Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.
The tortoise is a ground-living creature. It is impossible to live nearer the ground without being under it. Its horizons are a few inches away. It has about as good a turn of speed as you need to hunt down a lettuce. It has survived while the rest of evolution flowed past it by being, on the whole, no threat to anyone and too much trouble to eat.
And then there is the eagle. A creature of the air and high places, whose horizons go all the way to the edge of the world. Eyesight keen enough to spot the rustle of some small and squeaky creature half a mile away. All power, all control. Lightning death on wings. Talons and claws enough to make a meal of anything smaller than it is and at least take a hurried snack out of anything bigger.
And yet the eagle will sit for hours on the crag and survey the kingdoms of the world until it spots a distant movement and then it will focus, focus, focus on the small shell wobbling among the bushes down there on the desert. And it will leap . . .
And a minute later the tortoise finds the world dropping away from it. And it sees the world for the first time, no longer one inch from the ground but five hundred feet above it, and it thinks: what a great friend I have in the eagle.
And then the eagle lets go.
And almost always the tortoise plunges to its death. Everyone knows why the tortoise does this. Gravity is a habit that is hard to shake off. No one knows why the eagle does this. There's good eating on a tortoise but, considering the effort involved, there's much better eating on practically anything else. It's simply the delight of eagles to torment tortoises.
But of course, what the eagle does not realize is that it is participating in a very crude form of natural selection.
One day a tortoise will learn how to fly.
The story takes place in desert lands, in shades of umber and orange. When it begins and ends is more problematical, but at least one of its beginnings took place above the snowline, thousands of miles away in the mountains around the Hub.*
One of the recurring philosophical questions is:
"Does a failing tree in the forest make a sound when there is no one to hear?"
Which says something about the nature of philosophers, because there is always someone in a forest. It may only be a badger, wondering what that cracking noise was, or a squirrel a bit puzzled by all the scenery going upwards, but someone. At the very least, if it was deep enough in the forest, millions of small gods would have heard it.
Things just happen, one after another. They don't care who knows. But history . . . ah, history is different. History has to be observed. Otherwise it's not history. It's just . . . well, things happening one after another.
And, of course, it has to be controlled. Otherwise it might turn into anything. Because history, contrary to popular theories, is kings and dates and battles. And these things have to happen at the right time. This is difficult. In a chaotic universe there are too many things to go wrong. It's too easy for a general's horse to lose a shoe at the wrong time, or for someone to mishear an order, or for the carrier of the vital message to be waylaid by some men with sticks and a cash flow problem. Then there are wild stories, parasitic growths on the tree of history, trying to bend it their way.
So history has its caretakers.
They live . . . well, in the nature of things they live wherever they are sent, but their spiritual home is in a hidden valley in the high Ramtops of the Discworld, where the books of history are kept.
These aren't books in which the events of the past are pinned like so many butterflies to a cork. These are the books from which history is derived. There are more than twenty thousand of them; each one is ten feet high, bound in lead, and the letters are so small that they have to be read with a magnifying glass.
When people say "It is writtenit is written here.
There are fewer metaphors around than people think.
Every month the abbot and two senior monks go into the cave where the books are kept. It used to be the duty of the abbot alone, but two other reliable monks were included after the unfortunate case of the 59th Abbot, who made a million dollars in small bets before his fellow monks caught up with him.
Besides, it's dangerous to go in alone. The sheer concentratedness of History, sleeting past soundlessly out into the world, can be overwhelming. Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.
The 493rd Abbot folded his wrinkled hands and addressed Lu-Tze, one of his most senior monks. The clear air and untroubled life of the secret valley was such that all the monks were senior; besides, when you work with Time every day, some of it tends to rub off.
"The place is Omnia," said the abbot, "on the Klatchian coast."
"I remember," said Lu-Tze. "Young fellow called Ossory, wasn't there?"
"Things must be . . . carefully observed," said the abbot. "There are pressures. Free will, predestination . . . the power of symbols . . . turning-point . . . you know all about this."
"Haven't been to Omnia for, oh, must be seven hundred years," said Lu-Tze. "Dry place. Shouldn't think there's a ton of good soil in the whole country, either."
"Off you go, then," said the abbot.
"I shall take my mountains," said Lu-Tze. "The climate will be good for them."
Excerpted from Small Gods by Terry Pratchett Copyright © 1993 by Terry Pratchett. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.