Masters of Storytelling: Terry Pratchett


I’ve actually never finished a novel written by Terry Pratchett. Somehow, life always gets in the way, so I’ve never gotten past the earlier parts of his novels before having to put it down. Jingo, Feet of Clay, Wyrd Sisters, and The Truth are all novels I began but, for varying reasons, have never gotten past the early sections. I’ve only complete the televised miniseries, Colour of Magic, Hogfather, and Going Postal. So, be forewarned, my views may be slightly stilted.

Terry Pratchett must surely be one the greatest mainstays of the fantasy genre today. Best known for his plethora of novels set in the Discworld, Pratchett has such a wry, zany wit and flavor to his novels that it defies belief. I mean, who else could conceive of Death as a recurring character, hilarious and terrifying at the same time, and surprisingly easy to relate to? I mean, does have a granddaughter, Susan, who he cares for very much and would like to have a better relationship with, at least so far as I’ve seen. Death is the ultimate outcast, yet the surest defender the Discworld has from cosmic beings called the Auditors, who would dearly love to see this ridiculous world vanish.

Many of the Discworld novels feature something “modern” being introduced (or, sometimes, rebuilt) into this fantasy world. Be it the world’s first tourist, the post office, the printing press (and the resulting newspaper), or something else, each of these comes with its own ramifications, consequences, and struggles. Other novels feature some tremendous event, such as a coup that lands the infant heir to the throne in the lap of witches, the discovery of a large number of golems, the rising of an ancient city from the seas, or an attempt on the life of the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus, and tell the story of how the characters deal with these crises.

Either way, the stories are very much about the characters, of which there are a multitude, and how they meet the challenges placed before them, and become better people for it. Going Postal, for instance, features a con man who learns the truth of the harm he has caused others, and takes responsibility, defying a powerful and murderous business tycoon, albeit utilizing his underhanded bag of tricks. Colour of Magic features an inept wizard who finally gains a little confidence and, even more, becomes a little bit selfless as he protects a tourist, a task originally undertaken solely to preserve his own life from the ruler of his city. Hogfather, starring Death and his granddaughter, shows the two of them growing just a little bit closer to each other, even while Death impersonates the Santa-like titular character, in order to buy time for Susan to succeed.

Death dressed up as Santa. It’s one of those images that is just classic Terry Pratchett.

"Have you been naughty or nice?"

“Have you been naughty or nice?”

As are so many hilarious lines. “He attracts chaos the way lightning is attracted to a man standing on top of a mountain wearing copper armor in a thunderstorm screaming ‘All gods are idiots.’” And there are no atheists on Discworld because the gods strike them with lightning. And after the wizard Rincewind has several near-death experiences, Death says, after the final time, “I think I just had another near-Rincewind experience.” And the list goes on and on and on to fill three dozen novels now. 😉

Now, I must mention, part of why I’ve never finished one of these excellent novels on my own has something to do with Pratchett’s writing style. It can be such a mixture of serious and comical that it can get a bit confusing, but remains enchanting. Even more, he does not juggle his multitude of characters so much as go back and forth between them like a literary whack-a-mole, and that, too, can get a bit tiring. I do like to stay with a character for awhile, thank you, so it always takes me a little time to get used to it. But that’s something of a “me” thing. Not everyone has that little problem.

And it certainly does not diminish everything good about these stories.

My favorite part is how the stories mean something, and they are not shy about saying it. The con man, for instance, learns to value something more than money or himself, to have compassion and respect others. My favorite, though, consists of a conversation between Susan and Death near the end of Hogfather. I am quoting the miniseries, mind you, right after they’ve saved the Hogfather in question:

“Now, tell me…” Susan stars to ask.
“What would have happened if you hadn’t saved him?” Death finishes.
“Yes.” says Susan.
“The sun would not have risen.” Death states.
“What would have happened?” she asks.
“A mere ball of flaming gas would have illuminated the world.” he says.
“All right, I’m not stupid,” she says, “You’re saying, humans need fantasies to make life bearable?”
“No,” he says “Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.”
“With Tooth Fairies,” she provides “Hogfathers.”
“Yes,” he says “As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies.”
“So we can believe the big ones,” she says.
“Yes,” he says “Justice, duty, mercy, that sort of thing.”
“They’re not the same at all!” she says, confused.
“You think so?” he challenges “Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me ne atom of Justice, one molecule of Mercy. And yet… you try to act as if there is some ideal order to the world, as if there is some… some rightness to the universe by which it may be judged.”
“But people have got to believe that,” she says “Or what’s the point?”
“You need to believe in things that aren’t true,” he says “How else can they become?”

The Auditors, it strikes me, are very much like the naysayers and, especially, the people of academia, who disparage fantasy, and fiction, and anything created within the last century, so callously as something unworthy of its own existence. I could have a prolonged soap box moment going into details but, in short, they dismiss everything fantastical without taking the time to understand it. Though their professions are built upon the imaginations of others, they blithely dismiss entire libraries of good and worthy stories as something inconsequential.

This, then, is my favorite example of fantasy being defended, by a Master of Storytelling. It’s a defense of fantasy as a whole, of Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, of dragons and elves and wizards, of space ships, of cowboys, of murder mysteries, of pretending to be an animal in a zoo, of Disney princesses, of children’s cartoons and shows and books, of everything that fantasy truly is.

Take away masterful stories with great, evolving characters, take away the wit and wackiness, take away everything about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and keep only this, these words, this tiny sliver of this storyteller’s voice.

It’s still a voice worth listening to.

And I look forward to the day I can sit down and read all of his novels all the way through. 🙂

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