I first met Terry Pratchett’s books in a news agents at Perth airport. I was looking for a book to read on the 5 hour flight to Sydney and idly picked up a paperback with a colourful cover showing all sorts of grotesque creatures. I read the first page (as you do) and discovered this novel was about a disc world carried on the backs of four elephants which stood on the carapace of a Star Turtle. So far so good. Then I read about the star turtle’s journey through the heavens. Some scientists believed in the ‘steady gait’ theory, in which the turtles journeyed unendingly through the multi-verse, never changing pace. Others contended that the turtles were travelling to a meeting place, where they would mate and create more star turtles. This was known as the ‘big bang’ theory.
After I’d wiped tears of laughter from my eyes, I made my way to the counter and bought the book. Since then, I’ve bought hard copies of every book Sir T has written and enjoyed them all, some more than others. Why? Because I like them.
That, dear reader, is the only reason I read books. However, I shall go a little further. Sir T breaks every rule in the Little Red Book of Writing. He uses ‘there was’ all the time. He indulges in great swathes of apparently superfluous narrative, such as regaling us with the amount of food etc consumed in the city of Ankh-Morpork. He writes in accents. Sometimes he has prologues which serve no other purpose than to bring the reader up to speed. And so on.
What I love about his work is the way he can brew an eclectic mix of myth, folklore, history, archetypes and pure, hard science, all laced with a shrewd understanding of human nature and politics, and make it funny. Mind you, much of what he writes has a darker, more serious side. He examines racism frequently, using the on-going tensions between dwarves and trolls, people and paranormal people like vampires, werewolves and zombies to mirror our own behaviour in our round world. Sir Terry has sent up just about every icon we hold dear – he seated the four horsemen of the apocalypse around a table and had them learning how to play bridge; he examined what happened to heroes like Conan the Barbarian when they get old; he has mocked sexism (in ‘Men at Arms’ and ‘Monstrous Regiment’ to mention two). The church, academia, Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli’s Prince – you’ll recognise them all in the Discworld.
In the midst of all this he creates believable characters such as the reformed alcoholic, reluctant member of the peerage Sir Samuel Vimes; Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax the tyrannical witches; the wizards at Unseen University and their Simian librarian. (The librarian was turned into an Orang Utan by a random discharge of magic in an early book and has since steadfastly avoided any attempt to persuade him to return to human shape.)
Sir Terry examines truths and mores as if they were rocks in a field. He picks them up, turns them over, looks underneath. Take Christmas, that iconic Christian festival. Sir Terry’s version is Hogswatch, when the Hogfather comes down from the north in a sleigh drawn by wild hogs. Except Death has to take the gig because the Hogfather is missing and we wouldn’t want to disappoint the kiddies, would we? So the archetypal Death wraps himself in a red coat and does the department store ‘meet the kiddies’ thing, which is absolutely hilarious. However, Terry digs deeper. Underneath that rock labelled ‘Christmas’ we find the meaning of that red coat, blood sacrifice to bring in the turning of the year.
There are so many examples. I could analyse every book and find serious messages hidden amongst the hilarity. It saddens me more than I can say to know Sir Terry has Alzheimer’s Disease. Long may he hold back its ravages.