After Terry Pratchett’s death (my previous post), his daughter Rhianna tweeted from her father’s Twitter account: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The End.” I have been rereading all of the Discworld novels over the past few weeks to remind myself again why I like them, and in doing so, I found out where those words come from. And obvious, it ain’t.
When “Death” (speaking in caps) finally comes for the shrewd, eccentric, very old, and basically honest “Mrs. Topsy Lavish”, head of the Lavish family that owns Ankh-Morpork Bank, there is following exchange:
“ONE SHOULD ALWAYS TAKE CARE OF ONE’S POSTERITY, MRS. LAVISH.
‘My posterity? The Lavishes can kiss my bum, sir! I’ve fixed ‘em for good. Oh, yes! Now what, Mr Death?’
NOW? said Death. NOW, YOU COULD SAY, COMES…THE AUDIT.
‘Oh. There is one, is there? Well, I’m not ashamed.’
‘Good. It should,’ said Topsy.
She took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.”
This was from Making Money, published in 2008 – yes, that long ago!
Now, one might say Pratchett had a similar fearless attitude about his own demise, and a similar scathing attitude towards leaving legacies. Or, more likely, those were quite quotable words, and a neat, poignant turn of phrase to describe dying. (And, having been written about 8 years ago, people are hardly likely to make the connection.) But, also, Pratchett loved appropriating and playfully twisting cultural references, particularly, famous lines from poetry and plays. So reading his novels is a bit like playing literary Cluedo, with evidence hidden all over for the well-read reader to discover.
Case in point: In Unseen Academicals, “Mr. Nutt”, an orc, but a highly educated one, writes a love poem on behalf of his friend “Trevor”, and “Glenda”, the cook who reads it, says:
“‘Yes. Um, er, do you mind me saying…in your lovely poem…the line ‘The crypt’s a handsome place to be, but none I think leave after tea” didn’t quite -‘
‘Didn’t quite work? I know,’ said Nutt.” (Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals, Doubleday UK, 2009, p.311)
The quote is a play on the famous poem by Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress, written in the early 1650s:
‘The grave’s a fine and private place, But none, I think, do there embrace.”
While Nutt might have been referring to his mentor, “Lady Margolotta”, who is a vampyre, he would not have meant what Marvell meant, which is, before we die, let’s indulge our passions.
These are just two of the many references to death, and how to deal with it, peppering Pratchett’s novels. I do not believe the Discworld novels were simply Science Fantasy – they were reframed social commentaries. If you want to know what Pratchett though about, Life, Death, the Universe and Everything (to borrow from Douglas Adams) then read his novels again and look deeper. Authors often work their philosophies and beliefs into their novels, speaking through characters or narrators. Some, like William Gibson, go one step further and take the guesswork out of it by explaining all in a collection of essays. But I must say, it’s much more fun to play spot-the-allusion with Pratchett’s novels.