinated, and it therefore falls to another figure to secretly stand in for the role of “the Fat Man”.

But his dissembling has aroused the suspicion and then irritation of his granddaughter Susan of Sto Helit, who feels compelled to get involved as Hogswatchnight plays out. Temporarily abandoning her role as governess to Gawain and Twyla Gaiter she steps outside time in an attempt to resolve matters, picking up a decidedly odd divinity along the way.

Nothing in Discworld is straightforward, however, for on its ill-lit motorways of logical narrative there inevitably lurk dirty great big DIVERSION signs, with traffic cones leading the unwary traveller on to confusing roundabouts; take any exit and it’ll lead to murky backstreets thronged with shady characters and clueless bystanders. All that’s certain is that we’ll eventually reach Journey’s End, but where that will leave us is anybody’s guess.

Snowfall in the Preseli Hills in West Wales © C A Lovegrove

Pratchett novels defy simplistic summaries, especially when outlining plots with multiple threads, as here. So as well as Death revelling in rehearsing his new catchphrase HO! HO! HO! (in small capitals, obviously) while the patient Albert forlornly offers advice, we have Archchancellor Ridcully determinedly demanding answers from Hex the Unseen University’s “thinking machine”, the mystery of the Tooth Fairy’s whereabouts, an excess of Belief resulting from the Hogfather’s disappearance which in turn has occasioned the popping into existence of new deities, fairies and household gods, and much else.

But the saviour of the hour increasingly looks like being Susan, the only sensible personage around despite being alternately plagued and advised by, respectively, a wise-cracking raven and the Death of rats. As the true grown-up in the room she represents the adult Susan Pevensie that Narnia ought to have valued and respected but didn’t, to its loss.

In addition I believe Terry Pratchett, who knew his English folklore, may well have taken some inspiration from traditional Mummers Plays for aspects of Hogfather‘s plot. Commonly performed around Christmas and the New Year, these folk plays involve a couple of characters who mock-fight each other, a doctor figure who brings one of the dead combatants back to life, and a Father Christmas who introduces the proceedings, among others. This being Discworld the roles played by these individuals are somewhat swapped around but we definitely have deaths, disguises, a resurrection of sorts, and a personification. All seemingly to ensure that the sun will return to warm the earth.

As with every Discworld novel I’ve so far read Hogfather encompasses much wisdom and humanity – and even righteous anger – under its surface sheen of anachronism, pratfalls, punning and exaggeration. Fallible most of the personages may be but, apart from the occasional sociopath or out and out psychopath, it’s easy to become fond of them. And quintessentially human virtues emerge, often to the surprise of the individual involved.

Also in evidence is a consideration of the nature and function of belief, even those beliefs that may appear as superstitions, and whether such things, even when they’re clearly metaphors, are necessary for our mental wellbeing. As Death says – still in small caps – IT IS THE THINGS YOU BELIEVE WHICH MAKE YOU HUMAN. GOOD THINGS AND BAD THINGS, IT’S ALL THE SAME.


Terry Pratchett is the archetypal jester; the jester’s role in medieval society was not just to entertain and amuse but also, on occasion, to freely comment on and perhaps criticise official attitudes and policies, and so we find that Pratchett’s fiction is full of such jesting yet serious utterances. The Conscience of Discworld turns out to be every bit a Conscience for our own world. HO HO HO.

Victorian Christmas Mummers Play

“In come I, Old Father Christmas, welcome or welcome not,
I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot.

A room, a room
I do presume
For me and my brave gallants all,
Please Sir to give leave to rhyme
For now I am come this merry Christmas time.

Activity of Youth, Activity of Age
The like was never seen before, nor acted on the stage.

A Christmas Play from Keynsham, Somerset, 1822 
© C A Lovegrove

This Yuletide do have a calm and peaceful time – hopefully with a sackful of new books waiting for you under the Christmas tree! 🙂

21 thoughts on “Death dons the false beard

  1. How delightful this sounds. I do love how Pratchett manages to weave critiques on the state of the world and human folly, so much wisdom and indeed a base in folklore, legends or literature in such a humorous and entertaining way. This is not one I’ve read so far but will look up soon. Love the idea of pigs drawing the sledge. My Pratchett reading has been lately focused on the Citywatch titles which I especially enjoy but I realise I need to start or rather restart exploring the others as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve not read any specific Citywatch titles (though I have a copy of Snuff ready and waiting) but as with you there’s so much else for me to explore in the Discworld series! I deliberately chose this for a Christmas read and am glad I did, though it was a bit of a rush to complete it in time to write a review!

      Pigs pulling a sledge? Yes, delightful, but again I know that Pterry drew on several porcine Christmas motifs here: as well as Hogswatchnight being a combination of Hogmanay – the Scottish New Year – midwinter, and Christmas Eve, there’s the medieval custom of roasting a boar and bringing the head on a platter, with an associated seasonal song, the Boar’s Head Carol; and in introducing a child called Gawain Pratchett is referencing the medieval poem ‘Sir Gawain and the Green Knight’ which includes a hunt for a boar at Christmastide.

      I could of course have expanded on all this in the review but it would have turned it into an even longer essay than it was! And I would have diminished the effect of that critique you noted on the state of the world and human folly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. They’re a great favourite with me. I’ve read the first three, and am waiting for a chance to start book 4.

        Its wonderful how he manages to incorporate so many traditions and folklore into the books and still preserves a lightheartedness about them

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I like Death’s literal-mindedness, possibly because it reflects the way I tend to think and to accept what people say at face value. 😁 And of course I hope “you’ll” have a wonderful Yule too, Karen, HO HO HO!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Ha! LoL, you’ll Yule!
        This comment reminded me of a book I read – and can’t remember the title – where Death is a character and a funny one… if I remember it I will let you know. If you have an idea of the possible title, please share.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Can’t think of a funny Death character that’s not Pratchett’s. The only image other than cartoon Grim Reapers that I can think of is Bergman’s from The Seventh Seal, and even though he plays chess he’s in no way hilarious…

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Such a great review of a book and author I confess I haven’t read. I have seen many who love Pratchett. I like your comment about him being the archetypical jester, and the two quotes are sharp and humorous observations. He has quite a fandom along with Gaiman and I saw they have a book together.

    Maybe I am missing something good. So little time, so many books, LoL.

    Thanks for your reviews. Enjoy the holidays.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Feliz Navidad to you and yours, Silvia, and I hope the ‘bomb cyclone’ isn’t affecting you in any measurable way – such extreme weather ought to be waking up more people to the consequences of the climate emergency.

      Pratchett as court jester is I believe an apt description, a character who can speak the bald truth to power with impact but also wit. Gaiman saw Pratchett as an author filled with righteous anger at injustice and deliberate stupidity, and that anger comes through even if served with a sugared pill.

      But ’tis the season to be jolly and positive, Silvia, so I hope your days are filled with joy and delights aplenty! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. At the core of all the Pratchett novels I’ve read so far is a big beating heart, Gert, a fierce love of humanity despite all its flaws, inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies. And he’s a wonderful wordsmith too – you should try him.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Death with Interruptions | Silvia Cachia

  4. *blinks* It never occurred to me to link Susan with Susan from Narnia but now you say it… I wonder if there was a deliberate link? So many contenders for inspiration there, although it wouldn’t be beyond Sir Pterry to roll them all into one.

    Anyway, nice review, enjoyed it

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks very much! “Susan” seems such a ordinary name, almost bland, which then makes me suspect the reasons authors choose it for a character. And Pratchett is nothing if not imaginative so I wouldn’t be surprised if he had Susan of Narnia’s fate in mind and determined to write a more positive role and outcome for her after the death of her siblings.

      I also wonder about Susannah in the gospels, as when Luke (chapter 8, I had to look it up) talks of “certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, and Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him [Jesus] of their substance [material means].” Susan “healed of evil spirits and infirmities”, could this also be Death’s granddaughter?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The two possible sources I saw when looking to see if there was an acknowledged link was –

        In one of the early Dr Who seasons, one of them has a granddaughter called Susan

        Also, there’s a character in Blue Oyster Cult lyrics called Suzy. In particularly she appears in a song called The Marshall Plan, where she’s a musician called Johnny’s girlfriend and disappears mid-gig, which causes a mild obsession. That one is close enough to her role in Soul Music, and since there’s already one Blue Oyster Cult reference in her story with the family motto, I’d be inclined to treat that as the probable main influence without proof otherwise.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. As I’ve not yet read Soul Music I shall take your word for the BOC references, Peat. 🙂 As for Doctor Who, I’m old enough to remember those early programmes when they were first broadcast so still have a very strong visual image of granddaughter Susan with her dark hair in an elfin cut!

          Liked by 1 person

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