“The place where the Falling Angel meets the Rising Ape” – How Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather uses Christmas to explore humanity’s true nature

Everybody loves a good Christmas story, but they can get a bit repetitive after a while. That’s hardly surprising, considering that almost all of them are about the same thing: being generous and valuing family.

Don’t get me wrong – those are important, timeless themes worth repeating. It’s just that the overabundance of Yuletide yarns that go back to that thematic well can leave the genre feeling a tad stale… until a tale comes along to mix things up in welcome new ways.

The Hogfather is a perfect example of this. The 20th entry in the late Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series of novels uses an inspired premise – after Santa substitute the Hogfather vanishes, it’s left to Death and his human granddaughter Susan to set things right – as a jumping off point to go beyond the usual genre tropes and explore what Christmas says about human nature itself.

Belief – the ultimate Christmas present?

Towards the end of the novel (and its 2006 Sky1 live-action adaptation), Death and Susan have foiled a plot by the villainous Auditors of Reality to destroy the Hogfather, saving Hogswatch (read “Christmas”) in the process. As the pair watch the Hogfather take to the sky in his magical sleigh, Susan takes a moment to reflect on the deeper significance of successfully completing their mission.

See, early on in Hogfather, Death tells Susan that rescuing the Hogfather will serve a greater purpose than simply ensuring that kids wake up to presents. According to Death, the Hogfather’s demise would have stopped the Sun from rising, due to the Hogfather’s roots as a life-death-rebirth deity.

So now that she’s ensured this won’t come to pass, Susan is curious to know whether what she’d been told was actually true, only to learn that this is very much a “yes and no” scenario. “The Sun would not have risen,” intones Death, “A mere ball of gas would have illuminated the world”.

Essentially, what was at stake here was belief – and as it turns out, without it, humans don’t really function all that well.

Christmas is proof that not everything we believe has to be true

Hogfather_Death_Susan

Sure, the Discworld’s sun will rise every morning whether the Hogfather exists or not. But if the fantasy realm’s inhabitants stop believing in this magical creature and what he represents, they’ll experience a sunrise that’s devoid of any symbolic power or beauty.

Death proclaims that believing in such things is intrinsic to being human; if we didn’t, life would be unbearable.

It’s by swallowing “little lies” like the Hogfather (or Father Christmas) as children that we unwittingly prepare ourselves to accept bigger intangible concepts like justice, mercy, and duty. Thanks to our faith in them, these abstracts become real – and our world is a better place for it.

“…take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder and sieve it through the finest sieve and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy.”

Death, The Hogfather

That’s why Death ultimately labels humanity “the place where the Falling Angel meets the Rising Ape”: because our faith and foibles position us at the perfect point between the primal and divine.

Yes, humans are stupid and foolish and mean and petty. But we’re also capable of dreaming up concepts like justice, mercy, and duty, and of demanding a universe that’s not harsh and indifferent, but warm and full of meaning.

We all need something to believe in – whether that’s Santa Claus as kids, or science and religion as adults – to help us make sense of the world, and this shared need unites us in a special and beautiful way.

It’s the perfect sentiment to hold onto this festive season, and we have Terry Pratchett’s fresh take on Christmas in Hogfather to thank for it.


Do you have a favourite genre-busting Christmas story? Let me know in the comments below or on Twitter or Facebook!

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