Discworld: Small Gods

The turtle moves!

The 13th Discworld novel and a standalone, although it uses some characters and locations from Pyramids and its events influence later works.

Omnia is a theocratic empire, somewhere between Khomeini's Iran and Inquisition-era Spain. Ruled by the Cenobiarch and his church military, the religion of Omnianism - the worship of the Great God ("holy horns") Om - dominates all aspects of life. At the bottom of the pecking order is the young novice Brutha, big and slow yet able to recite scripture on command. He finds a tortoise, dropped by an eagle in an unsuccessful attempt to smash its shell. A talking tortoise. It claims to be Om himself, reduced to this pitiful state due to Discworld's gods needing belief to survive, and everyone in Omnia (save the simple-minded Brutha) obeys and fears the structure of the church rather than Om himself.

Small Gods is particularly renowned for its Zelda-like havoc-wreaking with the always-spotty Discworld timeline due to the appearance of Pyramids characters in the "young Brutha" segments yet the fact that the Omnianism that appears in later books is the more tolerant post-Brutha version. This was eventually explained in Thief of Time as being due to the Timey-Wimey Ball. It's also been said by Pratchett that he was here able to more fully explore ideas he first introduced in Pyramids.

Preceded by Witches Abroad, followed by Lords and Ladies.

Contains examples of:

  • Acting Unnatural:
    "Beneath the temple, Urn and sergeant Simony made their way through the tunnels of the citadel using the kind of nonchalant walk which would draw detailed and arrow-sharp attention to them in seconds. Fortunately, the guards were all above ground at the ceremony."
  • All-Loving Hero: Brutha. Especially notable in the climax, when his last words to his soon-to-be-dead nemesis are "You are about to die. I'm sorry.". Also in the epilogue, where he decides to help said nemesis' soul to cross the desert.
  • Almighty Janitor: Lu-Tze literally acts like a janitor, while secretly tweaking the timeline to avoid a war.
  • Altum Videtur: Omnia is the medieval Catholic Italy of the Discworld. Perhaps the best is, "Cuius testiculos habes, habeas cardia et cerebellum", when Om hijacks the eagle.
    • For the non dog-Latinists among us, this translates roughly to "Get them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow." The book Bowdlerizes this, at least partly for humor (given the circumstances of Om hijacking the eagle); see below.
  • And I Must Scream: Vorbis' final fate - an eternity in the absolute silence of his own mind, all alone with himself - is Subverted when Brutha mercifully takes him to the afterlife.
  • Androcles' Lion: Subverted; St. Ungulant's god, Angus, ends up killing the lion when it decides to try eating St. Ungulant as a meal.
  • Arc Words:
    • Several characters throughout the book, when they're killed and find themselves in the spectral desert of the afterlife which they must journey through, ask Death "what awaits at the end of the desert?", to which Death replies Judgement. At the end, there's a twist when Brutha does the same, considers for a moment, then asks: "Which end?"
    • "The turtle moves!", the cry of the revolutionists against Omnia's dogmatism and a Shout-Out to Galileo.
    • "In a hundred years we'll all be dead, but here and now we are alive" becomes the cornerstone of Brutha's phylosophy.
  • As the Good Book Says: At the beginning of the story Brutha often quotes the Septateuch, the holy text of Omnianism, which he knows by memory.
  • At the Crossroads: "the spirits of places where two ant trails cross"
  • Awesome by Analysis: Brutha, although it really only comes into play at the end.
  • Bald of Evil: Vorbis, who deliberately shaves his head.
  • Big, Badass Bird of Prey: The Eagle and its tortoise-crushing skill. He'll be back...
  • Bilingual Bonus: in the Italian translation when Didactylos abiurates, he declares that he will write "more balls than you could imagine"; in Italian, it means "more lies than you could imagine". In English it's a sort of Triple Entendre - there's the obvious meaning, the slyly insulting meaning (balls, as well as bollocks, is British slang similar in connotation to "bullshit") and naturally, knowing the guy saying it, the crude meaning - balls (and bollocks) is slang for testicles.
  • Black Eyes of Evil: Vorbis. It's said that it has something to do with his coming from a tribe living deep in the desert.
  • Blindfolded Trip: Anyone being brought through the trap-filled labyrinth, which is why Vorbis needs Brutha's perfect memory.
  • Bowdlerize - Played With: The footnoted translation of the phrase mentioned in Altum Videtur is given as "When their full attention is in your grip, their hearts and minds will follow." Testiculos doesn't quite translate to "full attention"...
  • Bolt of Divine Retribution: Om tries a few, but it doesn't really work. The Ephebians are quick to compliment their gods immediately after saying anything disrespectful about them, unless the Library's copper roof is above them to ground out this trope.
  • Break the Cutie: Brutha, as he realizes just how corrupt and tyrannical the Omnian church is.
  • Brick Joke:
  • Brought Down to Normal: Once a mighty and feared deity who ruled many civilizations, lack of belief turned Om into a turtle.
  • Character Development: How Brutha develops from a clueless novice into a wise leader, and Om from a selfish, uncaring and cruel god to a god who appreciates human life.
    • Om even lampshades it, when it occurs to him that he never even thought about words like 'unfair' before he became a tortoise.
  • Chess Motifs: Brutha becomes a bishop, which (the narrative reminds us) moves diagonally to crop up in unexpected places.
  • Chess with Death: Provides the page quote. The Abbot of the History Monks plays it at the end - however, Death can never remember how the little horse-shaped ones move, and the Abbot just continuously reincarnates anyway. The reader doesn't see how it ends, but the Abbot was back to being a baby in his next appearance.
  • Church Militant: Vorbis. Ultimately he cares more about his personal power and the power of the church than the god it was supposed to be dedicated to. Part of what makes him frightening is how completely unaware he is of this; he believes he's following the commands of his god all the way to end, until he passes to the desert and finally learns that he's only been hearing himself. And now that's all the company he'll ever have...
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The Ephebian philosophers previously appeared in Pyramids (which caused a Continuity Snarl mentioned in Thief of Time).
    • The Librarian is glimpsed rescuing books from the burning Library of Ephebe and then vanishing — using his skills seen in Guards! Guards! to navigate through L-Space from one library to another, including through time.
      • It's Lampshaded as a Continuity Nod cameo by the narration noting that the scene doesn't have anything to do with the rest of the story - it's just nice to know it happened.
  • Conveniently Coherent Thoughts: Averted - Om can't read minds because they're too chaotic, but he can get a feel for the general shape of them.
    "You think it's like watching words paint themselves across the sky? Hah! It's like trying to make sense of a bundle of weeds. Intentions, yes. Emotions, yes. But not thoughts. Half the time you don't know what you're thinking, so why should I?"
  • The Corrupter: Vorbis is noted at least twice to have a tendency to make those around him more like himself.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Brutha is flogged and then strapped to the iron turtle to die slowly and horribly while being mocked. The local CMOT Dibbler creates a miniature statue of a tortoise obviously analogous to a crucifix.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Om and the religion built around him are a defining example of this trope.
  • Cut His Heart Out with a Spoon: Om at the beginning, angered by people ignoring him, says many creative curses, such as "Your intestines to be wound around a tree until you are sorry!" or "Your sexual organs to sprout wings and fly away!"
  • Deadpan Snarker: Om. Oh so much. After all, a turtle doesn't have many ways to vent its anger.
  • Death Equals Redemption: In the epilogue, after an unspecified amount of time in the desert with the only company of his own thoughts, Vorbis gets a chance at redemption thansk to Brutha.
  • Department of Redundancy Department:
    They went out into the desert but did not come back, preferring a hermit's life of dirt and hardship and dirt and holy contemplation and dirt.
    There would be talk of holy wars and blood and crusades and blood and piety and blood.
  • Deus ex Machina: Played with. A god really does descend from the sky to save the day. Just not in the way you're picturing.
  • Doomed Moral Victor: When Brutha is about to be executed, Simony argues that they can't save him, and if they do nothing, his death will become a "symbol for people". Urn is disgusted by this, telling him that now he thinks like Vorbis. He even muses that the most horrible thing about Vorbis is that he makes other people like himself.
  • Doublethink: Vorbis repeatedly refers to the difference between the trivial, surface truth and a deeper, 'fundamental' truth. The latter, of course, is always a convenient justification for his actions.
  • Dreadful Musician: Brutha's singing is so awful that he receives special dispensation to be excused from choir practice; the music master says it puts him in mind of a disappointed vulture arriving too late at the dead donkey. Om himself compares it to the lamentations of the plague-stricken.
  • The Easy Way or the Hard Way: At the end of the book, Brutha tells Sergeant Simony to stop the Exquisition the hard way—that is, with as few casualties as possible.
  • Enemy Mine: At the end, the (usually hostile) countries of Ephebe, Tsort, Djelibeybi and Klatch combine their naval forces to invade Omnia and destroy it once and for all. It doesn't quite work out like that.
  • Evil Overlord . Subverted: The ruler of Ephebe is called the "Tyrant"... because, as with the original definition of the word, he didn't inherit his title. Rather, he was democratically elected.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Om at the beginning is very callous and self-centered, but even he's horrified by the torture chambers of the Omnian inquisition.
  • Expy: A two-for-one with Legibus. He appears running down the street, fresh from his (incomplete) bath, naked and soaked (much as Archimedes is reputed to have run into the street shouting excitedly when he realized that objects immersed in fluids displace their own volume of fluid), to a potter's shop to ask for a few mundane items, and a few axiomatic devices. The potter is quite familiar with the routine, having been through it so often that he has a towel belonging to Legibus and some chalk so he can draw some diagrams on the walls (a reference to Albert Einstein, who is reputed to have been so absent-minded in his later years that he would go to his customary diner for breakfast on his way to Princeton University, and discover when he went to pay that he'd left his wallet in the pants he forgot to put on, and would then be given a spare pair kept in the diner for this exact reason).
    • According to "The Unseen University Challenge" book (copywrite 1996, David Langford, ISBN 0 575 60000 4), "Brutha's build, his powerful mind, and the fact that his fellow-novices call him the Big Dumb Ox, should remind the discerning of St Thomas Aquinas."
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture:
    • Although the shape of the world controversy is clearly based on the Catholic Church vs. Galileo, Omnia is more like Iran (the most obvious example of a theocracy to the modern mind). Besides its terrain and climate being remniscent of Iran, its capital city and seat of the Cenobiarch is Kom—compare the Iranian holy city and seat of the Grand Ayatollah, Qom. Dibbler's counterpart is also "Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah", a reference to how Sharia law punishes theft by cutting hands off. Word of God confirms this: the novel was inspired by a documentary about Khomeini's Iran.
    • Ephebe is clearly Classical Greece (specifically Athens), with Greek-sounding names, philosophers, slavery and democracy.
  • Flat Earth Atheist:
    • Simony, who refuses to believe in the existence of the gods even when they're speaking to him personally. Om likes him because atheism that militant is pretty much the same as religious belief from the point of view of a god — they're thinking and talking about the gods as frequently and as strongly as believers, if not more so.
    • Inverted with the Omnian church, who keep insisting the flat world is round.
  • Flipping Helpless: Om. He took it hard.
  • Flowers for Algernon Syndrome: What Om is very, very afraid of if Brutha should die.
  • Gambit Roulette: Lu Tze manages to change the fate of Omnia from centuries of religious war and hideous institutionalised torture to a constitutional theocracy (which means Om has to follow the rules about not killing as well). He does this with a strategically placed pile of compost, sweeping the floor at a crucial moment, and a bucket of cold water.
  • Genius Ditz: Crossed with Idiot Hero in Brutha. Probably the weirdest example, in that he is brilliant, but in a different way then most people understand, and it takes a while for him to get to the point where he can use it.
  • A God Am I: All gods. They don't make 'em humble.
  • God Is Flawed: Om is very far from the omnipotent, omniscient creature Brutha first believes him to be (and he was far from it even before he became a tortoise). It's common for Discworld gods to be less intelligent and moral than their followers.
  • Gods Need Prayer Badly
    You're more afraid of him than you are of me, now. Abraxas says here: 'Around the Godde there forms a Shelle of prayers and Ceremonies and Buildings and Priestes and Authority, until at Last the Godde Dies. Ande this maye notte be noticed.'
    —Om, when Brutha refuses his command(ment) to kill Vorbis.
    • When Om does regain a lot of die-hard believers, he's able to beat up Dunmanifestin's chief god Io because nobody believes in thunder gods all that strongly anymore.
  • Good Shepherd:
    • Brutha guides the spiritual development of his own god, then moves on to the worshippers.
    • The trope is also Deconstructed: Vorbis is more like a shepherd than Brutha, since sheep are stupid and need to be driven. Brutha is more like a goatherd, since goats are intelligent and need to be led. It's also mentioned that Om's first follower being a shepherd distorted his perspective on humans.
    • Even so, that early shepherd did impart a bit of wisdom that Om eventually took to heart: the shepherd had a hundred sheep, yet took the trouble to search for a single lost lamb — after all, his willingness to search for one lost sheep was the reason he had a hundred.
  • Groin Attack: Om utilizes this method to commandeer the eagle he uses to transport him to the execution site and lay the smack down on Vorbis. According to the Annotated Pratchett file, this is anatomically incorrect, but hey, no reason to let that get in the way of a good joke or plot point.
  • Happiness in Slavery:
    • Brutha discovers that the Ephebean slaves have much better working conditions than the (nominally) free Omnians, and slavery offers the chance to earn their freedom and own slaves themselves.
    • Vorbis boasts to the Tyrant that in the Omnian language, there is no word for 'slavery'. The Tyrant muses that this is likely similar to fish having no word for 'water'.
  • Heel Realization: Vorbis finally gets this after death, realizing that he'd never actually been following the commandments of a god—that the only voice he'd ever heard came from his own head.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Sergeant Simony becomes disturbingly zealous in his efforts to overthrow the church of Om, until Urn points out how much like Vorbis he's become.
  • Illegal Religion: The Omnians have banned all religions other than their state religion, Omnianism. Brutha later turns this on its head, allowing all religions in Omnia, though Omnianism (in more varied forms than before) is still the prevailing one.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Brutha. Om becomes a better god as a result of spending time with him.
    • At least two characters observe that Vorbis has a tendency to make good people more like him. Brutha spends a lot of time in Vorbis' company but avoids this fate, and is in fact one of the first to realize this.
  • Inexplicably Identical Individuals: The first appearance of one of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler's foreign counterparts, Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah, seller of very old yoghurt and very new holy relics.
  • It's All About Me: All gods are completely self-centered. Om in particular didn't care at all what his followers do as long as they worship him. He gets better over the course of the novel.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • Vorbis, turning Om (whom he believes to be only a tortoise) on his back and props him with pebbles to ensure that he cannot right itself, just to see what would happen.
    • Vorbis later forces the captain of the ship he's sailing on to harpoon a porpoise, because sailors generally believe that killing a porpoise is bad luck; a foolish superstition that must be overcome in the fundamental truth of Omnian doctrine. The sailors are right; Om is forced to make a bargain with the local sea goddess to spare him and Brutha. Later the ship does indeed sink as a direct result of Om's bargain (though a bit of bad luck and timing was involved), though after Om, Brutha, Vorbis and Simony have all disembarked.
  • Language Equals Thought: Fasta Benj, a man from a tiny tribe that is unaware of the rest of the world, gets mixed up in the final conflict when his boat is swept along by the attacking fleet. Thus, his god also appears along the rest of the gods, and forbids him to wage war against Omnia. His people have no word for war, since they have no one to fight, so the god uses the description: "remember when Pacha Moj hit his uncle with big rock? Like that, only more worse." The fisherman comes away with the impression that it's not good if lots of people hit Pacha Moj's uncle with a big rock, though he can't understand why they would.
  • Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!:
    • Why Om is very uncomfortable when they take shelter in an abandoned temple in the middle of the desert.
      Om: A god lived here. A powerful God. Thousands worshipped it. I can feel it. You know? It comes out of the walls. A Great God. Mighty were his dominions and magnificent was his word. [...] And now no one, not you, not me, no one, even knows who the god was or his name or what he looked like.
    • Earlier in the book, Om had met a small god who had memories of prior greatness, but couldn't even remember its own name now that the worshippers were all gone. The temple may well have been to that same god.
  • Mad Scientist: Urn has shades of this. He does care about morality... when he takes the time off his researches to think about it.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • Om's first follower was a shepherd who had 100 sheep only because he was willing to look for days to find one. Later, Om remarks that if he wants thousands of followers, he needs to fight for one.
    • While in the desert, Om says "In a hundred years we'll all be dead," and Brutha replies, "But here and now, we are alive!" A hundred years later, Brutha dies after being told how long it was since he'd been in the desert—exactly one hundred years. For added irony, his last words were "But here and now, we—"
  • Messianic Archetype: Brutha. He's the only one who can directly talk to his god, he survives a life-changing journey through the desert and he reforms the religion of his country.
  • Monster Shaped Mountain: The wind god has rather crude sense of humor, as demonstrated by the shape of an eroded rock pillar that Om points out to Brutha as a desert landmark.
  • Motive Decay: The battle at the end; Brutha goes up to the generals and explains that there's no reason to fight. They look at him like he's an idiot and say that when two sides hate each other enough, sometimes there just has to be war. Any justification will do, even no justification at all.
  • My Skull Runneth Over: Brutha experiences discomfort after memorizing the entire Ephebean library. Despite having never learned to read, the information from the books he memorized somehow manages to leak into his mind. Thankfully for Brutha, it never gets worse than said discomfort and knowledge leaks.
  • Nay-Theist: Sergeant Simony vehemently denies the possibility that Om exists. Ironically, his resentment against Om for not existing is comforting to Om: 'almost like belief'.
    Simony: If Om exists, let him smite me now! Thus I refute Om.
    Om (audible only to Brutha): I like this boy.
  • Never Learned to Read: Brutha. Even though he has photographic memory, he was incapable of understanding the concept of reading. His mind could not make the connection between the letters and the sounds.
  • No Infantile Amnesia: Again, Brutha.
    "What is the first thing you can remember, my son?" said Vorbis, kindly.
    "There was a bright light, and then someone hit me," said Brutha.
  • Non-Mammal Mammaries: Or the male equivalent, considering eagles shouldn't have certain anatomical features on the outside.
  • Not a Game: The gods literally treat the world of mortals as a game, dice and all. Om finally realizes it is Not a Game thanks to Brutha. After that, he (brow)beats the other gods into realizing it too.
  • Not-So-Imaginary Friend:
    • Angus is set up as a hallucination of the clearly-mad prophet St. Ungulant. No one else can see/hear him, and he doesn't drink any water because it "[gives] him gas." Then, when the starving lion is primed to kill St. Ungulant, Angus knocks it out with a rock. Also a case of Fridge Brilliance: small gods become real through belief, and St. Ungulant believes in his imaginary friend. It certainly helps that he's the patron saint of small gods.
    • Indeed, Om could be considered this to Brutha. For most of the book, no one else can hear Om's words but Brutha; everyone else thinks Om is just a tortoise, and most believe Brutha is a bit mad in this regard.
  • Obfuscating Disability: Vorbis pulls a chilling example of this on Brutha as they are about to leave the desert.
  • Pet the Dog: A man comes to Vorbis bringing word of the proto-tank being built, hoping that it would earn the release of his incarcerated father. Vorbis outright states that he knows that he would be in league with the rebels if not for his father... and nonetheless orders that the father be released. It appears for a moment that he is baiting him by asking an inquisitor if they know where the man lives, but never follows up on it. Then again, Vorbis may simply not have gotten around to it. He was rather busy from that point until he died.
  • Photographic Memory: Brutha, to the extent that he can copy out books he's only seen once despite not being able to read them himself.
    • One of the few times (if not the only time) that Brutha forgets anything is at the very end of the novelnote . Brutha himself chuckles at the irony of him, with the infallible memory, actually forgetting something.
  • The Plan: Vorbis' plans, among other things, include invading Ephebe by sending the Omnian fleet to attack Ephebe directly - and getting burned by a giant Ephebian magnifying glass - partly as a justification to his main plan to cross the desert, helped by several expeditions that left caches of food and water along the way. Pratchett referred to it as "planning your counter-attack before your attack." If the first attack works, excellent. If not, it sets up the second. Vorbis may be the most frightening villain Pratchett has ever created, because he is essentially what Vetinari would be if he were actually evil and sadistic.
  • Punch Clock Villain/Just Doing My Job - Lampshaded:
    And it all meant this: that there are hardly any excesses of the most crazed psychopath that cannot easily be duplicated by a normal, kindly family man who just comes in to work every day and has a job to do.
  • Real Dreams Are Weirder: Urn says harnessing lightning is the dream of mankind. Didactylos dreams of being chased by giant carrots.
  • Really 700 Years Old: The History Monks, who use 'circular aging' the way those who play wind instruments use 'circular breathing'.
  • Red Herring: The desert lion seems like it'll be important later, but really only exists after the initial encounter to provide a punchline.
  • Running Gag:
    Everyone noticing Om for the first time: "There's good eating on one of those..."
  • Secret Test of Character: The desert afterlife, with judgement at the end. The judgement isn't a secret. Which end of the desert the judgement happens at is.
  • Shoot The Builder: "Killing the creator was a traditional method of patent protection."
  • Shout-Out:
    • There are many references to famous Greek philosophers in the book. In fact, if you know the legend of how Aeschylus died, than with some thought it's becomes obvious how Vorbis will die.
    • A rather obscure shout-out can be found in the name of one of the ancient prophets of Om: Ishkibble.
    • Speaking of obscure shout-outs, there's one to the educational programming language Logo, of all things (a pun on Logo's "turtle graphics.")
    • Terry also manages at least one truly audacious Shout-Out. (Well, he has said that he's disappointed none of his books have yet been bonfired by Deep South Fundamentalists.) When Brutha is in his old familiar garden praying for guidance from a God who has apparently withdrawn himself, when he is frightened of the consequences of disobeying Vorbis but knowing he has to do it, while wishing somebody else would. This is Jesus Christ in the garden of Gethsemane.
  • Straight Edge Evil: Vorbis is an ascetic; aside from being celibate, he only consumes water and dry bread (he actually waits until the fresh bread dries).
  • Super Speed Reading: Brutha, although with the twist that he doesn't understand any of it — he's just using his photographic memory to memorize the shapes and orders of the letters so he can copy it down again later.
  • Tank Goodness: Urn invents what is possibly the Disc's first one in the Moving Turtle, though see also Eric.
  • Time Police: The History Monks, who ensure the timeline doesn't stray too far from its course.
  • Tranquil Fury: Om, after he realizes his screamed curses and punishments (Turn into a mud leech and wither in the fires of retribution!) fail to materialize:
    Om: One day I'm going to be back on form again and you're going to be very sorry you said that. For a very long time. I might even go so far as to make more Time just for you to be sorry in.
  • Wham Line: Throughout the book, deceased characters end up in an afterlife that takes the form of crossing a desert. They ask Death what lies at the end of the desert, and he replies Judgement. At the end of the book, Brutha dies, asks the question and considers Death's answer, and then asks: "Which end?"
  • What the Hell, Hero?:
    • Urn gives this to Simony when he states he wants to let Brutha die and become an useful martyr for Simony's war against the Church of Omnia.
    • Near the end of the novel, Brutha chews out Simony, Urn, and company for following him to a parley with the incoming armies when he had previously stated he wished to do so alone—their presence had disrupted the peace talks and were about to precipitate a war.
  • What You Are in the Dark:
    • When Brutha leads Vorbis through a labyrinth, he thinks: "I could run forward. I could hide, and he'd walk into one of the pits or a deadfall or some­thing, and then I could sneak back to my room and who would ever know? I would."
    • Also Vorbis when he is forced to examine himself after death, then Brutha again when he finds him there a century later.
  • Who's on First?: Brutha's awkward name is lampshaded when another priest thinks of what will happen when he's Brother Brutha. Or even Father Brutha.
  • You Can't Fight Fate - Subverted: Lu-Tze changes events, and the Discworld's usual Rubber-Band History does not come into play because the History Monks can just edit the books which contain the whole history of the world so it fits his changes.