To say that I’m a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is an understatement. Among the humorous fantasy writers, Terry Pratchett has pride of place. At his right and left hand are Douglas Adams in sheer satiric glory, and Neil Gaiman, whose humour shades into great darkness. These three are the trinity of holy hilarity in contemporary fantasy.
And the second of the three have fallen. Today Terry Pratchett passed away.
Although I have cherry-picked any of his Discworld books at random–as they crossed my path–last year I started reading through chronologically, I am now about to finish Reaper Man–a reread to me, featuring the deadly and delightful character, Death.
Pratchett’s characters are brilliant. Rincewind’s hat with WIZZARD crayoned on is forever part of my imagination. The Night Watch led by Sam Vimes, the talented children blundering through Pyramids, those brilliant witches–with a few swishes of his magic wand, Pratchett could make an entire personality appear in thin air. No, the dog didn’t bark. He said, “woof.”
As good as his characters are, and as biting as his humour could be, it was his invention of “Discworld” that always drew me in. As a writer, I am always shaping a fictional world, trying to sketch out a speculative universe in my journal or on screen or, if necessary, on a Starbucks napkin or a friend’s arm. Pratchett imagines his Discworld in the prologue to the first book, The Colour of Magic:
In a distant and secondhand set of dimensions, in an astral plane that was never meant to fly, the curling star-mists waver and part…
Great A’Tuin the turtle comes, swimming slowly through the interstellar gulf, hydrogen frost on his ponderous limbs, his huge and ancient shell pocked with meteor craters. Through sea-sized eyes that are crusted with rheum and asteroid dust He stares fixedly at the Destination.
In a brain bigger than a city, with geological slowness, He thinks only of the Weight.
Most of the weight is of course accounted for by Berilia, Tubul, Great T’Phon and Jerakeen, the four giant elephants upon whose broad and star-tanned shoulders the Disc of the World rests, garlanded by the long waterfall at its vast circumference and domed by the baby-blue vault of Heaven.
I don’t know the effect these words had on you when you first read them, but for me they were a temenos, the threshold between my chair and the faërie woods beyond the hedge, the invisible bridge from now to myth. The prologue was a magic ring, a desperate wish, an open wardrobe door.
In the paperback reprint of The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett talks about how Discworld came into being:
If I had a penny for every time someone asked me where I got the idea of the Discworld, I’d have—hang on a moment—£4.67.
Anyway, the answer is that it was lying around and didn’t look as though it belonged to anyone.
The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. It’s one of the great ancient myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.
I actually bumped into this idea—save the elephants—in a legendary lumber room of my childhood, though I can`t remember where exactly. I kind of think it was a book on finance I found lying around the house. I was a strange child. In any case, Terry Pratchett thought it was a ridiculousity worth capitalizing on.
I think we’re all glad he did.
I didn’t discover Pratchett and Discworld until I was well into adulthood. I tentatively shared a couple of chapters of a novel I wrote with a friend. He said, “Oh, this sounds like Terry Pratchett.” It’s the thing that writers hate to hear.
I borrowed one of his books, and sure enough, Terry Pratchett had stolen my writing style. I was pretty disappointed at first. But as I was drawn into the story, I fell in love with Pratchett’s characters and the enigmatic metaphysics of Discworld.
I have come to realize since that writers write in a tradition. Someone will emerge with a Pratchettian voice. If the wound is not to dear and the world is so very good, we may take a risk.
Until then, until another master of speculative hilarity emerges, I tip my hat to Terry Pratchett, and slowly run my fingers through my beard as Rincewind races from one dimension to another, as the multiverse’s tallest Dwarf takes control of a crowd, and as the great Turtle A’Tuin slowly drifts through a universe far, far away.
This is one time I wish Death hadn’t sharpened his scythe.
I have written about Terry Pratchett a few times before. Check out “Turtles All the Way Down: Discworld Conversations About The Origins of the Universe,” where I use Pratchett’s Discworld to think about how the Big Bang was, well, banged. I explored the “The Banality of Evil: A Thought by Terry Pratchett.” And I had a little fun with Dante and Pratchett when I was reading
Faust Eric. Check out “A Level of Hell that Dante Forgot: A Note from Discworld.”
Do you have writings about Pratchett’s world or your favourite stories to tell. Link below or tell it in the comments.