I don’t normally go in for this sort of thing. It seems like a lot of celebrities have passed away recently, including many who I admired or respected. Normally, however, I just think “that’s a bit sad” and try to move on, since I feel that anything I say will somehow sound hollow or insincere, or will just be the same thing that a million other people are saying.
Thursday was different. On Thursday Sir Terry Pratchett died and I felt like I had to pay some kind of tribute because this man has had such a profound impact on my life. I’m not too proud to say that I shed a few tears when I heard the news and I wanted to try and express (in words far less eloquent and well-crafted than his) exactly why I should feel this way about a man that I unfortunately never got the chance to meet.
World and Mirror of Worlds
Terry Pratchett is, of course, best known for creating the Discworld. The Discworld stories started as parodies of sword and sorcery fantasy adventures but changed and evolved over time. They include fairy tale parodies, tales of rural witchcraft, murder mysteries in a city of werewolves, trolls and vampires and even the battle between the post office and a sort of mechanical internet in a proxy of Victorian London. They are proper parodies too, which, as he put it, didn’t just poke fun, but “pushed fun with a bulldozer in every possible direction”. But they are also genuinely interesting stories, full of interesting characters and ideas.
They have the incredible power to make you laugh AND to make you think.
Discworld and Me
“If you trust in yourself… and believe in your dreams… and follow your star… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”
My first memories of Discworld (and some of my earliest memories of anything, now I come to think about it) are of listening to the audiobooks. My childhood home included a second flat that we used to rent out and which needed regular maintenance. I would always do my bit to help my parents redecorate one of the rooms or clean the place out for a few days – an event that was usually accompanied by the adventures of Rincewind or Granny Weatherwax. Stacks of tapes would also accompany us on long journeys, alongside The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Discworld was always my favourite though, and I remember enjoying the stories (and Sir Tony Robinson’s excellent performances) long before I understood many of the jokes or innuendos! When I finally sat down and started to seriously think about writing my own stories, Pratchett was naturally the main inspiration.
A few years ago, an unpleasant series of events left me jobless, single and back living with my parents. It felt like someone had (without my permission) pushed the reset button on my life and that I was being forced to rebuild it all from scratch. I was on medication, receiving therapy and suffering terrible insomnia. This was when I discovered Audible and decided, since most of my parents’ collection was on tape, to download some of the Discworld Audiobooks, which I hadn’t listened to for some time. I discovered, to my joy, that there was a whole set of unabridged recordings and, while they did not feature the voicework of Tony Robinson, that there were many more hours of Discworld waiting for me that I could have imagined. Not only were the stories able to raise a smile, something that most other things had completely failed to do, but they would keep my brain distracted long enough for me to fall asleep while it wasn’t looking. Some of them even helped me to see life and the world in a different light and helped with my recovery. It would be over-dramatic to say that they “saved my life”, but they certainly helped to take the edge off during a very difficult time.
Those of you who know me might be surprised to know that I am not actually a prolific reader. Since leaving school I’ve only read a couple of dozen books. With the exceptions of Harry Potter, The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars Trilogy, it’s actually very rare for me to sit down and read a book cover-to-cover, but I have read most (if not all) of the Discworld novels. Perhaps I am the victim of modern TV and Video Game culture and don’t have the attention span, but I suspect that I just haven’t found any other books that grab me in the way that Discworld does.
“Words do not kill. People kill. Wild Animals kill. But words… words have a totally different power. They enter in through our eyes and ears and work their way into our souls.”
I’ve been criticised for only reading/listening to his stories recently; people have tried to make me aware that there are other great writers out there and I’m not trying to deny that, but I have so far failed to find anyone quite like Terry Pratchett at his best. The blend of terrible but hilarious “punes” and rapier wit, the brilliant observations on life and the human condition, the great parodying of so many stories – all coupled with genuinely deep, real and interesting characters, creative ideas and plot twists… I just don’t know anyone who combines all these things in the way that Terry does.
It isn’t just my time spent in the city of Ankh Morpork that has fascinated me. I have read/watched various interviews and documentaries, including “Facing Extinction”, in which Terry dealt both with his passion for saving endangered orangutans and his struggle with Alzheimer’s. I’ve also followed his campaign for the right to end one’s own life and to die with dignity. As sad as I am at his passing, part of me is happy that he no longer has to deal with the terrible embuggerance of his disease, which I think he felt was destroying everything that made him… well, him.
I also take some solace and inspiration from how I presume he saw death, given the portrayal of the character of Death in the Discworld books:
‘But you’re Death,’ said Mort. ‘You go around killing people!’
I? KILL? said Death, obviously offended. CERTAINLY NOT. PEOPLE GET KILLED, BUT THAT’S THEIR BUSINESS. I JUST TAKE OVER FROM THEN ON. AFTER ALL, IT’D BE A BLOODY STUPID WORLD IF PEOPLE GOT KILLED WITHOUT DYING, WOULDN’T IT?
Instead of the usual horrific, ragged-cloak-chasing-people-down-corridors portrayal of Death, the Discworld Death is a kind, gentle soul; the Reaper Man who tends the harvest and ushers souls into whatever lies beyond. This is an example of the sort of thinking in the books; the sort of thing that, for me at least, classifies Pratchett not just as an author, but as a sort of philosopher. I don’t always agree with everything he says, but he makes me think and has said many things that have inspired me and made me feel better about life; the sort of thing that non-religious people like myself often struggle to find.
A Final Farewell
There’s so much more I could talk about; favourite books, inspiring and hilarious quotations, but for now all I will say is this: To me, Terry Pratchett was a personal hero, an inspiration and a light in dark times. He made me laugh and made me think more than almost anyone else in my life. His wit and wisdom will be sorely missed.