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Friday, December 24, 2010

cover of Terry Pratchett's 'Hogfather'

While going about his usual business, Death notices that something is wrong - that the Hogfather (the Discworld equivalent to our Santa Claus, with a sleigh drawn by huge pigs or boar named Tusker, Snouter, Gouger, and Rooter) is in danger, in fact very near to whatever the equivalent of death is for an immortal being. At the same time, a group of the Auditors has come to the Assassin's guild in Ankh-Morpork with an unusual request: end the Hogfather. But they offer enough money, and there happens to be an unusual member of the Assassin's guild who as a hobby has considered how one might end the Hogfather, the Tooth Fairy, or even Death-- so Mr. Teatime undertakes this request. In the meantime, Death decides to fill in for the Hogfather-- leaving footprints and presents and removing the treats left for the Hogfather (his assistant, Albert, is along with him eating the goodies and helping Death to be more jolly), in order to help instill belief in the Hogfather to help him survive. As he's doing his rounds (dressed in a red suit with a pillow and a fake beard), Death stops by the house where his granddaughter Susan works as a governness-- and warns her very carefully that she shouldn't get involved, of course knowing full well that this will result in her doing exactly that.

Susan is a wonderful character-- I love the idea of a governess who can see and deal with all the monsters that children see and imagine. Susan is quite handy with a poker, and of course, the monsters tend to be surprised she can see them. As Susan makes her way to Death's house, and then to the fallen ice palace of the Hogfather (riding Death's steed, Binky) she meets up with the newly minted oh god of hangovers, Bilious, and then with the rather silly wizards of Unseen University-- who are having some interesting run-ins with the after-effects of what is going on. With the assistance of a computer named Hex, they eventually come to the conclusion that there is a certain amount of belief in the world, and the lack of belief in the Hogfather is resulting in extra belief, so that the odd but plausible fairies or imps or sock eaters or pencil chewers that they mention suddenly pop into existence. While all of these other things are going on, Mr. Teatime and his crew have broken into the Tooth Fairy's castle - Teatime having hit upon the clever scheme of using sympathetic magic with the extensive collection of teeth housed there to undo belief in the Hogfather. But, of course, there is more to the Tooth Fairy than they had accounted for, and eventually most of Teatime's rough crew of thugs and criminals are undone by vicious versions of their childhood fears.

One of the themes running through this book is the idea that "old gods do new jobs." The Hogfather is a newer form of an ancient god who had something to do with blood and snow and the sun-- an old winder ritual transformed into the gift-giving and feasts of Hogswatch. When Susan sees the Hogfather at the end of the book, it is clear that he has many forms (some with tusks, some without), and Susan comments to her grandfather that she'd heard the red and white outfit was a recent invention; but Death tells her, "No. It was remembered." Even the original Tooth Fairy, when finally revealed, I found rather an interesting twist-- another old, perhaps even nasty being, who loved children, but not at all for the reasons we might think (not any childish goodness or sweetness, but rather their nastiness and inventive, terrible fears), and who decided to collect their teeth as a way of protecting them (protecting them against the kind of thing Teatime attempted to do, in fact).

Of course, one of the best parts of the book is Death filling in for the Hogfather-- Albert keeps trying to help him, tells him to "put more heart into it", has a checklist that includes saying "Ho, Ho, Ho", and insists that Death use the chimneys even in places where it is inconvenient - when of course Death can walk through walls. Death is fascinated by and seems to love humanity, but he doesn't understand the conventions of a holiday like Hogswatch, so he tends to do things differently. He drops in on a store and replaces a paid actor as the Hogfather listening to children, and then he starts giving the children what they want-- for free, instead of the parents buying it from the store, and gives them dangerous toys and even weapons in some case, because they ask for it. This results in all kinds of comedy and skewers a fair number of our traditional holiday stories in the process. It's a little bittersweet, though, too-- because Death particularly enjoys people looking forward to his visit instead of dreading him as they usually do.

I watched the BBC version of "Hogfather" a couple of years ago, so it was fun to read the book-- and at times I was surprised at how faithful the adaptation was, since I recognized entire lines or even scenes from the movie. This is an entertaining book that was fun to read during the holidays, with its seasonal irreverence and humor.

Author:Terry Pratchett
Date published:1996
Number of pages:354
Notes:borrowed from Levi


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