Small Gods

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Small Gods
Written by: Terry Pratchett
Central Theme: Faith, religion, and morality are three different things.
Synopsis: The Great God Om doesn't worry too much about his worshippers until he finds he's been incarnated as a tortoise - and his only hope for a cure lies in a Chosen One he would never have chosen.
Genre(s): Fantasy
Series: Discworld
Preceded by: Witches Abroad
Followed by: Lords and Ladies
First published: 1992
v · d · e

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 pile is the young novice Brutha, big and slow but with a Photographic Memory. 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 weak state because on Discworld the gods need belief to survive and everyone in Omnia, save the simple Brutha, is believing in and fearing 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.

Tropes used in Small Gods include:

"Beneath the temple, Ern and sergeant Simony made their way through the tunnels of the citadel using the kind of nonchalant walk which would draw detail and arrow-sharp attention to them in seconds. Fortunately the guards were all above ground at the ceremony."

  • A God Am I: all gods.
  • 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"
  • Amnesiac God: Om.
  • And I Must Scream: Vorbis' final fate. Subverted when Brutha mercifully takes him to the afterlife.
  • 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?"
    • Also "The turtle moves!" and "In a hundred years we'll all be dead, but here and now, we are alive."
    • Although it's more of a Running Gag than Arc Words, any time a character sees Om (as a tortoise), they'd say "Is that a tortoise? There's good eating on one of those..."
      • Fridge Brilliance: possibly an incredibly subtle reference to the Catholic doctrine that the bread and wine eaten at Mass are the actual blood and body of Christ.
  • Awesome By Analysis: Brutha, although it really only comes into play at the end.
  • Bald of Evil: Vorbis, who deliberately shaves his head.
  • 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".
  • 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: The translation of the phrase mentioned in Altum Videtur is given as "When their full attention is in your grip, their heart and mind will follow."
  • Brick Joke: Didactylos's quip, "Do Deformed Rabbit, it's my favorite", referring back to a Running Gag from Moving Pictures.
  • Brought Down to Normal: or worse: Om
  • 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 with Death: The Abbot of the History Monks plays it at the end - however, Death can never remember how the knights move, and the Abbot just continuously reincarnates anyway.
    • He was a baby in his next appearance...
    • ... Though depending on when Small Gods and the Distant Finale are actually set as compared to Thief of Time, this event could have occurred any time for hundreds of years before or after this event, or both at once.
  • Church Militant
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Crucified Hero Shot: Brutha is flogged and then strapped to the iron turtle while being mocked. The local CMOT Dibbler creates a miniature statue of this which is suggested to be analogous to a crucifix.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Om and the religion built around him are a defining example of this trope
  • Deadpan Snarker: Om. Oh so much.
  • Death Equals Redemption: Vorbis, in a manner of speaking.
  • 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: Very literally. An actual god falls out of the sky to save the day.
  • 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.
  • Enemy Mine: At the end, the (usually hostile) countries of Ephebe, Tsort, Djelibeybi and Klatch combine their naval forces to invade Omnia and stop them once and for all. It doesn't quite work out like that.
  • Expy: We get 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 realised 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 fem 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).
  • 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.
  • Flat Earth Atheist: Simony, who refuses to believe in the existence of the gods even when they're speaking to him personally.
    • Om doesn't seem to mind this, because according to him, 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 kept insisting the flat world was round.
  • Flowers for Algernon Syndrome: What Om is very, very afraid of if Brutha would die.
  • Gambit Roulette: Lu Tze manages to change the fate of Omnia from centuries of religious war to a constitutional theocracy. (Which means Om has to follow the rules about not killing as well) The history monk 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 just takes a while for him to get to the point where he can use it.
  • A God I Am Not
  • 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
  • Good Shepherd: Brutha guides the spiritual development of his god, then moves on to the worshipers.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Ho Yay: Even though Om is a tortoise most of the time, he and Brutha make one hell of a shipping. "He is Mine" indeed.
  • 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.
    • Vorbis later forces the captain of the ship he's sailing on to harpoon a porpoise, in spite of said sailor believing that killing one would cause the ship to sink. Again, he only does this for his own amusement. The ship would've sunk indeed if Om hadn't bargained with a sea goddess to get out of it.
  • 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 worshiped 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.

  • 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.
  • The Messiah: Brutha
  • Messianic Archetype: Also Brutha
  • 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 sometimes there has to be war, even for no reason.
  • Never Learned to Read: Brutha
  • 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: Om (brow)beats the other gods into realising this, mostly because they literally treat the world of mortals as a game, dice and all.
  • 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.
  • 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 the Dog by asking an inquisitor if they know where the man lives, but never follows up on it.
  • 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 Seven Hundred Years Old: The History Monks
  • Red Herring: The desert lion seems like it'll be important later, but really only exists after the initial encounter to provide the punchline to a joke.
  • Running Gag: "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.
  • 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.
    • Terry also manages at least one truly audacious Shout-Out. (Well, he has said that he's dissappointed none of his books have been bonfired yet 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.
  • Smite Me, O Mighty Smiter!: Fairly useless when his thunderbolts are on the small side
  • Smith Will Suffice: Subverted:

Brutha: Oh, my god...
Om: What now?

  • 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
  • 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 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.
  • Xanatos Gambit: 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 counterattack before your attack."If the first attack works, great, but 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.
  • 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