Terry Pratchett: “Not having battles, and doing without kings”


I don’t think any writer did more to form me than Terry Pratchett. That might be a bit of a dangerous thing for a professional literary scholar to say. It would be easier to recount how much Ulysses, say, meant to a budding adolescent highbrow. In fact, though, I suspect that as a teenager, and not only as a teenager, I had a Pratchettian reading of the novel: Joyce’s Dublin as Ankh-Morpork, puns and pastiche as the engine driving the narrative language forward, the library of culture as an interdimensional transit zone, and no icon left unsmashed. In any case, I’m certain I would be a very different person if my elementary-school librarian hadn’t read Truckers to us and started me on a Pratchett kick that never stopped.

It’s terrible that Pratchett is gone, much too young, after a particularly cruel form of brain disease. I read a few obituaries in the usual places that made me angry with their banalized versions of this writer. It’s easy to be mistaken, for example, about Pratchett’s Death and his comic image of afterlife. The thing to remember is that when you die on the Discworld, you get a few minutes of postmortem existence before you notice you’re dead—Pratchett’s version of Wily E. Coyote running off the cliff—then Death comes along, chats with you a bit, swings the scythe, and adieu. Afterlife, when it happens, is a problem that has to be solved, as in Reaper Man, or a punishment for Pratchett’s worst villains, as in Witches Abroad. Noli timere messorem, Pratchett put on his coat of arms (causing life to imitate art: the heraldic gags of Men at Arms), but only because you’re going to face him eventually.

He shook his head. “There’s no justice.”

Death sighed. NO, he said, handing his drink to a page who was surprised to find he was suddenly holding an empty glass, THERE’S JUST ME.

(Mort [New York: Roc, 1987], 43)

But I particularly feel that the pious tributes are liable to miss the convictions that underlie Pratchett’s fantasy narratives. Fantasy on the Tolkien/Lewis model, which looms so large in the U.S., is saturated with religiosity, racial and gender essentialisms, authoritarianism, and the ideology of just war. The Discworld series begins as a parody of the genre conventions that support these toxic aspects of fantasy fiction; but even when parody recedes into the background and the imagined world turns into a very flexible vehicle for all sorts of generic amalgams and satiric analogues, Pratchett continues to make fantasy—and commercial fiction—live comfortably with a pluralist, democratic, and atheistic worldview. Pratchett said when he revised The Carpet People, a novel he wrote at age 17:

[The first version of the novel] was read by Terry Pratchett, aged forty-three, who said: hang on. I wrote that in the days when I thought fantasy was all battles and kings. Now I’m inclined to think that the real concerns of fantasy ought to be about not having battles, and doing without kings.

(Author’s note to The Carpet People, rev. ed. [London: Corgi, 1992], 7)

This is especially the theme of the great second phase of the Discworld series that starts after the earliest novels have given heroic fantasy the smiting it deserved: novels like Pyramids, Guards! Guards!, and Wyrd Sisters, culminating in the furiously anticlerical Small Gods.1 The Disc is made out of fantasies, but we enter it to discover that not all satisfying fantasy involves the violent clash of good and evil, the triumph of hereditary authority, or the imposition of a carefully-regulated cosmology in which only the chosen few have the power to determine how our collective life will unfold.

The point, of course, is not that Pratchett was good because he is politically and philosophically appealing in a way that other fantasy authors are not. It would be terribly un-Pratchettian to go around vetting our make-believe for ideological correctness or indeed any other kind of correctness. Measure the difference by comparing Philip Pullman’s dour antitheology with the comic parable of philosophical modernity in the Bromeliad Trilogy. Or consider this exchange from Usenet between a reader and Pratchett about Granny Weatherwax’s witchcraft:

—What are the ‘rules’ and ‘regulations’ of headology? It just seems to be an area that is not properly defined.

“Ah. It appears you have discovered Rule 1.”

(“Words from the Master,” in The Annotated Pratchett File)

It would also cause us to miss so much else in Pratchett—including the pulpy fun that those terrible early American paperback covers promised, a wonderful science-fictional imagination (the permutation of the dimensions in Pyramids, the instantaneous transmission of kingons and queons in Mort) and a breadth of cultural reference to make even the Librarian say “Oook” (read The Annotated Pratchett File). But I hope we will reread Pratchett for, among other things,2 his surpassingly rare combination of democratic humanism and fantastic world-building imagination. Otherwise the joke’s on us.

Cross-posted on Arcade, 3/24/15.

  1. The later City Watch novels may be rather different. Pratchett gets interested in state-building and, in reaction perhaps to the continuous disaster of neoliberalism in the U.K., works hard to imagine the possibility of relatively benign political authority, particularly in the form of the institutions of civil service. For more on the phases of the career, see my projected post-tenure and/or post-detenuring study, The Achievement of Terry Pratchett↩︎

  2. Pratchett is of course also the master of the comic footnote, to whose footnotes my own jokey footnotes are the merest wossname. ↩︎