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IDEX LYON 2016

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30 ans de l'ENS de Lyon
The Discworld is a world shaped like a disc, travelling through space on the backs of four elephants, themselves astride the shell of the great turtle A’Tuin. With such a premiss, two things are obvious: first, that Terry Pratchett’s cult series belongs to the fantasy genre. Second, that its author does not take himself too seriously. In fact, Sir Terry is probably the most famous representative of the light (or comic) fantasy subgenre. As such, his many influences include J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard and William Shakespeare, but also Jerome K. Jerome and the Monty Pythons. The end result consists of forty main novels set in a whimsical, borderline absurd universe, and is written with a very distinctive sense of humor, with tools ranging from slapstick and bad puns to irony, satire and black humor. Rather than take those apart, we will strive to find the common comic streak that unites the series, as the books seem to fit Bergson’s theory of laughter, but also to contradict it. What is the function of laughter in the Discworld series? Since the whole light fantasy genre originated as a parody of high fantasy, laughter is primarily used to deconstruct its rigid tropes, and deflate the heroic tone into burlesque. However, one of Pratchett’s specificities is the sheer length of his series, which would not have attracted such popularity with simple parody. Comedy of repetition is used abundantly but self-reflexively, and from novel to novel, characters and storylines repeat themselves while still expecting a different outcome, until the whole Discworld feels like a lunatic asylum in which the narrator and a few sane characters are playing along to humor the majority, creating a strange community into which the reader is invited. While laughter comes in response to the recognition of “something mechanical encrusted on the living”, it is an inclusive, even affectionate laughter, and one not limited to the happy few. Pratchett will unabashedly juxtapose toilet humor with jokes about quantum physics, and this breakdown of the contrast between low and high culture anchors him in postmodernity. His meta-literary playfulness, referenced in-universe through the law of “narrativium” (which explains the high recurrence of coincidence, anachronisms, and literary allusions inside the Discworld), is not, however, limited to postmodern irony. Behind the satire and the whimsical, Pratchett gleefully resurrects heroes and myths for the postmodern age, in a way that is perhaps only accessible to postmodern light fantasy.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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