How do you deal with the death of one of your literary heroes?
It’s not a question I’d ever asked myself before. My first literary hero, Roald Dahl – the man whose work first inspired me to become an author – died when I was aged four, just after I had discovered his books and long before I truly understood the concept of Death. Douglas Adams, another favourite, passed away shortly after my fifteenth birthday, by which point I had read all five parts of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide trilogy several times over and accepted that no further additions would be forthcoming, considering his strained relationship with deadlines. Both events upset me, yet neither felt like it would have an immense effect on my young life.
It is now three days since the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett, beloved author of the Discworld series, The Carpet People and many of my favourite reads over the past twenty years or so. I have burst into tears four or five times since Thursday, and am still feeling a little weepy now. So what makes this time different?
Terry Pratchett was a rare kind of creative genius: a man who, like Adams and Dahl, had his head in the clouds, yet still remained firmly grounded in the realities of everyday life. He created an entire magical world in the shape of a Disc balanced on the back of four elephants who were carried through space atop a giant turtle, yet somehow managed to use this absurd premise to reveal to us more about our society than any more “serious” writer I have ever read. He was one of the best-selling authors of all time, yet seemed, by all accounts, a thoroughly down-to-earth, friendly and welcoming chap.
Pratchett’s works have accompanied me throughout my life, from the age of about seven or eight onwards. I had always loved the fantasy genre for its escapism, its epic quests and relief from the mundane world around me. Yet Pratchett showed me that it could offer so much more. It could be funny – hilarious, even – and, better yet, it could be used to improve my understanding of real life outside the book.
They called themselves the Munrungs. It meant The People, or The True Human Beings.
It’s what most people call themselves, to begin with. And then one day the tribe meets some other People or, if it’s not been a good day, The Enemy. If only they’d think up a name like Some More True Human Beings, it’d save a lot of trouble later on.
― Terry Pratchett, The Carpet People
Terry Pratchett opened my mind to different perspectives on life. Somewhat ironically, considering my feelings of the past few days, the first character to truly endear himself to me in the Discworld was Death. Rather than the threatening, impassive spectre of yore, in Pratchett’s hands the Grim Reaper became a chatty, well-rounded character with his own drives and opinions and a fondness for cats. He was also often the soul of the books, offering guidance and moments of sage wisdom when the more human characters needed them most:
HUMAN BEINGS MAKE LIFE SO INTERESTING. DO YOU KNOW, THAT IN A UNIVERSE SO FULL OF WONDERS, THEY HAVE MANAGED TO INVENT BOREDOM? ― Terry Pratchett, Hogfather
At least one new Discworld book has been published almost every year of my life. I may have gone through phases of not reading them, but there was always comfort in knowing that Terry would still be there, that I could come back any time I wanted and a gateway to another corner of the Disc would await me. Even after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007, he managed four more volumes before finally leaving us to meet his old friend the Reaper Man. The final instalment in the series was completed last summer, and will be published later this year.
He took inspiration from myth and folklore the world over, using figures and tropes familiar to us all, and somehow managed to create his own unique universe without ever becoming clichéd or unoriginal. He was the kind of author you felt you knew; whose personality shone through the pages of his books as you read them. He inspired me as a writer but, more than that, he inspired me as a person.
Farewell, Sir Terry. You shall be missed.
…no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away… The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.
― Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man