Storybook Reversals

I still think that, for building a story which is all at once profound and hilarious, cogent and incredibly goofy, nobody does it like Terry Pratchett. In his Discworld novel Moving Pictures, a parody of the early film industry, the climax (SPOILER COMING, if you care to read Pratchett) presents a fifty-foot tall woman carrying a gibbering ape up the side of a ‘skyscraper,’ in a development which is entirely organic to the story. Fantastic.

A similar non sequitur occurs in the first (and only worthwhile) Shrek film. It plays on all our expectations for that kind of story: a valiant prince journeys forth with his sidekick, slays the dragon, rescues the princess, breaks the curse, marries her and lives with her happily ever after. But in Shrek, the hero is an ogre, the sidekick marries the dragon, and ‘love’s true form’ ends up being the form of an ogre for the princess. It’s full of that kind of dramatic reversal.

There’s something about the reversal of our expectations in stories which strikes us as hilarious, surprising, shocking, or profound. And it’s not limited to satire or comedy; examples abound in literature—and in Scripture, as it turns out.

At the beginning of the book of Ruth, the author tells us that the following events take place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Then, after the initial context, we find that this is a story about two widowed women, one of whom is a foreigner, living in Israel. You don’t have to have a degree in literary criticism to know what will happen next. The last few episodes of the book of Judges paint a vivid picture of what happens to women in Israel during this period of time.

So we’re on the edge of our seats, so to speak, when the story gets rolling. And then Ruth goes to glean, and catches the eye of Boaz. Yikes, we think. Is this a wife-stealing story, or a raped-to-death story? Either way, it’s not looking good. But then Boaz treats Ruth kindly, and makes sure his workers do the same. Whew! Scandal avoided. But then, in yet another twist, Ruth’s dirty-minded mother-in-law tells Ruth to go to Boaz alone, late at night, after he has been working hard and drinking. Not the best recipe for sexual purity, but we all know what a girl’s gotta do to get ahead in Israel these days. And then the plot hits yet another switchback, and Boaz doesn’t end up touching Ruth until they’re all legal and everything has been done up according to Levite marriage law, sandal and everything.

If you watch Shrek enough, you may cease to be surprised that Fiona turns into an ogre at the end (Sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been, like, 20 years). But you shouldn’t; the reversal is a key part of the story. So it is in Ruth, and Jonah, and Abraham, and so many other narratives in the Bible. When the disciples get to the tomb and see it lying empty, we should gasp in surprise.

Don’t forget that the gospel is a story—the best story. The “what?!” at the crucifixion and the bigger “WHAT?!” at the resurrection—these are a part of the story too.

Chop-Chop for Lord Mountjoy

Earlier today I listed some of my favorite Terry Pratchett Discworld novels. While writing that, this passage from Guards! Guards! came to my mind. I have to laugh out loud every time I read this, and I hope you will to.

The set-up: Captain Sam Vimes of the City Watch goes to consult Ankh-Morpork’s leading expert on dragons, given the sudden appearance of a dragon in the city streets the night previous.

He reached a heavy wooden gate in a heavy wooden wall. In contrast with the general decrepitude of the rest of the place, it seemed comparatively new and very solid.
He knocked. This caused another fusillade of strange whistling noises.
The door opened. Something dreadful loomed over him.
“Ah, good man. Do you know anything about mating?” it boomed.

Vimes found himself grabbed by the arm and pulled inside. The heavy door shut behind him with a definite click.
“It’s Lord Mountjoy Gayscale Talonthrust III of Ankh,” said the apparition, which was dressed in huge and fearsomely-padded armor. “You know, I really don’t think he can cut the mustard.”
“He can’t?” said Vimes, backing away.
“It really needs two of you.”
“It does, doesn’t it,” whispered Vimes, his shoulder blades trying to carve their way out through the fence.
“Could you oblige?” boomed the thing.
“Oh, don’t be squeamish, man. You just have to help him up into the air. It’s me who has the tricky part. I know it’s cruel, but if he can’t manage it tonight then he’s for the choppy-chop. Survival of the fittest and all that, don’t you know.”
Captain Vimes managed to get a grip on himself. He was clearly in the presence of some sex-crazed would-be murderess, insofar as any gender could be determined under the strange lumpy garments. If it wasn’t female, then references to “it’s me who has the tricky part” gave rise to mental images that would haunt him for some time to come. He knew the rich did things differently, but this was going too far.
“Madam,” he said coldly, “I am an officer of the Watch and I must warn you that the course of action you are suggesting breaks the laws of the city—” and also of several of the more strait-laced gods, he added silently—“and I must advise you that his Lordship should be released unharmed immediately—”
The figure stared at him in astonishment.
“Why?” it said. “It’s my bloody dragon.”


All Time Favs: Discworld


So, I have a slightly embarrassing confession to make.

I’ve been tracking my reading for the year, and as of July 18th, when I left for my vacation, I had read 42 books, and- here’s the embarrassing part- 26 of them were Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. If you aren’t familiar with the Discworld series, it’s an incredibly funny fantasy series which parodies basically everything- Tolkien, ancient Near-East creation myths, Hollywood, British-French relations- everything.

Anyway, I love Pratchett, and you should too. So, as hard as it is for me to choose, here are my favorite Discworld books, in no particular order:

1) Moving Pictures– The citizens of the Discworld’s largest and oldest city, Ankh-Morpork, start making moving pictures with the help of the alchemists, and they flock to the site of an old city, Holy Wood, to start turning out blockbusters. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it’s pretty characteristic of Pratchett that toward the end of the book there’s a scene with a fifty-foot woman hauling a gibbering ape up the side of a tower.

2) Witches Abroad– The witches of Lancre- Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick- are out to rescue a young Cinderella-figure in a far-away land from her fairy godmother. Lots of twists along the way.

3) Wyrd Sisters– Again with the witches (don’t worry though- Granny Weatherwax doesn’t hold with the occult)- this is basically Macbeth told from the point of view of the witches. Hilarious.

4) Guards! Guards!– Back in Ankh-Morpork, this book follows the captain of the city’s Night Watch, Sam Vimes, and his incompetent men through political intrigue, plotting, petite dragons and large women. In fact, as I think about it, this one might be my all-time favorite, if only because of the interaction between Vimes and one Lady Sybil Ramkin.

5) Jingo– As an island mysteriously emerges in the Circle Sea between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, political tensions heighten. In order to stop a war, now-Commander Sam Vimes must follow a suspected Assassin across the sea while his bungling men, Sergeant Fred Colon and Corporal Nobby Nobbs (whom Pratchett describes as “disqualified from the human race for shoving”), are forced to accompany the Patrician on a slightly wetter excursion.

6) Going Postal– After Albert Spangler, longtime thief and con-artist, is hanged in Ankh-Morpork for a lifetime of villainy, he is surprised to wake up in the Oblong Office of the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari. Vetinari offers Spangler a new life as the Postmaster General of the Royal Mail, an office that has with it a surprising amount of excitement and danger. Of all the characters on the Disc, Spangler (real name Moist Von Lipwig) might be my favorite.

7) The Fifth Elephant– Commander of the City Watch Sam Vimes is up again, only this time he is being sent by the Patrician as a diplomat to Uberwald, a  vast and thickly-forested region which was for years united under the Unholy Empire and only recently broke up into a number of small satellite kingdoms. Vimes does not enjoy the Old Country, however, particularly that time when he ends up hanging from a tree branch by the gloomy and purposeless trousers of Uncle Vanya while werewolves circle hungrily below. I think I have read this one five or ten times.

8) Lords and Ladies– Magrat Garlick has married a king and hung up her witch’s hat, while Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg find that being the Mother and the Crone without the Maiden isn’t much fun. But when the Fay come back, it’s no holds barred for queen, witch, and blacksmith alike.

I could go on, actually, but eight is a good number. I think Mustrum Ridcully would approve.