Terry Pratchett is writing about a particular kind of madness that can affect human beings, those of heightened sensitivities, such as artists.
He’s embodied this mental aberration in a bodiless, brainless creature, called a hiver, that causes a great deal of trouble in the 2004 novel A Hat Full of Sky, the 32nd installment in his series of Discworld books.
The hiver, a kind of free-floating energy of unbounded fear, has come face to face for a showdown with the 11-year-old witch Tiffany Aching. The hiver has scared her, bedeviled her and even, for a time, possessed her, but now she is ready:
Tiffany’s fingers moved. The hiver shimmered in the air, disturbed like a pond when a pebble has been dropped into it. Tendrils of it reached toward her. She felt its panic, felt its terror as it found itself caught —
“Welcome,” said Tiffany.
This takes the hiver off guard. And, when the girl again tells it that it is welcome here and safe here, the creature responds, “We are never safe!”
Tiffany asks what the hiver is hiding from. “Everything,” it responds. When she says she thinks she knows what it means, it replies:
“Do you? Do you know what it feels like to be aware of every star, every blade of grass? Yes. You do. You call it ‘opening your eyes again.’ But you do it for a moment. We have done it for eternity. No sleep, no rest, just endless…endless experience, endless awareness. Of everything. All the time.
“How we envy you, envy you! Lucky humans, who can close your minds to the endless cold deeps of space. You have this thing you call…boredom? That’s the rarest talent in the universe!”
Humans, the hiver says, are able to take the reality of a star in the cosmos — “a billion trillion tons of flaming matter, a furnace of unimaginable strength” — and turn it into a children’s song, “Twinkle twinkle little star…”
“You build little worlds, little stories, little shells around your minds, and that keeps infinity at bay and allows you to wake up in the morning without screaming!”
No rest, no relief
This is an astonishing moment in Pratchett’s astonishingly comic, nuanced, astute and incisive Discworld series of 41 novels.
A Hat Full of Sky has been marketed from the first as a young adult novel, but, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Pratchett’s “young adult” books are as meaty and as insightful as any of his others. I can’t imagine that Pratchett really thought of them as different from — or less than — his regular Discworld novels.
And, here — in a novel that, as the marketers would have it, is for kids — Pratchett faces existential dread with an absolute directness and a refusal to shy away from the hard realities of human existence.
The hiver preys upon — takes over — powerful beings, people and animals, in order to hide from the unhideable. It can never rest, and it can never find relief.
Pratchett, through the hiver, hits the nail on the head in saying that a human being will go crazy without the ability to block off parts of reality that are too difficult to look at. And some do go crazy.
Every human being has to deal with this. Some, such as artistic geniuses or creative geniuses of other sorts, are able to accomplish a great deal because of their ability and willingness to open themselves up to these hard realities while also running the risk of going too far, of being too open.
The hiver is each of us in those moments when we forget to keep our guard up, and we are swamped by glimpses into the vastness of existence and of eternity.
A prime example of this is that human beings are born to die.
Even as we draw our first breath, we are on the way to exhaling our last one. That is perhaps the hardest of the hard realities that have to be kept at bay. We learn to go through our days and years not believing that this will happen, pretending that the death that comes for everyone else won’t come for us.
The hiver, though, has a different problem.
It only knows how to feel in the rawest of ways. It can’t stop itself from feeling. It can’t keep feelings and sensory stimuli at bay.
So, it says to Tiffany that it comes to her with a wish:
“Teach us the way to die.”
“Help us through”
A Hat Full of Sky was published in 2004. Three years later, Pratchett announced that he was suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, the illness that ended up killing him in 2015.
In between, he wrote in an article that he wished to die by assisted suicide (even though, ultimately, the reports were that he died naturally), and he became an active proponent of euthanasia.
The story of the hiver is an indication that Pratchett was thinking about assisted suicide well before his Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
Tiffany is able to find the door to death that the hiver needs to enter. But the hiver says:
“You must help us through.”
And, so, she does.
And her mentor, Granny Weatherwax, later tells her that it is the job of witches to help suffering people, and sometimes that means leading them through the door of death.
“I know this path already. You’ll tread it again, no doubt, for some other poor soul, open the door for them as can’t find it. But we don’t talk about it, understand?…
“Do you know what a part of being a witch is? It’s making the choices that have to be made. The hard choices.”
An intensely humane man
It’s a measure of Pratchett’s genius that he was able to deal with the madness of hypersensitivity and the question of helping death come to end suffering in a comic novel. And one, remember, that is supposedly for kids.
I don’t like the idea of assisted suicide for myself or anyone I love. But I realize that honest and humane people, some of whom I’ve known, have made it a choice.
Through his dozens of Discworld novels, Pratchett showed himself to be an intensely humane man.
I honor his ability to look at death face to face and not blink.
Patrick T. Reardon