Turtles All the Way Down: Discworld Conversations About The Origins of the Universe

by Brenton Dickieson

To say that I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is an understatement. Among the humorous fantasy writers, Terry Pratchett has pride of place. At his right and left hand are Douglas Adams in sheer satiric glory, and Neil Gaiman, whose humour shades into great darkness.

Pratchett’s Discworld is imagined in the prologue to the first book, The Colour of Magic:

In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…


Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.

In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.

Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the Disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.

I don’t know the effect these words had on you when you first read them, but for me they were a temenos, the threshold between my chair and the faërie woods beyond the hedge, the invisible bridge from now to myth. The prologue was a magic ring, a desperate wish, an open wardrobe door.

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In the paperback reprint of The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett talks about how Discworld came into being:

If I had a penny for every time someone asked me where I got the idea of the Discworld, I’d have—hang on a moment—£4.67.

Anyway, the answer is that it was lying around and didn’t look as though it belonged to anyone.

The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. It’s one of the great ancient myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.

I actually bumped into this idea—save the elephants—in a legendary lumber room of my childhood, though I can`t remember where exactly. I kind of think it was a book on finance I found lying around the house. I was a strange child.

In any case, the author—who I’m now sure was a self-made millionaire kind of guru—talked about a book signing event where one of his fans brought of up the idea of a flat world. “It sits on the back of a giant turtle,” she declared. The author, who I imagine has a square jaw, asked her what the turtle was sitting upon. “Another turtle,” she said. “And beneath that?” he persisted. The woman considered the question, as if it had never occurred to her before. Finally, she looked up brightly at the self-help guru. “It’s turtles all the way down,” she said brightly.

The “all the way down” stuck with me. The Great A’Tuin floats in a pre-Ptolomaic space, so we don’t have to question what the turtle sits on. There are more important questions, like the turtle’s sex.

But if we look at A’Tuin not just in space but in time, there are important questions…

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