‘Unseen Academicals’ is the first Discworld book I bought new, in hardback, almost on the day it was released. It came out in 2009, and I know that I had been reading Terry Pratchett for at least a year before that, which means that I must be coming close to my tenth anniversary as a Discworld devotee. It accompanied me to university and beyond, a year abroad and back again. I always had a Discworld novel with me, in those years away from home, and I wonder if that is part of the reason why I love it so much.
As a story, I can’t say that ‘Unseen Academicals’ is one of the best, but it has moments of greatness. I didn’t really remember the story and only knew it was about football because of the front cover. It is about football, of course, but it is also one of the Ankh-Morpork ‘species acceptance stories’ and it is a Romeo and Juliet parody too. The ‘species acceptance stories’ could have been getting stale by now and a more critical eye might argue that they are, but I think Sir Terry gets away with it because none of the stories are only about that. Nutt, the little orc who defies any stereotype of his species, is the main character for sure, but this story is as much about the star crossed lovers Trev and Juliet and the irrepressible pie maestro Glenda as it is him. They’re an endearing group, very young and wide-eyed, and they hold the whole thing together very well.
I’m going to take a moment to ramble about football, because I don’t often get the chance to do so, and it is a little known fact about me that I have spent a lot of time in crowds, cheering on the mighty Leeds United. The magic of ‘Unseen Academicals’, for me, is the way in which Pratchett has managed to distil the feeling of being at a match and put it into words. There’s a moment where Glenda insists that football is ‘not about the football’, that ‘It’s the sharing. It’s being part of the crowd. It’s chanting together.’ Nutt puts it more finely still, saying ‘It is the lonely soul trying to reach out to the shared soul of all humanity, and possibly much further.’ Now, I am the first to say that sometimes football can be overrated, and it is never worth some of the drama that happens alongside it, but being in a crowd, all supporting the same thing, is a feeling that is hard to describe, or has been until now. For me, football has never been about football and thanks to this book, I can explain that better now.
I’ve realised, moving into these last five books, that I am going to begin seeing the last appearances of characters. This is the last book, for example, that features the wizards en masse, so I’m going to give them a final look here. They last appeared as a group all the way back in ‘The Last Continent’, a book that was published ten years before this one, and I honestly can’t say that I have missed them that much. I’ve spoken before about not really liking them but this book has been a good swansong for them; the scenes of them slipping out incognito into the crowds, then learning to play football and – worst of all – having the cheese plate taken away, are so them and I am glad to leave them on a high note.
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More specifically, this is also the last time we will see Rincewind and the Librarian. Rincewind is a character that you will remember grew on me a lot during the course of this re-read, and I am glad to see that he has ended up well, deputy librarian and apparently valued member of the team. The Librarian is iconic, probably the most instantly recognisable of all the Discworld characters, and he goes out on a high here, playing in the goal for the Unseen Academicals, as is only the right place for an orangutan on a football team. At one point, he is poisoned by a rival player’s mother and is taken out of the game, and there’s a lovely moment that follows where the usually jovial and sometimes thoughtless Archchancellor Ridcully vows revenge on the Librarian’s behalf. The Librarian means a lot to his peers, just as much as he means to us.
We’re nearing the end here, folks – only four books to go, and more goodbyes for some of our favourite characters!