The Color of Loss: On the Passing of Sir Terry Pratchett

On March 12, a tweet from his official Twitter account announced that Sir Terry Pratchett, a fantasy author whose books have sold more than 75 million copies in over 37 languages, had passed away. Since he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of Alzheimer’s in 2007, fans knew that Pratchett’s days were numbered. Still, his death came as a shock to many; his demise so hard to accept that people even petitioned Death to bring him back.

I was among those signing the petition. I discovered Terry Pratchett just after I moved to Edinburgh for graduate school. I found his novels while browsing through one of the many secondhand bookstores that populate Edinburgh’s cobbled streets and narrow alleys. It was Guards! Guards! — the eighth of Pratchett’s novels that takes place in the Discworld, and the first that concerns the city’s watch — that caught my attention. In bold font, the back cover promised me that after reading the book I would never view dragons the same way again. For £1.25, I thought that was a pretty good deal, and purchased it. Two hours later, I had finished the book.

When you read Terry Pratchett’s novels, you disappear into a different world. This is the Discworld a flat earth that sits on the back of four giant elephants who in turn stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. This world is populated with not only humans but witches, wizards, trolls, dwarfs, gnomes, golems, werewolves, and vampires.

There is never a dull moment in Discworld; from dragons attacking to wars brewing between continents to Death being fired from his job, plots abound. Even the founding of the local newspaper and bank generate enough excitement to merit their own books. Despite its dangers though, Discworld is mostly a hilarious place, as evidenced in lines such as, “They felt, in fact, tremendously bucked-up, which was how Lady Ramkin would almost certainly have put it and which was definitely several letters of the alphabet away from how they normally felt.”[1]

Underneath the hilarity, the excitement, and the adventure lies the deep dark secret of Pratchett’s books — they are actually quite serious. Guards! Guards!, for example, opens on the captain of the city watch, Samuel Vimes, lying “drunker” in a street gutter. Vimes, we later learn, has a slight problem with alcohol. Issues that subsequently come up in the book besides alcoholism include racism, sexism, immigration, war, growing up, religious fundamentalism, death, faith, ethnic identity, nationalism, and what it is, fundamentally, that makes us human (or troll or dwarf).

Browse through any of Pratchett’s books, and you are more than likely to trip over a piece of insight similar to this one offered up by the dragon in Guards! Guards!: “We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless and terrible,” he says. “But this much I can tell you, you ape…we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.” These moments are no less potent for being buried under countless layers of humor and fantasy; if anything, they are more so. Pratchett’s books take you away from the world, yes, but only to give you a better perspective on it.

In his ability to do this, Pratchett joins a rare class of writers — those who can shed light on the world around us, and our place in it. In many ways though, he, and other fantasy writers, have not and will never be fully recognized for this. Though Pratchett has won a multitude of awards, and has even been knighted, most of his honors were fantasy or sci-fi specific. He did not receive his first mainstream literary award — the Carnegie Medal for best children’s book — until 2001, well after he was already a bestselling author with dozens of books under his belt.

Pratchett himself commented on this problem. At the awards dinner for the Carnegie Medal he said, “I’m especially pleased because [The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents] isn’t just fantasy but funny fantasy, too. It’s nice to see humour taken seriously.” Another famed fantasy writer, Neil Gaiman, Pratchett’s friend and one-time co-author[2] noted once that there was an anger that fueled Pratchett’s writing, and commented that it was partly, “anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny.”

To classify Pratchett — or any author — in this way is to deny his genius. Just because a book takes place in another world — one with wizards and witches and trolls and dwarfs — doesn’t mean it can’t also provide insight into our own. The fact that a book might interest children doesn’t mean it isn’t also crammed full of wisdom for adults. And just because a book makes us laugh, that doesn’t automatically mean it can’t also make us think.

I will always be grateful to Terry Pratchett for gifting me and countless others with more entertainment than anyone rightly deserves. His books enlighten, critique, amuse, and inspire. They are well-imagined, well-crafted, and, above all, exceptionally well-written. As we watch memorial after memorial crop up to Terry Pratchett — obituaries, articles, posts plastered over social media — we should remember him for all that he was. Not just one of the greatest fantasy writers of this generation, but one of its greatest writers.


[1] These lines though, are nothing compared to Pratchett’s footnotes, which will leave you disturbing everyone’s commute when you sporadically laugh out loud in the subway

[2] If you have not yet read Good Omens put down this article and do so now.

Image Credit: Wikipedia.