Reflections of and on Reality in Terry Pratchett’s _Soul Music_

Reflections of and on Reality in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music



Behold the Discworld. Watch the Waterfall on the Rim plunge into the bottomless abyss of the multiverse while the tiny sun slides above weird-shaped continents, bringing the day along. Note the eight-colour rainbows and the green-ice, ten-miles-high tower, in which the gods are playing their vicious games with mortal fates. See wizards perform magical rites and heroes succeed nine times out of ten against million-to-one chances. Do not miss the dragons and the druids, the valkyries and the vampires, the trolls and the tooth fairies…

Unmistakably, a fantasy setting. Yet another escape from reality to the realms of imagination, in other words.

…Yet, did you heed the four elephants that support this flat world on their backs? And, yes, it is a giant turtle’s shell they are standing on. Does not this remind you of a certain notion of our Earth?

You will be amazed by the abundance of references to our own reality once you start examining in detail this alleged fantasy creation. The reason for their frequent occurrence lies in the very rationale of the Discworld series: although it started as a parody of the fantasy genre, the series has eventually grown to encompass all literature, culture, our society and civilization, and ultimately the world we inhabit in virtually all its aspects. In the meantime the Discworld has developed a reality of its own, but this reality has never been an independent one; on the contrary, it has become ever more deeply rooted in the reality that we know. It is, therefore, meaningless to refer to the Discworld books as an escape from reality – and, indeed, why would the author attempt such an escape if the very same reality, viewed from an appropriate angle, provides an endless source of laugh-arousing material? For a truly satisfactory reading of Terry Pratchett’s novels, you’d rather need a deep awareness of the surrounding world; the better familiarity you have with the various aspects of human life and our civilization’s achievements (often in the ironical sense), the more you will enjoy the multitude of gags and jests throughout the text.

* * *

Soul Music, the sixteenth book in the ongoing Discworld series, is no exception to the overall rationale. The multiple reflections of our world and life, often comically (and sometimes grotesquely) distorted, constitute literally every line of the story. As usual, they come from all sorts of sources – physics, literature, culture and mass entertainment, society with its diverse transformations and issues – but the two discernibly prevailing concentrations of reflections focus on the world of music and musicians, and on reality in the eyes of adolescence. The resulting picture is completed by the narrator’s reflections, witty, ironic, unobtrusive, insightful in their own way, and as accurate as any aphorism can be. This essay aims to present both types of reflections in their plenitude and convince the reader of the multi-layered bond between the Discworld and our own reality.

‘This is also a story about sex and drugs and Music With Rocks In,’ [S8] states the narrator in the prefacing ‘History’, then hurries to correct himself, ‘…One out of three ain’t bad […] it could be worse’. The spared one, as the title of the book has already suggested, is music. From the cover illustration, which according to APF (1) resembles the cover of Meatloaf’s rock album ‘Bat out of Hell’, to the xylophone featuring in the blurb on the back cover, music plays freely and amply throughout the novel. The author demonstrates remarkable ingenuity in weaving musical references into the text. Of the three members of the band that occupies one of the plot foci (simply known as The Band), the troll-drummer eventually adopts the name ‘Cliff’ – a choice both appropriate within the context of Discworld (where trolls are of the stone variety) and convenient for parodying purposes, making possible the bantering ‘”Cliff? Can’t see anyone lasting long in this business [i.e. music] with a name like Cliff.”‘[S120] Asphalt, another troll, becomes what is the Discworld equivalent of a roadie. The name of The Band’s guitarist and frontman Imp y Celyn is explained to translate as ‘Bud of the Holly’ [S120-1], which is only an iota away from Buddy Holly. Terry Pratchett uses the same punning connection several more times: mentioning ‘the day when the music died’ [S173], the common name for February 3, 1959, on which Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash, and incorporating titles of Holly’s songs in the words of various characters: ‘Everyday’ in ‘I can feel it. Every day. It’s getting closer…‘ [S306], ‘That’ll Be the Day’ in ‘”Hah. That’ll be the day.”‘ [S307], ‘Not Fade Away’ in ‘”Please!” she shouted. “Don’t fade away!”‘ [S366]. The author does not, however, stay confined within the limits of a strict one-to-one correspondence. (After all, Discworld books are mosaic burlesques rather than spoofs based on a single source.) Imp’s appearance, for instance, prompts others to ask the youth ‘Are you elvish?’ now and again, as a resonance of the ever-actual question ‘Are you Elvis?’ At the end of the book Imp appears as a fish shop seller whose looks make a character say, ‘”I’d swear he’s elvish”‘ [S376], which puts a finishing touch to the Elvis gag and at the same time refers to Kirsty MacColl’s ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’. Among songs, Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is the indisputable champion in terms of text references. (2) It resounds in the description of Imp’s harp: ‘fresh and bright and already it sang out like a bell’ [S14]; echoes in a dialogue between Buddy/Imp and Cliff:

“You had a great house there, I expect?” said the troll.
“Just a shack,” said Buddy. “Made of earth and wood.” [S270];

makes an almost direct appearance in ‘Sioni Bod Da’ [S326], the song that won Imp his harp (‘bod da’ is ‘be good’ in Welsh); and comes full circle with ‘Every note was sharp as a bell […]’ [S330]. Other songs whose titles or lyrics have been integrated into the text include Eurythmics’ ‘Sweet Dreams’ (‘Everyone, they say, is looking for something’ [S19]), Jim Steinman’s ‘Love and Death and an American Guitar’ (‘I REMEMBER EVERYTHING. […] EVERY LITTLE DETAIL. AS IF IT HAPPENED ONLY YESTERDAY.’ [S25], said, appropriately, by Death, an important Discworld personage and one of Soul Music‘s protagonists), James Brown’s ‘I Got Ants In My Pants (And I Want To Dance)’ and the passage ‘I’ve got Ants in my Pants and I want to Dance’ (‘” Moving around on your seat like you got a pant full of ant.”‘ [S121]), Sonny Bono’s ‘The Beat Goes On’ (‘…the beat went on…’ [S123]), Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Great Balls of Fire’ (‘”A song about Great Fiery Balls. […] Couldn’t really make out the words, the reason bein’, the piano exploded.” [S169], the explosion corresponding to Lewis’s gasoline stunt), The Byrds’ ‘So You Want to be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star’ (‘”So you want to be Music With Rocks In stars, do you? […] Then listen here to what I say…”‘ [S263-4]), Elvis Presley’s ‘My Way’ (‘DID IT HIS WAY.’ [S370]). Song titles also appear by themselves (of course, appropriately modified): ‘Don’t Tread On My New Blue Boots’ [S174] (after Carl Perkins’s ‘Blue Suede Shoes’), ‘Good Gracious Miss Polly’ [ibid.] (Little Richard’s ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’), ‘Pathway to Paradise’ [S192] (Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’), ‘Cavern Deep, Mountain High’ [S220] (Phil Spector’s ‘River Deep Mountain High’), ‘There’s A Great Deal Of Shaking Happening’ [S306] (Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On’). Names of bands occur in a similarly hilarious fashion: the Discworld equivalent of U2 is &U [S324], The Surreptitious Fabric [S282] corresponds to Velvet Underground, The Inkspots transform into The Blots [S285], the gangster rap band Niggaz With Attitude meets its counterpart in Dwarfs With Altitude [S315], Madness and Kiss turn into Insanity [S207] and Suck [S365] respectively; you will also encounter Lead Balloon and The Whom [S285], and should be reminded of more rock giants by phrases as ‘”Yes, but a rolling stone gathers no moss […]”‘ and ‘THANK YOU, said the grateful Death.’ [ibid.] Accompanying these main cores of references comes a myriad of others, of many different types and origins. In the name of Satchelmouth Lemon [S161], for example, we might recognize a combination of Satchmo, Louis Armstrong’s nickname, and Blind Lemon Jefferson, a famous bluesman. ‘”[…] would they remember some felonious monk or shout for Glod Glodsson?”‘ [S219] and ‘”Whoever heard of a serious musician with a glove?”‘ [S314] contain hidden winks at Thelonious Monk and Michael Jackson, respectively. Tinlid Alley [S28], the street that shelters the Guild of Musicians, alludes to Tin Pan Alley in New York, nowadays associated with the music publishing industry in general, while the Cavern [S198] bears the same name as the Liverpool night club where the Beatles played their first performance. ‘Shave and a haircut, two pence’ [S47] refers to ‘Shave and a haircut, two bits’, a classic rock ‘n’ roll rhythm; ‘duck’s arse’ in ‘”It looks like a spike at the front and a duck’s arse […] at the back”‘ [S163] is the correct name for the described haircut, popular in the fifties; and music styles like rat (‘”And me an’ my friend can walk towards you with our hats on backwards in a menacing way, Yo!”‘ [S199]), hole (‘When you are a long way from the old familiar mine or mountain, when you’re lost among strangers, when you’re are just a great big aching nothingness inside … only then you can really sing hole.’ [S332]), or, for that matter, the Music With Rocks In (‘It made you want to kick down walls and ascend the sky on steps of fire. It made you want to pull all the switches and throw all the levers and stick your fingers in the electric socket of the universe to see what happened next. It made you want to paint your bedroom wall black and cover it with posters.’ [S114]) speak for themselves.

All references mentioned so far come from specific sources in the actual world of (chiefly rock) music. Just as frequent – and by all means more intriguing – are the reflections that describe this world in principle. Let’s start with its inhabitants: ‘Musicians were often short of money; it was one definition of a musician’ [S40]; thus, the legendary Owen Mwnyy [S117] certainly owes much to the Welsh folk hero Owen Myfanwy, as the APF suggests, but, more importantly, the ‘owing money’ pun in his name makes him fit perfectly the musician’s image. The theme of music, money and fame occupies a central place in the dialogues among the members of The Band – as in the following one:

“I swore I’d be the most famous musician in the world. […] Isn’t it what every artist wants?” said Buddy.
“In my experience ,” said Glod, “what every true artist wants, really wants, is to be paid.” [S157]

The latter argument finds its continuation in ‘”If we’re so good, why ain’t we rich?”‘ [S175] and ‘”I’m a professional musician. […] Of course I think about money.”‘ [S302], whereas the desire for fame reaches a frightening culmination in the contextually grotesque ‘Never age. Never die. Live for ever in that one last white-hot moment when the crowd screamed. […] Burn across the sky. […] Live fast. Die young.’ [S355]. Incidentally, the last two phrases, immortalized by James Dean, have already appeared on the robe of the Dean of the magical Unseen University, rearranged as ‘LIVE FATS DIE YO GNU’ [S183]; together with ‘BORN TO RUNE’ [S208] and the shirts with writing on [S316] they come as a mere response to the gradual settling of the Music With Rocks In. The Discworld has already seen the appearance of the pogo [‘”That’s dancing, is it? Banging into people? Throwin’ one another over your shoulders? Twirling around all over the place?”‘ [S172]), the advent of musical attributes such as leather clothes, wristbands with studs and guitars with sequins [S188-9,191] and the rapid emergence of amateur (garage) bands [S196-7]; soon will follow the tours [S217], the free festivals [S211] and the development of a cult following that throws pieces of clothing during concerts (‘”—er, I think she threw some of her, er, under … things on to the stage”‘ [S228]) and yearns for autographs (‘”Only it not for me, it for my boy Clay—” […] “How d’you spell it?” “It don’t matter, he can’t read anyway.”‘ [S323]). The Band themselves stumble upon an impresario (‘”You play music. You don’t want to worry your heads about money stuff, right?”‘ [S176]), redecorate hotel rooms (however, not by smashing the furniture, as the term is usually applied, but in a quite literal sense – ‘”I got Asphalt to get some paint […] These rooms are a disgrace.”‘ and ‘” Nice curtains, by the way.”‘ [S289-90]) and come to know the meaning of ‘groupies’ (‘”You think she’s one of them gropies Asphalt told us about?”‘ [S300]). In spite of the humorous distortions (as in ‘groupies’ and ‘gropies’) – or perhaps precisely because of them – the reader has little difficulty recognizing the real phenomena described. The Music With Rocks In does not belong to the Discworld, as several characters will figure out; its roots lie in rounder, earthlier worlds.

The second major thread that unifies the narrative and brings it within the borders of our reality builds around the picture of the world young people perceive. In the eyes of the sixteen-year-old protagonist Susan, it is a world of injustice and narrow-mindedness and ‘sheer stupidity’ [S21], justifying the frequent feelings of anger and the will to rebel. In thoughts as ‘The world held too much fluffy thinking […] it was the job of people like Susan, if there were any more like her, to sort it out.’ [S49] and ‘That’s not how things should go. Someone ought to do something about it.‘ [S113] and ‘[…] there were going to be changes […] She’d save lives. The good could be spared and the bad could die young.’ [S186] re-echo, ironically and at the same time truthfully, the dreams that often come to many young people (not excluding the author of this essay). Similarly, the common adolescent feelings of bitterness and frustration find expression in ‘”There’s no sense in the way people die. There’s no justice!”‘ [S155] and the corrosive exchange

“I mean I can’t help it! That’s not my fault! It’s not fair!” “Really? […] I should just go out now if I was you, and tell the universe that it’s not fair. I’ll bet it’ll say, oh, all right then, sorry you’ve been troubled, you’re let of.” [S91-2].

Of course, there are far less serious reflections of the adolescent aptness to rebellion – from the amusing ‘[…] fried food was considered unhealthy by Miss Butts [the headmistress in Susan’s college], and therefore bought out of school at every opportunity’ [S57] to the outright ludicrous

“Your trouble, Archchancellor, is that you don’t understand people of our age!” [says the Dean under the influence of the Music With Rocks In]
“What … you mean seven months older than me?” [S163],

further evolving into ‘He [the Dean again] wanted to disobey! Disobey everything! […] He was definitely not going to fold his clothes before going to bed!’ [S173] – and even of teenagers’ views on their parents: ‘Parents were quite clever at not telling people things, even when they used a lot of words.’ [S93] or ‘Parents were never young. They were merely waiting to become Parents.’ [S148]. The smile these reflections provoke undoubtedly contains a strong element of reminiscence about our life’s stormier periods. Pratchett’s own smile lacks neither sympathy nor understanding; moreover, rebelliousness will be raised to the level of a fundamental characteristic of human nature: ‘BUT YOU ARE HUMAN AND YOUR MIND REBELS FOR ITS OWN SAKE.’ [S370]. When Death, the embodiment of inevitability, intervenes in the natural course of events and averts the disaster they are heading for, breaking the inexorable and inhuman rules he is supposed to stand for and acknowledging that ‘SOMETIMES THE WORLD NEEDS CHANGING’ [S372] – in other words, turning into a rebel himself [S378] – rebellion transcends the stereotypical status of a transient reaction limited to a turbulent and immature period of our lives and becomes the symbol of humanity’s triumph.

Last but not least – neither in number nor in significance – come the references to all spheres of human existence, characteristic of each Discworld novel. Since we started with music, here are three particularly ingenious musical ones: ‘[…] it was felt that anyone espying a fair young maiden one morning in May was entitled to take whatever steps they considered appropriate without someone writing it down’ [S42] making fun of the first lines of a popular medieval folk song; ‘There’s a song about him. It begins: You’d Better Watch Out…‘ [S69], which is the actual opening of ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’ (although contextually the effect is quite sinister); and ‘”When I was a lad we had proper music with real words … ‘Summer is icumen in, lewdly sing cuckoo’, this sort of thing.”‘ [S324] paraphrasing the ‘Cuckoo Song’ (one of the oldest known English songs) – ‘Sumer is icumen in, lhude sing cuccu’. Hence we can proceed to entertainment business in general, represented in Soul Music by cartoons (‘[…] whosoever the gods wish to destroy, they first hand the equivalent of a stick with a fizzing fuse and Acme Dynamite company written on the side’ [S14]), comics (‘”As soon as he saw the duck, Elmer knew it was going to be a bad day.”‘ [S131]) and movies. Like songs, movies have either lent their title to the text, as in the case of ‘”mumblemumbelmumble,” said the Dean defiantly, a rebel without a pause.’ [S173] alluding to Rebel without a Cause (starring, appropriately, James Dean), or have become incorporated inside the story, sometimes to the extent that dialogues read like Discworld remakes of popular scenes: cf. The Blues Brothers, whose reflections appear now and again, most notably in ‘”He can’t stop us. We’re on a mission from Glod.”‘ [S127] (it is ‘God’ in the original) and ‘”[…] I’ll throw in the space between the strings for free, OK?”‘ [S190] (in the movie Ray Charles will ‘throw in the black notes [of a piano] for free’). Worth noting here – and in general – is the rapid, yet smooth transition between the gags; in its seamless logic, it resembles the films of Charlie Chaplin. The motorbike sequence preceding the book’s culmination [S347-64] provides an eloquent example of Pratchett’s skill in interweaving sketches: after the Dean has described the weird machine in front of him (instantly recognized by the reader as a motorcycle) as a ‘triumph’ [S348] (a famous British make of motorcycles), Death appears and, in Terminator-2-like fashion, demands the Dean’s clothes (‘I NEED YOUR CLOTHES […] GIVE ME YOUR COAT.’ [S350]), which he does need for setting the vehicle in motion; on his way out, he bursts through a flower bed (enabling another character to note, ‘”He … he had a rose in his teeth, sarge”‘ [S352], an allusion to the skull-and-roses motif on many of The Grateful Dead album covers) and rides towards the site where the crash and the culmination occur (thereby, as the APF points out, re-acting the story in Don McLean’s song ‘American Pie’, which also contains the line ‘a coat he borrowed from Dean’); his subsequent self-reconstruction piece by piece (or rather, bone by bone) brings us back to Terminator 2.

There are many more pieces that take their place within the mosaic of the story. Some originate in literature and art: the raven Quoth who will never more say the N word [S50]; Imp’s birthplace, Llamedos, which seems fitting for someone whose speech abounds with double l’s, yet, once turned backwards, loses its innocent sound and at the same time reminds Dylan Thomas’s admirers of ‘Quite Early One Morning’ and Llareggub; the very second sentence of the story – ‘A dark, stormy night.’ [S9], immortalized by Lord Lytton as the classical opening of bad novels; Cliff’s wish ‘”If we get out of dis alive, I’m going to put my rock kit on my back and take a long walk, and the first time someone says to me, ‘What are them things on your back?’ dat’s where I’m gonna settle down.”‘ [S290] reshaping Tiresias’s advice to Odysseus; phrases as ‘Oh, my paws and whiskers’ [S46] and ‘[…] someone who sat on a wall and required royal assistance to be put together again’ [S259], which allude to Alice’s adventures; or ‘”ANYONE HERE BEEN KILLED AND CALLED VOLF?”‘ [S103], a reflection of Anyone Here Been Raped and Speak English?, a book about newspapers’ foreign correspondents; or even a description as ‘There was a path, though. It led across the fields for half a mile or so, then disappeared abruptly’ [S146], which succinctly summarizes Van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield with Crows’. Others derive from history, mythology and philosophy: e.g. Leonard of Quirm [S133], a certified genius and inventor who made his living by painting portraits of influential merchants’ wives; the god Blind Io whose choice of a vase of daises as a vehicle for seduction [S93] can leave the Greek Zeus agape with envy; and Death’s simply elegant, elegantly simple answer to the ancient Eastern koan ‘What sound is made by one hand clapping?’ [S24]. Still others come from science: on Discworld convergent evolution serves to account for the similar behaviour of a valkyrie and a gym teacher [S107], whereas music can entirely redefine such concepts as the background noise and the Big Bang [S193-4] and provide a solution to a major cosmological concern – the orderly character of the universe:

It was wrong to call it a big bang. That would just be noise, and all that noise could create is more noise and a cosmos full of random particles.
Matter exploded into being, apparently as chaos, but in fact as a chord. [S362];

we see the young wizards trying to split the thaum, the smallest unit of magic [S180], and building complex computing machines that use ants instead of electrons [S236-7]; both a kneetop (‘a travelling computer for druids’ [S236]) and quanta [S8] make a brief appearance… Finally, there are all those single reflections ranging widely in tone and topic, from racism (‘He [Imp] shut his eyes. He knew what trolls and dwarfs traditionally did to people suspected of being elves.’ [S30]) and prejudiced stereotyping (‘”Not even trolls act like that […] swinging people round like a dwarf with a battleaxe”‘ [S172]) to human behaviour (‘”Say something.” Imp hesitated, as people do when, after having used a language all their lives, they’re told to “say something”.’ [S41]) and psychology (‘[…] the menu of the folkier kind of restaurant always has to have misspellings in it, so that customers can be lured into a false sense of superiority.’ [S73]) to such new-old concepts as Cantaloupe [S245] (the muse Calliope and a melon in one) and the trousers the Dean is making himself [‘”Say what you like,” he shouted, “when history comes to name these, they certainly won’t call them Archchancellors!”‘ [S259]). Each of these reflections sparkles on its own but also blends with the others, contributing to the kaleidoscopic masquerade ofSoul Music.

* * *

Once you have read a Discworld novel, you should reconsider using words like ‘escapism’ in your definition of fantasy. (Alternatively, you may choose to call Terry Pratchett’s writing a separate genre, but this involves the far greater trouble of inventing a name for it and justifying your invention before other picky readers.) The story may, in fact, often seem more real than reality: on one level, its sheer eventfulness makes it far more vivid than everyday life, which by no means offers the same plethora and concentration of overt jokes and hidden meaning; on another, the urge to uncover this meaning will boost your knowledge of the surrounding world, even simply because you would not want to miss any laughs. Consequently, your attention will be diverted from the text not so much by the fantasy details as by pondering along the lines of ‘Now who is he making fun of with this Noxeuse’s Divisibility Paradox?’ (3) There is, however, another, more important way in which the Discworld raises our awareness of the surrounding world. It is embodied in the general questions such as ‘Are musicians greedy for money or fame? Aren’t they?’ and ‘What is the true significance of rebelliousness?’ that put to the test our most deeply-rooted assumptions. In our day-to-day existence, we usually fail to notice reality’s quirks and crotchets; only when we see them through the distorting and exaggerating prism of the Discworld do we gain a fuller awareness of our world. The ultimate question, then, is: How exaggerated is Discworld’s picture of reality after all? The ultimate answer – I suppose – Pratchett’s seemingly non-committed smile.


[S] Pratchett, Terry Soul Music (Corgi Books, 1995)
During the investigation stage I have been greatly aided by the 7a-th version of the Annotated Pratchett File. I would like to express my gratitude to its editor Leo Breebaart and its many painstaking contributors for the wealth of the material collected there and, consequently, for the laughs that I did not miss. I strongly encourage Pratchett’s potential readers to boost their enjoyment by getting a copy of the file from the L-Space Web.


(1) The Annotated Pratchett File; see the bibliography. Back

(2) For convenience, I have included the full lyrics in the Appendix. Back

(3) Indeed, the search for the origin of all names and concepts on Discworld has reached such extents among Pratchett’s readers that the author has several times found himself forced to defend the originality of his creations against over-eager interpreters. Back

Chuck Berry – ‘Johnny B. Goode’

Way down Louisiana close to New Orleans,
Way back up in the woods among the evergreens
There stood a log cabin made of earth and wood,
Where lived a country boy name of Johnny B. Goode
He never ever learned to read or write so well,
But he could play the guitar like ringing a bell.

Go Go
Go Johnny Go
Go Go
Johnny B. Goode

He use to carry his guitar in a gunny sack
And sit beneath the trees by the railroad track.
Oh, the engineers used to see him sitting in the shade,
Playing to the rhythm that the drivers made.
People passing by would stop and say
Oh my that little country boy could play


His mama told him someday he would be a man,
And he would be the leader of a big old band.
Many people coming from miles around
To hear him play his music when the sun go down
Maybe someday his name would be in lights
Saying Johnny B. Goode tonight.


1 thought on “Reflections of and on Reality in Terry Pratchett’s _Soul Music_

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