Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Legacy by Nicole Van Den Eng
Terry Pratchett was an author of funny fantasy, an uncommon genre. He’s known for his series of books that take place in the made-up realm called Discworld, where things like dragons, barbarians, and giant beasts make you grin. Good Omens is coming out as a BBC show later this year. Terry Pratchett co-wrote that with Neil Gaiman in 1990. It’s a comedy about the apocalypse.
Terry Pratchett is an author who always sold in my bookstore. Readers loved him. The covers of his work feature goofy characters with exaggerated expressions.
Pratchett died in 2015 and shortly after his death Neil Gaiman released an article that quoted someone describing Pratchett as “a jolly old elf.” Gaiman went on to say, “No. No, he wasn’t.” Apparently, Terry Pratchett was a relatively angry guy. That was baffling to me, how could an author write such frivolous things without being the frivolous type?
I made it a point to pick up The Color of Magic, the first installment in the Discworld series. The Color of Magic was written in 1983. When reading older books, I like to pay attention to which tropes were purely original at that time and may have sprouted their cultural life right there in that book. A trope is something that reoccurs a lot in literature. Wizards are a great example of this. Wizards got popular after The Lord of the Rings and have since become what we call “a trope” because they are a very common device now.
When Pratchett was writing, the wizard wasn’t a fresh character, but what he did with it was.
Rincewind, the main character, is a pessimist who failed magic school and goes about his life entirely paranoid. He gets roped into a vacation gone awry by a piece of sentient furniture and grudgingly gets pulled into disaster after disaster, even though all he wants is to go home. The humor is in the ludicrous situations and how they get fixed (such as poking a monster in the eye rather than actually defeating him.)
My favorite joke in the book is in the description of how Discworld exists on the back of a giant turtle:
“…crawling from Birthplace to the Time of Mating, as were all the stars in the sky which were, obviously, also carried by giant turtles. When they arrived they would briefly and passionately mate, for the first and only time, and from that fiery union, new turtles would be born to carry a new pattern of worlds. This was known as the big bang hypothesis.”
I had fun reading The Color of Magic but I considered the article by Gaiman the whole way through. There wasn’t anything in the book that betrayed a possibly less-than-happy author. It’s hard to see a comedian being anything other than funny.
Rincewind, though, the main character, he’s not a happy guy. The wizard is grouchy and somewhat of a coward. Perhaps that’s where Pratchett gave us a nudge. Nobody needs to be ridiculously happy to get through life. In fact, we’d probably all think he was the weird one. What we see is Rincewind perpetually inept for the circumstances that come about him; yet he manages to survive anyway. Isn’t that how most of us get through our days?
Who knows what Pratchett was angry about—it’s not even our business—but what he left behind is concretely light-hearted. I didn’t know Terry Pratchett, never met the guy, don’t even know that much about him, but when your work lives longer that you do, your work speaks for you.
Envisioning Pratchett separate from his work tells us he was more serious than he seemed.
But Pratchett’s work tells us things often aren’t as serious as they seem.
Perhaps what he wanted was to take serious things, and take the tragedy out of them.
To be funny is to be unexpected. It’s entirely fitting, then, that Terry Pratchett’s personal nature unexpectedly contrasts the nature of his books.