Terry Pratchett Book Club: Little Gods, Part 1
And now we turn to thoughts of a more philosophical leaning on the Disc, as we begin to hang around with a few Little gods.
We are introduced to the history monks, who keep the history books. Lu-Tze is sent to observe Omnia; the time of the eighth prophet is upon them. In the Citadel of Omnia, the novice Brutha is gardening when he hears a voice. He worries about it, so he shares his concern with one of the novice masters, Brother Nhumrod, who lectures him on bad voices that will cause him to do evil. Brutha hears the voice again in the garden; it’s a one-eyed turtle claiming to be the Great God Om. Deacon Vorbis is the head of the Omnia Quisition, and he tortures his (former) secretary for information on the heretics, then talks to two other priests – Fri’it and Drunah – about the handling of Ephebe and the pagans. living there. They are supposed to parley with the Ephebans, but Vorbis wants to lead the group and bring war to Ephebe because of what they did to “poor Brother Murdock”. Meanwhile, the Turtle Movement meets in secret, a secret group that wants to save a character named Didactylos and stop Vorbis.
Brutha shows Brother Nhumrod the turtle, but he doesn’t hear him speak and decides it’s best to eat. Brutha saves the turtle, but insists that he cannot be the great god Om, and shows him the statues and paraphernalia associated with the faith while citing the scriptures. Drunah and Fri’it meet to discuss Vorbis’ holy war plans and decide to go with the wave for now. Brutha continues to interrogate the Turtle, who doesn’t know much about all of their religious books and rules, although their religion claims that this information comes directly from Om himself. However, the Turtle seems to know everything about Brutha’s life, which causes Brutha to panic. Vorbis meets Brutha holding her fingers in those ears and asks her what’s distressing her. At the sight of it, Brutha fainted. Vorbid sees the turtle and turns it onto its back, weighing it down, as he turns to Brutha.
Vorbis talks to Brutha’s brother Nhumrod and learns that the young man cannot read or write (it just doesn’t seem to sink in), but has some sort of eidetic memory. Vorbis demands to see him once he’s recovered. Om is lying on his back in the sun, thinking about what he has done; he wasn’t really watching everything his disciples were doing, but he was able to pull thoughts out of Brutha’s head, which is how he seemed to know his story. He knows he shouldn’t have done it, and now it looks like he’s going to die (gods can actually die of more than a lack of belief) because he can’t turn around and it’s warmer and there’s an eagle nearby – who had earlier dropped it on a compost heap, oddly enough. Almost as if something is intervening, which is impossible because it is divine intervention. Lu-Tze walks up and straightens the turtle, saving its life. Om wanders the Citadel, discovering the things that have changed over the millennia; the cellar of the Quisition where torture takes place, and the place of lamentations, where the poor believers pray for the help of the god. Om is kicked to the ground by unconscious praying supplicants, and an eagle spots him for lunch.
Brutha is brought to Vorbis’ apartments and is questioned about the room he entered through to give an example from his memory, which he remembers perfectly. He was told to forget about this meeting and fired. He goes to speak to Lu-Tze before hearing the turtle in his head again, calling for his help. Brutha accidentally walks past their highest priest’s procession, but he finds the turtle and tells him about his mission for Vorbis in Ephebe. Om doesn’t like Vorbis very much and also insists on getting caught up with Brutha, who appears to be the only true believer in the entire Citadel. Brother Fri’it tries to pray, but he can’t remember the last time he did and really meant it. He knows that Vorbis is aware of his betrayal, that he appreciates foreign lands and the turtle movement. The moment he decides to pick up his sword and go kill an exquisitor, Vorbis shows up in his apartments with two of his inquisitors in tow. The next morning, Brutha puts Om in a wicker box, and the group of travelers to Ephebe arrives in the courtyard. Vorbis informs Sergeant Simony that Fri’it will not be accompanying them.
A discussion of this book seems like it should start with a preface or two, so people know where I’m from, as religion is a thorny subject that people can (and take) very personally. So here’s the problem: I’m an agnostic in a pretty literal sense, given that I personally don’t believe in any gods, but I also contend that it’s impossible for me to know what is beyond my perception. From a cultural point of view, I was brought up by two non-practicing parents, one Jewish, the other episcopal. Of these two legacies, I identify with the first and comfortably call myself a secular Jew. (The legitimacy of this view varies greatly depending on who you talk to, but it is a known position that has existed in Judaism for at least centuries, if not longer. You can be a Jew without believing in God, and fact, Judaism generally requires active questioning on denominational matters up to and including the existence of God.)
We should also start this discussion by acknowledging that Pratchett has received fan mail about this book from believers and atheists, with both sides commending him for supporting them. Which is relevant for obvious reasons, I think.
Of course, whether this text is pro or anti religion to you, this story is largely a discussion of which aspects of religion are beneficial to humanity and which are decidedly not. Pratchett tackles these problems in an even more direct way than what we have seen in his previous work; the impassive quality in its explanation of everything the Quisition does (it’s torture, there’s really no way around it); the recognition that many people pray out of habit rather than faith; the vehement denial of any form of scientific inquiry if it is even slightly confusing to the principles of Scripture.
There is also room for discussion that faith is something created by people, and the need to keep it flexible for that reason alone. Brutha’s quotation from the scriptures to Om leads the god to admit that he does not remember insisting on many of the commandments and laws that Omnians consider to be gospels. These interpretations (maybe even embellishments or outright changes?) Were made by human men, who in turn built this religion to meet their own goals and ideas. I’ve been criticized in the past for explaining that in my opinion all religious texts are a form of mythology, but that’s a big part of my reasoning there – they’re written, translated and, yes, even modified by people. We have the story to prove it, which is also referenced in this novel: Hebrew translation error about Moses coming down from Mount Sinai. (The phrase in question could be translated as “radiant” or “horns” depending on the context – oopsies, I guess?)
I feel like Pratchett is sticking to one track in this book – obviously the presence of Lu-Tze and his moving mountains invokes Taoism, but he’s waiting there on the outskirts of this story because Omnia has a distinctly medieval Catholic bent. We are dealing with the kind of inquiries that occurred in Galileo’s time (and indeed, there is a reference to him in the phrase “the turtle moves”), and the horrors caused by the Spanish Inquisition. . We are also dealing with a very specific mode of fanaticism which is exercised in this case by one person. The setting for this story serves as a substitute for a number of atrocities committed throughout history in the name of religion.
But at the center we have Brutha and Om, a true believer and his god, with their comedic encounter and puzzled back and forth as they struggle to make sense of the current situation. We’ll have to wait until next week to get into the interaction of religion and philosophy that really fuels this book.
Apart and little thoughts:
- There is a point where it is said that Brutha puts a lot of effort into running, especially that he runs from the knees. Which probably means he’s pretty darn fast; I took an Alexander Technique class once, and our teacher would always talk about our perception of speed and how our forward lean instinct was really costing us on that front. For speed, you are supposed to imagine that your steps start with the movement of your knees and that carries you forward. If you want to walk more efficiently (and reduce your risk of falling), do like Brutha and walk / run from your knees!
When people say “It’s written …” it’s written here.
Time is a drug. Too much of it is killing you.
And it all meant this: that there is hardly any excess of the craziest psychopath that cannot be easily replicated by a normal, kind family man who just comes to work every day and has a job to do.
Fear is strange soil. It mainly grows in obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easier. But sometimes he grows the challenge potatoes, which bloom underground.
Someone up there likes me, he thought. And that’s Me.
The change in her expression was like watching a slick of grease cross a pond.
Next week we read up to:
“Very tall for the gods. The man with the great gods. It still smelled like burnt hair. Naturally tough.