Books

Enid Blyton’s racism doesn’t deserve to be in libraries. Read Terry Pratchett instead

As another row rumbles over Enid Blyton, Terry Pratchett's biographer thanks the gods for the Discworld writer's cancellation-proof nuance.

Unlike Enid Blyton, Terry Pratchett is not likely to get cancelled any time soon

Unlike Enid Blyton, Terry Pratchett is not likely to get cancelled any time soon. Photo: Myrmi / Pratchett Himself

Another day, another argument about a classic children’s author being censored due to outdated language in their work. This weekend the Telegraph ran a story about libraries in Devon storing unedited versions of Enid Blyton’s original books, with their lashings of “dark-skinned strangers” and foreign crooks, out of the public eye.* Whenever these stories pop up I always have the same thought: thank the gods for Terry Pratchett, an author unlikely to be cancelled or revised unless language itself twists and turns out of his control as the years go by. 

Pratchett’s work is nuanced in a way few other authors can get close to. And deceptively so – while some can’t see past the wizards and goblins, or the daft jokes, puns and parodies, anyone who takes the time to look will find that Pratchett’s books are a masterclass in – as one of his most famous characters, Granny Weatherwax, put it – “not seeing people as things”. Just because those people happen to be orcs or talking rats or foul-mouthed Celtish Smurfs, it doesn’t mean that they’re not also, fundamentally, people. And that’s as true of Pratchett’s children’s books as it is of his more adult Discworld series.

It’s something Enid Blyton (who incidentally lived in Pratchett’s hometown of Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire) never gets right. Blyton’s books define people based on single characteristics – they are boys or girls, or in the case of the Famous Five’s George, a “tomboy”, (a characteristic it’s assumed she’ll grow out of) and those roles are ironclad. They have no wiggle room. Even worse are those antagonists whose entire personality is “foreigner” or “black”. Blyton seals her characters in concrete. They can’t escape her baked-in views of them.

Terry Pratchett, writing for the same age group, rarely does this.** Truckers and its sequels, Pratchett’s children’s trilogy about “nomes” living a secret life under the floorboards of a department store, is specifically about characters trying to burst out of the restriction placed around them. It’s a story about people being told that the world works this way, and realising that actually it can work that way. The nome’s lives are dictated by religion, gender and class. The three books are about those characters seeing the vastness of the universe and the possibilities it contains for all of them. 

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

It’s a theme that stretches across Terry Pratchett’s entire body of work: the conventions of the story say you must conform, but what if you don’t want to? That story could be societal, where men, women and talking rats must stick to their lanes, or it could be more literal – you behave in certain ways because that’s what the story is telling you to do. He’s brilliant at that sort of thing.

A throwaway gag about female Dwarves having beards, based on an equally throwaway line in Lord of the Rings, becomes the seed for a multi-book arc on Dwarven gender identity that throws a society into crisis, anticipating a culture war argument that rages in the right-wing press every day in 2023. In 1987’s Equal Rites girls aren’t allowed to be wizards, in 2003’s incredible Monstrous Regiment, women must pretend to be men to join the army. There’s a queer love story buried in there too, two girls finding a bond in their trauma. In 2008’s Nation a young man fights the expectations of manhood imposed by his Island tribe and its religion in the most harrowing of circumstances, while in Unseen Academicals there’s a powerful passage likening working class communities to a “crab bucket” in which the other crabs pull down any individual trying to escape to a better life. In his final works, Snuff, Raising Steam and The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett deals with a race of Goblins whose persecution by the rest of society has meant a rich inner culture has been ignored.

He’s not always perfect but, unlike Enid Blyton, he evolved. A mid-90s Discworld novel, Jingo, has its heart in the right place but is guilty of some fairly broad stereotypes about an Arab-like culture. You can see Pratchett pushing at the edges of the idea, but still falling into some of the traps he set his own characters. But Sir Terry’s mind never sat in one place. He soaked the world up as he moved through it, and as the world around him changed, so did he. At the heart of his work was always the idea that people were complicated. That they were never one thing.

His books, with one or two notable exceptions, don’t have villains – they have idiots, mindless bureaucrats, petty cruelties and people who can’t escape from the roles they have allotted themselves and won’t allow others to, either. He had an innate understanding of human nature, and it means his work is largely untouchable. As it says in Good Omens, the novel he co-wrote with Neil Gaiman in 1990, “It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people.”

Terry Pratchett died in 2015, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease – coincidentally the same awful condition that carried off Enid Blyton herself at a similar age – he was only 66, and until his illness had begun to take hold his work was getting better and better. One of the great tragedies of losing him is that we never got to see how else that mind, and those worlds it created, could grow and what he could tell us about ourselves. 

*A few years ago a chunk of Blyton’s stories were modernised to remove innocent language that has since changed its meaning (“queer”, “gay”, “spanking”) and, less innocently, some bluntly racist bits that have absolutely no place on children’s bookshelves.

** There is an argument that some of the young women in his earlier books are drawn a little scantily (literally so on their covers), and that’s fair – it took him a while to master writing young women. He got there in the end though, quite spectacularly so, and that’s the point.

Marc Burrows is the author of the award-winning biography The Magic of Terry Pratchett.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Question 7 by Richard Flanagan review – this literary quest is a transformative experience
Question 7 by Richard Flanagan
Books

Question 7 by Richard Flanagan review – this literary quest is a transformative experience

The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper review – a new way of seeing Shakespeare
The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper
Books

The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper review – a new way of seeing Shakespeare

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke
Books

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing
Books

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know