Sir Terry Pratchett has, as you know, died. The general reaction to this has been one of unalloyed and exceptionless dismay, tempered only by the comfort of knowing how close the nature of his death was to his stated hopes, and by the reassurance of the author’s many wise and uplifting sayings about death over the years. It feels almost rude to grieve too passionately over the death of a man who chose the Latin translation of “Don’t fear the reaper” as his heraldic motto.
So people have taken no doubt some comfort from knowing that Pterry (as his fans have long called him) died well – and, indeed, so far as the public can judge, lived well. But there has still been great distress, or at least a very deep grief, at his passing.
I guess that seems a somewhat harsh question to ask. After all, people are meant to be upset when people die. But let’s be honest here: mostly we aren’t. Our close friends and family, of course. But for ‘celebrities’, and ‘public figures’… the most people can generally muster is a weary sigh, a sad moment mentioning an old memory to a friend, perhaps a little eulogistic impulse that encourages us to say a few words about how we admired or respected the deceased, how important they were, or even just that leads us to read a little about their life and accomplishments. The few times that a celebrity death provokes more than that, it’s generally among people who are, to put it bluntly, not the most stable of folk to begin with. But the people lamenting Sir Terry now are not those obsessive, over-identifying fans; nor was his public profile or persona of the kind that would be likely to whip up that sort of celebrity fever. Yet from the adoring obituaries in the papers and on half the blogs on the web to the countless private comments here and there, the sorrow over this death is palpable. People who never met Pratchett are physically crying.
So why, some people may be asking, is everyone so upset about the death of this particular author, among so many dead authors? I was wondering this myself, about myself: why does this death matter more to me than any other celebrity demise I’ve read about third-hand?
And if I’m wondering about that, I’m sure others are too – after all, many people have not even read Pratchett’s novels. They must be wondering what all the fuss is about.
Here are some of my suggestions.
- Terry Pratchett was a great author.
Let’s not overlook the obvious – because we’ve overlooked it for far too long already. Terry Pratchett was a truly great author – perhaps the greatest author in English of his generation, or at least of the 1990’s. It still seems strange to say that, because he has been so completely cast aside on the basis of genre prejudice – it is hard to be considered great when you write fantasy, hard to be considered great when you write comedy, and impossible to be considered great if you write comic fantasy. Yet truly, the entire issue is a red herring. Can a writer not be great if he is fanciful, satirical, imaginative, allegorical… if he is indirect? Fantasy is not always an escape from reality – it can also be a way of approaching reality. Could a modern author write a novel as unapologetically a dissection of faith and religion and philosophy as Small Gods, and yet at the same time as wonderfully enjoyable to read as Small Gods, without resorting to fantasy? I doubt it. But to say that fantasy can be more than just entertainment seems to be conceding too much ground. Pratchett’s novels are entertaining. When did that stop being a respectable ambition? If they were as entertaining as they are, but without any of their deeper significance, they would still be thoroughly good books. As for comedy, comedy is the hardest thing to write consistently well – and in any case, most of the Discworld novels are not comedies! We have been lured into considering them as comedies, in part due to his more overtly comic early books, and in part I think because of the stigma of fantasy – commentators from outside the genre who wanted to admit a liking for his work have always had to emphasise how ‘silly’ it is, and hence how comic, how un-serious it is (Fantasy can be enjoyed, but not taken seriously!). In reality, most of the novels are not outright comedies, but serious books that happen to be leavened with incidental humour – a pun here, a caricatured background character there, a somewhat flippant tone around the edges. I find myself laughing out loud usually at least once per book, but rarely more than a handful of times – enough laughter to make the business a little more enjoyable, but if I were reading this as ‘a comedy’ I would be disappointed, I think. No, mature Pratchett is for the most part funny in the way that Dickens is funny, or that Shakespeare is funny: as evidence of a lively wit behind the page, showing itself in irony here, whimsy there.
The grandiosity of those comparisons is deliberate. I am relieved to see, finally, with his death, commentators putting Pratchett in the company of Dickens, of Shakespeare, of Austen – some papers have gone a little further back in time, to prior satirists like Swift and Rabelais. I don’t know whether Pratchett is as ‘great’ as those writers – posterity will decide that for herself – but I do know he ought to be mentioned alongside them. It’s something I first realised a few novels ago in my ongoing reread of his complete Discworld cycle: Pratchett is the Dickens of our time. He will, I firmly believe, be the writer from our era most read by future generations, or at least one of a small handful of our writers who survive, as Dickens has survived his own. How truly rare it is to find in one author such mass, popular appeal, and yet such learning, sensitivity and erudition; such entertainment, and yet such profundity.
I’m not sure most people have quite realised yet, at least in explicit, acknowledged terms, how great a writer Sir Terry was; but I think that many of us are, even before we are aware of it consciously, convinced of it on some visceral level. The literary establishment may not have told us how important he was, but his readers know that in artistic terms, his passing is momentous and significant, an epoch in modern English literature.
- He was able to develop a personal and authentic voice in his works
A novel is a work of art; it is created by a showman, an illusionist, an artificier. Each work is a precisely-sculpted tangle of emotional and intellectual manipulation; the author is concealed within the brilliant light of his own creation like an unnamed god, unknowable but awe-inspiring, to be worshipped from afar. Whenever we believe we have a grasp on an author, he slips the bounds of his cover, pops up again in some other work and weaves some slightly different labyrinth about himself.
Unless the author is Pratchett. It is not that Pratchett does not play games – sometimes he plays very clever games – but that he seems never to be playing games with who he is. While many modern authors have enhanced the artificiality of their ‘narrators’, turned those narrators into characters in their own right, Pratchett never seemed to be speaking to us second-hand. There was no narrator, only Pterry. Oh, sure, no doubt it was a particular side of Pterry that he showed us, some things exaggerated and others concealed. Speaking as an ignorant member of the general public, indeed, I really have no notion of how close the ‘Terry Pratchett’ who seemed to speak to me in his books was to the ‘real’, biographical Sir Terrence Pratchett (though I doubt the gulf was all that great). But that’s not the point. As I say: a novel is a work of art, and every novelist, no matter how plainspoken, is an artificier in their own way. The point is that by committing himself to a single narrative voice throughout all his novels – a narrative voice that seemed to speak to its audience in direct, uncalculating terms – Pratchett was able to give his readers a powerful sense of connection to him as an author. Other authors generally, for me, fall into one of two camps: literary sorts, where I may like or dislike the narrator of a particular book yet feel nothing regarding the author, who may as well be a randomly-allocated collective pseudonym for all I know; or popular sorts, where ‘the narrator’ does not seem to exist at all, is just an abstract concept to sum up the flow of neutered, depersonalised words and information. Pratchett was able to make his narrator both a character in his own right and a character who his readers almost cannot avoid identifying with Pratchett himself.
It is not a new trick, this. It’s what many of the writers Pratchett grew up with did – Chesterton, Wodehouse, or in fantasy White, Lewis and Tolkien, all spoke in distinctive, personal voices (some very close to their natural speech – Chesterton really did talk like that – others not – not even Papa Tolkien really spoke the way that Tolkien writes – but even Tolkien’s archaic grandeur is authentic to some part of his character, is not merely an incidental confection to please the critics or the public). But it is something that has gone out of fashion now, as authors are forced to choose between the artistry of dissimulation and the commercial advantages of homogenisation. That – as well of course as his historical contributions to the genre – is why some fantasy fans still speak affectionately of ‘Papa’ Tolkien. And I think it’s one reason why people care more about Pratchett’s death than they might about the death of another author – because, rightly or wrongly, we have the impression of a personal knowledge of the author, and hence of a personal loss.
- He talked to us
This may seem trivial, but don’t underestimate it. Consider the opening lines of The Colour of Magic:
In a distant and second-hand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
This is the bright candlelit room where the lifetimers are stored, shelf upon shelf of them, squat hourglasses, one for every living person, pouring ttheir fine sand from the future into the past. The accumulated hiss of the falling grains make the room roar like the sea.
Or Small Gods:
Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.
Or most strikingly of all, there’s the beginning of Lords and Ladies. After a page reminding the reader what happened in the previous book, the novel proper begins simply:
Now read on…
Many of Pterry’s novels begin like this. Most of the book is, to be sure, typically in a conventional, distanced, third-person impersonal voice… but he’s not afraid to put his readers right into the action now and then (‘this’, ‘here’, etc) or to address them directly – even to instruct them (the first page of Truckers, for example, introduces our hero and then grabs our attention by the throat with ‘Look at him’).
It may not seem much, and it’s certainly not fashionable, but I do think that Pratchett’s occasional diversion into “O Best Beloved”-esque apostrophe, as well as having a powerful effect in the moment, helped to reinforce that bond between author and reader. Pratchett wasn’t some voice that droned on and that I occasionally overheard: he was a voice who spoke to me, directly. It’s only human nature that I care about that speaker more than I care about the one I only overhear.
- He talked about us
Terry Pratchett had many virtues as an author – almost too many, in that the enormity of his talents made his work seem perhaps too easy, and the sheer number of his skills distracted the attention that might otherwise be paid to just how advanced any one of those skills was all by itself. Pratchett could, when he wanted to, be suffocate-with-laughter hilarious. He could on occasion put together a fiendishly intricate mechanism of plot – although his ambition in that regard often pushed him further than even he could safely go, and for every one of his novels that works perfectly there are three or four more that go slightly off the rails by the end. He was a masterful crafter of epigrams – open almost any book on almost any page and there will be some striking apothegm in sight. He was not afraid to take on the most challenging topics, and undaunted by the depths of tragedy and sentiment, just as he was by the heights of joy. He was always probing his own abilities and his own tastes, always going forward, never settling. He was wise, experienced, well-informed, and dazzlingly well-read.
But I think perhaps that the real foundation of his work was character. Pterry was never exactly a dedicated ‘psychological’ writer, and many of his characters are drawn in very broad strokes, with nuances filled in later, if at all – his characters typically do not so much develop as become explored. But like any great cartoonist, Sir Terry was able to use those swift, bold lines to quickly sketch out recognisable people. More than that: ordinary people. Almost every character in his books is an ordinary person you might meet on the street. They aren’t heroes; they aren’t gods. Or at least, they may be heroes or gods on the surface, but under the mask they’re the bloke down the road. We love Sam Vimes not because he’s a figure of escapism or aspiration, although he can be both, but because we have met him. He’s someone’s dad; or he’s a local cop; or he’s just that stubborn bugger we work with who in some ways is an infuriating fuckup but in other ways we can’t help but admire his bloodyminded sense of right and wrong, his refusal to back down. We love Granny Weatherwax because she’s our grandmother, or at least someone’s grandmother, or the regal, iron-boned old biddy down the lane. We all know Granny Weatherwax; we all know Nanny Ogg, the disconcertingly bawdy, kind but tyrannical busybody who’s smart than you might think but would never admit it. We don’t all know Mustrum Ridcully, but I can assure you he’s real, and so are the Dean and the Lecturer and the Chair and the Senior Wrangler. And so, without doubt, is poor Ponder Stibbons. These people are alive, and they are all around us. Sometimes, they’re us, or a part of us sees us in them – not just in the heroic way in which we might want to be a great character, but in a real awareness of kinship.
Perhaps the only major character who isn’t real is Carrot – and his unreality, his fascinating impossibility, defines his character. To a lesser extent I think this is also true of Brutha – but then, Brutha is quite literally the one man in a million. And perhaps there is Vetinari – although I think it would be better to say that, at least in his earlier appearances, Vetinari really is a real person, just not a person most of us ever happen to meet, only read about or watch documentaries about.
Pratchett creates this reality in his characters first through the pinpoint use of distinctive features, in the exact same way that a caricature works. Think of Granny: think an old woman strangely free of wrinkles and warts, with a hatchet face and piercing, knowing eyes, and then think of her sitting alone in her cottage waiting for an invitation that doesn’t come, too old-fashioned in her pride to ‘put herself forward’ by going and asking why she hasn’t been invited. Think of Vimes: boots that are falling apart, cheap cigars, a bottle of whiskey in a drawer that he doesn’t dare drink but can’t bring himself to throw away, a guard who thinks of the city he guards as ‘my city’, a man who almost always says “yes sir” but who has elevated “yes sir” and “couldn’t say sir” into acts of subtle insubordination – an authority figure who despises authority, a man who shaves himself even if he can afford a barber, not because he likes shaving or because he thinks he’s good at it but because he hates the idea of a world divided into the shavers and the shaved.
With the shell of the character constructed, Pratchett makes them sympathetic. There are very few unsympathetic significant characters in his books – some of the villains, if they’re only seen sparingly, but even the more substantial villains are people we can admire, or at least pity. The same things that attract us to Vimes and Granny attract us, for example, to Dios. He may be a bastard but he’s a magnificent bastard. Everybody has virtues, and everybody has problems they have to deal with. Everybody, in the end, is afraid. Lillith is afraid of pain, and constructs fantasies to protect herself, but is also afraid of losing herself in her own masks. Dios is afraid of change. Granny is afraid of herself. Vimes is afraid of himself too, but more fundamentally I think he’s afraid that the world will turn out to be as unfair and merciless as he thinks it is.
Many people say that in devising characters in fiction, you should ask yourself what does this person want? – well that’s a fair question but when to make characters like Pratchett’s characters, it might be more useful to ask yourself what does this person fear?
At the root of so much fear, of course, is death, and that is why death, or Death, is so central to Discworld. In the end, I think Pratchett proposes a sort of reverse Nietzschean judgement of the soul: where Nietzsche, who does away with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, suggests that a man’s self-fulfilment can be judged by how he would react to the prospect of endlessly reliving his own life, Pratchett, who very much does not do away with ‘good’ and ‘evil’, seems to suggest that good men can be distinguished from bad by how they deal with Death. Not ‘dying’ – almost all his characters would fight against dying itself – but how they would react to the knowledge of their own death. Granny and Vimes are heroes because we know that, when the time eventually comes, they’ll greet Death with a respectful nod and leave the world in peace. They cling to life so desparately not because they are afraid of being dead but because they aren’t finished being alive. Dios and Lily and Vorbis and the rest are villains – because when they come to a place they cannot escape from, they will be overwhelmed with terror, unable to find any acceptance. They cling to life because they are terrified of Death, and that terror drives them to do evil.
And it also must be noted that so many of Pratchett’s heroes are afraid of themselves to greater or lesser degrees – afraid of their own potential. Granny and Vimes, of course – but also certainly Angua, and probably (though we never really see his motivations) Carrot. Magrat and Agnes, and we can also suggest probably Nanny. Susan? Undoubtedly. Even poor Rincewind is running away not just because of the things trying to kill him, but because he does not want to be the hero.
Vetinari and Brutha, meanwhile, are the men who can change nations, because they are afraid of nothing, not even themselves.
But most characters have reason to be afraid of themselves, because the third thing Pratchett does is ensure that none of his characters are perfect. Every one of them has deep flaws. Every one of them, indeed, could very easily be written as the villain of someone else’s story. Indeed, many of them are the villains of many stories! Granny and Nanny are dominating tyrants who terrorise their local communities, albeit ‘for their own good’. Ridcully has driven one of his colleagues into madness and is a perpetual threat to the mental and physical health of everyone around him.
But Pratchett doesn’t fall into the trap of equivalance. Some of his characters are good guys, and some are bad guys. None of them are 100% anything, and there are a whole tranche of characters who are really neither good nor bad (Ridcully, for instance, is clearly on the side of good vis a vis saving the universe from extradimensional horrors, but on a daily basis is a deeply unpleasant bully who on some level only hasn’t subjugated any kingdoms yet because he’s far too lazy to want to worry about all that paperwork). But there is still good and evil. And Pratchett uses good and evil not just so that we know which side to root for, but to promise us that we too can be Good. Pratchett’s everyday heroes encourage us, if you’ll excuse the accidental pop culture reference, to search for the heroes inside ourselves.
And this I think is a big reason why Pratchett has such broad appeal, outside of his ‘genre’. Ordinary people can read Pratchett and read about Ordinary People just like them and the people they know… only doing extraordinary things. That’s powerful.
But I would like to point out another dimension of this ‘writes about us’ thing. Which is that Pratchett doesn’t just write about people, he writes about our sort of people. What sort that is exactly is hard to define, but it’s fair to say that he is a writer who instinctively writes from the margins. The most obvious example is the way Pratchett writes about women, who are absolutely as central, and as individual, as his men (if not more so). Think of the great female characters you know, particularly in Fantasy – and then think what proportion of them are in Pratchett alone! There’s Granny, and Nanny, and Magrat, and Agnes, and there’s Angua, and [spoiler redacted], and Sybil, and there’s Susan of course, and Tiffany (who I haven’t met yet)… and that’s ignoring the characters who aren’t in enough books to become more memorable, like Esk, and Conina, and Mrs Gogol, and Mrs Cake and Mrs Palm and and so forth… In Witches Abroad, the cast is virtually entirely female. But it’s not just women. Just think about Granny and Nanny. Why do we love them? Well a huge part of it is that we know them in real life and we don’t know them in fiction. What other author would make a pair of octagenarian women his heroes? Lords and Ladies is a powerful novel in large part because we get to see Granny, and Nanny, and also Ridcully being old people. They’re not the normal old people of fiction, who sit in the back and offer sage advice – they’re the ones driving the action. But they’re also not just young people in silly beards [sorry, excuse me, I’ve just remembered the ‘fake beards’ thing from Moving Pictures and had to take a minute to stop laughing]. They’re old people – they’re frightened of death in a weary, semi-resigned way, they worry about the arthritis that’s worse than they dare let on, they lose themselves in bittersweet memories of what was and regrets of what might have been instead. They fear dementia. These are people who aren’t just real people, but are representatives of a huge swathe of the population who are rarely represented in such pivotal ways in fiction.
But I don’t mean this in a shallow “hooray, old people have characters they can empathise with!” way. Although of course that’s a good thing in its own little way. But the bigger thing is that because Pratchett writes from the margins he draws those margins together. You don’t have to be old to sympathise with Granny – you don’t even have to have elderly relatives, though of course it helps. You just have to know what it’s like to be overlooked, dismissed, discounted. I sympathise with Granny not just because she’s the distillation of all my female relatives, but also because I can see myself in her position. I don’t have to be a teenage girl to sympathise with Susan, because I know what it’s like to be patronised. I don’t have to have spent my life as a professional clown like the Fool in Wyrd Sisters, because I know what it’s like to be mocked – and to feel like you have to make jokes, only to have everybody else ignore them. You don’t have to be a cop to wear the shoes of Sam Vimes – anyone who has ever felt ground down by injustice has been Sam Vimes.
It occurs to me that perhaps the strongest unifying thread in so many of Pratchett’s characters is confrontational and resentful: I’ll show them! – in many ways his books are explorations of how that impulse can be turned to good, rather than to evil.
So perhaps the fact that Pratchett’s characters are everymen (and everywomen) helps explain why he has such a broad appeal with the general public. But the fact that his characters are so often marginalised or odd is doubtless a huge part of why he has developed such a passionate – even fanatical – following, particularly among the ‘geeks’, ‘nerds’ and so forth who have traditionally made up the core of the Fantasy demographic.
- He talked about things that mattered
I think there are probably two big reasons for not liking books: because they’re boring, or because they’re trivial. There are other reasons too, of course, like disliking them because they’re incompetantly made, but those two are the big two – they probably account for most book-dislike, and so long as neither of them apply most of the other reasons for disliking a book can be put up with.
Pratchett’s breadth of support shows that his works were not boring. Both his humour and his plots made them good fun to read. But I think a lot of the reason for the depth of love for Pratchett is a result of his willingness to not be trivial.
Death is, of course, omnipresent in the Discworld books. Not only is he a recurring character (present in all but two books, if I recall correctly, and those two are among the last), but there is an awful lot of emphasis on how characters approach death, and how they react to it. Even minor characters, murder victims who would not even be named by other authors are given little post-dying vignettes. Reaper Man has one of its three plotlines be the story of how a character reacts to their death and resurrection as a zombie, and a second be the story of how Death reacts to spending time in a small farming community. But it’s not just death. Small Gods and Pyramids both take on religion, faith and philosophy, as do many of the other books to a lesser extent (Witches Abroad, Hogfather and Carpe Jugulum, for instance, and the Bromeliad books outside Discworld). Jingo and Monstrous Regiment deal with the environs of war (Only You Can Save Mankind deals with living in the shadow of media presentations of war in the UK). Most of the Witches books and some others too deal with aging (Lords and Ladies in particular). Class warfare is almost as constant an issue as death, particularly in the Watch novels, which also lead the way in examining the nature of urban life and modernity, while the Witches novels document traditional rural lifestyles. Many of the books worry about the role of myth, fantasy, and story itself, whether through fear of detachment from reality (Moving Pictures, Reaper Man, Witches Abroad, Small Gods, Lords and Ladies) or through a fear that without myth life is unbearable, and civilised life impossible (Reaper Man, Hogfather). Strong moral points of view – some obvious, some controversial – are everpresent.
And a big part of this is that Pterry isn’t afraid to lecture us when he thinks we need it. Quite flagrantly at times – both through his opinionated characters and through his own strong and personal narrative voice. There really do seem to be times when he wants to teach us right from wrong. And at times that can become annoying – at his worst, he could be a little patronising. But for the most part, thanks to the humour and gentleness of his writing, and thanks to the flaws that weight his characters down and stop them from ever seeming to get above themselves, that stop them from seeming like saints commanding us from on high and make them sound instead like wise neighbours giving us the benefit of their hard-won experience, the didactic tone is well hidden in the sugar; and that, I think, is not just good for us as readers morally (because even when I think Pratchett gets it wrong I always appreciate his point of view), but also makes us love the novels all the more. I think there’s a paradox in many of us: we all want to be treated like children, but none of us want to be treated like a child. If you see what I mean. We don’t like it when somebody tries to put themselves into a parental position over us, as though we were less than them, as though we had to be spoken down to. But at the same time, isn’t there a great appeal to a wise old guy with a beard sitting us down and sharing his stories about the world and we all just look on with awe and wonder? We want to have that childlike feeling evoked in us again: and that involves not just a sense of wonder at a world, but a sense of wonder at a person. We don’t like people who try to impress us, but we still want to be impressed; and I do think that most of us, even if we deny it, do want people to give us advice, whether because we know we can do better than we’re doing or because we just need reassurance that we’re doing it right already. We want advice, but we don’t want anyone to set themselves up as the know-it-all advice-giver. Pratchett manages, most of the time, to walk that narrow line, impressing without seemingly trying to impress, and educating without seeming to lecture; even chiding, without seeming to scold.
I have a great deal of affection and respect for Old Papa Tolkien. But Pratchett rarely sounds like a father or a grandfather. What he does sound like is an uncle. Part parent, part co-conspirator – part jolly clown, part wise old man of the world.
I think that’s part of why he never went by his full name, or by his title. Nobody loves their Very Important uncle, Sir Terrence. But Good Old Uncle Terry, he’s someone we can cry about losing.
- Discworld was an institution – a part of life
I was born in 1985. That’s after The Colour of Magic was written. There has never been a time in my life when there wasn’t Discworld. Not just when it didn’t exist – but when it didn’t continue to expand. I was still in primary school when I read The Colour of Magic, probably one of my first ten books – in fact I can only specifically remember three, maybe four books that I had read at that point. When I left primary school, it was a Pratchett book I used to collect the signatures of the other kids (in a pen that has since almost entirely faded, but never mind, I didn’t like most of those guys anyway and I’ve basically never seen or thought about any of them since). It was a paperback – the first hardback Pratchett I bought was Feet of Clay, which came out about a week after my last day at primary school. I read Pratchett throughout secondary school. At university, I read Going Postal, the last Discworld I bought in hardback (other than Snuff for some reason). I read Pratchett when I started my first job. I had read Pratchett just a few weeks before he died. I have always been aware of Discworld; and I have always been aware of it as something that there would be more of soon.
With most authors, with most series, a book either exists or it doesn’t, and you come to terms with that. They never wrote the book you wanted – or they did, and that was that. But with Discworld, for my entire life, there has always been the idea that this book or that might still be written. We might finally get that Angua novel (seriously, after The Fifth Elephant, the Watch novels should have been about Angua, or at least some new character (obviously Night Watch would still have been an acceptable epilogue for Vimes)). We might finally get to go back to Krull! Whatever happened to Conina? Is Susan going to settle down and have kids of her own? Will Ridcully ever retire, and what will happen if he does? What about the Patrician? I want to read again about the Octarine Grass Country – more about octarine at all, frankly! It’s not that I expected these books, I didn’t, but they were always hypothetically out there, waiting to exist, in the same way that real life is waiting to happen. I’ve made no secret of the fact that my satisfaction with Pratchett’s later Discworld novels was dwindling almost book by book, and had been for at least a decade – but it was always possible that he might pull some rabbit out of a hat and put out another book that I at least – even if nobody else – really loved.
And now those novels aren’t going to exist. In a way, that alone feels like a real bereavement: this promising young thing, this world, this cycle of novels, is never going to go the places that we thought it might. It’s not that the story is left unfinished – it’s worse: the stories have been left unbegun.
- Pratchett spoke to us as children
Some authors have a huge impact on you as a child. Others pass you by entirely, are far too remote and sophisticated to matter. And when you’re old, those distant novels often suddenly seem important and present, and the things you loved as a child… well, those are best left in the memory.
Terry Pratchett was a great author for adults. But he was also a great author for children. I was a young kid when I fell in love with The Colour of Magic. It wasn’t really written for kids, but I loved it. I loved Strata. I adored Equal Rites and Mort, which I think were written for kids. And soon after I discovered Truckers, Diggers, and Wings, all written for kids, and I loved them too (and I do hope that history doesn’t fixate solely on Discworld and forget his other works). And I really liked Only You Can Save Mankind, and kind of liked Johnny and the Dead and Johnny and the Bomb. And The Carpet People, that was awesome for a kid. And all the time I was blitzing through the main Discworld cycle. So Uncle Pterry was a big part of my childhood, which means he’s a big part of me. [Are Vimes, Granny and the rest why I have such a pigheaded anti-authoritarian streak, why I get viscerally, intestinally upset by certain forms of injustice? No, probably not. But they probably are a significant part of why I am who I am]
He’s not alone in that regard, of course. I read a bunch of books when I was young. But while Pratchett was a great author for children, he was also a great author for adults. I’m reading his books now, and most of them haven’t lost anything. Some of the more overtly kid-oriented books are, like cartoons, more rickety when viewed with the jaded eyes of adulthood. But for the most part, these books are only better than I expected them to be – I’m only getting more from them, the more critical I try to be. In other words, Pratchett is that rare thing: a part of childhood that you don’t have to ignore, replace or repaint when older.
Yet the bigger point here is something less precise. It’s not that Pratchett was a great kid’s author and a great adult’s author… it’s that he was both at the same time. Oh, sure, The Carpet People is for kids, not adults. And Night Watch is for adults, not for kids. Some books lean more one way and some lean more the other. But it’s not really a dichotomy with Pratchett; rather, it’s a continuum.
That was wonderful for me as a child. Pratchett enabled me to read big, grown-up books like Small Gods and Feet of Clay, but enjoy them the way I enjoyed simpler books – he let me be an adult for a while, while still a child. He didn’t say “sorry, this book has mature content, it has an age limit of 14”… some books had more mature elements, yes, but because everything was handled so gracefully, so delicately, nothing ever scared me off. And if they’d looked what I was reading, nothing would have scared my parents off either. As a kid, did I have… well, strong feelings about the creaking bedsprings near the end of Men at Arms? You bet I did! Was I creeped out by the poisonings in Feet of Clay? Yes. Spine on edge at the voodoo grandeur of the finale of Witches Abroad? Furious with rage at the rigidity of Dios in Pyramids or with the cruelty and senselessness of Vorbis and of organised religion in Small Gods? Just plain scared – though I wouldn’t have admitted it – by the man-eating werewolves of The Fifth Elephant or the gentle psychopathy of Mr Teatime in Hogfather? Yes on all counts. But that was OK. Nothing was ever too violent, too sexual, too gratuitous in any way, nothing made me recoil, or, worse, read on pruriantly. Not exactly that anything could have done – I read much rougher, much more adult stuff than that, and at a younger age, with no serious ill-effects. But the more adult stuff elsewhere, it was always slightly… away from me. It was ‘this is something I’ll care more about when I’m older’ – in the moment, it was fun enough to read and I understood completely what it meant but I didn’t really comprehend, in an active sense. Not… comprehensively. But with Pratchett, every bit of it was part of my version of the story. It took adult things but made them something that could be a part of a child’s world.
What’s that, you say? You didn’t read Pratchett as a child? Well that’s a shame… but that’s also the thing. Pratchett could make the adult world make sense to a child… but he could also make a child’s world make sense to an adult. Sure, Pratchett could appeal to almost every part of a reader’s psychology, but a huge part of his power was that he spoke to the children inside his audience. You didn’t have to actually be 10 years old to have the feeling of being a child reading his books. There’s something childlike about the ebulliance of his early work; there’s something childlike about the way he didn’t just love puns, but seemed to delight in naughtily sneaking a pun in completely unexpectedly when the book seemed to be dealing with an entirely different tone. There are the actual children in his work, like Esk, and the young adults, like Mort and Susan, who Pratchett depicts so powerfully, and so effectively. Pratchett clearly adores these young characters and respects them absolutely, even admires them… but he also never forgets that for all their intelligence they’re still just kids. Susan in Soul Music is a sympathetic portrait of a teenage girl, in which she, in all her teenagerness, is the hero of her own story… but we’re also quite aware of her limitations. [And as a child, incidentally, seeing these precocious children have flaws and need to grow up some more felt like more praise, more understanding, than any number of aren’t-they-just-perfect-how-they-are little angels]
And there’s also something childlike about the sense of fairness, the sense of right and wrong, and the wrongness of things being wrong. There’s something childlike about the belief in the power of stories. Something childlike about the sheer joy in language. Hell, there’s something deeply childlike about dealing with death by turning him into a friendly old chap with a scythe who comes and has slightly puzzled conversations with you when you die. Is Fantasy a childish genre? No, not inherently. But the liberty of Fantasy allows it to be childish if it wants to be, without giving up its adulthood. As another famous Fantasy novelist once said: “when I became a man, I put away childish things – including the need to always be grown-up”. Pterry’s work stands alongside some other great works of the genre, like Watership Down, in showing that a child’s soul and an adult’s mind is a combination that can move planets.
- Pratchett was a joy to read
Terry Pratchett’s books aren’t just enjoyable. They aren’t just fun, they’re not just funny. They are – or at least they often are – genuinely joyous. It’s hard to really define what that means exactly; but I do know this: no matter how bad a mood I’ve ever been in, it’s not been so bad that I haven’t enjoyed Pratchett. No matter how bored, frustrated, sad. Now a good action film, that’s fun – but sometimes you’re just so irritated, so tired, so down that you just can’t muster up the energy to sit through two hours of explosions. Because that’s just fun, and fun actually takes some work. Work that’s worth the effort, but still work. I often find it hard to make the effort to read books these days. I enjoy reading books, when I’m reading them, but I often find it hard to actually open the covers and read that first word. I don’t know why exactly. Partly it’s that even though I know I’ll enjoy reading them, I always have something more important to do right this minute, or that I’ll enjoy more right this minute and I’ll read that book later, or tomorrow, or next week. Partly it’s that it feels like a mental effort to haul myself out of this world and put myself into another. If I’m happy and relaxed, it’s a mental effort to discipline myself to take time to read; if I’m sad or anxious, it’s a mental effort to make myself relax enough to read. Reading is fun, but fun takes work.
But Pratchett? Pratchett is a joy. Oh, not all of his work, sure, he has weak moments, and he has heavy moments too; but overall, in general? Joy. So that’s how I decide what book to read these days: I think about this book, ponder that book, decide to read such-and-such but don’t get around to it, I’m right on the verge of starting to read so-and-so but things keep coming up… until eventually I think ‘oh bugger it, why don’t I just read the next Pratchett?’ – and then I do. It’s just so easy. It’s the opposite of work.
There’s a thing that Chesterton said once, which I’m sure Pratchett would have approved of (if you aren’t aware, Pratchett was a big Chesterton fan – Chesterton was one of the writers he read when he was a kid – and you can sometimes see the influence, sometimes entire jokes stolen, in Pratchett’s own work). I was tempted to quote it up above when I was talking about a child’s soul, but it didn’t quite fit in. So I’m going to quote it here because it’s also saying something about joy. It’s Chesterton’s comparison of God to a baby:
The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
When I finish a Pratchett I don’t actually squeel ‘do it again!’ – but let’s face it, I might as well.
It’s hard to work out exactly where the joy comes from in Pratchett, but it’s there. It’s the childlike soul, it’s the dance of chaos and order, it’s the cleverness of the man, and it’s also just plain how the man writes. Finding that Chesterton quote, I accidentally got trapped reading Chesterton – because even when Chesterton is writing nonsense that I don’t agree with, he’s an inherently captivating writer, at least to me. And in the same way, Pratchett on form exudes this… well, exuberance.
In this regard, one of the most warming thing about Pterry’s death has been reading how much his life and work meant to people. And one particular thing that seems to keep coming up is that many readers discovered Pratchett when they were depressed, and that reading Pratchett made it better. Now, I don’t mean to say that in each case reading Pratchett made them well, but simply that it made things better. And I don’t think I’ve ever been clinically depressed, but I can completely understand how that could be: if I were ever in a serious depression, the one thing I would think might help to read would be Discworld. And, helpfully enough, it would also be one of the things I would be most likely to feel able to read when if I were depressed. I find it hard to imagine reading Discworld and not smiling; and if someone is totally beyond smiling for whatever reason, I think that Pterry’s work would at least have a good chance of softening their frown a little. And all this is not just to praise Pratchett, but also to explain his power. Because rescuing someone from depression is something people remember; even just making depression a little more bearable is a gift that people will feel desparate to reciprocate, and to pass on to others. Most Pratchett fans have probably not been clinically depressed, but I’m sure we’ve all felt badly down at times… and his novels for many of us have been fragments of life and laughter in dark places. For some of us those places have, of course, been darker than for others, but readers will remember in their souls every frown that an author turns to a grin, every tear sweetened with a smile; no surprise at all, then, that so many people are so passionate about sweet old Uncle Pterry.
- Terry Pratchett’s work was never just one thing
Pratchett’s writing might evoke in me the kind of joy that makes me want to shout, “Do it again!”… but he didn’t. He gave us enough of what we wanted to satisfy us, but he relieved the potential for monotony by always changing just enough to keep us excited.
It’s easy to think of Pratchett as an author who wrote that sort of stuff, for some value of ‘that sort of stuff’. It’s easy to think that in part because we’re always told that, always being told what Discworld ‘is’, but also because when you read Pratchett you always know you’re reading Pratchett. But what ‘Pratchett’ entailed never really stayed the same.
I’m not sure I noticed this before, but it’s become very evident now that I’m re-reading the series in order. So far I’m up to The Fifth Elephant – and believe you me, the world of The Fifth Elephant is nothing like the world of The Colour of Magic. Those two worlds could not co-exist.
The nature of the world changed; the emphases changed. The style of writing changed. Sometimes it changed over long stretches of time, gradually, through evolution; sometimes it changed from book to book, as the author’s fancy took him. Sometimes, as in the case of Reaper Man, it changed from page to page within a book.
Terry Pratchett was a protean author, who could exude his talent and distinctive voice into many different moulds. As a result, he could appeal to many different readers, and to the same reader in many different moods.
It’s easy to remember that Pratchett was brilliant. It’s harder to remember how many things he was brilliant at. The sheer fun of the lunacy of The Colour of Magic, the admiration for the layers of puns and literary references, that’s all totally different from what moved me to tears at the end of Reaper Man. Those two modes of writing hardly seem like they should be able to exist in the same universe. And that tragic voice is nothing in the slightest like the hilarious comedy routine of the Faculty in The Last Continent. None of these things are like the booming grandeur of the set piece scenes in Small God – or the quiet, sad reflections of an old woman in Lords and Ladies. None of those things are like the drama of a nearly-naked man hunted through the snow by a pack of werewolves in The Fifth Elephant. None of these things are like the moment when you realise howdunnit in Feet of Clay. And I don’t think that any of these things are really quite like the restless, intelligent YA adventure of Only You Can Save Mankind.
If Terry Pratchett hadn’t found Discworld, hadn’t settled on Discworld, he could have written bestsellers in half a dozen different genres. In a way, he did. It’s just that this way they all come in matching covers.
- Terry Pratchett was a wonderful person
Of course, the public never really knows for sure what anyone is like. Perhaps in a few years darker stories might emerge about Pterry – I very much doubt it, but you can never say for sure. But for now, something that struck me on reading the internet’s outpouring of grief is that… well… nobody had anything bad to say about him. And of course, people tend not to be rude about people who have just died, but still, there’s usually some tone-deaf dissenter. And then I thought back and realised: I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody say anything bad about Terry Pratchett. More than that: it seems as though everyone has good things to say about him.
Every story about him meeting an author has him being interested and respectful, and often helpful or supportive. Occasional newspaper reports toyed with the idea that he might be bitter in the shadow of more temporarily lauded fantasy authors like Rowling and Pullman, or on behalf of his genre in the shadow of literary snobbery… but while perhaps there was a little wry displeasure there, from what I’ve seen he always made a point of directing any criticism at media coverage, rather than rival authors themselves.
Pterry met a lot of fans. A lot of fans. He went to a lot of conventions, did a lot of signings. Gave talks. And every fan I’ve heard talking about him has said how he seemed to try to make time for them personally (despite a hectic schedule). At signings, he would do his best to work to the end of the queue, long after the official end of the event. Fans who had brief conversations with him report how he remembered them when they met again years later. Reports of convention panels go on about how he listened to and argued civilly with other panellists, with fans, how he was polite to rude people and took strange people seriously without mockery. Not just in the flesh: Pterry was among the first generation of major novelists to engage seriously with his fans online, back in the days of usenet. And if anybody doesn’t remember usenet newsgroups, the idea that somebody could regularly participate in that environment and not be hated and hateful is refreshing and uplifting! He even responded to some non-trivial proportion of his monumental tide of fanmail.
He also, of course, put his money and time where his mouth was. In his later years, he campaigned loudly and fearlessly on behalf of dementia research and care, and for assisted dying. Quite aside from the publicity and the financial donations, he made a difference to people’s lives simply through his honest self-presentation as a man suffering from terminal dementia – not as someone to be campaigned on behalf of, but as a campaigner in his own right, and still a bestselling novelist despite his disease. He was not afraid to put himself out in public even when the effects of his disease had become visible; he was not too vain to risk tarnishing his image by exploiting his celebrity in a good cause, and his documentaries I know have changed minds, and dramatically changed the public visibility of these issues. Some might point out, no doubt with some accuracy, that there was a degree of self-interest in campaigning on issues that directly affected him… but then, most charity is close to the heart of the donator or campaigner. It also overlooks a lifetime of good works prior to his diagnosis – he was for many years a trustee of a charity for orangutans, and he also supported organisations for humanism and for AIDS sufferers. His late-life campaigning was not just self-serving desparation, or even the vanity of a dying man looking for a legacy (as though he of all people needed any greater legacy), but simply the crystallisation of a life-long moral sentiment – the same moral sentiment that stands out so strongly in his fiction.
Even leaving his fiction to one side, Terry Pratchett was a great man, and, so far as I can tell, a genuinely good, kind, loveable man. Add that to everything I’ve said above, and I guess there’s no surprise that his death has been met not just with regret but with true lamentation. A lamentation that would no doubt have been even greater, even more deafening, were it not for the nature of the man himself and the nature of his death. It seems, as I said at the beginning of this, almost disrespectful to wail, rend garments and gnash teeth for him. I think he would much prefer that people focused on life.
So if anybody’s reading this who hasn’t read Terry Pratchett’s novels, go out immediately and do so. If anybody read them once but has laid them aside, go back and pick them up again. Recommend them to people. Read them to your children, so that we aren’t the only generation to benefit from the flower of his genius.
And perhaps I ought to say: donate to his charities, or to his own, or campaign, or give your labour in some other way. But in a way that feels superfluous. The philanthropist and the novelist were never different people. Works are the fruit of faith: get people to read Terry Pratchett, and the good deeds will follow.
Terry Pratchett. Rest in Peace.
…Or, as the lspace.com website puts it, and I can’t do it any better:
One day I’ll be dead and THEN you’ll all be sorry.
– (Terry Pratchett, 28 Nov 1992, on alt.fan.pratchett)