I told one of my best friends earlier today, I feel like we’ve lost an Elder. He agreed.
It doesn’t much matter what “we” I’m talking about there. We, writers. We, readers. We, lovers of fantasy. We, admirers of satire. We, thinking observers of this mad world we inhabit. We, humans, who feel and dream and want.
Sir Terry Pratchett wasn’t just a superb novelist and an incisive satirist — He was a writer-philosopher who shaped an incredible part of my worldview. His passing was not unexpected, given his long struggle, but it’s still heartbreaking. And, as Neil Gaiman noted in the last thing he wrote about his friend, back last fall, it’s also enraging. It makes you want to scream against the essential unfairness of the universe.
But, of course, he had a lot to say about precisely that.
Pratchett’s books can speak to nearly everyone — everyone willing to open up a bit and listen, I think, and they tend to eviscerate precisely the sort of people who won’t — and, like all great works, I think you get something slightly different out of them depending on who you come to them as. Personally, I come to them as an educated woman (hence a lot of affinity for Susan: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”) and as a pagan (it should come as absolutely no surprise that the Witches of Lancre are my favorite sub-series). A pagan, moreover, who’s cobbled her faith together out of the scraps of a dozen others, her own inclinations, and the works of modern philosophers like Terry Pratchett.
The thing is, when you tell people that you’ve constructed part of your faith out of fantasy novels, they do tend to react like you’re a bit daft. I think this is foolish for two reasons. The first is that “fantasy novel” is often just a matter of where you’re standing, and (setting aside entirely the once-prominent faiths that we now dismiss as mythology, which we categorize as a subset of, yes, fantasy) a large chunk of the world now bases its beliefs on a book that contains, among other things, prophecies, angels, demi-gods, chimaeras, magic staves, necromancy, and a dragon. So. Y’know. Judge not.
The other is that it’s just silly to dismiss brilliant thought simply because of the cover it’s wrapped in or the shelf it sits on. The mirror that Pratchett held up to our nature might have been thieved from a funhouse, but that just gave him more license to show us ourselves writ large: our triumphs and our failures, our absurdities and our poignancy. I challenge anyone to read Hogfather without finding themselves deeply considering what it is to be human, what fundamental element of our imaginative capacity separates us from other beasts. I challenge anyone to read Witches Abroad without thinking about self-determination and the importance, and the dangers, of writing your own story. And by all means, try to get through Small Gods without questioning everything you’ve been taught about religion in general.
Pratchett was Shakespearean in many ways, but, as someone pointed out earlier today, one of them was you can express cosmic truths, you can fillet open the heart of humanity and lay bare its secrets, and still be hilariously funny at the same time.
He said so much and so well about belief, about imagination, about the magic we make in our own heads, about the power of words. Of course those words seeped into my own philosophy, my own ideas on faith and what makes life as a human worth living.
On Twitter this morning, Connor remarked that nearly everyone he knows has not just a favorite Pratchett book, but a favorite Pratchett character — more than a favorite, a near-avatar, someone who resonated with them in a special way, someone they saw themselves in, glories and flaws together. I told him that if I grow into one-tenth of someone who’s midway between Esme and Gytha, I’ll have done well.
But if I grow into a writer with one-tenth the incisiveness, one-tenth the felicity of expression, one-tenth the soul of Terry Pratchett — if I can somehow touch the tiniest fraction of the people he’s reached and will continue to reach through his brilliant words — well, that would be more than I feel fair to ask for in this lifetime.
Thank you, Sir. May you find the peace of your choosing on the other side of those black sands.