the writer and his creations
Sir Terry Pratchett, known predominantly as a prolific fantasy writer, died on March 12, 2015 at the age of 66 at the end of a long and public battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He had been diagnosed eight years prior with a rare form of dementia—posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), also known as Benson’s Syndrome. This variety of dementia disrupts the visual processes of the brain while leaving the episodic memory and the patient’s sense of self largely intact. In Pratchett’s own words, “The disease slips you away a little bit at a time and lets you watch it happen.” Pratchett managed to continue producing work until his death despite the sustained decay of his brain; his last published book, “The Shepherd’s Crown,” was released the same month he passed away.
Terry Pratchett’s death was announced by his daughter as having been natural, although for years Pratchett spoke publicly in favor of the ability to choose when and where he would die. Pratchett became an outspoken advocate for assisted suicide, or euthanasia, after receiving his diagnosis. The process—currently legal in Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and five U.S. states—allows people with terminal diseases, for whom palliative care is the only option in making their day-to-day existence bearable, this alternative to reclaim a sense of agency by ending their own lives. His BBC documentary, “Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die,” follows Pratchett and a man suffering from a motor neuron disease to Switzerland where the latter, on camera, legally takes his own life. The film was highly controversial, but Pratchett argued: “It should be possible for someone stricken with a serious and ultimately fatal illness to choose to die peacefully with medical help, rather than suffer.”
I was introduced to Terry Pratchett’s work by my sister, who has read, I imagine, nearly every installment of his Discworld series, a collection of 41 novels (he wrote more than 70 in total) that all take place in a universe of Pratchett’s creation. The Discworld is a flat, disc-shaped planet propped upon the back of four cosmic elephants who ride through space atop an enormous floating turtle named Great A’Tuin. Pratchett put a staggering amount of thought and detail into his creation, which functions by its own set of laws. His sets of characters each inhabit different parts of the Discworld and periodically collide—some even fall off the edge of the Earth. Morning car rides to school, a long and otherwise boring commute, were filled with audiobooks of various installments in no particular order, because you can situate yourself in any of his books and find it immediately clear and charming.
Many of the books in the Discworld series are amusing spoofs of classics. “Wyrd Sisters,” for example, imagines a premise that mixes the storylines of Hamlet and Macbeth. The story takes the perspective of the three witches who appear in the beginning of The Scottish Play, scheming. The ending, however, is much less macabre than Shakespeare’s tragedy. Pratchett comically inverted typical tropes of fantasy novels. The wizard Rincewind, for example, a protagonist in many of Pratchett’s books, is not heroic but instead both cowardly and incompetent. He saves the world on multiple occasions, albeit reluctantly. Pratchett could make an intelligent quip about anything, which upon first glance would appear whimsical but with more thought reveal immense depth and insight. His reading was, and remains, exciting, overflowing with hidden treasures begging to be uncovered.
The colorful collection of Discworld book spines—rich purples, blues, and greens—adorns the shelves of the room I shared with my older sister until she went to college the same year I started high school. They still rest on top of flimsy wooden boards, now collecting dust, alongside Harry Potter and an embarrassingly large collection of Sarah Dessen’s teenage romance novels, the aggregate of my introduction to reading.
When I was just starting to care about books, the Discworld series appeared to me as both accessible and meaningful. Most of his allusions may have been lost on me, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. The lightheartedness in his writing could mask the greater forces at work. “Snuff,” one of his more serious titles, is a story that tackles issues of genocide, crimes against humanity, retroactive law, and systemic racism. The story takes place while Commander Vimes of the city watch is on vacation. He is confronted with evidence of a slave trade of goblins, orchestrated by the rich and tacitly endorsed by the surrounding villagers, as humanitarian laws do not afford protection to the goblin race. I admittedly feel ridiculous describing this plot in terms of the goblins and city watch that classify Pratchett’s work in the fantasy genre. Despite the silly language that superficially separates this story from our modern times, Pratchett used his work to discuss larger, timeless issues surrounding humanity.
On belief, even, Pratchett had veiled commentary that could catch you off guard with its intricacy. He insists, in “Hogfather” (his version of Santa Claus), that children are taught to believe in the little lies—such as the “Hogfather” or the tooth fairy—so that they can be able to believe in the big lies as well: justice, mercy, duty. He posits these bigger ones as social constructs, insisting that humans need “fantasies to make life bearable.”
In reading one of Terry Pratchett’s novels, it is not the case that you read it once and struggle to maintain a grip on the story. Rather, you laugh the first time around because of his often hysterical, even whimsical prose. Subsequently, in each passage you reread, there lingers a previously unnoticed detail that amplifies your appreciation of the piece. There’s a certain sincerity to his humor that is immensely appealing. He did not put on any sort of pompous affectation, but had the effortless ability to make you laugh, stop, and think.
Pratchett’s arguably most compelling character was Death, who he described as “not cruel—merely terribly, terribly good at his job.” Death is not the paradigmatic rendering of the Grim Reaper. Instead he is a sympathetic, humanized character who likes cats, eats curry, and is deeply fascinated with human beings. Death remarks, “It was the living who ignored the strange and wonderful, because life was too full of the boring and mundane.” The inevitability of death is something that frustrates Death himself, which creates an interesting conflict for the reader—and a certain solace in solidarity, no matter how futile. The inevitability of death lurks before all of us as an impersonal, terrifying reality and there is something oddly comforting about its domesticated personification. Death, in the Discworld, is a character constantly in dialogue with others who is making deals, struggling to communicate. His presence cannot be ignored and the ultimate meeting he has with the characters he encounters—donning his dark robes and menacing scythe—cannot be escaped (although certainly delayed). But he does not have to be as grim as the typical reaper.
When Terry Pratchett died, his encounter with Death was documented in true modern fashion through a series of three tweets:
“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.”
Tweets are a medium of brevity and impersonality, but highly effective in mass communication—and as a fan, I find these three beautiful. This is a lot to pack into 140 characters. We are led to believe that Pratchett welcomed Death with open arms as would old friends, despite meeting for the first time. In mourning his loss from the position of a reader, I am thankful for the new understanding that he left of old models. The lens he offered into his lavish, inexhaustible imagination through the world he crafted left an invaluable mark on this one. His books are not the works of the canon; they’re not nearly so stuffy. Writers offer their readers the ability to peer into someone else’s head, to interact with someone else’s method, to deepen their understanding of the world they inhabit and its endless possibilities. Terry Pratchett offered his readers a view of the world that was satirical, cutting, yet above all warmly optimistic.