It’s sad to say this, but until a few years ago I didn’t know who Terry Pratchett (celebrated author of satirical fantasy novels) or Michelle Dochery (star actress in the BBC series Downton Abbey) were. If you’re wondering how the two are related, let me explain:
One day I was flipping through channels and I saw Death on the television. He was eight feet tall, dressed as Santa Claus, and sported a skull with glowing blue eyes. Naturally I was intrigued enough to continue watching.
Pratchett uses these and other characters to explore, criticize satirize and celebrate their real world corollaries. Take the story of Hogfather for example. Death discovers that a group of beings called the “Auditors of Reality” find human imagination confusing, primarily because they keep imagining things into existence which makes it difficult for them to… well… audit reality if reality keeps changing. So they decide to hire a member of the Assassin’s Guild of the city of Ankh-Morpork to kill the Hogfather (a satirical version of Santa Claus) before Hogswatch Eve (Christmas Eve). The act of killing the Hogfather would have critical consequences because it would be the result of a drastic reduction in belief, which in the Discworld is necessary for humans to be human. More on that later.
So Death’s granddaughter (yes, he has a daughter and a granddaughter… just read the books it makes sense) has to hunt down the assassin before he can accomplish his goal… which involves tooth fairies and Bilious, the god of hangovers, and prevent the Hogfather from dying.
One of the brilliant things about Pratchett’s writing was that he used his characters, namely Death, to philosophize on the human condition. The character is a perfect means to do so because Death is viewing humanity as an outsider. Here’s an example:
“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.~Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
Here’s the same exchange shown in the BBC production of Hogfather.
Aside from his Discworld novels, he wrote several other books, including Bad Omens, a satirical take on the antichrist and the rapture with Neil Gaiman. All told he wrote more than 70 novels and at his height was pumping out three a year.
Pratchett was a genius who for decades was one of the truly brilliant writers in fantasy. And that’s why I was shocked and saddened to learn that he died today.
A few years ago he shared with the world that he had received a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. It was early onset, and many people were not sure how long he could continue with his work. He said that he would continue writing as long as he could, and that writing was one of the things that helped him.
According to BBC his death was natural. He was 66 years old.