The Importance of Believing:
Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather
The late British novelist Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) was mainly known for his Discworld series of comic fantasy novels, of which one of the most popular, Hogfather, was made into a BBC miniseries in 2006. Pratchett was a secular humanist, but did not share the unfortunate belief of some atheists that there is something shameful about faith itself. Instead, with Hogfather, he valorizes the struggle between belief and fantasy – which he casts as necessary parts of being human – and a cold, mechanical, and unimaginative worldview. In the process, he makes interesting points about the nature and value of belief which are relevant to current cultural issues.
The plot centers around an attempt by shadowy apparitions called the Auditors to eliminate the Hogfather, a mythical figure based on Santa Claus. The Auditors are described as “the civil service of everything,” interested mainly in “running the universe – making sure that gravity works and that atoms spin.” They appear distinct from human beings, as they lack any individual qualities such as names or addresses, and their physical appearance is that of empty, hooded robes. Their mentality is similarly inhuman; as objective rule-based thinkers, they despise the human tendency towards imagination and mythology, thus their interest in inhuming the Hogfather.
The Auditors represent not only government bureaucrats but various other philistines in authority, past and present. One of the most egregious examples historically was Communism, under which no belief other than belief in Communist doctrine was tolerated, and spirituality was brutally suppressed. But even in ostensibly freer Western societies, there is no shortage of people who are invested in the functioning of society on a practical level, but who would deny that intangible qualities like creativity are equally as necessary as laws and paperwork for civilization. Such people are outright hostile to these things in many cases; indeed, in the current year, Western society is arguably dominated by the type of people who have so little respect for humor that they prosecute comedians for their jokes.
The largest city in the Discworld universe is known as Ankh-Morpork, and this is where most of the story takes place. The city officially tolerates murder within the context of an Assassins’ Guild, and this is where the Auditors go to put a price on the Hogfather’s head. The assassins are led by one Lord Downey, who contracts with a bizarre but capable criminal known as Jonathan Teatime. In exchange for this service, Teatime is offered a promotion to full member of the Assassin’s Guild, as well as possible lenient treatment in a claim against him stemming from his unauthorized killing of one of his targets’ dogs.
The name “Teatime” is allegedly a reference to the novel The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by the late British writer Douglas Adams, but the name and the character’s attitude towards it also imply something about the nature of the evils he represents. It seems to be something entirely banal; when Susan first hears him pronounce it, she responds with, “You mean about four thirty in the afternoon?” which makes it sound like an everyday thing in the most literal sense. His own background is similarly far from distinguished; he was an orphan, having been a student at the Assassin’s Guild only with the help of a scholarship. But Teatime insists on pronouncing his name in various creative ways throughout the story, as if to insist that he is not the kind of common man whose last name is simply an English noun. The Auditors display a sort of pretension as well. They appear very powerful, far above ordinary people in a sense, but their mindset is merely one of everyday bigotry and conformity.
The Hogfather is a mythological character, and thus cannot be killed by ordinary means. Instead, like the deities in Pratchett’s earlier novel Small Gods, he becomes weaker as fewer people have faith in him. Teatime’s plan is thus to stop the population from believing in the Hogfather, and to do this, he decides to visit the Tooth Fairy. Based on the old superstition that with a part of someone’s body, even a tooth, one can have magical influence over them, he and his hired accomplices raid the store of teeth in the Tooth Fairy’s castle. Practically everyone alive has given a tooth to the Tooth Fairy, so this is the best opportunity for Teatime to force people to stop believing, with the unwilling aid of an unfortunate wizard who casts the necessary spells.
In a 2014 speech about the global consumerist monoculture which threatens to erase distinct identities and cultures, Jack Donovan characterizes the enemy as “the Nothing.” This is a reference to The Neverending Story, the 1984 West German film in which a realm created by fantasy is gradually torn apart by a void as people cease to hope for or dream of anything at all. Donovan argues that the problem is a similar void, a lack of cultural values such as loyalty and discrimination, without which people are simply doing what seems easy, pleasant, and profitable. But Pratchett characterizes the loss of belief in a different way. A thinking machine called Hex explains the manifestation of strange new creatures and deities as people begin to lose faith in the Hogfather: “There’s a finite quantity of belief in the universe,” and “[i]t follows that if a major focus of belief is removed, there will be spare belief,” which will focus on new subjects. This is a rephrasing of an apocryphal quote attributed to G. K. Chesterton to the effect that when people cease to believe in God, they do not then believe in nothing, but rather become capable of believing in anything.
In many cases, those who begin to doubt or reject traditional religion simply shift their existing attitudes toward a new subject. This not only means developing a worshipful attitude towards idols such as political ideology or governments, but even extends to particular dogmas. With fewer people believing in traditional Christianity, the doctrine of original sin has been altered by both clergy and secular groups to refer to “white privilege,” which demonizes whiteness itself. The desire of zealots to persecute heretics persists in connection with this, now targeted against “racists” and others, in the form of ritual defamation.
In Hogfather, while some new beliefs such as the sock-eating monster are essentially harmless, this reality of malignant beliefs filling the gap left by traditional ones is acknowledged as well. Teatime boasts that people will soon believe whatever he wants them to, and considering his psychopathic personality, this is not likely to be anything wholesome.
Unfortunately, both Hogfather and some of Pratchett’s other works, such as Equal Rites, are marred by perverse feminist fantasies which unwittingly demonstrate that imagination is not always healthy. In what has been called the “butt-kicking pixie” trope, women are presented as action heroes, capable of defeating men in combat. A similar fantasy has an assertive and capable woman juxtaposed with a buffoon of a man in order to flatter her and demean him. In Hogfather, both of these themes are embodied in the character of Susan Sto Helit, the heroine of the story.
Death is a character in the story, portrayed as the familiar Grim Reaper figure, and Susan is – oddly enough – his granddaughter. Although as a skeleton he is obviously sterile, he adopted Susan’s mother, thus the unlikely familial relationship, and Susan has somehow inherited some of his supernatural powers. She and Death are now allied in the fight against Teatime and his contracted assistants.
Susan is depicted as capable of defeating various enemies in combat, starting with a monster in her cellar who has frightened a young girl under her care. She beats the monster with a poker, ties it up in a bag, and throws it out into the cold while it is apparently still alive, implying a surprising degree of cruelty. She is employed as a governess, and her pompous employer and his friends chuckle over the novelty of a woman defeating a monster, while making clear that they believe she was only playing a psychological trick on the girl with this scenario. The group are meant to be seen as both sexist and ignorant here, with her employer even mispronouncing the word “psychological.”
Susan next confronts another monster hiding under the girl’s bed, physically dragging this horned old man out by his hair and threatening him. She threatens to put his head on the blanket if he returns, lying that it has “fluffy bunnies on it,” to which he pitifully pleads, “No, not fluffy bunnies!” As peaceful and cuddly animals referenced with cutesy language, the rabbits represent femininity, and they intimidate and humiliate the man. This is in line with the popular feminist boast that male authorities are terrified of women, which is used not only to flatter women but to imply that men are weak and their authority is illegitimate. She ultimately banishes him with a supernatural command voice, in one of many scenes which demonstrates her exceptional powers in a conspicuous and self-indulgent manner.
The heroine is juxtaposed with ridiculous male characters not only in combat, but in a context which is friendlier but no less humiliating for the man. A deity called Bilious, the “Oh God of hangovers,” manifests as a sickly pale and initially heavily intoxicated man. Susan, again assuming a masculine role, rescues him from danger and carries him, unconscious, to Unseen University, where she enlists the questionable help of doddering old male academics. After their potion manages to sober him up, he insists on accompanying her on her journey to the Tooth Fairy’s castle to confront Teatime. In response to her question about whether he could help in a fight, he responds, “Yes, I could be sick on people,” and in fact this overestimates his usefulness to her. Although he ultimately serves as a love interest for the almost equally ridiculous Tooth Fairy, his main purpose is to make Susan look more competent and respectable, not to mention attractive, by comparison.
Susan ultimately defeats Teatime in combat twice, ending in his demise. In the final instance, the children in her care even witness the killing and applaud her, reminiscent of the sarcastic cliché “and then everyone clapped,” used on social media to mock those who tell self-aggrandizing tall tales. Indeed, the entire concept of women as action heroes is a lie, with no value but as a shallow thrill. With very rare exceptions, such a fantasy is encouraging women to identify with the one thing which is furthest from what they are naturally suited for, and which they can thus never achieve in reality. Perhaps from a callous business perspective, this would make sense; it makes them less satisfied with reality and thus more willing to spend money on escapist entertainment. But, of course, from the perspective of anyone who hopes for people to find fulfilment in reality, this is toxic.
The story presents a refreshing deviation from the common platitude that everyone should think independently and question everything. An endorsement of unquestioning belief comes when the slow-witted Banjo’s stubborn adherence to his culture’s mythology and tradition ultimately leads to Teatime’s defeat. Initially involved in Teatime’s endeavors through his higher-agency brother Medium Dave, Banjo is surprised to finally learn of Teatime’s plans from the assassin’s own boasting. He is distressed by the idea that there might no longer be a Hogfather, insisting simply, “There’s got to be a Hogfather. There’s always a Hogfather,” and adding that without him, the holiday on which he hands out presents could not exist.
It is this distress which leads Banjo to disobey Teatime’s order to seize Susan, and instead to obey his oppressive mother’s remembered command to not even touch girls, let alone throw them down the stairs, as Teatime would have him do. He instead seizes Teatime, interrupting his attack on Susan and ultimately allowing her to defeat him. In a later scene, it is she who finally kills Teatime. Again, it is obedience to the rules he has been taught, not independent thought, which allows him to save Susan, and thereby to defend society against the forces of cynicism.
Pratchett thankfully avoids the popular modern conceit that religion or mythology is simply an adaptation to various human weaknesses, existing to provide comfort or to “make life bearable.” Near the end of the film, Susan suggests this and is corrected by Death, who explains that people “need fantasy to be human,” and need practice believing in “little lies” such as the Tooth Fairy in order to believe in big “lies” such as “justice, mercy, [and] duty.” As Death explains, these things do not exist in that they cannot be objectively observed or measured. Reflecting the mechanical thinking of the Auditors, he explains that if you “take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve,” you cannot find “one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.” Yet he ultimately sides with human beings, who “need to believe in things that aren’t true. How else could they become?” By this, we can assume he means not only that people need beliefs in order to achieve their own higher potential, but that some things are actually made real through belief.
Most people in the West have been exposed to propaganda which deviates from objective reality to an extreme degree, alleging that our thoughts alter reality in absurd ways, such as the idea that our subconscious racial biases cause blacks’ dysfunction. Repulsed by this type of fantasy and the real-world abuses it enables, some may become more like the Auditors, and look suspiciously upon any hint of Romanticism, but this would be a mistake. Such a purely objective attitude is not in line with human nature or well-being; belief in something beyond the evidence of the five senses is universal across human cultures, and arguably even serves evolutionary purposes, as Pratchett himself would agree. These include strengthening social trust, as well as inspiring people to take great risks to defend their own group in conflicts with others by providing a strong sense of identity and moral purpose. This is particularly salient in a society where traditional sources of identity and purpose – particularly religion and white ethnic identity – have declined since the 1960s and are widely derided by our cultural elites.
Near the end of the film, Death explains that if there had not been enough belief in the Hogfather by dawn on that morning, the Sun would not have risen. Instead, “[a] mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.” In other words, without belief, even as objective facts would remain the same, they would lack any human interpretation to provide meaning, and humanity would remain in spiritual darkness indefinitely.
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