Pratchett, Sir Terence David John (Terry)
- Andy Sawyer
Pratchett, Sir Terence David John (Terry) (1948–2015), author, was born on 28 April 1948 at Kinellan nursing home, Penn Road, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, the only child of David Pratchett (1921–2006), motor mechanic, and his wife, Eileen Florence, née Kearns (1922–2010), secretary. At the time of his birth registration his parents lived at Daveen, Forty Green, Beaconsfield. His family encouraged his omnivorous range of interests.
Early life, journalism, and marriage
Terry Pratchett and his father were keen amateur radio enthusiasts, members of the Chiltern Amateur Radio Club, and his love of reading was instilled by his grandmother’s Arthur Conan Doyle and H. G. Wells books as well as the local public library, where he seized upon the ‘suspension of disbelief’ offered by The Wind in the Willows and, later, The Lord of the Rings (Times, 13 March 2015). An early interest in science and astronomy was not followed through because of a deficiency in mathematical skills, although he later became an enthusiastic adopter of computer technologies. He spent his time ‘devouring’ dictionaries and thesauruses (ibid.) and used his Saturday job at Beaconsfield library to borrow vast numbers of books. (He remained throughout his life a passionate supporter of libraries.) While reading widely, he cemented his love for science fiction by writing for fanzines and attending conventions such as the 1964 ‘RePetercon’ convention in Peterborough.
Despite passing his eleven-plus exam, Pratchett attended High Wycombe Technical High School, where he published several stories in the school magazine. When one, revised as ‘The Hades Business’, was submitted to the magazine Science Fantasy, it was published with the editorial comment that the young author ‘shows great promise for the future’ (Science Fantasy, 60, Aug 1963, 66). The payment brought him a typewriter. His mother paid for touch-typing lessons.
Pratchett left school at seventeen to work as a trainee reporter on the Bucks Free Press, contributing numerous pieces including a series of stories for the children’s section. Some of these were published in The Dragons at Crumbling Castle (2014) and two succeeding volumes. Following periods at the Western Daily Press and the Bath Evening Chronicle, in 1980 he became a publicity officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board until the success of the Discworld novels allowed him to become a full-time writer in 1987. On 5 October 1968, at the Congregational church in Packhorse Road, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, he married Lyn Marion (b. 1943), schoolteacher and daughter of Richard Francis Purves, electrical engineer. They had one daughter, Rhianna (b. 1976).
The Discworld series
While with the Bucks Free Press, Pratchett began a novel, The Carpet People, issued by a local publishing firm, Colin Smythe Ltd, in 1971. Two science fiction books followed, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). The Colour of Magic (1983) and The Light Fantastic (1983) began the Discworld series: humorous fantasies set on a flat ‘discworld’ (a setting also used in Strata) supported on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle ‘swimming’ through space. The novels introduced a number of settings and characters: Unseen University; Rincewind, the cowardly failed wizard; the Luggage, a sentient, legged trunk originally belonging to a tourist, Twoflower; and Cohen the Barbarian, a parody of Robert E. Howard’s ‘Conan’. The parodic elements proved successful with fantasy readers, and, to expand the hardback market beyond what was possible with his own firm (paperbacks were already being successfully published by Corgi), Colin Smythe approached Gollancz. Equal Rites (1987), thanks in large part to an enthusiastic reader’s report by the writer David Langford, was accepted in a co-publishing deal. The novel was serialized on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour (which had earlier serialized The Colour of Magic). Almost certainly because of its plot, involving Eskarina Smith’s desire to be a wizard and the resulting satire of institutions which (like Unseen University) rely upon weak excuses about ‘the plumbing’ to stand in the way of women wishing to succeed, this was, according to Smythe, the point when Pratchett’s audience began to expand beyond the demographic of fantasy readers. The way British librarians took to Unseen University’s librarian—who, after being transformed into an orangutan with 300 pounds of muscle, a passionate devotion to his territory, and a hair-trigger temper, was a librarian for whom ‘budget cuts’ were something that happened to others—was another factor in this growth.
After Mort (1987) and Sourcery (1988), hardbacks were published by Gollancz alone: Smythe became Pratchett’s agent. Following Jingo (1997), hardbacks were published by Doubleday, who since 1985 had been publishing Pratchett’s paperbacks. Part of the success of the books—certainly their appeal to fantasy readers—lay in Ronald (Josh) Kirby’s hectically colourful covers. After Kirby’s death in 2001, Paul Kidby, who had worked with Pratchett on other projects, took over the artwork for the Discworld books. His style, more tuned to parody of famous paintings such as Rembrandt’s Night Watch, which was re-created on the cover of the Discworld novel of that title (1992), reflected the quieter, sometimes darker progression of the sequence.
Other books by Pratchett included the non-fiction The Unadulterated Cat (1989, in collaboration with the cartoonist Gray Jolliffe) and the well-received Good Omens (1990, with Neil Gaiman), but ‘Discworld’ was his most famous creation. Less a continuing series than a set of interlinked sub-series upon the same stage, it came to incorporate forty-one novels, a number of short stories, maps, diaries/calendars, quiz books, four ‘science of’ books, authorized and unauthorized handbooks, guides and other reference works, and books originating in the Discworld universe: Where’s My Cow? (2005) and The World of Poo (2012) are based upon books read by Sam Vimes to his son in the novels Thud! (2005) and Snuff (2011). There are also stage adaptations by Stephen Briggs, role-playing games, film, television, and radio adaptations, music albums, audiobooks, comic books, merchandise figurines, and several varieties of beer.
From The Colour of Magic the sequence moved from being an affectionate satire of post-Tolkien fantasy to a remarkable deconstruction of absurdity in all walks of life, with a recurring cast of witches, wizards, Watchmen (of numerous species), and metaphoric personifications such as the skeletal Death—complete with scythe and pale horse—who speaks in block capitals and is puzzled by the foibles of humanity. Reaper Man (1991) follows what happens when Death resigns his post. Death’s ‘adopted granddaughter’ Susan Sto Helit is a major character in several novels, sometimes dealing with her grandfather’s confusion. The ‘witches’ sequence incorporates (in part) Wyrd Sisters (1998), Witches Abroad (1991), Lords and Ladies (1992), Maskerade (1995), and Carpe Jugulum (1998). Granny Weatherwax (the ‘leader’ of the Lance coven which include the boisterous Nanny Ogg and the naïve Magrat Garlick) is also a recurring character in the young-adult ‘Tiffany Aching’ series: The Wee Free Men (2003), Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (2006), and I Shall Wear Midnight (2010), ending with The Shepherd’s Crown (2015), Pratchett’s final (posthumous) novel.
Counterpointing the practical magic of the witches is the obsessively masculine world of Unseen University’s wizards in novels such as Equal Rites (1987), Sourcery (1988), and Unseen Academicals (2009). In the ‘Science of Discworld’ books—The Science of Discworld (1999), The Globe (2001), Darwin’s Watch (2005), and Judgement Day (2013)—biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart drew upon a narrative by Pratchett in which the wizards accidentally create our science-based universe to explore what Pratchett, in Witches Abroad (1991), called ‘narrative causality’ and Cohen and Stewart called ‘narrativium’: the need for explanations which the reader will both understand and be grasped by, and the relationship between story and science.
The ‘Watch’ sequence began with Guards! Guards! (1989) and continued through Men At Arms (1993), Feet of Clay (1996), Jingo (1996), The Fifth Elephant (1999), Night Watch (2002), Thud! (2005), and Snuff (2011). It began as a parody of the ‘hard-boiled’ police procedural and grew to ask increasingly harder questions about the nature of policing in a complex and chaotic city.
Many of the Discworld novels exist as parts of more than one sub-series. Singletons such as Small Gods (1992) and Monstrous Regiment (2003), as well as sidebars such as The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001) and the Tiffany Aching sequence (beginning with The Wee Free Men, 2003), focus upon themes that run throughout the sequence as a whole. Small Gods and Monstrous Regiment each question the way religion develops into totalitarian structures. The latter’s exploration of a stock folk-song situation (the young woman enlisting in the army to find her brother) creates a barrage of jokes undermining the nature of war and the masculinity of armies.
By this time, Prachett’s humour had moved well beyond simple parody. Threats to the stability of the Discworld such as the Lovecraftian ‘beings from the Dungeon Dimensions’ were replaced in later novels such as Hogfather (1997) and The Thief of Time (2001) by more genuinely modern anxieties: bureaucratic ‘Auditors of Reality’ whose aim is to ‘rationalise’ the universe by eliminating individuality and personality. Later books moved beyond Discworld as simply setting for comic fantasy. Beginning with jokes such as Moving Pictures (1990), in which the invention of a kind of cinema draws people to ‘Holy Wood’ in search of fame or fortune and weakens the borders between the Discworld and the Dungeon Dimensions, Pratchett increasingly allowed the city of Ankh-Morpork to develop, combining jokes—puns, mock-pedantic footnotes, stereotypes—with a deeper moral concern. From mock-fantasy, the Discworld becomes a place where metaphor and reality are not so very different and a stage where change can be examined. In later novels such as The Truth (2000), Going Postal (2004), or Raising Steam (2013), Ankh-Morpork becomes more ‘modern’ as new institutions or inventions (newspapers, the Post Office, the Railway) enter the scene. The political management of change by the ‘Patrician’ Vetinari and the hard-boiled copper Sam Vimes comes to the fore as Vimes’s concern with law and justice sometimes clashes with Vetinari’s more Machiavellian project of balancing the complex and contradictory needs of the city. Throughout, there is the personal morality that fires the indomitable Granny Weatherwax: ‘You shouldn’t treat people like they was characters, like they was things’, she rages in Witches Abroad (238), which opens with a meditation on the ambiguous nature of our ability to impose story upon the universe: ‘People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around’ (8). This is extended elsewhere to more collective examples of how ‘stories’ told about others lead to prejudice and exclusion. In Jingo, tensions with the neighbouring state of Klatch arise, and throughout several novels we see the recruitment into the Watch of Vampires, Werewolves, Dwarfs, Trolls, and Zombies played as a source of humour as the natural misanthrope Vimes battles with his prejudices and, in a more serious vein, the Patrician works with Lady Margalotta of Uberwald, the Low King of the Dwarfs, and the Diamond King of Trolls to overcome inter-ethnic rivalries.
Somewhat overshadowed by Discworld was Pratchett’s entirely separate ‘Johnny Maxwell’ series for children: Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), Johnny and the Dead (1993), and Johnny And the Bomb (1996). In the first novel, Johnny discovers that the aliens he enthusiastically destroys in his computer shoot-’em-up game are real, and in the second the sale of the local cemetery affects the ghosts of people in Johnny’s town who died in the Great War. Also for children was the ‘Bromeliad’ series: Truckers (1988), Diggers (1990), and Wings (1990), combining the ‘little people’ elements of The Carpet People with a science fiction plot, as the Nomes, living in a department store which is being closed down, discover that they are the descendants of aliens and find their way back home through ingenious problem-solving.
Nation (2008) explored colonial contact between Pacific Islanders and the British in an alternative nineteenth century. Dodger (2012) included as characters the eponymous artful sewer-scavenger who becomes involved in an international conspiracy, Charles Dickens, and Henry Mayhew (whose observations of the life of the London poor were drawn upon in Pratchett’s research for the book). Towards the end of his life, Pratchett returned to science fiction, with a series of books written in collaboration with Stephen Baxter, himself an important British science fiction writer. This series began with The Long Earth (2012) and continued with The Long War (2013), The Long Mars (2014), The Long Utopia (2015), and The Long Cosmos (2016).
Awards and final years
Pratchett’s books had been translated into thirty-eight languages by the time of his death, and he several times topped simultaneously the British hardback and paperback lists, being reported by The Times as the highest-earning author of 1996 in Britain. He received numerous awards in the fields of fantasy and science fiction. Pyramids won the 1989 British Science Fiction Association award. He was fantasy and science fiction author of the year in the 1994 British book awards, and the annual poll for Locus magazine named him author of the best young adult books for The Wee Free Men (2004), A Hat Full of Sky (2005), Wintersmith (2007), and The Shepherd’s Crown (2016), and best fantasy book for Making Money (2008). Going Postal was nominated for the 2005 World SF Convention’s Hugo award for best novel. In 2010 he tied with Martin Amis as winner of the outstanding achievement award in the national book awards, and received the World Fantasy award for life achievement.
As far as his fame and work commitments allowed, Pratchett kept up his links with the science fiction fandom of his early days (famously, Nanny Ogg’s name, Gytha, was ‘borrowed’ from a well-known British fan), and his relationship with his readers was close: for many, he was ‘Pterry’ (the silent ‘p’ referenced Pyramids¸ in which two of the characters were Pteppic and Ptraci). During punishing schedules of national and international tours as books were published, and in speeches at the frequent Discworld conventions, he would joke with fans. His popularity, however, ranged far beyond the specialist audience, as the sales of his books testify. Although he was suspicious of the disdain the ‘literary world’ had for both fantasy and comedy, reviews by people of the stature of A. S. Byatt began to attract attention. Byatt wrote about ‘the quite extraordinary narrative pull of a great storyteller’ in her introduction to his collection of short fiction, A Blink of The Screen (2012, 11). Reviewing Men At Arms for the Mail on Sunday, Mark Thomas called him the ‘Dickens of the 20th century’, a phrase which began to be used in the light of his devoted audience and the humour with which he approached serious moral concerns. The title of the first book published about his work picked up on a joke used in his publicity (‘Occasionally he gets accused of literature’): Guilty of Literature. In it, the critic and encyclopaedist John Clute compared Pratchett’s use of borrowings and parody to the music of Bach and Handel.
The Amazing Maurice received the British Library Association’s 2001 Carnegie award for best children’s book of the year. In 2011 Pratchett received the American Library Association’s Margaret A. Edwards award for significant and lasting contribution to young adult literature. A number of honorary degrees followed after an honorary DLitt from the University of Warwick in 1999: University of Portsmouth (2001), University of Bath (2003), Bristol University (2004), Buckinghamshire New University (2008), Trinity College, Dublin (2008), the universities of Bradford and Winchester (2009), Open University (2013), and the University of South Australia (2014). He was appointed adjunct professor at Trinity College, Dublin, in 2009. In 1998 he was made an OBE for services to literature; he was knighted in 2009.
Pratchett was also in 2011 awarded an honorary fellowship by University College, London, where he had been working with researchers following his diagnosis in 2007 with posterior cortical atrophy, a form of Alzheimer’s disease. He met this ‘embuggerance’ with courage, humour, and generosity, helping by example to draw attention to the condition and raise money for the Alzheimer’s Research Trust. He had already been active in charity work. The popularity of the ‘Librarian’ led to support for the Orang-Utan Foundation, devoted to rescuing this endangered species, but he devoted himself to this new challenge, lending his support to the campaign for legally assisted suicide. He featured in the two-part programme Living With Alzheimer’s, broadcast by BBC television in 2009. He was invited to deliver the 2010 Richard Dimbleby lecture, which he devoted to his condition. His lecture, entitled ‘Shaking Hands With Death’, was delivered by the actor Tony Robinson. Another television documentary, Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die (2011), won numerous awards including BAFTA and Royal Television Society best documentary awards.
As Pratchett’s condition progressed, the assistance of his manager Rob Wilkins was crucial in dealing with the production of later novels, which were dictated following the loss of his ability to type, and his commitments to fighting Alzheimer’s. He died peacefully, of natural causes, at his home in Broad Chalke, near Salisbury, on 12 March 2015. The announcement appeared in the form of a tweet in Death’s famous block capitals: ‘AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER’. Readers throughout the world got the joke, and the grief and laughter were genuine. His funeral, on 25 March, was, in line with his strongly held beliefs, a humanist one. His daughter Rhianna carried the sword which, on being made a knight, he had made from iron ore from his own land.
Characters, morality, and choice
In his introduction to the non-fiction collection A Slip of the Keyboard (2014), Neil Gaiman wrote of ‘Terry’s underlying sense of what is fair and what is not’ and his rage ‘against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness’ (xv–xvi). Like many humorists, Pratchett took his task as a writer of social commentary seriously, though never solemnly or patronizingly. He spoke of fantasy as a way of exercising the mind and stressed the values of education, especially self-education. He let it be known on many occasions that books and libraries are important. His ‘L-Space’ (all books, in all libraries, are connected) mirrors the way knowledge is seen as a network. Jokes about dangerous magical grimoires remind us that the most fearsome threat to totalitarian regimes of all kinds is a ‘subversive’ book. He looked to what Tolkien called the ‘Cauldron of Story’ to construct his fiction from familiar sources: fairy tales, genre conventions, and stereotypes built around the simple model of what ‘everybody knows’ such as that of opera (lengthy songs about drinking and even lengthier songs about dying; opera houses are haunted by a monster; and the ‘fat lady’ will sing at the end). The butts of these jokes (especially academics and librarians) laughed along, because his true targets were those who (at whatever social level) denied identity and individuality to others. Jokes about the difficulty the bearded, reticent dwarfs have with recognizing each other’s gender (implicit in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) were part of the way Pratchett used stereotype and cliché to draw readers’ attention to, or otherwise subvert, the way we construct gender through those same clichés. The fairy-tale references in Witches Abroad can simply be jokes about stories we know by heart, but they can also build to moral points about how we see people as stereotypes: witches, for example, or threatening wolves: ‘“You could have seen to the old woman,” [Granny Weatherwax] said quietly. “You could have talked to the wolf. But you didn't, right?”’ (116). Farah Mendlesohn, writing about the importance of ethics and moral choice in Pratchett’s works, notes that ‘Pratchett demands that we view his fantasies through the eyes of a moral actor’ (Butler, James, and Mendlesohn, 2004 edn, 239–40). At the heart of much of his comedy is an individual growing to a position in which he or she can reject the circumstances (or ‘stories’) imposed upon them. Brutha rejecting the totalitarian religion of Small Gods (1992) and the priest Mightily Oats burning the pages of his holy book in order to keep Granny Weatherwax alive (in Carpe Jugulum, 1998) are both characters who actively choose to act differently, in ways the villagers chastized by Granny do not.
Pratchett’s gift for the absurd, his rapier-sharp puncturing of pomposity and pretension, his love of language, his ability to manipulate the conventions of story, and his playfulness frequently brought readers to the sudden realization that comic figures such as the trainee witch Magrat Garlick (the ‘wet hen’ of earlier books: later someone who recognizes a moral choice and acts appropriately, even heroically) have become characters. Any sense of cosiness that may suggest is dispelled by the way he applies ‘complexity’ both ways. The plots of several novels turn on the point that Granny Weatherwax, underneath the superficial mask of a cranky, bad-tempered old woman with a heart of gold, is at war with her potential to move beyond stereotype into genuine wickedness. In a series of short articles published in The Discworld Chronicle before the second Discworld convention in 1997, Victoria Martin examined terms like ‘Right’, ‘Good’, and ‘Nice’ as they apply to Discworld’s characters. Granny Weatherwax, for instance, is ‘Right’, but not ‘Nice’. So is the Patrician, who will sacrifice the few for the good of the many. Vimes’s subordinate, the idealistic, apparently naïve Carrot, whose position as rightful King of Ankh-Morpork is one of the series’ running jokes, is ‘Good’, but the potential for totalitarianism in his ‘Goodness’ hardly makes him ‘Right’ or even ‘Nice’. Vimes, surprisingly, is ‘Nice’: he shares with the Patrician and Carrot a passion for the politics of communal living, but he is neither as manipulative as one nor as idealistic as the other.
This classification may extend to Discworld’s characters’ attitude to knowledge. The Wizards are clever but unpractical. Only the increasingly important character Ponder Stibbons actually wants to find things out. Death is skilful; essentially a craftsman (in Mort, he even has an apprentice), but his horizons are limited to his trade. He has no idea why people behave as they do. So are such characters as Bloody Stupid Johnson, an unparalleled genius who constantly gets things wrong in the design stage, and Leonard da Quirm, who invents weapons of destruction as an intellectual exercise. It is knowledgeable characters, such as Granny Weatherwax or the Librarian, who act as direct foils to the wizards, who could not function effectively without them.
These moral dynamics, simple as they are, emphasize Pratchett’s ability to explore character as well as slapstick (at which he also excelled). Throughout his work, as Gaiman pointed out, Pratchett argued with the unfairness of the world, but he left his readers in no doubt that it is up to us to make it fair. His villains are always those who, in the end, refuse to treat other people as human beings. This, in the end, is Tiffany’s final lesson: that being a witch is a matter of duties and responsibilities but also of knowing when to be a human being instead of a witch.
- V. Martin, ‘Analysis: In defence of niceness’, The Discworld Chronicle, 2 (Dec 1997), 12–13
- V. Martin, ‘Analysis: the dangers of goodness’, The Discworld Chronicle 4 (Sep 1998), 22–3
- A. M. Butler, E. James, and F. Mendlesohn, eds., Terry Pratchett: guilty of literature (2000)
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- obituary photographs