As a lover of both Charles Dickens’s novels and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fantasy series, I was delighted to learn that Pratchett had written a book set in Dickens’s London. “Dodger,” a tale of a street boy who “makes it” almost against his own will and becomes an inspiration to Charles Dickens himself, occupied my mind delightfully, as Pratchett tends to do—and, almost against its own will, highlighted vast differences between Pratchett’s voice and philosophy and those of Dickens.
“Dodger” occupies a different world than the Pratchett world I’m used to, Victorian England instead of Discworld, and yet it is oh, so familiar. Oh, there—there’s that writing I know and love, Pratchett’s rattling, amusing, occasionally bawdy, unexpectedly deep style that pulls you along at a breakneck pace until you don’t quite know where you are. There are the characters that are almost—not quite—stock characters, inimitably Pratchett’s: the rogue-turned-hero, the plucky and snarky girl, the wise and hilarious old man, the mysterious mover-of-affairs. Oh—there’s the city, Terry Pratchett’s city, whether it’s Dickens’s London or Pratchett’s own Ankh-Morpork—in Pratchett’s hands it’s the same city.
Since Ankh-Morpork is a snarky, satirical version of Victorian London, it’s no surprise that Pratchett’s London is so familiar a place, but what’s surprising is how satirical it’s not. Pratchett usually can’t help being satirical. His fantasies are hilarious social satires on English history and culture. And yet his one book about English history and culture turns out to be not so much a satire as simply the examination of a turning point in a boy’s life.
“Dodger” is not, as you might expect, a book about Dickens’s Artful Dodger. It’s a book about a boy called Dodger who happens to meet Charles Dickens and becomes a source of inspiration, not only for the Dodger but for Fagin, for “Bleak House,” for “Great Expectations.” As a matter of fact, sometimes “Dodger” seems like merely an excuse to make one character influence as many of Dickens’s books as possible, and to have him run into as many of Dickens’s famous contemporaries as possible. We meet Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Henry Mayhew, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Joseph Bazalgette, John Tenniel, and even a certain infamous fictional barber. And we glance in passing at Wellington, Charles Babbage, and Ada Lovelace. It’s like a Mary Sue fanfiction, where the Original Character has to meet every single one of the TV show’s main characters and become a person of importance among them.
But a good author really can do anything he wants with his story and make us embrace it, and Terry Pratchett is a very, very good author. Like Dickens, he can skip from pathos to hilarity in an instant, and infuses every minor character with a life of his or her own, rather than letting him or her be a cardboard cutout occupying a necessary space in the story. Like Dickens, he’s concerned with a moral and just ordering of society. His heroes aren’t always virtuous (Dodger is a thief and instinctive liar); his protagonists are often the last person you would expect (Rincewind the cowardly wizard; Death of the white horse and sickle, who is fascinated with humanity). But they always learn and grow; they end up fighting for right and justice, often in spite of themselves; and they end up changing their society. Dodger the thief and sewer rat does all these things, starting with an instinctively heroic effort to save the life of a girl in trouble. This is all very Dickensian.
Yet though he may be funnier, Pratchett is ultimately sadder than Dickens, and that is where he falls short of him. Pratchett has famously explained that he believes men create God in their own image and that we believe because we need to, not because there is anything really out there to believe in. He even includes in “Dodger” a sly hint that Dickens had no real faith in God. This, of course, is patently untrue. Dickens’s worldview shines with the understanding of redemption and with vibrant Christian theology.
In “Dodger,” as in Pratchett’s other books, even when you serve society or other humans and bring about changes that make everything better, you ultimately serve yourself. You act for the good of society, your society, so in the end you’re serving your own interests. There is nothing beyond, nothing greater. Even your gods are gods that you created with the power of your own mind to serve yourself and your needs. Dodger has his goddess, a kind of stand-in for the Virgin Mary, and whether she exists or not, she gives him comfort and hope.
This is all Pratchett’s gods can offer, a kind of self-help delusion. His Dickens is too wise to believe in self-delusion, and so of course he believes in nothing, or in humanity, or in himself. Dickens and Dodger can help make the world better, so that it will be a better place for the people who live in it, including themselves and their descendants. That is all.
In the end, Dodger is a beautifully written, hilarious, rollicking, pensive, happily-ever-after story, well worth reading and enjoying. But the happily-ever-after lasts no further than the close of the book, and has no resonance of lasting hope, and so it is no Dickens.
Image copyright HarperCollins. Review copy obtained from the publisher.
Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.