Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Carrie Sickmann Han

DodgerThe Artful Dodger, arguably one of Charles Dickens’s most beloved characters, abruptly appears and then disappears in Oliver Twist (1837-1839), leaving both his past and his future tantalizingly untold. Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (2012) provides readers with a glimpse into the street urchin’s early history, when he lived alone in the attic of Solomon Cohen—a Jewish watchmaker modeled after “Ikey” Solomon (the original Fagin).  Pratchett’s Dodger remains the swaggering, streetwise, but lovable rogue we so fondly remember. In the first few pages, he interrupts his thievery to rescue a defenseless young lady, Simplicity, from two assailants. When two additional gentlemen enter the scene to assist the damsel in distress, readers watch fictional and historical worlds collide: “Charlie” Dickens, a journalist at The Morning Chronicle, becomes Dodger’s employer and advisor. Pratchett embeds the novel with many such impossible “twists.” In this literary and historical pastiche, the Dodger hobnobs with Benjamin Disraeli, thwarts the plans of Sweeney Todd, poses for John Tenniel, and meets Queen Victoria.
Mayhew, Tosher illustration2Pratchett acknowledges that the book “is a historical fantasy—and certainly not a historical novel” (359-360). But for a fantasy novel, the story conveys a surprising amount of historical information that’s usually reserved for graduate courses on the Victorian period. Pratchett dedicates the novel not to Dickens, as the title might suggest, but to social advocate and author Henry Mayhew, whose detailed survey of the London working class, The London Labour and the London Poor (1851), provides the foundation for Dodger’s setting and characters. Pratchett’s Dodger is a “tosher,” or a sewer-hunter—one of the subjects of Mayhew’s study. He uses a crowbar to slip through drain covers and enter the grimy underworld of the London sewage system, where he battles the stench, the rats, the dangerous waters, and other toshers for the treasures that dropped through the drains above into the filth below. Pratchett brings Mayhew’s working-class type to life, using the Dodger’s occupational expertise to expose the “layer[s] of dirt” and “dirty deeds” that abounded in Victorian London (1). This young adult novel—a Michael L. Printz Honor Book—serves as a bridge between popular fiction and Victorian history and literature. “If you like fantasy,” Pratchett promises, “in a very strange way fantasy is there [in London Labour and the London Poor] with realistic dirt and grime all over it,” and  he insists that Mayhew’s work “ought to be in every library” (356). This attempt to introduce fantasy fans to Victorian social issues, history, and literature is a fitting legacy for one of the last novels that Pratchett published before his death in March of 2015.  This quick and fun read would be a great addition to a British literature and culture syllabus—particularly if paired with Dickens’s Oliver Twist and/or excerpts from Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor.

Questions for Discussion:

Pratchett investigates what Thomas Carlyle calls the “Condition of England Question.” How does he represent the Victorian working-class poor? What are some of the social problems he identifies? Who are the victims and who are the perpetrators? Who is able to effect change?

Pratchett dedicates Dodger to Henry Mayhew. How is this novel in conversation with London Labour and the London Poor? Which of Mayhew’s types of workers does Pratchett represent? Which characteristics does he emphasize and de-emphasize? How do those creative decisions alter or enhance Mayhew’s social agenda?

The title, Dodger, is one of several allusions to Dickens’s Oliver Twist. How does approaching Dodger as a prequel to Oliver Twist change the way we interpret Oliver Twist? How does this backstory affect our understanding of Dickens’s characters (Fagin, Dodger, Oliver, Nancy)?

Pratchett blends his original characters (Simplicity, The Outlander, Grandad) with canonical characters (the Artful Dodger, Sweeney Todd), Victorian authors (Charles Dickens, Henry Mayhew), and political figures (Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Sir Robert Peel, Angela Burdett-Coutts). How does he represent these figures differently? What does he suggest is the relationship between contemporary fiction, canonical fiction, and history? What are the different functions of these different genres? How does he represent authorship? fictionality? politics?

Pratchett is known for his fantasy fiction (particularly the Discworld series), and he calls Dodger a “historical fantasy” novel. What characteristics of Victorian literature and culture correspond with the fantasy genre? Why do you think the Victorian period is often depicted in contemporary films, video games, and television shows?

Further Reading:

Carroll, Rachel, Ed. Adaptation in Contemporary Culture: Textual Infidelities. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.

Ledger, Sally. Dickens and the Popular Radical Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Mitchell, Kate. History and Cultural Memory in Neo-Victorian Fiction: Victorian Afterimages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Saler, Michael. As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage, 1966.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.