Several weeks ago, I heard the news that Sir Terry Pratchett, British fantasy author extraordinaire, had finally succumbed to the terrible disease of Alzheimer’s. At the time I happened to be in the middle of reading one of his Discworld novels, Unseen Academicals. The sad news led me to recall my first encounter with his stories, and the impact they’ve had on my life.
I first came across Pratchett’s fiction while I was in grad school doing research on my master’s thesis. I was studying postmodern fairytales, particularly those of A. S. Byatt, and while doing so I read an essay in which she discussed his novel Witches Abroad, which cleverly turns the fairy tale structure on its head. So in the name of “research” I got my hands on a copy and dove in. From this encounter I realized a few things. First, Terry Pratchett is the most hilarious author that I’ve ever had the privilege of reading, and I’d argue probably one of the funniest writers ever. The man’s wit knew no bounds, and he was liberal with it. I’d often find myself chuckling over small asides like this one from Guards! Guards!: “The Supreme Grand Master opened his eyes. He was lying on his back. Brother Diddykins was preparing to give him the kiss of life. The mere thought was enough to jerk anyone from the borders of consciousness.”
I also realized that behind Pratchett’s wit was a fierce intelligence, talented at skewering our cultural foibles and making us laugh at ourselves while doing it. Consider this passage from Jingo, where two watchmen from the city of Ank-Morpork, Sergeant Colon and Colonel Nobbs, discuss the Klatchians, a race from another part of Discworld:
“I heard where they’ve got a load of odd gods,” said Nobby. “Yeah, and mad priests,” said Colon. “Foaming at the mouth, half of ’em. Believe all kinds of loony things.” They watched the painter in silence for a moment. Colon was dreading the question that came. “So, how exactly are they different from ours, then?” said Nobby. “I mean, some of our priests are—” “I hope you ain’t being unpatriotic,” said Colon severely. “No of course not. I was just asking. I can see where they’d be a lot worse than ours, being foreign and everything.” “And of course, they’re all mad for fighting,” said Colon. “Vicious buggers with all those curvy swords of theirs.” “You mean, like…they viciously attack you while cowardly running away after tasting cold steel?” said Nobby, who had a treacherously good memory for detail. “You can’t trust ’em, like I said. And they burp hugely after meals.” “Well…so do you, sarge.” “Yes, but I don’t pretend it’s polite, Nobby.” “Well, it’s certainly a good job there’s you around to explain things, sarge,” said Nobby. “It’s amazing the stuff you know.” “I surprise myself, sometimes,” said Colon, modestly.
You can imagine then that I was surprised to read in an essay by Neil Gaiman that the source of Pratchett’s wit and humor was, of all things, rage. In a piece for The Guardian, Gaiman recalls an incident that occurred during the book tour for Good Omens, he and Pratchett’s co-authored fictional take on the Apocalypse. The authors had to get to a radio station for an interview, and Pratchett suggested they walk. Many wrong turns later, they arrived 45 minutes late to a very unhappy radio team, and endured a short, awkward 15 minute interview. In the cab on the way back, Gaiman could tell that Pratchett was very angry, and gently suggested that at that point it was water under the bridge. According to his recollection, “Terry looked at me. He said: ‘Do not underestimate this anger. This anger was the engine that powered Good Omens.’”
At first this concept left me puzzled, but Gaiman explains, “…that anger, it seems to me, is about Terry’s underlying sense of what is fair and what is not. It is that sense of fairness that underlies Terry’s work and his writing…” Put in this light, it makes sense. Much of the time, Pratchett’s humor is pointed at skewering hypocrisy and stupidity, and demonstrating the cleverness of unlikely and marginalized characters.
Gaiman also makes another observation about this sense of rage that is interesting: “[Terry] will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light. And, hand in hand with the anger, like an angel and a demon walking into the sunset, there is love: for human beings, in all our fallibility; for treasured objects; for stories; and ultimately and in all things, love for human dignity. Or to put it another way, anger is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels, or better yet for all of us…”
Reading this made me realize that another crucial aspect of Terry Pratchett’s writing that I’ve always appreciated is that basic sense of humanity. It is what grounds his work. Let’s face it, any particularly intelligent and witty writer can tend to become a bit of a self-righteous ass, sitting in superiority over the rest of mankind. But in Pratchett’s stories there are always those “serious” moments that can unexpectedly and surprisingly touch you as much as the cleverness humors you. As A. S. Byatt says in her forward to his short fiction collection A Blink of the Screen, “[Pratchett] gets more and more attached to his characters, who become more and more complicated—consider the way in which Captain Vimes grows from being a drunk in charge of a dysfunctional Night Watch to a commander who can arrest two armies for a breach of peace. He finds it hard to go on disliking characters.”
Now that Terry has gone from us, I’m somewhat comforted by the fact that I still have many Discworld books to read and enjoy, but I’ll miss the potential stories and characters that will never see the light of day. Ultimately, I’m grateful for Terry Pratchett, the not-so-jolly elf who was immensely clever, sometimes scathing, but overall a lover of us humans beings in all our bumbling and silly messiness.