In 1786, the great Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “Oh wad some power the giftie gie us, To see ourselves as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us, an’ foolish notion.” Someone did give us that gift, 60 years before Burns wrote “To A Louse” – Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Unless one has studied Gulliver’s Travels in school, it is just a fantasy tale of a voyage to strange lands. But in reality, it was a scathing indictment of contemporary British society, wrapped in a story that could, but did not necessarily, make people see the world they were living in.
Swift set the model for modern political exposé and satire. Before him it was a pretty straightforward field, exemplified by the Celtic bard and the court jester – make fun of the rich and powerful in a sufficiently public way that one didn’t get thrown in the dungeon. The subtlety of using non-humans to portray the foibles and failures of humanity has worked very well. Swift was the intellectual grandfather of Jules Verne, Rod Serling, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey and the entire range of science fiction and fantasy writers of the past three centuries.
But few of those inheritors fo Swift’s legacy have been as brilliant at it as British author Terry Pratchett. It is normal, three or four days after one finishes a Pratchett book, to do a mental head smack and finally see what he was talking about. Pratchett is read on multiple levels. For straight fantasy fans, he writes very funny books about witches, trolls, wizards, demons, goblins and such. For the politically astute American, he writes very funny satires about Hollywood and newspapers and postal services. For those who understand British politics, it has an even deeper level.
Before becoming the world’s most widely read fantasy author, Pratchett worked in journalism on both sides of the Atlantic. With one book, The Colour of Magic, in 1983, Pratchett set the stage for a brilliant career not just as a fantasy writer, but as the best analyst and observer of the human comedy, drama and tragedy in modern times.
The 47 Disc World books are set on a flat planet that sits on the backs on four elephants who ride through space on the back of a turtle, Great A’Tuin. The planet has its own sun, which revolves around it. The primary continent, which sits at the center of the planet is home to most of the books. Some parts of the landscape resemble the British Isles, and all of the species who inhabit it are drawn from the collective lore and myths of Northern Europe.
It is possible to divide the books up by their principal focus. There are the wizard books, which center around the Unseen University, but which took the reader to the ends of the planet with the bumbling, traveling wizzard Rincewind. J. K. Rawlings was inspired by the University Library when she created the living wizarding books of the Hogswart’s library. She just left our the Librarian – a wizard who had been transformed into an orangutan. It’s a very useful body for a librarian, so he chose not to be changed back to human form.
Wrapped around and occasionally interacting with the wizards are the witches. This group includes the young adult series which features the young witch Tiffany Aching and her friends, the Wee Free Men, the Feegles. Some of Pratchett’s best twists on simile and metaphor are in these books. I’ve always been particularly fond of “The storm walked around the hills on legs of lightning, shouting and grumbling.” [Equal Rites, 1987]. It is the aspect of Pratchett’s work most frequently underdiscussed. He is an incomparable wordsmith, his use of English rich and textured.
The witches’ books are the best explanation of the craft I have ever encountered. From the first moment when Esme Weatherwax used the term “headology” to what she does, to the examination of the relationship between land and craft, story and life, the books were a constant “Why the hell don’t others see this?” for me. I was reading them in the coastal south, a very bad land for the craft, a land that is so full of death and decay that it encourages the black arts. Here it was, someone articulating why I responded physically to the journey inland and uphill, to mountains of granite and marble. We draw our strength from the land upon which we stand. It’s that simple and that complex. The land determines the limitations and extensions of ability, not some demon called up from the otherworld, not some hyped-up ceremony or amulet. It is all about the land and our relationships to it and what is natural in it and around it – the water, the rocks, the trees, the air. Pratchett understands this as no “celebrity “witch ever has. The occult sections of bookstores and libraries make me physically ill, the books vibe to the wrong resonances.
Death is a character in many of these books, featured as the main storyline in several, beginning with 1991′s Reaper Man. He is on a quest to understand mankind and why these beings cling so tenaciously to life, and trying to humanize himself in the process. Rawling’s third nod to Pratchett is in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, in the Department of Mysteries with it rooms of jars containing brains and prophecies. It is a variation on Death’s chamber of hourglasses.
It is the books which spread outward from the twin cities of Ankh-Morpork that are the education in almost every aspect of the human mind – politics, money, bureaucracy, war, folklore, diplomacy, the law, journalism, entertainment, gender-identity. They started as a couple of books about the Ankh-Morpork city guard, and evolved into the finest example of satire and sociology in modern times.
The Ankh-Morpork books contain the only Pratchett character that one can isolate as having been inspired by a living person. When we first meet Lady Sybil Ramkin, the description of her matches almost word for word a description of sci-fi author Anne McCaffrey by Isaac Asimov. I don’t like illustrations of Lady Sybil because she is portrayed as more saftig opera diva than Nordic goddess. The illustrator never met Ms. McCaffrey or got the connection even with all those dragons hanging around Sybil’s garden.
The lead characters of the Anhk-Morpork books are Watch Commander Samuel Vimes and the city’s “tyrant” Lord Havelock Vetinari. Vimes was a poor street kid who chose law over crime, and became seduced by law. Vetinari is the ultimate politician. Though the pair of them may be in the background of some of these books, they are the windows through which we can see ourselves, often with astounding clarity.
Would you like to understand the Walmarting of the world? Try Samuel Vimes’ “Shoe Leather Theory of Economics.” It goes something like this: The very rich can afford very good boots which last for decades. The poor can only afford poor boots that only last a year. Over time, the poor spend more on shoe leather than the rich do. The late economics writer Sylvia Porter said the same thing in her Money Book, in the chapter “The High Cost of Being Poor.” Fewer people have read Porter than read Pratchett, so Samuel Vimes has reached more of us than Porter ever did. From Vimes’ explanation of shoe leather, it is a simple jump to how cheap goods make people think they are doing well. After all, they can afford a cheap microwave and cheap knock-off designer clothes, so they are more amenable to lower wages. The low prices of Walmart and other discount outlets have downgraded our entire economy while creating the illusion of a better lifestyle. It’s a better lifestyle until you have purchased your third microwave in three years.
The list of what one can learn from Pratchett is almost unending. After all, there are 47 books to draw from. So, I’ll limit this to just a few major concepts:
In 1992′s Small Gods, Pratchett explains that gods exist only as long as people believe in them, and religion is not the equivalent of belief or faith. It is a powerful book that explores the dangers of churches and the purity of faith.
From 2000′s The Truth, the following: “Pulling together is the goal of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions. It is the only way to make progress. That and, of course, moving with the times.” That comes at the end of a long exchange between William de Worde, publisher of the Ankh-Morpork Times and Lord Vetinari about determining what the public should know and what is in the public interest.
2003′s Montrous Regiment is an LGBT delight, a gender-bending exercise in soldiering, parenting and relationships that, if you read no other Pratchett, should be at the top of every gay’s, lesbian’s and transgendered person’s reading list. Yes, at the time it was an indictment of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but now, it is needed as a way to make people step back and laugh about the whole thing. That’s what satire is all about, making us see the absurd and ridiculous and causing people to back down from militancy.
Finally, the best explanation I have ever seen of why I really hate WikiLeaks, from the most recent Disc World novel, Snuff: “And now the world is a better place, commander. You have no understanding, Vimes, no understanding of the deals, stratagems and unseen expedients by which some of us make shift to see that it remains that way. Do not seek perfection. None exists. All we can do is strive….And, slightly better than before, the world will continue to turn.” There is a massive difference between a government that tries to cover up war crimes and a government engaged in diplomacy. The two do not and should not involve the same level of public exposure. A simpleton like Julian Assange does not understand that. He is more driven by his hatred of America than any pure devotion to exposing dangerous secrets. Diplomacy is a fine art that eventually benefits all involved, even if it doesn’t appear to in the eyes of outsiders or the terminally dense. Those “deals, strategems and unseen expedients” prevent wars, create alliances, bring about positive changes. In Snuff, they bring about the liberation and equality of a species previously classified as vermin, and a halt to smuggling and drug operations that harmed tens of thousands. In the here and now, they are needed to assure a transition in the Arab Spring nations that does not erode previously held rights. We don’t really need to know how this is done. What matters is that it is done. Diplomacy should be added to the list of things one really shouldn’t see being made — along with sausages and babies.
On one occasion, life imitated the books. In 1997′s Jingo, a war is started because an island suddenly pops out of the sea and countries fight over who the island belongs to. There is a small volcanic rise in the Mediterranean that is creating an island, and several nations have already laid claim to it. It probably will not end as Jingo did, with the island sinking back into the sea, but it will certainly be fun watching it.
Terry Pratchett announced in 2007 that he is suffering from early onset Alzheimers. He is 63 years old. Since that announcement, he has produced Unseen Academicals, I Shall Wear Midnight and Snuff. He has reported that while he can no longer compose on his word processor, he can dictate his books. Believe me, I know how important every mind is and the horrors of losing one’s mind to Alzheimers. But sometimes it helps to have a very high-profile victim. If there is anything that should be lighting fires under Alzheimers researchers around the world, it should be the possible loss of this brilliant mind. He still has books to write, including Raising Taxes and Scouting for Trolls, two he has mentioned in the past. We need his voice – to educate us, to make us see the lunacy of our political systems, to help us make sense of the world and how it is changing and what we need to protect us during the transitions.
Queen Elizabeth II appointed Pratchett Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1998 “for services to literature. He was knighted in 2009. Samuel Vimes’ response to marrying a Lady and becoming a Duke is part of his charm. Vimes hates the titles and isn’t too happy with people who think they are somebody because of their lineage. I have always suspected that knighting Pratchett could be one of those rare glimpses of Queen Elizabeth’s sense of humor. She actually does have one.
Sir Terence David John Pratchett wrote the best explanation of himself in 1988′s Wyrd Sisters (the second nod to Pratchett in Harry Potter was the use of this title for the band at the Christmas Ball in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire):
“Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time. But most of them miss. Most people go through their lives without being hit by even one.
Some people are even more unfortunate. They get them all.”