I have read The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett in English and always interpreted the title as "The Fantastic (adjective) light (noun)". Mostly because I do not see "Fantastic" as noun. To my surprise the Slovak translation is titled "Ľahká fantastika", translatable as "The Light (adjective) Fantastic (noun)", "Easy fiction" or "The Lightweight Fiction".

Is "The Light (adjective) Fantastic (noun)" a correct meaning/translation of the title? If so, does "Fantastic (noun)" here mean fiction?

Investigating this only made me more confused:

Reading the Wikipedia page, the title of the book is a quote from "L'Allegro" by John Milton, but there it is used like this:

Come, and trip it, as you go, On the light fantastic toe; And in thy right hand lead with thee

So is it used there as "The Light (adjective) Fantastic (adjective)"?.

A definition for "Fantastic(noun)" yields "A fanciful or whimsical person." so could this refer to one of MCs of the book (Rincewind?).

  • 8
    I think this is a triple pun by Pratchett. 1: The light (adj, humorous, not serious) fantastic (noun, speculative fiction). 2: The light (noun, illumination) fantastic (adj. magical). 3: as in Milton. But I agree that (2) is the meaning they should have picked for the translation.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Sep 29, 2019 at 19:20
  • 2
    English has pretty strict word order. Anything other than "fantastic light" raises a flag and hints a secret meaning. In Polish it was translated as "Blask Fantastyczny" which is what you meant, and what's in the book, but I'm sure the author deliberately tried to mislead readers, which is what "Ľahká fantastika" achieves.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 18:02
  • 1
    As per the quotation from Milton, to 'trip the light fantastic' is to dance.
    – user207421
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 2:24
  • Pratchett's witty work can be hard to translate. The early Diskworld works (especially "The Color of Magic" and "The Light Fantastic") also have a rather different tone, more of a farce than the satirical fantasy Diskworld later became. Some early translations (e.g. the German one) went with the farce, which (IMHO) did hurt the Diskworld series as a whole as names that had become overly farcical in translation became more and more inappropriate as the series went on. FWIW, the German title is "Das Licht der Fantasie", which pretty unambigiously retranslates to "the light of fantasy".
    – DevSolar
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 8:13
  • One other element I took from the title: the specific genre he's in is "Light Fantasy" (exact opposite of "Hard SF") -- the rules are made up and the points don't matter. Just presented in a slightly more pretentious way, which matches his mockery of the genre (more pronounced in the earlier books). Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 12:55

5 Answers 5


In-universe the "light fantastic" is an actual, factual thing.

There was no real need for the torches. The Octavo filled the room with a dull, sullen light, which wasn’t strictly light at all but the opposite of light; darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it is simply its absence, and what was radiating from the book was the light that lies on the far side of darkness, the light fantastic.

It was a rather disappointing purple colour.

The Light Fantastic

Pratchett, in the Discworld Companion notes that this is not to be confused with Octarine (which is the "Colour of Magic") and splits from ordinary light.

Light, nature of.

As far as can be determined, there are now four distinct types of light on the Disc. For the sake of discussion they could be called common light, meta-light, dark light and ‘the light fantastic’.

Meta-light is almost an idea rather than a phenomenon. It is the light by which darkness can be seen, and therefore is always available, everywhere. If it didn’t exist, darkness could not be visible. It is widely used in the film industry for shots in caves and mines.


The light fantastic is perhaps best evidenced by the dull, sullen light which fills the room where the OCTAVO is kept. Not strictly light at all but the opposite of light. Darkness is not the opposite of light, it is simply its absence. The light fantastic is the light that lies on the far side of darkness.

Ordinary light passing through a strong magical field is split into not seven but eight colours, and the eighth – OCTARINE – is generally associated with things magical. It can be described in terms of other colours about as readily as red can be described in terms of green, yellow and blue, but if some description is really insisted on then octarine is a rather disappointing greeny-purple-yellow colour.

  • I always picture octarine as being similar to the coloring of carnival class, but as light, so it colors everything that way. Sorta... Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 23:04

It is a punning reference to the phrase ‘trip the light fantastic’, which means (per The Phrase Finder)

To dance, especially in an imaginative or 'fantastic' manner.

The phrase seems to arise from the works of Milton, in Comus he wrote, as you have already seen,

Come, knit hands, and beat the ground, In a light fantastic round.

And in L’Allegro

Come, and trip it as you go On the light fantastic toe.

Later, in 1894, as cited in Wikipedia, Clarke’s B Lawlor and James W Blake included the lines

Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O'Rourke
Tripped the light fantastic
On the sidewalks of New York.

So, as summarised by WordOrigins.com

It is not light that is fantastic, but rather the toe or dance step. Both trip and light refer to the movement of the feet.

And this is where the pun comes in, Pratchett uses the phrase to refer to actual ‘light’ that is ‘fantastic’. In this sense it is both the light cast by the red star and the star itself which can be referred to as the ‘fantastic light.’

The translated title's doubled meaning is therefore a fortuitous co-incidence which preserves the spirit of the original punning reference and is an example of how good translation goes beyond the mere literal substitution of words.

EDIT: It is only fair to add that I am incorrect in my recollection of what the 'light fantastic' actually was in the book, which serves me right for not having read it for several years. As Valorum correctly identifies in their accepted answer,

what was radiating from the book was the light that lies on the far side of darkness, the light fantastic.

It was a rather disappointing purple colour.

I'm leaving the references to the red star in, as it still qualifies as a fantastic light, adding to the layers of reference in the title, but it is a rather than the 'light fantastic'.

  • 7
    Not fortuitous: Sir Terry was a repeat offender for multiple puns.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 11:34
  • @RedSonja Unless he also did the translations that is neither here nor there. As I said, this demonstrates that good translation is about more than just substituting words, but finding the felicitous substitution does depend to an extent on there being an apposite pun in the target language, that is the fortuitous co-incidence.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 13:02
  • 2
    Also "We skipped the light fandango..." from Procul Harum's "A Whiter Shade Of Pale". I vaguely remember this from the late sixties. I also vaguely remember the late sixties. These phenomena may be vaguely related - but now that I'm in my early sixties I can't vaguely be sure... :-} Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 23:08
  • Huh. I always thought that "tripping the light fantastic" was a reference to getting high on drugs. Didn't know it was actually talking about dancing!
    – nick012000
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 10:30
  • @BobJarvis Indeed, I toyed with including that but left it out in the end as potentially adding confusion.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 10:32

The light that Pratchett refers to is Octarine.

This is defined in the Discworld books as the eighth colour of the spectrum and the colour of magic. "The Colour Of Magic" itself being a title of another book in the series.

This is fantastic because its existence is part of the Discworld fantasy universe. Pratchett is very fond of such puns and allusions in his work.

So the Light Fantastic is indeed noun - adjective, a poetic syntax.

  • 7
    This is, alas, incorrect. The light fantastic is not Octarine.
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 29, 2019 at 16:08
  • 1
    Can you substantiate that comment @Valorum? It would be helpful if you did. Commented Sep 29, 2019 at 22:40
  • 2
    @FrancisDavey - My answer addresses precisely this point.
    – Valorum
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 6:23

It's 'The Light(noun) Fantastic(adjective)'

That's how it is used both in Milton:

On the light (noun) fantastic (adjective) toe (verb)

and how this construction is generally rendered in English. Examples:

  • The Brothers (noun) Grimm (adjective)
  • The Brothers (noun) Karamazov (adjective)
  • In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean (noun) blue (adjective)
  • A Tale (noun) Dark (adjective) and Grim (adjective)
  • Murder (noun) most (adverb) foul (adjective)

Word order in English isn't actually as strict as people make it out to be, particularly when one is referencing a phrase from older sources-- it used to be somewhat more flexible in that regard. You will see this (noun) (adjective) construction most commonly in older works and references to them (e.g. Pratchett here is referencing Milton who wrote in 1645), but also occasionally in poetry where it may be used to preserve meter or rhyme. In both cases it emphasizes the adjective more than the noun-- what's most important is not that this is merely a murder but rather the foulness of it, what's important is not mere light but fantasy, etc-- and it is typically only used where the correct attribution is clear through context/lack of other nouns.

  • 3
    May I point out that in Milton's, "Come, and trip it as you go / On the light fantastic toe," light and fantastic are both adjectives modifying the noun toe.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented May 24, 2021 at 20:03

And to add yet another facet: "light" as a distinctive qualifier is used in military, such as in the famous "The Charge of the Light Brigade" poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson or "Leichte Kavallerie" (light cavalry), an obscure operette by Franz von Suppé about a dance troup that is these days only known because of its world famous ouverture. So "The Light Fantastic" can also allude to an agile form of fantasy.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.