‘But look,’ said Ponder, ‘the graveyards are full of people who rushed in bravely but unwisely.’
‘What did he say?’ said the Bursar.
‘I think he said, “Sooner or later the graveyards are full of everybody“.’
Terry Pratchett, husband, father, knight and writer, died today. He was 66 and had been battling Alzheimer’s disease for quite some time. He passed away as one of the wittiest, most eloquent, most imaginative, most powerful authors this world has ever seen. This is like that moment when you realize that Santa isn’t real and you didn’t get a Christmas present because your dad couldn’t afford it this year. The world lost someone really special today. I don’t think we’ll ever get it back.
I came across Terry Pratchett in 2006, nursing a broken arm and boredom in the British Council libraries. There was a book called Johnny and the Bomb. It was, like so much of his work, simply written, but wonderfully witty and charming. And then I found his magnum opus, the Discworld series.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“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 ONE 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.”
Many think of the Discworld as a fantastic exercise in imagination. I think of it as a fantastic exercise in humanity. I have tried and tried to express what I found there, and I’ve rewritten this paragraph many, many times, but somehow it never comes out right. How do you distill the Commander of the City Watch, watching on in bittersweet sadness as penniless children play a version of hopscotch, remembering a time when he, too, was a penniless child? How do you explain Death, who, in a millenial fit of loneliness, tries to be human? How do you compress Granny Weatherwax, the archetype of all Iron Lady grandmothers everywhere, both relied upon and feared, destined to live and die alone? How do you explain that moment when a crowd goes from a mob of humans to a snarling, vicious beast? I can’t.
“He sat back and drank the really horrible tea the dwarfs made. Just for a moment there was an unusual feeling of bliss. Strange word, he thought. It’s one of those words that described something that does not make a noise but if it did make a noise would sound just like that. Bliss. It’s like the sound of a soft meringue melting gently on a warm plate.”
I can’t. Sir Pratchett could. To say he wrote books is like saying Bach was into music once. When you read a Pratchett novel you realized that it was profoundly funny. Then, halfway in you realized that you were reading something written by a man of incredible empathy, and that somehow he was using this high fantasy to throw that at you, to point out how ludicrous and bittersweet and beautiful life could be with just a bit of imagination. Within the theme of fantastic worlds he explored so many things that haunt us today – racism, sexism, slavery, poverty, honor, passion, power and corruption, the power and pitfalls of religion, war, death, love. And that what you took to be profoundly funny sometimes was even funnier, or was a dark, deep truth hiding behind a mask of wit and light fantastic. You never knew until you read it.
Thank you, Sir Pratchett. And Godspeed, you wonderful old man.
We’ll miss you.
Please read Neil Gaiman on Terry Pratchett. They were good friends for over 30 years and there’s a lot of insight there.