Nothing’s Sacred: The Wonderful World of Terry Pratchett

The world had never seen, nor will see again, an author such as Terry Pratchett. At thirteen years old, readers caught its first glimpse of his satiric humor when he wrote a story about the Devil asking for help in marketing hell, becoming distraught with all the “noisy people” now crowding his “amusement park,” and begging the marketing agent to fix it.

As an adult, he wrote over thirty novels set on the Discworld, perched on elephants, standing on a turtle swimming its way through the universe. Pratchett admitted he took two books to discover how to write a plot, but wrote in his own unique style, often leaping between scenes and characters in short paragraphs as the plot sped toward its resolution. Much like Charles Dickens, Pratchett is best-known for his assortment of memorable characters, from the cowardly Rincewind (a rubbish wizard on the best of days) to Susan (who takes no nonsense from anyone, and is prone to simply fading literally from view).

His greatest character in the minds of many, however, is Death. The hooded, scythe-carrying skeleton speaks in all caps, and likes cats. A lot. He’s curious about life and its nuances, as much a philosopher as someone who takes people when it’s “their time to go.” Death did not always want that job, and in one book, abandoned it to try out farming for a while. He had a brief stint as the Hogfather (the Discworld’s version of Santa Claus) when the real one disappeared. He also tried to produce color in his colorless world, but only succeeded, Susan noticed, in making the blacks different shades of black. And, he does not always play by the universe’s rules. In Hogfather, with the “merriest season of all” upon them, Death decides a Little Match Girl need not die upon Hogswatch Eve—and lets her live, justifying it by insisting it’s a season for miracles. In the same tale, he tells his granddaughter, Susan, that humans need to believe in fantasies to make them real.

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All Pratchett’s novels have memorable hooks and ridiculous twists for its assortment of oddball characters—such as Moist von Lipwig, a former con artist whom the Patrician forces into restoring the Post Office, all so he doesn’t have to use the more expensive Clacks (telegram) to play chess games with his friends. By the time of the sequel, Moist is so utterly bored with his now-mundane life, he’s breaking into his own office for cheap thrills.

Pratchett treats nothing as sacred—gently poking humor at everything from organized religion to academic snobs. He launches little funny fireballs, the most memorable for me being one of his witches saying how much she hates hateful people! He uses the wizards of the Unseen University to make fun of intellectuals—a group of theoretical elitists who distract themselves with worthless debates most of the time, and of which, their most notorious member (the Librarian) once accidentally turned himself into an orangutan. (Long arms are, however, useful for fetching books off top shelves, so no one is much bothered to turn him back.)

The Gentlemen of the Night’s Watch, a motley group of buffoons, try to solve crimes and other inconveniences in Ankh-Morpork, a city so polluted you can walk across its river of sludge if you care to risk your life.

In Ankh-Morpork, and the surrounding countryside, a horde of various creatures run rampant, from humans to vampires, witches, and the occasional “mistake of the universe,” one of which is a “seventh son of a seventh son” being born… a girl. Her arrival at the Unseen University causes big problems, and even the bedbugs flee (carrying their mattress as a collective effort) in distress. Then there’s the poor vampire who longs to be a photographer, with the small inconvenience that each time the flash goes off, he explodes into a pile of ash and must wait for someone to walk past and bleed on him before he can resurrect himself again. Of course, he has a melancholic Opera Ghost, Bogeymen (one of which is so shy, he can’t come out from under the bed, or behind the door), ghosts, and even the occasional reporter.

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Two of my favorite books are Mort and Small Gods. The former introduces us to a forlorn young man whom Death takes on as an apprentice, in part because he was the last one left at the hiring fair when Death arrived at midnight. Mort takes his responsibilities seriously but lets his heart rule his head and mixes up matters in the Underworld. A bit. Or rather, a lot. And in Small Gods, a former divine tyrant now reduced to the size of a garden turtle must travel with the only person in the world who can hear him—a monk of no small intellect (in fact, almost none).

The books cross over on one another, with various characters making the occasional cameo, but fall into several classifications—those set around individual characters (such as Moist, or Mort), those about and/or featuring Death as a main character, the stories of the wizards of the Unseen University, the tales of the Night’s Watch, and the Witches.

Of the latter, Granny Weatherwax is the most formidable. She turns up as a no-nonsense voice of reason in her own novels, and in those of the teenage witch, Tiffany Aching. Where the other witches are varying degrees of flighty and/or inappropriate (Nanny Ogg has a sexual innuendo for every occasion), Granny Weatherwax is a stern believer in common sense and has more wisdom even than Death. Death may ponder the complexities of life, but Granny will set you straight. Pratchett was at his finest when he created Granny—whose biting tongue delivers profound moral truths in the sea of innuendos, sly winks toward literature, history, and famous people, and absurd situations.

It is fitting that his last book includes the passing of Granny Weatherwax. Though according to people harder to please than me, it lacked some of his usual sparkle as Pratchett’s mind faded in his battle with “the embuggerance” of Alzheimer’s, the final chapters in which Granny says farewell to her friends and prepares herself for her own journey with Death seemed to be Pratchett preparing his readers for his passing and his farewell. It’s a meaningful and moving parting, but also a reminder of how Pratchett loved his readers enough to say a proper goodbye, and to reassure them the world would go on without Granny (himself), much as it pains us.

And it has. With just has a little less color in it.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.

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7 thoughts on “Nothing’s Sacred: The Wonderful World of Terry Pratchett

        1. Charity Post author

          Pratchett seems to be a “love him, or he’s stupid” author, so it’ll be interesting to see if he’s to your taste or not. I’d recommend you start with “Small Gods” (where he takes a good-natured poke at religion), or “Mort” (which introduces Death’s underworld).

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  1. hamlettethedame

    I’ve read Wyrd Sisters and the one about the Phantom of the Opera… Maskerade? Sooooooo funny, especially Wyrd Sisters. My kids all love Dragons at Crumbling Castle and Other Stories, especially the marvelous audiobook version, and my son also loves The Carpet People, but the rest of us haven’t read that one. Pratchett certainly had a delightfully surprising humor!

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    1. Charity Post author

      Pratchett was a delight. And he drops in little kernels of wisdom from time to time, like a dewdrop on a blade of grass. Blink, and it’s gone.

      I have a feeling, though, that as an American, I’m missing out on some of his subtler humor — sometimes I furrow my brow, read something twice, and suspect that if I were English, it would ring a bell and be hilarious.

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