I’d rather be a rising ape than a falling angel. ~ Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett died on Thursday. A man who was a prolific writer, a creator of one of the most well realized fantasy worlds in our collective consciousness, a satirist who wrote not only with humor and intelligence, but also, apparently, with anger; an anger that, his collaborator on Good Omens, Neil Gaiman, wrote, “is the engine that drives him, but it is the greatness of spirit that deploys that anger on the side of the angels…”
This was a man who was perhaps best known for his “Discworld” series of books, that he debuted in 1983 with the novel The Color of Magic, and which continued to grow in scope and complexity for over 30 years. The New York Times noted, “‘Discworld’ grew into a series of 40 interconnected books — set on a giant disc balanced on the back of four elephants — that mixed folklore, and mischievous fun into an ebullient saga that satirized both the fantasy genre and real-life power and politics.” He sold over 65 million books worldwide, becoming Britain’s best-selling author by the 1990s.
But this was also the man who created his own coat of arms, officially accepted by Letters Patent of Garter, and Clarenceux King of Arms of Britain’s College of Arms in 2010. It’s official description: “The Arms are blazoned: Sable an ankh between four Roundels in saltire each issuing Argent. The Crest is Upon a Helm with a Wreath Argent and Sable On Water Barry, wavy Sable Argent and Sable, an Owl affronty wings displayed and inverted Or supporting thereby two closed Books erect Gules.” (I honestly don’t know what half those words mean in this context, and I probably never will. You pick your battles.) Its Latin motto is Noli Timere Messorem. Translation: Don’t Fear the Reaper.
He was the sort of person who stood on mountaintops during thunderstorms in wet copper armour shouting ‘All the Gods are bastards.’ ~ Terry Pratchett
This was also the man who, upon being conferred the honor of knighthood in 2009 by Queen Elizabeth (for “services to literature”, on which he quipped, “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any. Still, I cannot help feeling mightily chuffed about it.”), decided that if he was to be a knight, then he should have a sword – one that he would forge himself. According to the British national newspaper, The Independent:
Sir Terry gathered deposits of iron he found in a field near his home in Wiltshire and smelted it himself in the grounds.
“Most of my life I’ve been producing stuff which is intangible and so it’s amazing the achievement you feel when you have made something which is really real,” he said of the sword.
The author dug up 81kg of ore to produce it, smelting using a makeshift kiln built out of clay and hay.
To add a trademark element of fantasy to it, he threw in “several pieces of meteorites – thunderbolt iron, you see – highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not.”
The metal was then shaped into a sword by a local blacksmith, finished with silverwork and stored by Pratchett in a secret location, apparently because he feared it might pique the interest of the authorities.
“It annoys me that knights aren’t allowed to carry their swords,” he said. “That would be knife crime.”
How many knights – even those not drawn from modern times – have gone out and forged their own swords to celebrate the occasion? I find this…. absolutely amazing, and delightful. Dare I say, mythological?
Yet he was humble, too. This was the man who in 1988 put a very green young author at ease. Jo Walton, author of the Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel Among Others, and the recently published The Just City, wrote of meeting Terry Pratchett at Albacon in Glasgow when he only had a few books under his belt and she was “a twenty-three year old nobody.”
He was incredibly interesting and fun to talk to, and immediately ready to take me and my ideas seriously. While we were chatting, he kept being interrupted by people coming up to have books signed, or to tell him shyly how much his work meant to them. Even though they were interrupting the conversation, he dealt very kindly with them, doing his best to gently put them at their ease.
Ms. Walton acknowledges that this experience helped shape how she interacts with her own fans today, and credits Mr. Pratchett’s openness and willingness to discuss – and listen – to ideas from others with fostering in her a continuing delight in brainstorming ideas with other writers.
Yet it’s easy to understand how such a gracious and even adored man would have an underlying anger fueling his creativity. In 2007 Mr. Pratchett revealed that he had been diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and although he said that he “would prefer it if people kept things cheerful”, I can imagine how the anger in him must have raged.
It occurred to me that at one point it was like I had two diseases—one was Alzheimer’s, and the other was knowing I had Alzheimer’s. ~ Terry Pratchett
Still, he continued to write; although he could no longer type, he used a dictation system that allowed for easy enough creation even though revision was understandably difficult. He was open about his diagnosis, his fears, and the difficulties he encountered, even allowing a 2-part BBC documentary to be made of his life with the illness; Terry Pratchett: Living With Alzheimer’s reached millions of viewers and won a BAFTA Award. He also personally donated over $1 million to Alzheimer’s research.
Yet he became even better known as the man who forced a discussion of assisted death, who could not fathom allowing his disease to be not only the overriding, but the only factor in his death. He famously was quoted as saying, “I have vowed that rather than let Alzheimer’s take me, I would take it. I would live my life as ever to the full and die, before the disease mounted its last attack, in my own home, in a chair on the lawn, with a brandy in my hand to wash down whatever modern version of the Brompton Cocktail some helpful medic could supply. And with Thomas Tallis on my iPod, I would shake hands with death.”
I can understand this. I am many years away from the end of my life, knock on wood, but still, once the children are grown, once the productive pendulum begins a retro swing, as the health issues start to assert themselves and the energy, desire and drive slip into contentment and reverie, it’s normal to look towards the end of all things in a life. I have no bigger fear in my life today, no larger rational fear, than a fear of decaying to the point where all decisions are made for me, and life becomes an unimaginative, empty wait for there to be no other option than death. If I knew that my final days on this earth would be either sudden or somewhat under my own control, I would sleep much better at night and be more confident as I move towards those final days.
It is often said that before you die, your life passes before your eyes. It is in fact true. It’s called living. ~ Terry Pratchett
Terry Pratchett may not have been able to choose the exact moment of his passing, but it sounds as if it would have been a scenario that he would have felt comfortable with: of natural causes, surrounded by family, with his cat sleeping on his bed. And even as he left, he gave us, his readers, his friends and neighbors, his fellow humans, a bit of wit, a bit of a chuckle, and a fond farewell. His final tweets reflected his characterization of Death saying, “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.” Then, “Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night,” followed simply by, “The end.”
Terry Pratchett’s story may have come to an end. Yet as he famously said in the Discworld novel Reaper Man, “No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away…” If this is true – and I heartily believe it is – then Terry Pratchett will be with us for a very, very long time. And that gives me comfort.
So much universe, and so little time. ~ Terry Pratchett