The fantasy novelist behind the beloved Discworld series helped make sense of a complicated universe.
Terry Pratchett. Photo by Flickr user Myrmi.
Last Thursday, the beloved and prolific fantasy novelist Sir Terry Pratchett died at the age of 66 after an eight-year struggle with a rare, degenerative form of Alzheimer’s. Many learned of this loss that afternoon, when Pratchett’s daughter Rhianna posted the news on Twitter. She gave her father a fitting sendoff in three messages, the first in the all-caps script the author always used to depict the curious, warm, and protective caricature of Death in his prolific Discworld series:
“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.”
“Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”
With Pratchett’s sad departure, the world has lost a luminary. That’s not usually a word used to describe a fantasy author, many of whom may be regarded as talented but not revolutionary voices. This hesitancy to acknowledge fantasy writers may stem from the longstanding disregard many have for genre literature, which is often seen as fun, yet formulaic and uninsightful. Despite this, Pratchett knew how to work fantasy beyond escapism and beyond even social commentary.
In his works, Pratchett developed a consistently strong satirical wit, critical of humanity but never veering into the bitterness or woe inherent in many comics’ works. He wrote an inherent philosophy of skepticism that somehow managed to embrace the absurdities of the world with love and kindness, and he did it in a way that was so simply communicated that even a child could engage with him. He may not have been the world’s greatest philosopher, but he was a uniquely talented mind whose works became a touchstone through which many began to develop a wondering worldview—myself amongst them.
That Pratchett was able to keep up the intellectual quality of his work was astounding given just how much of it there was. Born in 1948 in Buckinghamshire, England, Pratchett published his first book in 1971 at around age 23, building the concept from a children’s column he wrote for the Bucks Free Press, a local paper where he had become a journalist at age 16. From there, he launched into a career that produced over 70 books, (more than 40 of which are set in the Discworld universe, which he originated with 1983’s The Colour of Magic) and countless short stories, illustrated novels, and other little creative endeavors. In the 1990s, before J.K. Rowling came along, he reigned as the bestselling British author (he was always a little more popular in the UK than the US). By 2009, he’d been granted a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II for his works.
Ever dedicated, Pratchett remained an undaunted author even after suffering what he at first thought was a stroke in 2007. But in 2008, Pratchett learned that what he was actually suffering from was the onset of a rare and poorly understood form of Alzheimer’s. Known as Posterior Cortical Atrophy Alzheimer’s, or Benson’s Syndrome, which robs one’s vision rather than memory while slowly attacking the brain, the disease quickly destroyed Pratchett’s ability to use a pen or keyboard. So he started using dictation software and assistants instead, authoring several more works, right up to his death.
Pratchett also became an avid supporter of Alzheimer’s research and assisted suicide in the wake of his diagnosis. Willing to try just about anything, he experimented with alternative treatments. Many in these fields credit him with changing popular views thanks to his public comments, like:
In the end, that’s not how life came to a close for Pratchett. But his fans have honored his devotion to Alzheimer’s research, donating in droves to the Bath-based Research Institute for the Care of Older People, a charity chosen by his family and publicized with the news of the author’s death.
Other fans expressed their grief by starting a Change.org petition to the character of Death to bring Pratchett back, citing the author’s own line, “There are times in life when people must know when not to let go. Balloons are designed to teach small children this,” to explain the sense of untimely loss. Meanwhile fellow creators and celebrities, from Neil Gaiman to George R.R. Martin to Prime Minister David Cameron, have praised Pratchett publicly for his humor and insights, his unique and self-possessed styles (you might call his fashion sense Urban English Cowboy), and his work ethic and integrity. (Pratchett always demanded creative control and has turned down wads of Hollywood cash.)
This distinguished Pratchett from other famous humorists, like Douglas Adams, the British author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, to whom he is often compared. Adams was, by all accounts, a kicker and screamer when it came to productivity and deadlines. He was also, as with many in the satirical genre, a bit grim and nihilistic. Most of the jokes in an Adams book come at the expense of humanity and leave one feeling amused, yet definitively caustic, and maybe even a little mean.
The jokes in a Pratchett book, on the other hand, do not make you wish to just roll your eyes at civilization from some grim but resigned afar. While still good for a laugh, they simultaneously endear the characters surrounding them. In the end, readers end up less disgruntled with the absurdity of the world and more fascinated at the amazing coincidence by which all of the bizarre ideologies, beliefs, and suppositions we share somehow add up to a system that sustains a beautiful and meaningful existence. You learn through his humor how to embrace the illogical and ridiculous as part of what makes us good, loving, and caring humans—and to see neither good nor evil, but just beautiful absurdity in everything.
Every Pratchett reader has some quote that embodies this wondering embrace of the weird:
“Most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, but by people being fundamentally people,” is a good one. As are, “Here’s some advice boy. Don’t put your trust in revolutions. They always come around again. That’s why they’re called revolutions” or “Human beings. Little bags of thinking water held up briefly by fragile accumulations of calcium.” But for my money the best expression of this sentiment comes in the dénouement of a lesser quoted Pratchett work: The Hogfather.
Terry Pratchett and Death. Image by OIKu via Openclipart
Like many, I first stumbled upon Pratchett by accident as a tween when I found a copy of The Hogfather, a tale of a plot by the spectral, mysterious Auditors of Reality (who make sure atoms spin and so on) to off the Discworld universe’s porcine take on Santa Claus. The absurdity drew me in at the time, and it still holds me fast—a brilliant dissection of human faith’s talismanic importance to the way we engage with the world and survive as a species. It all comes together in Death’s soliloquy after (spoiler alert) the Hogfather is saved:
“HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE…AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.”
Death goes on to describe those lies as: “JUSTICE. DUTY. MERCY. THAT SORT OF THING.”
And to any who would question calling these noble human institutions “fantasy,” Death explains, “TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET YOU ACT LIKE THERE WAS SOME…SOME SORT OF RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.”
Today, that’s everything Pratchett is to me: absurdity, an embrace of the illogical as beautiful and meaningful in its own right, and the devotion to fantasy as a legitimate venue to explore humanity, all without falling into clichés or platitudes. This was a pretty big thing for 12-year-old me: I had found a framework for thinking about the frailty and laughability of the beliefs and structures holding the world together, and a way to look on that framework with love and humor as opposed to despair.
Pratchett wasn’t the perfect philosopher, the original father of these ideas, or even the most eloquent writer. But he didn’t speak an opaque intellectual argot. He spoke what I as a child could understand—a form of the magic Theodor Geisel worked as Dr. Seuss to convey Cold War political philosophy and pacifism through a few dozen words and butter.
And because of that, for many others and myself, Pratchett became a touchstone, a voice in our heads that started a dialogue with the way we saw the world. Many of us would like to have you believe we have loftier intellectual role models and gurus than commercial fantasy writers. But he’s still there in our heads, commenting on the world as Death or Havelock or Nanny Ogg, and helping us day-by-day to find something to embrace in this world.
Many are looking forward to the posthumous publication of Pratchett’s remaining works as the last glimmer of his genius in the world. Others are eager to see if his daughter Rhianna, who writes for video games, fulfills his 2012 wish and continues his Discworld series. But even after all of his works are gone, he himself knew, I suspect, that he’d live on somehow in those of us who loved his works. Or at least that’s what I got out of one more classic Pratchett line:
It’s scant consolation to those who knew and loved him and feel the pain of his loss to say this, but I’ll personally always feel the ripple of my encounters with Pratchett’s works in my heart. And I know many others who will too. In our own shallow way, we’ll try to keep something of him alive out of love and respect. And I believe the world will be a better place for that glimmer that Pratchett left behind, and the kind insight that will hopefully echo from it.