Puzzles in Pop Culture: DiscWorld

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[Image courtesy of Blizzard Watch.]

There are many strange worlds in the realms of fantasy literature, crafted in loving detail across dozens of novels and stories. But no fictional world is as hilarious, as thought-provoking, as sincere, as strange, or as endlessly inventive as the DiscWorld.

DiscWorld is a pizza-shaped planet that rests on the backs of four giant elephants that themselves stand atop the shell of a giant turtle that swims through space. The masterful creation of author Terry Pratchett, DiscWorld is a beloved universe of stories that encapsulates social commentary, parody, and epic adventure, all told through the lens of classic fantasy tropes turned on their heads.

And when you have a world that encompasses everything from witches and golems to time travel and Death himself, you’re bound to encounter a puzzle or two.

In today’s edition of Puzzles in Pop Culture, we’re looking at the colorful ways that Terry Pratchett incorporated puzzles into one of the most singular, expansive worlds in fantasy literature.

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[Image courtesy of The Daily Star.]

There are numerous capable puzzle solvers in the DiscWorld novels. Across several novels, Commander Vimes of the City Watch cracks both criminal cases and elaborate conspiracies thanks to his street smarts and years of detective work. Career criminal-turned-postmaster Moist Von Lipwig unravels several criminal conspiracies on his journey from miscreant to hero. Even Death, alongside his granddaughter Susan, takes a turn testing his puzzly might over the holidays when they uncover why the Hogfather (DiscWorld‘s version of Santa Claus) has gone missing.

But you cannot talk about capable puzzlers in DiscWorld without mentioning Lord Havelock Vetinari, the Patrician of the fabled city of Ankh-Morpork.

A trained assassin and mastermind who pulls puppet strings all over the city, Vetinari is both hero and villain, doing whatever he deems necessary to keep the city running smoothly.

As you might expect, he’s quite a fan of puzzles. (He plays games as well, like Thud and Stealth Chess, but we’re going to focus on puzzles today.)

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[Image courtesy of VS Battles Wiki.]

He’s something of a whiz when it comes to decoding and decrypting messages. At the Blind Letter Office in the Post Office — where letters unable to be delivered end up — Vetinari sometimes tests his wits by unraveling the near-gibberish found on some of the letters.

For example, Vetinari encountered a letter addressed to “Duzbuns Hopsit pfarmarrsc” and offhandedly explained that the letter was intended for “K. Whistler, Baker, 3 Pigsty Hill.” How, you ask? By decoding the above into the much-more coherent “Does Buns Opposite the Pharmacy.”

Although the regular employees of the Blind Letter Office manage to translate five out of every six addresses that cross their desks, they view Lord Vetinari’s puzzly skill with awe.

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[Image courtesy of Amazon. The Times Cryptic Crossword Book.]

When it comes to British-style/cryptic crosswords, he brings equal skill to the table. In fact, the only discernible sign that Lord Vetinari is drunk is when it takes him 15 seconds longer than normal to solve The Ankh-Morpork Times‘ daily crossword puzzle.

He is routinely challenged by “Puzzler,” the setter for The Ankh-Morpork Times. Naturally, his begrudging respect for the skilled constructor leads him to pursue the secret identity of Puzzler.

In a later DiscWorld novel, Vetinari believes that fellow trivia enthusiast and pet-food shop owner Grace Speaker could be Puzzler. He puts her under observation when it’s revealed she is one of five people in the city who correctly answers the trivia question “What is, or are, Pysdxes?”

(For the record, the other four are Vetinari himself, his assistant Drumknott, Puzzler, and the Curator of Ephebian Antiquities at the Royal Art Museum.)

Later confirming her secret life as Puzzler, Vetinari continues to welcome her challenging puzzles, even if entries like “snarkenfaugister” leave him exasperated at her fiendish and obscure vocabulary choices. (Apparently crosswordese is a thing on DiscWorld as well…)

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[Image courtesy of Amazon.]

In the novel Making Money, a cryptic crossword clue is presented for the reader to solve as well: Shaken players shift the load (9)

Later in the novel, the answer is revealed. Did you figure it out?

The answer is CARTHORSE. The word “shaken” implies that some letter-mixing is involved, and if you shake up ORCHESTRA (the “players” from the clue), you get CARTHORSE, a device which allows you to “shift the load.”

Naturally, this clue was no match for Vetinari.

[Screenshot from the Penny Dell Sudoku App!]

It’s worth noting that Sudoku has also made its way into DiscWorld, though in a tongue-in-cheek dismissive fashion. In DiscWorld, it is called Jikan no Muda, which is Japanese for “waste of time.” Lord Vetinari considers Jikan no Muda puzzles far easier than the crossword, and therefore less worthy of his attention.

As you’d expect from a master manipulator like the Patrician, he enjoys crosswords more because they allow him to comprehend how another person’s mind works when actively trying to mislead.

In the capable hands of a world-class storyteller, little puzzly details like this don’t simply add color to an established character; they can set the tone for the adventures to come.

In Making Money, for instance, mentioning both crosswords and Jikan no Muda is no coincidence. The entire novel is built around the battle between those who prefer to deal in words (Vimes, Vetinari, Moist) and those who prefer numbers (Mr. Bent, who runs the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork).

One of my all-time favorite series even before I compiled these puzzly moments, the DiscWorld books make the most of every story element involved, whether it’s witchcraft, magic, misunderstandings, fiendish plots, or simply one city official’s penchant for puzzles.


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Palindromes and Magic Words

[Palindrome, written as an ambigram.]

Regular readers of PuzzleNation Blog know that I am a history buff. I love delving into the past and exploring the myriad ways that language and puzzles have evolved over the centuries. Whenever puzzles tie into a moment in history, whether it’s wartime cryptography or rumors of crossword espionage, I’m immediately hooked.

And it turns out that palindromes have been around far longer than I previously suspected.

Palindromes, as you probably know, are words, phrases, or sentences that can be read the same way backwards and forwards. From “race car” to “Madam, I’m Adam” to “Go hang a salami, I’m a lasagna hog,” palindromes are a classic example of wordplay.

One of the most famous palindromes is dated all the way back to 79 AD in Pompeii (though it has been found in other places throughout history), and is known as the Sator Square:

SATOR
AREPO
TENET
OPERA
ROTAS

Not only is this a working palindrome, but its use of five-letter words makes it a word square as well, since it can be read left-to-right in rows and top-to-bottom in columns, as well as in reverse in both directions.

Another ancient palindrome has been uncovered recently on the island of Cyprus, and the amulet on which it appears dates back nearly 1500 years!

The amulet has multiple pieces of religious iconography on one side, including references to Egyptian and Greek mythology.

On the other side, there is a palindrome written in Greek:

According to LiveScience.com, it roughly translates to “Iahweh is the bearer of the secret name, the lion of Re secure in his shrine.”

It’s believed that the amulet was meant to protect the wearer from danger, illness, or harm. And the palindromic nature of the inscription was key to the amulet’s supernatural potential.

Although word games and wordplay have seemingly always been popular in one form or another throughout the ages, it’s worth mentioning the power many assigned to words.

These weren’t simply displays of linguistic trickery or deftness, these were incantations or wards.

These were magic words.

In Jewish mysticism, words were said to give life to the Golem. The word “abracadabra” was originally used to ward off malaria. Invoking the name of a god and utilizing these carefully chosen words to do so combined some potent magical elements.

And once again, a puzzly moment in history offers an opportunity for greater understanding. Aren’t puzzles great?

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