115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“A fog in which people see what they wish to see”: Fantasy, History, and Identity in Terry Pratchett’s Dodger

Kristin Noone, Irvine Valley College

While Pratchett’s novel invites questions regarding genre and what readers expect to see, Dodger also explores social expectations and their potential for both confinement and clever manipulation regarding how characters are seen, allow themselves to be seen, or carefully stage scenes for others to see; the novel also links city and character, as the London fog becomes not simply a metaphor for Victorian sensation and concealment but a tool for crafting one’s visibility to others.

Proposal: 

In his Author’s Note to the 2012 edition of Dodger, Terry Pratchett refers to his novel as “a historical fantasy, albeit one “based on reality” (359) and designed less for historical accuracy than for “getting readers interested” in the era of the novel’s setting: early Victorian London. Dodger, if it is a fantasy, is an unusual one. Marketed as a novel about “a boy’s coming of age” in Victorian London (Barnes & Noble) and a story in which “history and fantasy intertwine…in a tale of an unexpected coming-of-age and one remarkable boy’s rise in a complex and fascinating world” (HarperCollins), the novel contains no fantastical magic nor magical creatures, though it does contain sleight of hand and disguise; it presents historical figures such as Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens and roots the story in Henry Mayhew’s massive study London Labour and the London Poor, but adjusts dates and locations in favor of “where they should have been anyway” (Pratchett, “Author’s Note”). The novel thus becomes an exercise in genre combination, flexibility, and identification; not coincidentally, these themes appear throughout the novel itself, as the titular character of Dodger, his mentor Solomon, and Simplicity, the girl Dodger rescues at the novel’s opening, all adopt, perform, try out, disappear into, and explore new ways of appearing in the world.

Reading Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels—the Discworld novels initially intended for younger readers, though as of 2017 official lists of Discworld novels have simply integrated them with the rest—Roderick McGillis observes that Pratchett’s work comments on “constructions of childhood in both its ethical and political senses, and on relations between individuality and commonality” (5); while McGillis focuses on Discworld, I am interested in expanding these observations to the non-Discworld novels, which have received less than their share of scholarship. Cherith Baldry, in her essay on Pratchett’s children’s fantasy, claims that the fantasies for younger readers attempt “to expand the thinking of his younger readers by presenting them with new ideas or unconventional ways of looking at old ideas” (41), and identifies in particular themes of time, religion, war, prejudice, and concepts of the hero and the enemy. Dodger invokes several of these themes, especially those of prejudice, heroism, and secrecy, but expands them further than Baldry’s simple identification and classification. Even as the novel invites questions regarding genre and what readers expect to see, Pratchett also explores social expectations and their potential for both confinement and clever manipulation regarding how characters are seen, or allow themselves to be seen, or carefully stage scenes—as in the novel’s climax—for others to see; the novel also links city and character, as the London fog becomes not simply a metaphor for Victorian sensation and concealment but a tool for crafting one’s visibility to others. As Dodger himself suggests, “it is a fog in which people see what they wish to see” (320); the novel provides us with what Terry Pratchett wishes his young adult (or adult) readers to see: his hybrid fantasy-history version of Victorian London, containing “the grime, squalor, and hopelessness of an underclass that nevertheless survived, often by means of self-help” (360), and which retains relevance today, when, as Pratchett concludes, “there is always room for the sharp and clever Dodgers, male and female.”