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The Shepherd’s Crown: goodbye, Terry Pratchett

01.09.15 | Comment?

Terry Pratchett was one of the best loved and most prolific authors of all time. He’s best known for his Discworld series, as well as his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. He was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, and then died on March 12, aged 66. This is a brief summary, of course: there will be longer obituaries that do real justice to this warm, funny man who advocated for environmental issues, freedom of speech and the right to die. He leaves behind his loving family and many friends. But I don’t feel qualified to write about his life, really, but I do know I can talk about his books. I’ve read them avidly since I was 12 and was still avidly reading them 14 years later, eagerly anticipating each new title. It’s hard to believe there’ll be no more – they’ve been such a fixture of mine and many other people’s lives for so many years. But the books that he left are so utterly brilliant that we could have had half their number and still been blessed with one of the funniest, wisest and most true series of books that have ever been written.

The Discworld series were, for me, the height of the comedic fantasy genre. But they weren’t just funny. They were clever. The Discworld series showed a fantasy world that changed: what happens, he asked, when a fantasy world develops the printing press? The Mail System gets reformed? The invention of paper money? The characters changed too: Tough-as-nails copper Sam Vimes fought dragons and other such odd antagonists until he found himself (much to his discomfort) a Duke. Susan, the granddaughter of Death went from being an orphaned schoolgirl to helping save existence. Then there was Tiffany Aching, an eleven year old girl who wanted to be a witch and became one. I’m sure there are many of you who grew up with her. Or how about Moist Von Lipwig, a small time hustler to (semi) reputable government official? This is leaving aside the Lancre Witches and the rest of the Anhk-Morepork City Watch, of course. Everyone grew. Everyone changed. This was not an immaculate fantasy world but one that lived and breathed and was absolutely recognisable even despite the trolls and dwarves and dragons. The Discworld series never felt anything less than inhabited, as if even the bit-players could wander off the page and live their own complete lives, far away from the main storyline.

There was so much heart in the stories of these people. They struggled through their fights with the big bads, yes, but the books never wandered from that sense of playful absurdity. But they never felt less realistic for it. It seemed perfectly feasible that a world that contained an orang-utan librarian at a university could also contain some of the best literary depictions of the poor, the sad, and the truly evil. Evil was not ever separate, either: Pratchett depicted it in all its forms, from external supernatural horror to, even worse, the evil that ordinary people are capable of when they can. He shone a harsh light on the ignorant and the greedy. But this was balanced out by a sense of hope – sometimes people can be better than the sum of their parts. Sometimes people can be noble, good, brave or kind. Sometimes all four at once. And sometimes that was all that was needed to win the battle, if not the war.

It seems that I’m leaving the most important bit until last: these books were laugh-out-loud funny.

So reading The Shepherd’s Crown, the final Discworld book, was a heart-rending experience. Not just because the book is, in itself, very sad, but because also I know there’ll be no more. It’s a bittersweet end; we’re all leaving the Discworld for good. But what Terry Pratchett left us was a wealth of books, an enduring legacy, a world that you can discover anew every time you open one of his books. Not only that, but Terry Pratchett the man left his mark on philanthropic works, such as Alzheimer’s Research UK, and was a Orangutan Foundation Trustee.

The tributes have flowed thick and fast, and this is just one of the many. But they are well deserved.

“Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?”
― Terry Pratchett, Going Postal


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