Terry Pratchett and 'Discworld': An appreciation
The late fantasy author taught us everything about...well, everything.
To be a child again, reading Terry Pratchett for the first time! To realize that first book wasn’t just a fantasy novel, and certainly wasn’t just a children’s book! To discover that something could be gutbustingly funny and heartbreakingly sad, to find out that the universe was wonderful and horrible and wonderfully horrible!
To realize, most of all, that my parents had absolutely no idea what kind of book they’d just purchased for me.
My first Discworld novel was Sourcery. It stars a coward wizard, his magical sentient luggage, and a warrior woman who yearns to be a hairdresser. There’s a little, all-powerful boy controlled by his ghost wizard father. Somehow, Armageddon starts happening; somehow, Armageddon is defeated by man waving half a brick inside of a sock.
This all takes place on a flat world, which sits on the back of four cosmic elephants, who are themselves standing on the back of a giant turtle.
How to explain Terry Pratchett to people who haven’t read him yet—people who are lucky enough to have their first Terry Pratchett experience still ahead of them? In 1983, Pratchett started writing books set on the Discworld, and he never seemed to stop. He wrote two Discworld books per year through 2004; his pace slowed after that. In 2007, he revealed that he had early-onset Alzheimer’s; then he wrote six more Discworld books.
You could describe the Discworld series as a sendup of fantasy genre tropes. In it, nominally heroic archetypes are constantly inverted. (In Sourcery, a vicious barbarian hero nicknamed The Destroyer wears wooly underwear. He promised his mother!) Except Pratchett was up to something more profound than parody: In the city of Ankh-Morpork, Pratchett reconceived the typical Medieval-magic hub city as a direct reflection of a miserably modern metropolis.
A restless storyteller, Pratchett branched his Discworld novels into several different directions. The coward wizard Rincewind might find himself in horrifically far-flung adventures—and if part of the joke was that Rincewind never wanted to be a hero, the punchline was how Pratchett could poke fun at genre conventions while exploding them, concocting a cosmography that would’ve made Jack Kirby dizzy. But Pratchett also wrote several street-level novels about the City Watch, a polyglot police force struggling to maintain order in a rapidly changing cityscape. There were books about the Witches, a humane group of clever women whose lived by a holistic philosophy of “smoothing out life’s humps and bumps.”
Pratchett’s wit could be lacerating, his satire pointed. Hell was endless bureaucracy. Thieves and assassins were organized into guilds. The word “wizard” evokes Gandalf and Dumbledore, noble and grey and wise; Pratchett imagined wizards as self-important academics, all their wisdom and power manifesting itself in petty ways. Or sometimes, Pratchett imagined wizards as scientists, thinkers, seeking truth through study. Pratchett was a satirist, but he was also a humanist. His characters could have been comic-strip allegories, but he gave them vivid three-dimensional life.
One of his most vivid characters was Lord Vetinari, Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, a Machiavellian vision of political dominance. Vetinari can seem like a malicious figure of all-consuming political ambition—a Frank Underwood, or rather, a Francis Urquhart—and there’s something vaguely Stalinesque in his omniscient despotism. But Pratchett also had an odd respect for Vetinari. The character reflects Pratchett’s passionate fury but also his wry wit: He’s a dictator who has figured out that all people really want is for things to say the same. The protagonist of the City Watch novels is Sam Vimes, a grizzled beat cop with the heart of a noir detective, a cynical idealist who could be Pratchett’s vision of the everyman. It’s telling that Vimes and Vetinari kind of like each other; it’s telling that Pratchett could see how a man of the streets and the lord of the land were two sides of the same four-dimensional coin.
Imagine Tolkien doing Parks & Recreation. (Sam Vimes is like Ron Swanson reimagined as a beat cop.) Imagine Garry Trudeau doing World of Warcraft: Like the characters of Doonesbury, the Discworld cast aged in roughly real time while Pratchett was writing them. Imagine The Wire, except bigger. Imagine the funniest and saddest and most colorful philosophy class in history: Pratchett was a relentless thinker, and so the Discworld books tackle religion and technology, the lies history taught us and the hard truths life won’t let you forget. Pratchett talked a lot about politics. Some people say he was libertarian; some of his books read like goofs on libertarianism.
And Pratchett talked a lot about Death. Death is a literal character in Discworld, an oddly poignant, curious, bemused figure. Indeed, considering that he appeared in most of the novels and starred in a couple of them, it’s possible to argue that Death is the protagonist of Discworld. He was rendered in a familiar robed-skeleton fashion, but there was nothing familiar about Pratchett’s Death. Sometimes, he was a punchline. When a character dies in a Discworld book, there’s usually a moment of confusion, and then Death appears—ALWAYS SPEAKING IN CAPITAL LETTERS—to usher them into the beyond.
Death and the Beyond: They loom large in Pratchett’s work. With Neil Gaiman, he wrote on Good Omens, an apocalypse comedy two decades before apocalypse comedy was cool. (Good Omens is one of those rare collaborations that actually works, itself a minor miracle.) After his diagnosis, Pratchett wrote often about mortality. He wrote a fascinating, funny essay which is either about why he doesn’t believe in a higher power or why he does. (A typical Pratchett paradox: “I have never disliked religion. I think it has some purpose in our evolution.”) He lived publicly with Alzheimer’s. He spoke openly about euthanasia. It would be wrong to describe him as an advocate for assisted suicide—although an Advocate for Death sounds like a Terry Pratchett character we’ll never get a novel about now. But he brought right-to-die into the public eye in Britain. (Pratchett sold well in the US, but he was ridiculously popular in the UK; some sources say he was the best-selling British author of the ’90s.)
Appropriately, perhaps, Pratchett shared his death with the world. Over on Pratchett’s Twitter page, Death himself finally visited the author: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.” Only Pratchett could have imagined such an ending: Hilarious and bleak, human and cosmic. You haven’t read Pratchett? Pick up Small Gods or Men at Arms, Moving Pictures or Mort.
Or Sourcery. At the end of the first Terry Pratchett book I ever read, there’s an insanely powerful being, an ultra-wizard called a Sourcerer. He’s so powerful that he could save the world or destroy it. “I can’t stay,” he says. “Everything I touch goes wrong, it’s like trying to sleep on a heap of eggs! This world is too thin!” He begs for advice, and receives advice from a learned wise man. The wise man is actually an orangutan Librarian, of course. The Sourcerer smiles, nods, and steps into another world…
It had a lake in, and some distant mountains, and a few pheasants watching hiim suspiciously from under the trees. It was the magic all sourcerers learned, eventually.
Sourcerers never became part of the world. They merely wear it for a while.
He looked back, halfway across the turf, and waved at the Librarian. The ape gave him an encouraging nod.
And then the bubble shrank inside itself, and the last sourcerer vanished from this world and into a world of his own.
Farewell, Terry Pratchett. It was very generous of you to wear this world for a while.