Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

10 Things You Should Know About the Discworld Books

Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2003, the BBC asked 140,000 Britons to come up with the nation’s top 100 novels. Just two writers had five works that cracked the top 100: Charles Dickens and the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett, who was born in Buckinghamshire on April 28, 1948, wrote or co-wrote more than 70 books during his lifetime. His debut novel, The Carpet People—a slightly-altered version of a fantasy serial Pratchett wrote while working at his local paper, the Bucks Free Press—was published in 1971, followed by the bestselling Discworld series. Set on a magical, disc-shaped world supported by four elephants who in turn ride atop a gigantic turtle, these masterworks of comic fantasy have collectively sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Here are 10 things they won’t teach you at Unseen University.


In 1980, Pratchett left the Bucks Free Press to take a job as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), where his responsibilities mainly involved reassuring the public about the safety of this organization’s nuclear power plants. (It was no easy task; the CEGB hired him just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.) On the side, Pratchett wrote and published the first four Discworld novels: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, and Mort. Following their success, he resigned from his CEGB post to write full-time.


Many Discworld inhabitants go by peculiar names (just ask Moist von Lipwig or Carrot Ironfoundersson), but many of them don't come from thin air. “A lot of what people think of as weird names in my books are real names,” he told an interviewer in 2011. Granny Weatherwax, for example, shares her last name with Rudd Weatherwax, who trained several of the Lassie dogs that appeared in various films and television shows.

But not all of Pratchett’s characters were named after real people. Take the bumbling wizard Rincewind, whose name comes from “By the Way,” a humorous newspaper column that ran in The Daily Express from 1919 to 1975. Written for most of that time by J.B. Morgan under the pseudonym “Beachcomber,” this series featured a number of recurring fictional characters, including a red-bearded dwarf named Churm Rincewind.

As a boy, Pratchett was an avid reader of “By the Way,” and while penning The Colour of Magic, he used the name Rincewind without realizing that he’d borrowed it from Morgan’s columns. A Discworld fan later pointed this out to the novelist, at which point Pratchett “went back through all the [published ‘Beachcomber’ anthologies] and found the name and thought, oh, blast, that’s where it came from. And then I thought, what the hell, anyway.” (His argument is slightly weakened by Rincewind saying in the Colour of Magic, “I suppose we’ll take the coast road to Chirm.”)


The Science of Discworld novels combine fantasy and hard science. In the first of these books, a mishap at Unseen University creates “Roundworld,” a bizarro universe laden with strange, spherical planets governed not by magic but by the laws of physics. The school’s faculty experiments with and explores their creation over the course of the four-book series and the action is interrupted periodically by non-fiction chapters that break down real scientific topics. Written by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart, these asides tie into the narrative while educating the reader about everything from evolution to quantum mechanics.

The series had its origins in a meeting between Pratchett and Cohen at a science fiction convention in the Netherlands. At the time, Cohen was co-authoring a book about the evolution of the human intellect with Stewart. Cohen recalled in an interview that the two were having trouble getting “the chapters to gel” and asked Pratchett to advise them; later on, the trio got together at a Mongolian restaurant in Berlin, where Pratchett offered up some tips that made their way into the book’s final draft.

Since all three men were big sci-fi fans, the conversation soon turned to Star Trek. Specifically, they expressed a profound disappointment with Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek, a 1995 bestseller that offered insights on the TV show’s scientific underpinnings. The book did not impress Pratchett, Stewart, or Cohen, the latter of whom called it “bloody awful.” Still, Krauss’s project got Stewart thinking. “I raised the possibility of something similar related to Discworld,” he remembers. At first, the idea was shot down because, in his words, “there is no science in Discworld.”

Still, the concept seemed too good to throw away altogether—and after a while, the three men made a narrative breakthrough. “It took only a few months to find the obvious answer: since there was no science in Discworld, we had to put some there,” Stewart explains. “Instead of producing a scientific commentary on existing events in the Discworld canon, we had to write a fantasy/fact fusion in which an unfolding story of some wizardly brand of science was interlaced with a popular science book. Terry would have to tailor a genuine Discworld short story.”

Tailor one he did. Pratchett put together a 30,000-word short story that was seamlessly punctuated with essays that Stewart and Cohen authored. Once they finished the manuscript, Ebury Publishing agreed to put out The Science of Discworld in 1999. Apparently, some company higher-ups didn’t like the book’s chances. “The editor there was made to understand that if it sold less than 10,000 copies, he’d lose his job. If it sold more than 25,000 it would be a miracle. It sold more than 200,000 copies in the first year,” Cohen recently told The Guardian. Three sequels were released between 2002 and 2013.


Discworld books have received plenty of accolades: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents took home the Carnegie Medal in 2001; Night Watch won a Prometheus Award two years later; and Pyramids earned the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for best novel. In 2005, Pratchett’s bestseller Going Postal was nominated for a prestigious Hugo Award. The awards, handed out by the World Science Fiction Society, are seen as some of the highest honors that a sci-fi or fantasy writer can hope to attain. Multiple Hugo categories exist, with “best novel” being the one that usually attracts the most fanfare. (Past winners have included Frank Herbert’s Dune and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.)

Naturally, when an author receives a “best novel” nod, he or she generally doesn’t even consider withdrawing the book in question from Hugo consideration. But that’s exactly what Pratchett did in ’05. The WSFS selects its Hugo winners at Worldcon, the society’s annual convention. Pratchett was in attendance at the 2005 gathering and, as he later explained to his bewildered readers, he chose to pass on a potential best novel award for Going Postal because he felt the selection process would keep him from enjoying the Worldcon. Pratchett thus became only the third writer in history to take his book out of the running in this particular Hugo category. (In the past, authors Robert Silverberg and James Tiptree Jr., had done likewise.)


Great Britain is—for all intents and purposes—the birthplace of the modern fantasy genre. To celebrate this contribution to popular culture, the Royal Mail postage service company issued a set of eight commemorative stamps featuring some of the most popular fantastical characters to ever emerge from the UK, including Merlin and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, Voldemort and Dumbledore from Harry Potter, and Aslan and the White Witch from Chronicles of Narnia. The Royal Mail didn’t forget about Discworld’s inhabitants: Rincewind rounded out the set along with the wise old witch Gytha “Nanny” Ogg.


In 2007, Pratchett announced that he’d been diagnosed with a kind of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The disorder severely weakened Pratchett's memory, rendered certain fonts unreadable, and took away his ability to type. But despite all those major setbacks, Pratchett kept on writing. Once he lost the capacity to operate a keyboard, the author started using voice recognition computer programs in their place. Pratchett dictated manuscripts for entire novels—including the Discworld books Snuff and Raising Steam—through this kind of software. “It really isn’t a problem,” he declared in a 2013 NPR interview. “I’m a bit of a techie anyway, so talking to the computer is no big deal. Sooner or later, everybody talks to their computers—they say, ‘You bastard!’”


Though He’s clad in dark robes and wields a scythe, the Death who appears in all but two Discworld novels isn’t your standard-order Grim Reaper. For one thing, He rides a white horse named Binky. He also likes physics, adores cats, and has a sort of benign fascination with the human experience. Unlike most literary embodiments of death, the figure who graces Discworld comes off as mild-mannered and somewhat compassionate. In 2004’s The Art of Discworld, Pratchett wrote about the fondness that many fans have expressed for the character. “Sometimes,” Pratchett wrote, “I get nice letters from people who know they’re due to meet [Death] soon, and hope I’ve got him right. Those are the kind of letters that cause me to stare at the wall for some time…”

On March 12, 2015, Pratchett died peacefully in his Broad Chalke home. In a way, Discworld’s Death helped announce the sad news to the world. The author had written a short story in the form of four planned tweets; when Pratchett died, his assistant Rob Wilkins logged onto the author’s Twitter account and posted them:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The end.”


Five months after Pratchett’s death, the 41st entry in the Discworld series was published. The Shepherd’s Crown features the apparent demise of Granny Weatherwax, whose mentee, Tiffany Aching, is left to unite her fellow witches against a grave threat. According to Gaiman, Pratchett’s good friend and occasional collaborator, the novel was supposed to end with a poignant epilogue. “[It] would have made the book,” Gaiman told The Times, “but he never got to write it.”

The author of American Gods explained that, before Pratchett died, he’d had a conversation with the novelist about how The Shepherd’s Crown was going to wrap up. “When I talked to Terry about it, there was one little beautiful twist that would have made people cry,” Gaiman said. The big surprise involved Weatherwax and a cat named You. Apparently, Pratchett’s unwritten chapter would have revealed that the former didn’t actually die, she’d merely channeled her consciousness into the feline. “And there was going to be the final scene when she said, ‘I am leaving on my own terms now,’ and then Death turns up to take Granny Weatherwax for good,” Gaiman revealed.


“I’m allergic to Hollywood,” Pratchett once joked. So far, no Discworld novel has ever been adapted into a theatrically-released film. Still, this isn’t to say that nobody’s ever tried to make one. In 2006, Sony obtained the movie rights to The Wee Free Men, a Discworld story aimed at young adult readers. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was set to direct, but the movie never passed the development phase because Pratchett wasn't a fan of the script. “It contained everything that The Wee Free Men actually campaigns against,” he said. “Everything about [the book] was the opposite of Disney. But the studio had kind of Disneyfied it, to make it understandable to American filmmakers.”

Speaking of Disney, rumor has it that the directors of Aladdin were working on a movie version of Mort—the fourth Discworld book—as recently as 2011. Allegedly, the idea was shelved for some reason, which opened the door for another project called Moana.


Discworld may never have graced the silver screen, but a few novels have been adapted for other mediums. In 1990, playwright Stephen Briggs became the first person to ever dramatize one of Terry Pratchett’s novels when he wrote a stage adaptation of the Discworld book Wyrd Sisters for the Studio Theatre Club in Abingdon, Oxon. The show premiered in 1991, and it had no trouble finding an audience: Wyrd Sisters sold out almost instantly, as did Briggs’s subsequent adaptations of Men at Arms, Making Money, The Fifth Elephant, and many other Discworld classics. There have also been radio dramatizations of Discworld: Beginning in 1992, BBC Radio 4 aired six serials based on Guards! Guards!, Wyrd Sisters, Mort, Small Gods, Night Watch, and Eric.

Television has seen its fair share of Discworld stories, too. Sky Productions, for example, has released made-for-TV films based on Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, and Going Postal. And we may soon be in for a CSI-style Ankh-Morpork drama. Although Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, has declared that she’ll never give anyone—including herself—permission to write a new Discworld novel, she’s been working on an original “crime of the week” TV series that will follow Sam Vimes and his fellow city watchmen on some original adventures. Titled The Watch, the show’s development began in 2011 with Terry Pratchett’s enthusiastic blessing.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
7 Lost and Rediscovered Literary Works by Famous Authors
F. Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A number of literary works by famous authors that were once thought lost have recently been rediscovered. Some were found in private collections, others within vast archives, and one was even uncovered in an attic. A few of these works have delighted readers and scholars alike, while others may have gone unpublished for a reason—yet all offer fresh insight into the development of the writers who wrote them.


In July 2015 Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand magazine, was searching through the rare book archive at Princeton University when he uncovered a previously unpublished short story by Princeton alum F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gulli makes something of a habit of searching for lost and unpublished works by famous authors, and in the past has uncovered a story by John Steinbeck, which was also published for the first time in The Strand. Fitzgerald's 8000-word short story, entitled “Temperature” and written in 1939, features a hard-drinking writer with a heart problem. In a sad echo of real life, just a year after he wrote it Fitzgerald himself died of a heart attack.


Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) seated at a desk covered with his books
Library of Congress, Wikimedia // Public Domain

In 2013, the widow of Ted Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) rediscovered a pile of manuscripts and sketches that she had set aside shortly after her husband's death in 1991. The papers contained the words and illustrations for What Pet Shall I Get?, which was published by Random House in July 2015. It is thought the book was likely written between 1958 and 1962, since it features the same brother-and-sister characters found in Seuss’s 1960 bestseller One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.


Portrait of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sitting at a table in his garden, Bignell Wood, New Forest, 1927
Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A Sherlock Holmes short story supposedly written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was uncovered in the attic of historian Walter Elliot in 2015. The strange little story was written by Conan Doyle to be included in a collection of stories entitled The Book o' the Brig, which aimed to raise funds to rebuild a bridge across Ettrick Water, near Selkirk in Scotland, which had been destroyed during floods in 1902.

No sooner had the story been rediscovered, however, than some were expressing doubts about whether it had been written by Conan Doyle himself, especially since the flowery language doesn't seem in keeping with the renowned author's pared-down style. The full text of the story can be read (and puzzled over) here.


Photo of author Edith Wharton, wearing hat with a feather, coat with fur trim, and a fur muff
Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Alice Kelly, a researcher from Oxford University, was studying Edith Wharton’s papers in the Beinecke Library at Yale University in November 2015 when she discovered a previously unpublished short story. The unfinished nine-page story was stuck to the back of another manuscript, and is entitled "The Field of Honor." It centers on the First World War and is critical of the women who only superficially helped with the war effort, perhaps explaining why it was not published at such a sensitive time.


Crayon drawing of poet Percy Shelley circa 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Percy Bysshe Shelley was in his first year of university at Oxford in 1810/11, he wrote and published a poem critical of the Napoleonic wars under the pseudonym “a gentlemen of the University of Oxford.” The 172-line poem was printed in a 20-page pamphlet entitled “Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things” and was not attributed to Shelley until 50 years after his death. All copies were thought lost until 2006, when one was found amidst a mysterious private collection and offered for auction. Only scholars had access to the poem until 2015, when it was purchased by the Bodleian Library in Oxford to add to their world-famous collection of Shelley works and papers. The poem became the library’s 12 millionth book to be acquired and is now available online for all to read.


A black-and-white photo of a smiling Truman Capote
Evening Standard/Getty Images

A Swiss publisher poring over Truman Capote’s papers at the New York Public Library several years ago rediscovered a variety of short stories and poems the author had written before the age of 20. While four of the stories had been published in Capote’s school literary magazine, The Green Witch, the majority of the pile was brand-new to the reading public. In October 2015, Penguin books released the stories as The Early Stories of Truman Capote.


While looking through the archives of the city of Regensberg, Germany, researcher Erika Eichenseer uncovered 30 boxes containing more than 500 German fairy tales, which had lain unnoticed for 150 years. The stories had been collected by historian Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, who traveled around the Bavarian region of Oberpfalz recording folktales, myths, and legends in order to preserve them. He published the results of his research in three volumes between 1857 and 1859, but his matter-of-fact accounts of the stories were somewhat overshadowed by the more artful stories of his contemporaries the Brothers Grimm, and his book fell into obscurity. The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales contains 72 of the lost tales and was published by Penguin in February 2015.

A previous version of this story ran in 2015.

Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain
The Time the Oxford English Dictionary Forgot a Word
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Sir James Murray in his Scriptorium
Oxford English Dictionary // Public Domain

When the complete edition of what would become the Oxford English Dictionary debuted in 1928, it was lauded as a comprehensive collection of the English language, a glossary so vast—and so thorough—that no other reference book could ever exceed its detail or depth. In total, the project took seven decades to catalogue everything from A to Z, defining a total of 414,825 words. But in the eyes of its editor James Murray, the very first volume of the dictionary was something of an embarrassment: It was missing a word.

Looking back, it’s impressive that more words were not lost. Assembling the OED was a nightmare. Before the first volume—an installment consisting of words beginning with the letters A and B—was published in 1888, multiple editors had taken (and abandoned) the helm, and each regime change created new opportunities for mayhem. When James Murray took command in 1879, the Oxford English Dictionary could best be defined by the word disarray.

The irony of making this massive reference book was that it required millions upon millions of tiny, tiny pieces of paper. Every day, volunteers mailed in thousands of small strips of paper called “quotation slips.” On these slips, volunteers would copy a single sentence from a book, in hopes that this sentence could help illuminate a particular word’s meaning. (For example, the previous sentence might be a good example of the word illuminate. Volunteers would copy that sentence and mail it to Oxford’s editors, who would review it and compare the slip to others to highlight the word illuminate.)

The process helped Oxford’s editors study all of the shades of meaning expressed by a single word, but it was also tedious and messy. With thousands of slips pouring into the OED’s offices every day, things could often go wrong.

And they did.

Some papers were stuffed haphazardly into boxes or bags, where they gathered cobwebs and were forgotten. Words beginning with Pa went missing for 12 years, only to be recovered in County Cavan, Ireland, where somebody was using the papers as kindling. Slips for the letter G were nearly burned with somebody’s trash. In 1879, the entire letter H turned up in Italy. At one point, Murray opened a bag only to find a family of live mice chewing on the paperwork.

When Murray took over, he tried to right the ship. To better organize the project, he built a small building of corrugated iron called the “Scriptorium.” It resembled a sunken tool shed, but it was here—with the help of 1029 built-in pigeonholes—that Murray and his subeditors arranged, sorted, and filed more than a thousand incoming slips every day. Millions of quotations would pass through the Scriptorium, and hundreds of thousands of words would be neatly organized by Murray’s trusty team.

One word, however, slipped through the cracks.

Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Oxford English Dictionary entry slips
Media Specialist, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Bondmaid is not the kind of word people drop during conversation anymore, and that’s for the best: It means “a slave girl.” The word was most popular in the 16th century. Murray’s file for bondmaid, however, reached back even further: It included quotations as old as William Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the Bible.

But then bondmaid went missing. “Its slips had fallen down behind some books, and the editors had never noticed that it was gone,” writes Simon Winchester in The Meaning of Everything. When the first volume of the Oxford English Dictionary was published in 1888, bondmaid wasn’t there. (That volume of the OED does miss other words, but those exclusions were deliberate matters of editorial policy—bondmaid is the only word that the editors are known to have physically lost.)

When the slips were later rediscovered in the Scriptorium, Murray reportedly turned red with embarrassment. By 1901, some 14 years after the exclusion, he was still reeling over the mistake in a draft of a letter addressed to an anonymous contributor: “[N]ot one of the 30 people (at least) who saw the work at various stages between MS. and electrotyped pages noticed the omission. The phenomenon is absolutely inexplicable, and with our minute organization one would have said absolutely impossible; I hope also absolutely unparalleled.”

All was not lost for the lost word, however. In 1933, bondmaid made its Oxford dictionary debut. It had taken nearly five decades to make the correction.


More from mental floss studios