It's all about Headology: Terry Pratchett and the Discworld novels

Terry Pratchett has written many books for adults and children. They have a lot to offer psychology by providing good explanations and examples of how the human mind works, argues Chartered Psychologist Dr Katie Sparks.

The majority of Pratchett's literary output focuses on the fictitious world of Discworld, a flat planet held up by four elephants which stand on a giant turtle which is slowly travelling through space. One could describe his work as fantasy meets fairytale, folklore, quantum physics and philosophy, but they also tellus a lot about psychology . 

One such example is the power of belief in creating reality. There are numerous Discworld characters appearing repeatedly in the series, including humans, trolls, dwarves and other species. One character is Death, a large skeleton complete with black robe and scythe (and white horse called Binky!). Death came into existence in this form purely through human belief. There are also many Gods in the world, some small, some all-powerful, some barely a whisper on the wind. Their strength and power is entirely dependent on the number of their believers and the strength of their belief.

Several books feature witches, who act as nurse, midwife, and counsel to the villages in which they live. Generally, they do not perform much magic (aside from broom transport) but as one witch, Granny Weatherwax, often cites, their role is all about Headology - again, what people believe is what is their reality. Communities believe in the 'magical' power of their local witch - both to heal and to destroy - and this, in turn, enables the witch to act with authority, often with little questioning of her advice and actions.

In Maskerade, for example, Granny Weatherwax gives an elderly man, with backache, a black bottle of sticky medicine. This is what he expecting to receive, and believes it has magical healing powers. However, on the way out of her cottage she 'accidentally' trips him up and in the process does a small chiropractic manoeuvre with his spine, so correcting the back problem. He, of course, ascribes the miraculous cure to the 'magical' sticky medicine. To increase the power of this 'Headology' witches also often wear false warts and wigs, and never, of course, go out without their black pointy hat!

Another theme relevant to Psychology is the concept that 'form defines function'. If something takes on human shape it becomes human, affecting their thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. Hence Death's human form can affect his actions and emotions, and as the books progress he does indeed become more 'human'. Auditors are another 'species' on Discworld, appearing as ethereal grey hoods floating in the air. They represent the rules of nature, and strive to attain order, seeing humans and other life forms as somewhat chaotic and ruining the orderliness of the world. They exist as many but think as 'One' with little feeling and emotion.

In The Thief of Time they take on human form. This becomes very interesting from the psychological perspective, as once becoming individualised in human form they also take on human emotions and feelings. The human experience is described as being alone in the dark behind the eyes, and they experience sensations previously alien to them, such as jealousy, pain and anger which leads eventually to their destruction. Fear becomes a prominent emotion as their new perception of being a 'me', a unique individual, means the auditors have a lot more at lose if they are destroyed, compared to when they were a multiple of 'One'.They also become susceptible to death by chocolate. Previously ignorant to the sensation of taste they disintegrate when tasting chocolate due to the overwhelming bliss experienced.

The power of words underlies many stories. For example, Golems are creatures made of clay, created purely to work. They receive their 'modus operandi' from words written on scrolls placed in their heads during their manufacture. In 'Feet of Clay' a Golum is created by other Golems to be their leader. Wanting him to be the best, they place a huge list of instructions inside his head. The result is a Golem who destroys everything in his overwhelmed state of confusion from too many words and instructions. As any therapist knows the words in our head can create or even destroy our worlds.

In the Discworld books Terry Pratchett touches on many topical issues (e.g. prejudice, politics, even the weather). He includes analogies and parodies of ancient and modern culture, history, literatureand philosophy, dropping in little references to keep the reader on their toes. (For example, a sign above a City Watch house is translated by one character as 'to protect and serve'. The sign? ''Fabricate Diem, Pvnc'. Think Mr Eastwood.) 

His descriptions of the human mind within the context of both humour and an intriguing, intelligent narrative would transform any ordinary Psychology lecture into a refreshing example of the mechanics behind what it is to be human.

If he hasn't already been given one, I recommend Terry Pratchett be awarded an honourary degree in Psychology.

<p>I'm looking to write an essay on Death as an exploration of the existentialist death anxiety using the Discworld books. I've been reading the books since I was about 11 and having 25 years of study and love I'm now in my first year of my diploma. Re-reading the books with a different understanding of the world and principles of therapeutic intervention, Terry Pratchett has gifted me with many theoretical examples that have helped to assimilate theories from Humanistic to object relations. Headology is an idea that I may return to another time for understanding the therapeutic relationship.</p>
<p>Integration of the various strands of anthropology, psychology, religion and history with political comment and extensive observation of humanity give joy in reading but can also be read on several levels. A delightful resource worth returning to over and over again.</p>
<p>DB</p>

I absolutely agree with the recommendation to give Mr Pratchett an honourary degree in psychology. I have read every Discworld book and recognise the psychological/'headological' references- more so in characters such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, Vimes and Death.

:D

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