“Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and is still not dead.”
I’m not sure when Transworld stopped using that as the start of their author bio, but it struck me as I opened my 1995 copy of Soul Music the other day. I rather think he’d have liked to now have it reinstated and updated to reflect his current status.
It’s three weeks today that Terry Pratchett, one of the Roundworld’s most popular authors, died. I intended to post this on the day of his funeral, expecting it to be a big event but, well, I missed it. Had he been a pop star or TV celebrity there would probably have been a Sky helicopter or at least a gaggle of press photographers and a large crowd of mourners. As it happens, the full extent of media coverage of the ceremony last week has been this.
In some ways, it’s not surprising. He was quite a shy man, by all accounts, and seldom made much of his fame. At signings he was known by booksellers as a rather prickly presence. Indeed, on the only occasion I met him, at a small convention marking the launch of Carpe Jugulum in 1998, held in a pub somewhere in Rutland, he barely cracked a smile all afternoon. It doesn’t matter, though, as over a period of three decades, he wormed his way into the brains of millions of readers, becoming their friends and quietly cajoling them, tweaking the way we thought about the world. Neil Gaiman, who is much more comfortable with his fame, and is a genuinely friendly man, put it very well last year in a piece for the Guardian.
Terry’s authorial voice is always Terry’s: genial, informed, sensible, drily amused. I suppose that, if you look quickly and are not paying attention, you might, perhaps, mistake it for jolly. But beneath any jollity there is a foundation of fury. Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise.
from The Guardian, 24th September 2014.
Even Private Eye, not itself given to celebrating popular fiction (or, for that matter, celebrating anything at all, the lovably cantankerous sods), last week remarked on the fact that until Pterry “came out” about his Alzheimer’s, he had been steadfastly ignored by serious reviewers for decades, and even then his work took a back seat to his campaigning. Probably the most memorable review was by poet Tom Paulin, whose main complaint was that he didn’t write in chapters.
… selling thousands of copies — a complete amateur — doesn’t even write in chapters — hasn’t a clue.
So this is a post to celebrate less the man than his work, and point you in the direction of the good stuff. I realised I knew a good few people who had also read pretty much all his work so asked them for their thoughts, so that instead of just waffling on myself, we could offer you some other people’s perspectives.
Of the Discworld books, there was a uniform inability, even outright refusal to pick a top three. Instead our respondents tended to go for groups of books. For those who don’t know Discworld, most of the books can be classified as one of several loosely connected groups based on the main characters and themes: Rincewind, Witches, Watch, Tiffany Aching, Death. So, who which were the favourites?
“Tiffany Aching’s books and the Nightwatch series, closely followed by the Granny Weatherwax series, but I’m not sure I could pick a single one! Men at Arms, Guards! Guards! and Thud! are currently near the top. but I was obsessed with Tiffany last year, and the witches before that.”
“Monstrous Regiment, Pyramids (for the laugh-out-loud, and my mother saying P-TraKi (instead of ‘Tracey’)), The Fifth Elephant, and honourable mention to Good Omens, but this may change in the next few weeks, as doing a read-through of the Discworld ones, in publication order.”
“A favourite is tricky. Good Omens would be one (I’m very fond of Crowley). A book with the witches in it will always get my vote — Granny Weatherwax with her grumpiness and depths of wisdom; I want to be able to control a unicorn with a single hair, or Borrow the hivemind of bees! And I’ve grown fond of Samuel Vimes, the later books featuring the Watch being particularly thoughtful — and, I feel, fuelled by TP’s rage at the idiocy of the real world, as Vimes battles prejudice hiring dwarves, trolls and a werewolf to the Watch’s ranks.
“But my current re-reading favourites are the side series featuring Tiffany Aching — rather like Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, these have far more depth than their nominal tag of ‘children’s books’ would suggest. Wintersmith and I Shall Wear Midnight were particularly stunning reads — he captures the pains of growing up, and the times when you have to be grown-up but want to be a child and hide behind an adult, so well.”
My own all-time favourite is Hogfather, a book that’s become as much part of Christmas for me as It’s a Wonderful Life. After that, again it’s hard but representing the Watch, I’d go for Night Watch, which, among much else examines the idea of who exactly the state, police and armed forces are working for. And covering both the Witches and Tiffany, I Shall Wear Midnight. Oh, and maybe Monstrous Regiment. And Maskerade. See, it’s impossible.
So, why all the love for the witches?
“The interplays between Granny, Nanny and Magrat are beautiful, particularly when Agnes Nitt starts to come through and Magrat suddenly grows up. I love the way Terry writes Tiffany, he surprisingly manages to create a completely believable female world from a teenage girls’ point of view (I mean everything is basically there bar period pains) as well as a proto-socialist-feminist point of view. As he quite often he gets women quite wrong or dumps them in the ‘minimal characterisation’ corner, to my mind — Magrat’s running around with her son as a baby, six weeks after having him, is not quite to the same level, sadly — so hats off to him.”
“His characters, whether human, dwarf, troll or whatever, are all so real — and the feminist in the back of my head is grateful for his women: real people making real choices and doing real things, not exotic creatures to be rescued, kept as pets, or doing the dishes.”
There’s a running gag with the witches that they represent “the maiden the mother and … the other one”, which is a typical Pratchett device, letting the reader fill in the blanks, and then work out why they’re there. Often he won’t say exactly what’s at the heart of the story, leaving the reader to unpick and interpret it. This leaves a lot of room for personal responses to the work.
Along with the witches comes Nanny Ogg’s cat, Greebo, who occasionally becomes a rakish and dangerous swashbuckler. Pratchett was a bit of a cat person, having also written The Unadulerated Cat, and his fans do seem to be, well, more cat people than dog people. Maybe there’s a connection.
“I meant,” said Ipslore bitterly, “what is there in this world that makes living worthwhile?”
Death thought about it. “CATS,” he said eventually, “CATS ARE NICE.”
A strong tradition of fantasy (pre-Potter, at least) is that the actual use of magic is invariably a bad idea and is strongly discouraged. Instead the witches rely on practical knowledge and “headology” (and Boffo, but that’s another story). This means Pratchett had to actually think about how other people think and interact at a level that might have sounded banal and obvious were it not for the fact often no-one had articulated it before. It’s a bit like the way the best inventions and discoveries are, after the fact, so clearly right, you can’t understand why they didn’t happen all by themselves. For example, one of my favourite lines is from Hogfather:
“The phrase ‘Someone ought to do something’ was not, by itself, a helpful one. People who used it never added the rider ‘and that someone is me’.”
There’s a wisdom and simplicity to that which carries its own moral imperative: be the person who says “and that someone is me”. And it’s just a throwaway line. There are dozens like it in each book. I think this is the biggest problem in reviewing Pratchett: it’s just so dense. The books are pretty short, but he packed in so much that trying to describe what’s good about them can tie you in knots. Especially as the supporting, recurring cast has become so huge. Everyone has different favourites here, too.
“I love Sam and Lady Sybil and of course Young Sam. the moment when they are almost flamed to death in Thud is so thrilling, poignant, painful, his terror at seeing it all happen and being unable to do anything, and her response (‘Get down, Sam! NOW!’ Wonderful woman!). The addition of the killer street butler is wonderful. Also have to mention Carrot and Angua and Corporal Cheery.”
“Death, most obviously, but also the Patrician, Ankh Morpork’s faintly benign dictator, the Librarian (a wizard turned into an orangutan by a magical accident, who says only ‘Ook’), and Dibbler, purveyor of sausages of dubious content. I’m also inordinately fond of The Luggage, which hasn’t had an outing in a long time but is, I suspect, still causing havoc and offering clean laundry somewhere out there.”
“Ridcully, Havelock Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax and Perdita.”
Vetinari, the Patrician, is one of the keys to the Discworld’s success. A ruthless but sensible tyrant (very loosely based on Machiavelli) who institutes the guild system to keep the city of Ankh-Morpork running, he allowed Pratchett to play in a political sandbox with that mythical creature, the benevolent dictator.
“I like his satirical nailing of stupidity, cupidity, hierarchies, the idea that even socialists really want a Vetinari leading things, who is really just god in human form, it would be so much easier with an infallible and ultimately benevolent dictator pulling the strings for us … so sadly true!”
It might be nice to try to claim Pratchett for the Left — raging against the Establishment, standing up for the little people — but there is also a liberal conservative bent to much of his work.
“If it continues long enough, even a reign of terror may become a fondly remembered period. People believe they want justice and wise government but, in fact, what they really want is an assurance that tomorrow will be very much like today.”
-Havelock Vetinari in Feet of Clay
This line from Vetinari expresses his character’s philosophy but it’s reflected across most of the books, a sense that if people would stop putting their nose into other people’s business, everything will be just fine. There’s a whiff of libertarianism about it that can be a bit offputting, the idea that even the most downtrodden are secretly content with their lot and deserve to be left that way.
One thing I find interesting is that none of our respondents care much for Rincewind, the character on whom the series was founded. His Luggage, yes, but not the wizard himself. Gaspode the Wonder Dog got a better showing. I love Gaspode.
So, what did Terry Pratchett do best? Why is he so loved?
“What Pratchett does best of all is wish-fulfillment. All of these characters exist on the knife-edge of fantasy-deus-ex-machina-ness of being superheroes who always pull through by being unfeasibly strong, clever or resourceful, and still being believable and harangued by the world enough to love. To my mind he sadly falls off the edge in Snuff, but never mind.”
“The annual publication of a Discworld novel in the autumn has become part of a family tradition: I might now be 40, but an oblong parcel under the Christmas tree labelled ‘Louise’s surprise present from Santa’ never fails to excite, and generally heralds a silence until half-way through Boxing Day as I devour the latest title … I will be re-reading these books til I can read no more, but I genuinely wept when I read the news of his death; I wasn’t ready to lose him and his wonderous imagination just yet.”
For me it’s the embracing of many fields — science, philosophy, politics and countless others — distilled into fast-paced accessible satire. There’s a concentration on what it means to be human, and how to do the right thing, especially if it’s not the easy thing. Most of all, perhaps fittingly for a series that leans so heavily on Death, they’re a celebration of the weirdness of life. That won’t die just because he has.
‘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 ON 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
THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A … A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.
OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.
Susan gets a lesson in humanity from her grandfather. Hogfather, 1996
PS. If you’re reading this on the 2nd April, his documentary Facing Extinction is being repeated tonight at 9pm On BBC Four. In the mean time, why not go and watch Neil Gaiman speaking about his friend?