The Last Hero isn’t particularly substantial – it’s little more than a short story, bulked out with lots of illustrations. It’s also not particularly new, as it revisits a lot of themes and characters from earlier Discworld novels.
It is, however, very good.
For such a short tale, it’s surprisingly clear-cut in its division between comedy and tragedy. The early part of the book is mostly an excuse for jokes… and they’re very good jokes. They suffer a bit from the artificiality of the set-up and a certain disjointedness of scenes, but they don’t feel like Pratchett is just throwing gags at the page, as he sometimes does, or like lazy attempts at broad humour to fill the word count and bring the punters in. No, it really feels as though these jokes – and the plot they set up – have been carefully crafted. This may be the successor to Eric, in the sense of being an illustrated novel, but where that earlier experiment seemed casual, off-the-cuff, this one seems very much planned and intended. Sculpted. And then, midway through, it changes gears, not in a jolt but in a smooth progression, and it becomes a tragedy, albeit a tragedy with black comedy about the edges. And the tragedy is also… very good. The tale is largely a revisiting of his great early short story, Troll Bridge, a meditation on age and death that uses a parodic approach to sword and sorcery fantasy not as a distraction but as a central symbol of mortality and of romanticism. In his elegy for what is lost in the transition between heroism and mundanity, Pratchett approaches Tolkien, albeit from an odd direction; the world of heroes and villains, of Codes and lost temples and mysterious maps, like a comic mirror to Tolkien’s world of glorious and bloody elves, possess both an innocence and a terrible cruelty that the modern world – the world of adulthood and disillusionment – does not possess; or at least, as is hinted toward the end, modernity does not possess it quite so obvious a fashion. In that respect at least it is more optimistic than the purely elegiac Troll Bridge. But of course the myth of loss is also, in Pratchett as in Tolkien, the struggle of mankind against death, the truly inevitable loss, and both writers strive to find meaning and solace with which to confront that inevitability, even if their routes to that solace are very different. This is, in particular, one of Pratchett’s most angry books – not the false anger that conceals ambition and a will to power, the desire to bring about some change, but a true, burning, aimless anger – a pure anger from, not a compromised anger to – that in the end has nothing to turn against but itself. [The novel both thematically and in its content brings together the old Schopenhauer observation that the will to suicide is one of the strongest manifestations of the will to life]
It may be a return to Troll Bridge, but The Last Hero was written at a different time. Thematically this is only to its advantage, as it is a more complicated and interesting work. Yet in its commitment to the characters and themes of those earlier works, it must reconcile them with the newer nature of the setting, and his newer style. In this respect it is inevitably a companion to Interesting Times, which again addressed many of the same themes with the same characters. Whereas Interesting Times, however, attempted to embrace fairly wholeheartedly that earlier aesthetic, only to collapse when the author tried to place too great a weight on that structure of levity, The Last Hero steers more of a middle course. The result is on the whole much more impressive, but some of the details do suffer. Neither Rincewind nor Carrot really seems at home in the world of the other; Carrot in particular feels like he has had to be compressed, flattened out, in order to fit in (though this does not prevent a classic moment from him later on). And compared to Troll Bridge, Pratchett here seems to be speaking in a louder voice, stretching things further, throwing them at the reader with a heavier hand, saying things in so many words that he previously had left to reader’s interpretation; and sometimes I didn’t feel this really worked (as in the case of Evil Harry Dread and his minions). Perhaps Pratchett recognised these tensions as well; aside from Rincewind’s brief appearances in Unseen Academical near the end of the series, this is essentially the last farewell to Early Discworld; and it is, indeed, an extremely fitting one.
Indeed, I can’t but feel regret about this book. It’s too good for it to be the only one of its kind. Because what this really shows, aside from the details of the plot, the style, and the setting, is that a determined Pratchett can work really well in a shorter format. So many of the potential problems of Pratchett – disposable weak comedy scenes, subplots that go nowhere, diversions into political lecturing, endings that just can’t tie together so many different threads at once, problems with pacing – all go away when he’s held to a tight word count. At least, by the time of The Last Hero he seems finally to have worked out how to write to this format, much more successfully than in his shorter novels earlier in his career. And I can certainly understand why he largely avoided short stories, and why as time went on he more and more embraced longer novels – the novels began between 60k and 70k, rose up to around 90k for books like Small Gods, were 110k by the time of The Fifth Elephant, and peaked at 140k for Unseen Academicals. The freedom he got from longer novels – the ability to pursue multiple plots, to chase down red herrings, to throw in semi-random scenes just because he felt like it – was clearly part of what he enjoyed, and is a real and substantial part of what is so enjoyable about his books. It would be nonsense to wish all his books had been like The Last Hero (around 40k).
But I do wish he’d seen fit to play with this idea again. I’d have eaten up a run of, let’s call them, ‘Discworld Fables’. Shorter, more to the point, lighter in structure, an excuse to bring in old characters and new places, not necessarily worrying too much about continuity. Something closer, I suppose, to the real Sword and Sorcery novels, tongue firmly in cheek of course but not merely a parody. The Last Hero is so good I want to read more books like it. Particularly if they’ve got these illustrations…
To be fair, I’m not wholly sold on Kidby’s illustrations as a whole. I don’t think, frankly, by the standards of fantasy art, that his big, colour paintings are all that impressive (and what the hell is going on with his Tower of Art, anyway? Read the damn books!). But when he gets out his pencil (or what looks like his pencil, how would I know), and adopts a more realistic style, he gets really great. Some of the highlights of the book are his illustrations in the style of Leonardo – with, of course, notes by Pterry himself. Art aside, these reminded me how sometimes one of the greatest delights of Pratchett was when he work in a very, very small medium. His little comments in the voice of Leonard – clever, hilarious, and perfectly in character – are just little gems of genius. This just reminds me again how much I love his Assassin’s Diary, and how I must see if I can find the other maps and diaries. Pratchett doesn’t even need a story to be magnificent.
(On the topic of gems, there’s a beautiful but tiny little illustration, in the style of a Greek vase, of Zeus (or Blind Io) commanding an eagle to peck out the liver of Prometheus (or Fingers Mazda), who has been chained to a rock. It’s not funny or witty, but it’s a genius bit of illustration, even though it’s unlabelled and so minor that you could easily miss it altogether. Oh, and is that full-page spread of thirty-something types of dragons an allusion to Leonardo’s Twenty-Seven Cats and a Dragon? I hope it it…)
So there we are. Small, but magnificent. It doesn’t say much, but it says it very well – very funny, and yet almost tearjerking. I’m glad that Discworld wasn’t all like this, that Pratchett did take the opportunity to write longer and more complicated and more nuanced books than this… but I don’t regret this one for a moment. I wish there were more like this.
Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s hard to summon up thrills in an illustrated semi-parody meditation on death, but the streamline plotting and the high stakes do keep things ticking nicely.
Emotion: 5/5. Maybe I’m being generous, but hey, my eyes were very definitely getting moist there.
Thought: 3/5. It’s a deep novel, but it’s not all that complicated a novel.
Beauty: 5/5. Well obviously. Wonderful writing, some wonderful (and some merely pretty) art, and some frameable Big Moments.
Craft: 5/5. You can criticise the book for what it’s not, but I can’t find any substantive criticisms of how it succeeds in being what it tries to be.
Endearingness: 4/5. Perhaps a touch too simplistic, and a touch too devoid of appealing character work for me to love it. But like it? Very much so.
Originality: 4/5. As usual with Pratchett, many elements are intentionally borrowed. But I don’t think any other work uses the parts in quite this way!
Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD. Honestly, my numbers say this is just on the brink of greatness; I’ve rounded down rather than up. It is perhaps too small, too simple, too light (despite its gravity) for me to really count it as ‘brilliant’ – a score I’ve only given to half a dozen books in half a dozen years, I might remind you. If someone wanted to call this first-rate Pratchett, I couldn’t seriously argue with them, though personally I think I’d put it at the pinnacle of the second tier. [So far my ‘first tier’ only contains Small Gods and Lords and Ladies; I would put The Last Hero alongside Feet of Clay and The Fifth Elephant on a second rung.] But I’d like to stress once again: if this book isn’t brilliant, it’s only because it never set out to be that much. For what it is… it’s almost perfect.
—– P.S. The title of the novel comes from Chesterton’s poem of the same name – at least, given Pratchett’s love of Chesterton, and the similarity in themes, I rather assume it does. Cohen the Barbarian may on the surface be a parody of Howard’s Conan, but he is perhaps even closer to Conan’s own predecessors, the pagan warriors of Chesterton’s the Ballad of the White Horse, and of poems like The Last Hero. I’m made to recall Chesterton’s Ogier, who sings; <i>And a man grows ugly for women, / And a man grows dull with ale, / Well if he find in his soul at last / Fury, that does not fail</i> and speaks of the old warrior whose heart has <i>wheels sped of rage and roaring will</i>.
But mostly I think of <i>The Last Hero</i> itself, where an old warrior faces his death. The first stanza ends: <i>The heavens are bowed about my head, shouting like seraph wars, / With rains that might put out the sun and clean the sky of stars, / Rains like the fall of ruined seas from secret worlds above, / The roaring of the rains of God none but the lonely love. / Feast in my hall, O foemen, and eat and drink and drain, / You never loved the sun in heaven as I have loved the rain.</i> and the final stanza ends: <i>To-night I die the death of God; the stars shall die with me; / One sound shall sunder all the spears and break the trumpet’s breath: / You never laughed in all your life as I shall laugh in death.</i> I think Cohen would be happy for people to say that he said that…