Nation (novel)

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Terry Pratchett Nation.jpg
Author Terry Pratchett
Cover artist Jonny Duddle
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Alternative history, Fantasy
Publisher Doubleday
Publication date
11 September 2008
Pages 416
ISBN 978-0-385-61370-5
OCLC 231884187

Nation is a novel by Terry Pratchett, published in the UK on 11 September 2008.[1] It was the first non-Discworld Pratchett novel since Johnny and the Bomb (1996). Nation is a low fantasy set in an alternative history of our world in the 1860s. The book received recognition as a Michael L. Printz Honor Book for 2009.[2]


Pratchett took his editors by surprise by writing it before the previously scheduled Tiffany Aching conclusion. He has said "I want to write this one so much I can taste it", and that he's been ready to do it for four years.[3] Pratchett said in February 2007, "At the moment I'm just writing. If it needs to be Discworld it will be Discworld. It could be set in this world 150 years ago while still more or less being a fantasy. The codename for it is Nation."[3]



Written loosely in a third-person perspective, the novel is set in an alternative history of our world, shortly after Charles Darwin has published On the Origin of Species.[4] A recent Russian influenza pandemic has just killed the British king and his next 137 heirs. Except for the opening chapter, the novel's action entirely occurs in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean (the fictionalised South Pacific Ocean) on a particular island known by its indigenous inhabitants as "the Nation".

The first chapter involves a subplot in which the Gentlemen of Last Resort, a secret society serving the Crown, urgently set out for Port Mercia in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean to seek the next man in the British line of succession: Henry Fanshaw, the unsuspecting governor of England's oceanic territories. Fanshaw's 13-year-old daughter, Ermintrude, is one of the novel's two protagonists. The other protagonist, Mau, is an aboriginal native of the Nation who is first depicted alone at neighbouring Boys' Island, where he has hand-built a canoe to complete his initiation rite from boyhood into manhood. Ermintrude, meanwhile, is leisurely travelling aboard a British schooner, the Sweet Judy, when mutineers, led by a ruthless Cox (coxswain), are subdued and set adrift at sea, returning to the plot at a later time.

Plot summary[edit]

The main plot begins when an enormous tsunami carries the two central characters, Ermintrude and Mau, to the shores of Mau's home island: the Nation. Mau survives the tsunami in his canoe, while Ermintrude is the lone survivor of the Sweet Judy, which is run aground. The tsunami has killed all the indigenous villagers of the Nation, except Mau, who now angrily rejects the gods and believes that his interrupted rite of passage has left him soulless. Devastated, Mau carries all his people's corpses into the ocean, based on their religious belief that humans buried at sea become dolphins. Ermitrude timidly and sometimes recklessly interacts with Mau, but, eventually, the two start cooperating for mutual survival and establish some basic level of communication, though they are ignorant of each other's culture and language. Ermintrude introduces herself as "Daphne" and never reveals her given name, which she has always hated.

Three survivors from neighbouring islands arrive, including a cynical old priest named Ataba, who constantly derides Mau for his loss of faith. More survivors soon appear, including two brothers who can speak English moderately well with Daphne, speeding along the language-learning process for all. One of these men gratefully employs the reluctant Daphne as a makeshift midwife for his pregnant wife, Cahle. Meanwhile, Mau sleeplessly keeps vigil, obsessively looking out for local cannibals who are known to strike without warning. At the same time, he frequently hears the pestering, disembodied voices of the Grandfathers: ancestral spirits who make angry (and often incoherent) demands. They insist that Mau replace the "god anchors", carved white stones traditionally said to have "anchored" the gods before the tsunami displaced them. Mau discovers the anchors in the Nation's lagoon alongside an additional, previously unknown stone, but Ataba attempts to destroy it, purportedly because it is heretical. Mau then rescues Ataba from the lagoon, but his resulting hypothermia and exhaustion lead to a coma; Daphne accepts a lump of poison from Mrs. Gurgle, a shaman who is one of the refugees, that successfully lets her travel in her mind to the land of the dead in order to rescue Mau's consciousness.

Even more survivors have now arrived at the Nation, and Daphne begins hearing the voices of the Grandmothers, who claim to be the neglected but more sensible counterparts to the Grandfathers. They suggest that Daphne explore an ancient, closed-off crypt called the Grandfathers' cave. Mau, Daphne, Ataba, and their companions enter this cave and discover that the Nation is probably the oldest civilization on Earth, whose citizens once made astounding scientific progress with such creations as telescopes, eyeglasses, and even accurate star charts.

After exiting the cave, the group is confronted by two of Sweet Judy's villainous mutineers, who abruptly kill a spear-wielding Ataba and briefly abduct Daphne before she devises a cunning escape. In the meantime, the mutineers' leader, Cox, has since joined the cannibals, becoming their self-proclaimed chief and planning to raid the Nation. The new inhabitants of the Nation convince the arriving Cox and the cannibals to follow tradition by having the leaders of each side fight in hand-to-hand mortal combat, so as to avoid large-scale bloodshed. Mau accepts his role as leader of the Nation, and then cleverly outwits and kills Cox in the lagoon, causing the cannibals to flee.

A few days later, Henry Fanshaw arrives in search of his daughter. As a man of scientific curiosity, he, like Daphne, is fascinated with the re-opened cave. The Gentlemen of Last Resort appear two weeks later, telling Fanshaw that he is the next heir to the British throne and immediately crowning him king. Mau, wary of England's politics, is reluctant for the Nation to join the British Empire and instead requests that his homeland become a member of the scientific Royal Society. Ultimately, Daphne feels a duty to leave with her father, and Mau remains behind on the island with his new people.

Many years later, in the present day, an old scientist concludes this story to two children of the modern-day Nation. He explains that Daphne returned to England to marry a Dutch prince (later becoming Queen) and that Mau died of old age. When Daphne died 2 months later, her body was sent to the Nation to be buried at sea so that she could become a dolphin. He tells them that from those days onward, thousands of scientists have visited the island, including Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, and Richard Feynman. The book ends with the elder of the two children, a girl, standing guard on the beach, protecting the Nation as Mau had done so many years before. In the lagoon, a dolphin leaps from the sea and the scientist smiles.


Three major themes run throughout the book: the movement from a child identity that is received to an adult identity that is self-created; the relationship between the individual and the society; and the nature of the struggle between science and religion.

The child-to-adult theme is repeated in the story of Mau, of Ermintrude/Daphne, and of the Nation as a whole. Mau starts as a typical (if unusually thoughtful) island boy and would have been satisfied to walk the well-worn path of his forefathers. Instead, because of the wave and its consequences, he has a greatly prolonged moment between the shell of his boy soul and the shell of his man soul, and ultimately he chooses a much larger soul. Mau reinvents himself as a leader and protector of his people.

Ermintrude starts the story as a child, subjected to many Standards that must be Maintained. As a high-born daughter, she isn't permitted to learn anything useful or look forward to anything but marriage. On the island, she soon realizes that there is no one but herself to create the Standards. She instinctively renames herself Daphne upon introducing herself to Mau; the island is her first real opportunity to make what she wishes of herself. Daphne lets good sense and kindness be her guide, whether that means wearing a grass skirt, pre-chewing food for an old woman, or poisoning a murderer.

The Nation itself moves from childhood to adulthood under its new leadership. Before the wave, Mau and the other survivors had followed simple faiths and believed that the asking of questions was a pastime for children. As the Nation rebuilds, the survivors sort through a religious crisis. Ultimately, the Nation leaves its childishness behind, refusing to be either primitive or colonial. It forges a new path and takes its place among nations as a leader in science.

The second theme asks what it means to have a nation. The word "Nation" is used primitively to underscore the idea that "Nation" is as fundamentally undefinable as "God" or "Earth." Mau is from an island society where no poet needs to point out that "no man is an island"; in the Nation, the individual's place in society is so fundamental that it is completely taken for granted. Mau thinks of himself as a man/boy without a soul, but what he has really become is a man without a country. When he saves Daphne's life, he says that she saved his life because as a boy alone he was nothing, but the two of them together were a Nation. At the end of the story, when the survivors have secured the survival of their new Nation, Mau gets the tattoo that gives him his man-soul.

Being part of a nation requires great sacrifice. When the first canoe of survivors arrives, it is clear that the baby will die unless someone can find milk. Mau risks his life and sacrifices his dignity in order to milk a wild pig. Commentators have noted that milking the wild pig in order to save the fledgling Nation is an opposite to Lord of the Flies, where using pigs is central to the descent into savagery.[5] Daphne, who has adopted the Nation as her own, sacrifices her innocence when she kills someone in order to protect the Nation. Knowing their duties, Mau and Daphne ultimately part ways in order to fulfill their roles as leaders.

The concept of "nation" can be extended to embrace all of humanity, anchoring Nation in the philosophy of humanism as an answer to the question "What is the role of the individual in society?" As with the Tiffany Aching series, Nation contains an undercurrent of passive faith transforming into active scientific enquiry, without losing moral dimensions in the process. Pratchett reinforces this theme with an offhand reference to outspoken atheist and humanist Richard Dawkins as "that nice Professor Dawkins" (who was bitten by a tree-climbing octopus).

Like Tiffany, Mau and Daphne are resourceful and logical, with a penchant for questioning authority. They are also deeply rooted to their homes, and the awakening of science does not change how Mau feels about his home or his people. Indeed, when he casts aside his superstitions and explores the forbidden cave of the ancestors, what he finds there is both more truthful and more inspiring. Pratchett's books are distinguished by the manner in which logic is warmly paired with humanism and abiding loyalty. For example, when Mau risks his life to save his Nation (whether defined as Daphne, a baby, or all of the survivors as a whole), he does not see this as heroism because he thinks he is merely trying to save himself. Without others to give life meaning, Mau's own life would be meaningless. Tiffany, Mau, and Daphne are tolerant of religious beliefs, but ultimately the meaning that they care about most is the meaning that people create for each other.


The novel was well received, with The Independent calling Nation 'one of his finest books yet',[6] the Washington Post 'a thrilling story',[7] and The Guardian printing "Nation has profound, subtle and original things to say about the interplay between tradition and knowledge, faith and questioning."[8] Times Online called the novel "Thought-provoking as well as fun, this is Terry Pratchett at his most philosophical, with characters and situations sprung from ideas and games with language. And it celebrates the joy of the moment."[9]

Nation was an Honor Book in the 2009 Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.[10] On 15 July 2010 Nation won the Brit Writer's Award Published Writer of the year 2010.[11]


The Royal National Theatre performed a theatrical adaptation of the book by Mark Ravenhill. Previews started on November 11 and the show opened on November 23, 2009.[12] Readings from the novel began on BBC Radio 7 on Saturday 30 January 2010 at 1800 and 2400.

Pratchett noted: "I believe that Nation is the best book I have ever written, or will write."[13]


  1. ^
  2. ^ American Library Association (2010). "Michael L. Printz Winners and Honor Books". Archived from the original on 2011-02-08. Retrieved 2011-02-03. 
  3. ^ a b Hughes, Juliette (2007-02-17). "Meeting Mr Pratchett". Retrieved 2008-02-16. 
  4. ^ Pratchett, T: Nation, page 64. Harper, 2008.
  5. ^ Nation (Terry Pratchett). Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  6. ^ Nation, by Terry Pratchett
  7. ^ Michael Dirda on 'Nation'
  8. ^ Leader of men
  9. ^ Nation by Terry Pratchett
  10. ^
  11. ^ Brit Writer's Latest News
  12. ^ Shenton, Mark (2009-06-18). "National Theatre Season to Include Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage, Pratchett's Nation". Retrieved 2009-06-22. 
  13. ^ Pratchett, Terry (March 12, 2015). "Terry Pratchett's 2009 Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Award Speech for Nation". The Horn Book. Horn Book Magazine. Retrieved 11 August 2015. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Making Money
Novels by Terry Pratchett
Succeeded by
Unseen Academicals