SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death

SF/F Saturday: Terry Pratchett’s Death March 14, 2015

I was devastated to learn that Terry Pratchett, the renowned fantasy author, died this week at the unfairly early age of 66. Pratchett had been suffering from early-onset dementia for several years, and while he was a vocal advocate of assisted dying, his own passing was natural. (He also worked almost right up to the end: his final Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown, is set to be published posthumously this year.)

The sad news was broken by family on his Twitter account, in a form any long-time reader would instantly recognize:

It was a fitting tribute to Pratchett’s life that this final message was written in the voice of possibly the greatest and certainly the most implausible of the recurring characters in his Discworld fantasy series: the Grim Reaper himself, the anthropomorphic personification of Death.

The Death of the Discworld was just as you’d expect him: a seven-foot-tall skeleton with glowing blue eyesockets, dressed in a black robe and wielding a scythe, whose job is to collect the souls of the dead (and who speaks in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS – according to Pratchett, that’s the closest text can come to his voice until someone invents a font with echo-reverb). He has at least a cameo role in every Discworld book, but in several he’s the main character.

In the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, there was some Early Installment Weirdness, but Death’s characterization quickly settled on something more complex and sympathetic. He’s not cruel or uncaring, merely doing a necessary job:

“But you’re Death,” said Mort. “You go around killing people!”

I? KILL? said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THAT’S THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON. AFTER ALL, IT’D BE A BLOODY STUPID WORLD IF PEOPLE GOT KILLED WITHOUT DYING, WOULDN’T IT?

Mort

But beneath his dispassionate veneer (and in fairness, it’s pretty hard to show expression when your face is just a skull), there are hidden depths. In time, Death comes to be fascinated by us, even fond of us. Pratchett is explicit about the fact that he looks the way he does because the majority of human beings imagine him that way, and this means that he’s shaped by us as much as we’re shaped by him:

The king looked surprised.

“I understood that Death came as a three-headed giant scarab beetle,” he said.

Death shrugged. WELL. NOW YOU KNOW.

“What’s that thing in your hand?”

THIS? IT’S A SCYTHE.

“Strange-looking object, isn’t it?” said the pharaoh. “I thought Death carried the Flail of Mercy and the Reaping Hook of Justice.”

Death appeared to think about this.

WHAT IN? he said.

“Pardon?”

ARE WE STILL TALKING ABOUT A GIANT BEETLE?

Pyramids

On occasion, Death is even willing to bend the rules. In one book, the witch Granny Weatherwax challenges him to a game of cards for the life of a child:

Granny looked at her cards, and threw them down.

FOUR QUEENS. HMM. THAT IS VERY HIGH.

Death looked down at his cards, and then up into Granny’s steady, blue-eyed gaze.

Neither moved for some time.

Then Death laid the hand on the table.

I LOSE, he said. ALL I HAVE IS FOUR ONES.

He looked back into Granny’s eyes for a moment. There was a blue glow in the depth of his eye-sockets. Maybe, for the merest fraction of a second, barely noticeable even to the closest observation, one winked off.

Maskerade

But on one occasion, Death broke the rules in a much bigger way. On a whim, he adopted an orphan girl named Ysabell. Because she was lonely, he took on a boy named Mort, ostensibly as an apprentice, in reality to keep her company. Eventually, they fell in love, got married and had a daughter, Susan. But because Discworld has more than one kind of genetics, Susan was born with a foot in both worlds. She’s worked as a governess and a schoolteacher, the very image of a proper, respectable young woman; but when she chooses, she can walk through walls, step outside time, and see creatures and places that are invisible to ordinary people.

Death regards Susan with a great deal of affection, which she returns (calling him “Grandfather”), and does his best to raise her. And sometimes, he needs her to do something he can’t do himself. In my favorite Discworld book, Hogfather, the Hogfather, Discworld’s equivalent of Santa Claus, is kidnapped, and Death has to do his job for one night. When Susan finds out about this, Death strictly forbids her to intervene, knowing that of course she’ll save the day. His speech at the end of the novel is one of Pratchett’s best:

“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN 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— Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY. …YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?

Just rereading passages like these, doing the research to write this post, made me feel the pain of Terry Pratchett’s death afresh. I’ll miss his humor, his wisdom, his gentle optimism, his resolute humanism. But he left the best possible legacy for all of us, and it’s a comfort to think that his own characters might have helped so many, possibly even including him, cope with mortality. In better days, Pratchett used to write, “Occasionally I get letters from people who know they are due to meet him soon and hope I’ve got him right. These are the kind of letters that cause me to stare at the wall for some time.”

And in the sense that people who die live on in our memories, just like the ideas and the people in the books we’ve read, you could even say that they’re together now, that too is a comfort:

"Hold that thought for part 2. :)"

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