Mark Reads ‘Small Gods’: Part 1

In the first part of Small Gods, a young boy becomes a prophet. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.

Trigger Warning: For discussion of torture and religious persecution, and brief mentions of genocide and rape.

Ah, there are few things I find more entertaining than some good ol’ blasphemy

You have to understand that I’m coming into this novel having been raised in a right-wing, ultra-conservative, fire-and-brimstone household, where I was often told how frequently I was going to burn an eternity in hell. I went from that to the Catholic church. (One day, my life will be made into a wacky biographical film complete with The Office-style interims so that whomever plays me can look directly into the camera right when I make the decision to become Catholic.) I spent two years fighting my own instinct, which was shrieking at me to get the fuck out of this situation, so that I could… well, I don’t know anymore. Find a family? Find acceptance and love? If you’re cackling right now, I’m perfectly fine with that. Admittedly, the parish I attended was as stereotypically judgmental, close-minded, and bigoted as you’d expect from the Catholic church, so suffice to say that I DID NOT HAVE A POSITIVE EXPERIENCE.

So, is this going to be another book taking the piss out of religious supremacy and ritual? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP.

The Tortoise and the Eagle

At this point, I feel like I can get comfortable within a Discworld novel fairly quickly. It’s not just because I’m used to the setting (though Small Gods appears to take place somewhere I’ve not been for a full book!!!), but I’m used to the humor. The themes. The tone. And there are two major themes that we can see right off the bat that have appeared at length in past books.

Pratchett loves a good underdog, not so much so that he can see them win, but because there’s a value in the understated and the forgotten. This book is about small gods, gods who thirst after belief and its power, and it’s about one specific god who chooses to inhabit a tortoise instead of an animal regularly associated with its power and intensity. I don’t think Om is a small god itself, given that an entire Citadel is devoted to their existence, but I’m interested to see how Pratchett will flesh out the tortoise/eagle metaphor, given that it feels like familiar ground for him.

History and Religion

Ah, I love a good satire, and I’m enamored with the idea that Pratchett is going to skewer how historical narratives forms:

Things just happen, one after another. They don’t care who knows. But history… ah, history is different. History has to be observed. Otherwise it’s not history. It’s just… well, things happening one after another.

And, of course, it has to be controlled. Otherwise it might turn into anything.

I LOVE THIS SO DEARLY, and y’all, this is not something Pratchett is making up for Small Gods. I think that there’s plenty of evidence and scholarship that will demonstrate how frequently this has happened in the context of religious authority. How often have national churches tried to change history by invalidating other accounts and sources? (I’m looking at you, Catholic church. I’M LOOKING AT YOU.) I think that’s why Pratchett soon takes this idea to a very dark place rather quickly through the Quisition. I know it’s a thinly-veiled reference to the actual Inquisition, but the truth is that the Church very much used to be heavily involved in matters of state and national affairs. It’s also true that a church that was supposed to spread the love of God and the need for compassion was doing so through murder, genocide, torture, and rape. That hypocrisy is represented here, too, through Deacon Vorbis.

But my absolute favorite thing here?

The Boy Prophet

I cannot possibly explain to you why I find it so fucking hilarious that of all people, Om chose Brutha to be his prophet. Perhaps I find an absurdity in prophets anyway, you know? They were a huge part of my time learning of the Catholic church when I was converting, and it always astounded me that a God would refuse to show themselves except through seemingly random people. Why wait? Why not demonstrate yourself so that people don’t struggle with the painful experience of questioning their faith? I know that I would not have turned so quickly from God had I ever felt any inkling that they were actually real. So to me, it was uniquely funny that a god chose a prophet whose logic is delightfully frustrating and who is sincere to the point of irritation. I like Brutha already. Part of that is because he’s a genuinely nice kid, and I see myself in a lot of his innocence. That’s what I was like when I was in elementary school. I believed so fully in my own optimism that I enraged people. Even when I became a lot more cynical and closer to who I am now, I was still the kind of person who asked a MILLION questions, many of which were absurd in their simplicity. Some of the sisters did not enjoy me all that much because I so frequently derailed lessons with questions they couldn’t answer.

Brutha is just unreal here, and it’s a delight to see him interact with Om as a tortoise. I like those scenes because it doesn’t feel like he’s being taken advantage of or manipulated like he is in the scenes with Brother Nhumrod, who is more interested in steering these novices away from “demonic voices” than actually helping anyway. When Brutha speaks with Om, he refuses to accept things at anything other than face value. And I love that; I love that he sees this tortoise (admittedly a talking one) and won’t simply do as this being demands. Part of that is out of confusion. He doesn’t know how to reach the Cenobiarch. But there’s a power in seeing this kid reject a god so wholly and completely right off the bat.

Plus, this is the greatest exchange ever:

“How many talking tortoises have you met?” it said sarcastically.

“I don’t know,” said Brutha.

“What d’you mean, you don’t know?”

“Well, they might all talk,” said Brutha conscientiously, demonstrating the very personal kind of logic that got him Extra Melons. “They might not say anything when I’m there.”


The original text contains use of the words “crazed” and “psychopath.”

Mark Links Stuff

– The Mark Does Stuff Tour 2015 is now live and includes dates across the U.S. this summer and fall Check the full list of events on my Tour Dates / Appearances page.
– My Master Schedule is updated for the near and distant future for most projects, so please check it often. My next Double Features for Mark Watches will be the remainder of The Legend of Korra, series 8 of Doctor Who, and Kings. On Mark Reads, Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series will replace the Emelan books.
- Mark Does Stuff is on Facebook! I’ve got a community page up that I’m running. Guaranteed shenanigans!

About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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