Small Gods is one of those books that you grab, if you are a fan of Pratchett, as another fun to read Discworld book. I was not introduced to Pratchett until recently (about ten years ago now, but that is recent enough), and have read all his books. However, with Small Gods there is something else that makes you stop and think, because it touches something that has been happening a lot recently in the real world. After all, when you grab a Pratchett book you usually find some themes in there that seem to be coming straight from current events in the real world. And why shouldn’t they? After all, what happens around you shapes a lot of what you write about, be it simply writing a poem, a full novel or a simple blog.
In this book we encounter the only true believer of the Great God Om, he is but a novice in the temple even though he should have been ordained long ago. He cannot read, but can quote any of the holy books word perfect, and can remember everything with minute detail, both a curse and a blessing.
Then there is Deacon Vorbis. He is the head of the Omnian inquisition and is always quiet and reflective; his belief is that he will be the next prophet of Om, as it happens the only voices he has ever heard has been his own inner voice. As Om himself tells Brutha: “Nothing gets in, nothing gets out. Never seen a mind so turned in on itself.”¹
And of course, there is the Great God Om, who has been feeling a bit poorly of late. This might be due to the fact that the congregation has stopped believing in the god and now believe in the institution. Commandments, rules and regulations take the place of worship and it is fear of the institution and not worship of the god that keeps people in line, in the words of Brutha as he confronts his god: “But all you did was stamp around and roar and try to make people afraid. Like… like a man hitting a donkey with a stick. But people like Vorbis made the stick so good, that’s all the donkey ends up believing in”².
It is the strength of the people’s belief that give the god his power and his shape: Om himself has been reduced to being a small tortoise. He aimed for a bull or something equally impressive, but the lack of belief left him stuck with that shape. That’s the way that the gods in Pratchett’s Discworld work: the god gets some believers and the believers give the god a shape, they get anthropomorphised and get human traits and end up looking and acting in the way their believers imagine they should look and behave. Another example of this is encountered in Ephebe when the Omnian delegation travels there. During a heated discussion on the nature of gods at a local tavern a penguin turns up at the doorway. The barman simply mentions under his breath “Bloody sculptor.”³ Later on we discover that the sculptor, having never seen an owl, tried to sculpt one for Patina, Goddess of Wisdom. The end result looked like a penguin and being that the god is shaped by the belief of its people, made the poor goddess get stuck with a penguin instead of the wiser looking owl. In the same way, belief in the Great God Om shaped him into what he was: a great vengeful strong god who would appear to his worshippers as a great bull or an eagle or ram. But once the belief diminished, there was only enough belief to house him as a little tortoise. Once Om is stuck with his one believer, who has a blind faith in the goodness of his god, he has no other choice but to change. The belief of Brutha is such that it starts shaping the mind of Om into something different, something new. Brutha does not want any more smiting or wars, he just wants people to believe in the god but not to believe in the institution, as that’s where everything went wrong in the first place. It is near the end, when the Citadel is about to be attacked by the disgruntled neighbours of Omnia and the whole country is going to be reduced to rubble that we get one of the best lines in the whole book, the one that really makes you stop and think that perhaps we have been getting it slightly wrong for centuries in the real world:
“You can die for your country or your people or your family, but for a god you should live fully and busily, every day of a long life.”4
What we must not forget when reading this book is that it is intended as a satirical indictment of organised religion. It does manage to show us almost everything that has been and is currently wrong with organised religion. But at least it does give us an optimistic view that religion can change for the better as its worshippers do – something badly needed in this climate of religious strife and terrorism.
Forget that you might not like the Discworld series and you might think that Pratchett just does fantasy. In reading his books you will find most times some underlying theme that will get your brain thinking while you are also having a laugh because his books are such fun to read.
¹ Pratchett, Terry, Small Gods, BCA, 1993, p. 206
² Pratchett, Terry, Small Gods, BCA, 1993, p. 199
³ Pratchett, Terry, Small Gods, BCA, 1993, p. 115
4 Pratchett, Terry, Small Gods, BCA, 1993, p. 251