Claire Wilkinson, previous Editor of Miruvor, closes off the Anniversary issue with a heartfelt remembrance of the master of fantasy of our lifetimes, Sir Terry Pratchett. At times, our Society can seem like the Oxford Tolkien and Pratchett Society, and with good reason, so it is appropriate that he be remembered in Miruvor. Our thanks to Claire.
There have been any number of obituaries and articles in memory of Terry Pratchett in the week since his death, and by the time this is printed I’m sure there will be many more. This is going to be one article among many, because there are so many people whom he and his writing have touched over the years, and I know I’m far from alone in finding him one of the most influential people in my life, despite the fact that I never met him.
I first discovered Discworld just before my first reading of the Lord of the Rings (my mother appears to have thought ‘comic fantasy’ meant ‘more suitable for children than LotR’, a notion I think she was disabused of around the point I asked her what ‘bugger’ meant), and both Pratchett and Tolkien were authors I latched onto hard and fast, their books taking on more or less the quality of religious texts. But where Tolkien gave me my mythology, Pratchett gave me my philosophy.
He wrote satire that cut straight to the truth of things as he understood them, humorous fantasy that homed in on serious ideas and dragged them out into the light. His stories were funny and engaging, and deeply, deeply moral without being moralistic. There are so many layers to every Pratchett novel – a story that’s easy to read, a swift fun (and funny) rollercoaster of a story, but they aren’t simple stories. Every time you come back to them there’s something new – a pun you didn’t catch, a reference you didn’t get last time. And the unexpected, sudden truths, ideas, the things that hit you with a sudden serious “Oh. Yes. That.”, the things that make you think about something in a way you’d never seen before, the moments of startling and unexpected clarity.
Pratchett is eminently quotable, both because he says things that are funny, and because he says things that are devastatingly, concisely, right – he had an amazing gift for cutting straight to the heart of an issue and dragging it out (still warm and beating) in a few well-chosen sentences.
Neil Gaiman wrote an excellent piece on Terry Pratchett’s anger and his sense of fairness, and how they fuelled his writing. Those come through clearly in his stories, and especially in those moments of sharp and devastating insight – look, for instance, at Sam Vimes and his ‘Boots’ Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness, or Granny Weatherwax’s diatribe to Mightily Oats on treating people as things. That latter, though, is also a prime demonstration of the other major facet of Pratchett’s philosophy, as it shone through in his work: caring. People are always people, always worth considering, always individuals. Sometimes that’s something that’s discussed directly by the characters, as by Granny there, or by Death in Reaper Man, for whom every strand of corn in the harvest is worthy of individual attention (because what can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the reaper man?). Sometimes it’s in the way his stories will often focus on neglected character archetypes, flesh out what might otherwise be dismissed as figures in the background.
Pratchett always cared – about people, but not only about people, about everything. He wrote about, he referenced, he sent up everything under the sun: history, current affairs, classics, society, genre fiction, literature, folklore, religion – he writes like someone fascinated by everything. It’s why his books are such treasure-troves, why it’s possible to come back to them over and over again and find something new every time, grow up with them and have them feel as if they’re growing with you, because so many references, so many jokes, so many obscure tidbits, are packed in there. Very little was sacred to him, but everything seemed to be worth his time and attention.
He was angry, he was wise, he was witty and he was profoundly compassionate. And those things combined so, so powerfully well, so that he wrote about worlds where life was hard and unjust and people were cruel and stupid and wrong, but also where people were honest and loyal and brave, and tried their damnedest to do what was right and what was necessary (and those people were often the same people as the first lot), where things might be unfair and hard and messy and even perhaps ultimately meaningless, but there was always also beauty and hope and possibility there too. If not the possibility to fix things, to make things right, the possibility to go on afterwards.
And there was a good side to everything – we’re talking about a man managed to make Death one of his most beloved characters. And not by trivializing death, by downplaying it or by divorcing the anthropomorphic personification from the concept he personified, but by integrating them. Through the character of Death, as well as through the portrayal of death (with a small ‘d’) in his books, there is an understanding and acceptance of death as a part of the world – something that has taken on a great significance in relation to Terry Pratchett himself in the last few years, with his diagnosis and his activism around Alzheimer’s and assisted dying.
The first thing I did when I heard Pratchett had died (okay, the second thing, the first thing was to sit down at the kitchen table and cry) was to go out and buy a new copy of Reaper Man to reread. It felt like the natural thing to do, and the only way I could think of to wrap my head around what had just happened, to make it make sense.
Because that is the essence of what Terry Pratchett did for me, and not only for me. He gave me – and many other people – the words and the stories to understand the world, and to face the world. He knew the power stories have, the truths and the lies we tell ourselves and each other, and he wielded that power as a master.