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Financial Times: Obituary

Sir Terry Pratchett

Of gods and men


WHEN he was knighted in 2009, Terry Pratchett made a sword. It was the natural accoutrement for a man who, without one, resembled an amiable wizard kitted out by a Houston department store.

With a little help from friends, he dug 80 kilos of iron ore from a convenient field and built a kiln in the back garden. Together the team forged a sword that might have bisected a snowflake, had one drifted past.

It also had a hidden ingredient. Mixed in with the smelt were bits of meteorite, the stuff of thunderbolts. By this Sir Terry put himself on a par with Blind Io, chief of his Discworld gods. Io held the monopoly of throwing bolts about, and thus effortlessly lorded it over Annoia, goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers; Bibulous, god of Wine and Things on Sticks; Errata, goddess of Misunderstandings; and Reg, god of Club Musicians.

The disc-shaped world in which these gods were worshipped—or, more often, blamed—had been created by Sir Terry in 1983, though it had possibly existed from all eternity, borne steadily through space on the backs of four giant elephants standing on an immense dim-sighted turtle. It had swum into his mind as he wrote press handouts for the Central Electricity Generating Board, and by 1987 had proved so phenomenally popular that he left the board to fend for itself. His 40 Discworld novels made him Britain’s bestselling author in the 1990s, and by this year he had sold 85m books in 37 languages: though not, to his disappointment, in Klatch or heathen Trob*.

The literati sniffed at his fantasies, but he gave as good as he got. He had no intention of writing literature, or adding to the piles already mouldering about. Instead he ornamented Discworld with Unseen University, which was never precisely Here or There, where faculty such as the Professor of Indefinite Studies had only to show up for meals, and where the Librarian was an orang-utan who, swinging through the shelves with his prehensile limbs, had reduced all existential inquiry to a craving for bananas.

Sir Terry had not been to university himself, Seen or Unseen. He had just about scraped through High Wycombe Technical High School. Astronomy was his passion, but his star-gazing was not backed up by being any good at maths. He learned instead—mostly from P.G. Wodehouse and H.G. Wells—that universes could be explored in other ways, and could be funny and dark and slyly topical, all at once.

So it was that he built the sprawling, unsewered metropolis of Ankh-Morpork and peopled its mazy alleyways with thieves, beggars, trolls, vampires, vegetarian werewolves and bemused tourists, as well as overworked wizards. People wondered how he was not overworked himself, producing two books a year. He simply loved doing it. Feature-film-makers and their bags of gold were regularly rebuffed; he was the only controller of this universe. (Just to prove it, he gave it eight colours of the spectrum, the eighth being fluorescent greenish-yellow-purple octarine, and let some characters move so fast that light stood red-faced in embarrassment.) His enormous cast of characters, once set in motion, would generally do what he wanted, give or take the odd axe malfunction.

Brandy with Tallis

Among those characters was Death. He had appeared in Sir Terry’s childhood playing chess in “The Seventh Seal” on TV, and had not changed much since. When noticed, as humans tried not to, he had sparkling blue eyes, a glowing scythe and a white horse called Binky. His gathering of souls was untidy—the good fingered, the bad spared—and his life oddly endearing, with cups of tea and curries, and a rubber duck in his bath. He spoke IN CAPITALS, like a coffin lid slamming. In 1991 a New Death appeared with no nice features, but he soon tangled with that scythe.

Knowing Death as he did, Sir Terry was taken aback when in 2007 Binky came nuzzling at his door. He was diagnosed then with a form of early-onset Alzheimer’s. As an optimist by nature, he determined to beat it; when, within a year, it had removed his power to write and type, he realised that might be too tall an order. But his anger was undiminished; and since he had always told Death what to do and where to go, he began to campaign loudly and publicly for the right to die when and how he liked. This was preferably not in a clinic in Switzerland, but in his garden, with his cat on his lap, an excellent brandy in his hand, and Thomas Tallis in the background. In the event he managed, unassisted, some of that; and also put the right-to-die debate in a useful forward gear.

Soon after his diagnosis it was rumoured, mostly in the Daily Mail, that he had found God. He thought this unlikely, since he could not even find his keys, for the existence of which he had empirical evidence. All the same, he admitted to hearing a voice that told him all was well; and to a feeling one February day, when the sunset reddened a ploughed field, that there was “an order greater than heaven”. He knew then, he thought, “where the gods come from”. But why not, like the gods and the universe he had created, from his own black-fedoraed head, and his own thunder-wielding hand?