OBITUARY by Symeon J. ThompsonNews Weekly
Fantasy author Terry Pratchett: an appreciation
, March 28, 2015
Sir Terry Pratchett has died. The much-loved author — one of my personal favourites — succumbed to complications from his particular form of Alzheimer’s disease.
Sir Terry Pratchett (1948-2015)
Pratchett created an astonishing fantasy world, with a fascinating take on the problems of existence, and did so in an endlessly entertaining way full of the richest wordplay.
His Discworld stories not only send up the fantasy genre, but they also skewer many of the trials, tribulations and preoccupations of our world, be they historical, political, religious or technological. But behind it all was a deep love for the individual human person, despite his or her flaws and idiocies.
In recent years, as a result of being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Pratchett became an advocate for euthanasia. I have always found this difficult, and have been in two minds about his attitude since he first announced it.
On the one hand, I can understand and appreciate his rage against the world and his own faulty brain, to feel as he felt that faceless bureaucrats were trying to control his life.
But, on the other, I could not help but feel that his protagonists would be outraged at such a suggestion, and that, were he born into a world with such laws, he would have skewered them mercilessly in his books.
Pratchett resembles G.K. Chesterton, whom he greatly admired, in his love of ordinary people, without romanticising their flaws, and in his suspicion of the rich and powerful and bureaucratic. Key to his works is the idea that life is messy and complicated and difficult, but that there is still Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice, and that we can tell them apart if our minds aren’t too confused by pride or fear.
The Discworld series is his most notable contribution to literature. In it, the world is a disc carried on the back of four great elephants, who themselves are carried on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space.
It is a world full of magic, where belief brings things into being; but it is also a world where technologies develop that look much like our own. As a result, anything that could be true, tends to be true in some way, and is generally taken not only to its logical conclusion, but with all reasonable consequences intact, although with a twist.
For instance, the greatest heroes tend not to die, which means that they become very good at not dying. However, they still age, and so the result is Cohen the Barbarian, a one-eyed, toothless but denture-wearing hero, who complains of backache while fighting monsters, rescuing maidens from death-cults, and engaging in great deeds of derring-do. Although, since the younger generation is less keen on playing fair, Cohen also spends time reminiscing with more traditional, and equally aged, villains about the good old days.
Many of the stories take place in Ankh-Morpork, a huge filthy mess of a city, a sort of a cross between the London of Shakespeare and Dickens and New York during the Prohibition era. The city is home to the Unseen University, where wizards get their education and conduct research — well, the younger wizards conduct research, while the older ones enjoy their many, many meals, which is better for everyone, as that means they aren’t messing about with magic.
Ankh-Morpork is the sort of place where a Guild of Thieves has official responsibility for making sure that thieving follows the strictly laid-down guidelines, so that it isn’t too disruptive to society; where a Guild of Assassins makes sure that murder follows rules, and provides a top-notch education to children of the wealthy; and where a Guild of Fools polices all forms of clowning to make sure no unauthorised jokes are told.
Initially, the City Watch had become useless thanks to these developments; but as the City becomes a massive multi-species metropolis, full of dwarfs and vampires (members of the latter’s Überwald Temperance League going by the name of Black Ribboners) and werewolves and trolls and zombies (one of whom is the city’s chief lawyer) and other creatures, they regain their influence and help to maintain order.
The stories have at their heart a paradox. Pratchett, or at least his heroes, believe strongly in Justice, in knowing the difference between Right and Wrong; but at the same time they are constantly reminded that things are quite complicated and messy indeed, and that they very often do not make as much sense as one might like.
The worst villains in the stories are those who think that people don’t matter, or who believe that efficiency and order are worth any price, or who believe that, since they know best, that gives them leave to do whatever they wish.
The heroes know their weaknesses and fight against them, while fighting for all those who cannot fight for themselves.
Vale Terry Pratchett. Thank you. May the Lord have mercy on your soul.
Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).