Terry Pratchett, whose life was cut short in 2015 by Alzheimer’s disease, thought much about death during his 66 years.
And, in his 41 hilarious, witty and silly Discworld fantasy novels, he wrote a lot about death, especially Death, a tall, skeletal guy who was one of his main characters.
Perhaps that’s why the books are so full of life.
And perhaps why they’re so funny.
In the face of the downright, absolute unreasonableness of human existence — you and I were born to die — what’s a better response than to laugh and live fully?
In Pratchett’s 1991 novel Reaper Man, Death, the character, is front and center, and the story revolves around the effort of some higher-ups (even Death has bosses) to, well, not exactly ease him out of his job.
To put it bluntly, they set it up so that Death himself will die.
Early on, right after Death has gotten this news, Pratchett writes:
The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching.
“You don’t get the kind of sun now that you used to get,” said one of them.
“You’re right there. We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff.”
It goes on like that for a while as the two clueless (aren’t we all clueless?) older mayflies bemoan that the fields look different in this hour, and the cow that used to be here isn’t, and, finally, one of the hatchlings gets them back to what they were doing earlier — telling the youngsters about the Great Trout.
“Ah, yes. Right. The Trout. Well, you see, if you’ve been a good mayfly, zigzagging up and down properly — ”
“ — taking heed of your elders and betters — ”
“ — yes, and taking heed of your elders and betters, then eventually the Great Trout — ”
Suddenly, the two older ones aren’t there, flying close to the surface — or anywhere, for that matter. The younger ones are confused, and another mayfly picks up the story:
“They say that when the Great Trout comes for you, you go to a land flowing with…flowing with….” Mayflies don’t eat. It was at a loss. “Flowing with water,” it finished lamely.
“It must be really good there,” said the youngest.
“’Cos no one ever wants to come back.”
Death, now facing his own demise, walks off the job to take a position as a helping hand on a farm. Since no one is collecting the souls of those who die, things are getting weird on Discworld, as Patchett writes:
A great formless cloud of Life drifted across the Discworld, like water building up behind a dam when the sluice gates are shut. With no Death to take the life force when it was finished with, it had nowhere else to go.
Bizarre things start to happen all over the Discworld — which, itself, is already pretty bizarre inasmuch as it’s a flat circle of no great depth speeding through the multiverse on the backs of four elephants standing on the back of a rather colossal turtle.
Pratchett looks at the reason behind these phenomena which gets him into some pretty serious philosophizing that he concludes — no surprise — with a joke.
Everything that exists, yearns to live. That’s what the cycle of life is all about. That’s the engine that drives the great biological pumps of evolution. Everything tries to inch its way up the tree, clawing or tentacling or sliming its way up to the next niche until it gets to the very top — which, on the whole, never seems to have been worth all that effort.
A passing reference in his text to a mausoleum leads Pratchett to an observation that makes sense, even humorous sense, even if it is a bit uncomfortable to think about.
Contrary to general belief, Bill Door [Death’s alias] wasn’t very familiar with funereal décor. Deaths didn’t normally take place in tombs, except in rare and unfortunate cases. The open air, the bottoms of rivers, halfway down sharks, any amount of bedrooms, yes — tombs, no.
His business was the separation of the wheatgerm of the soul from the chaff of the mortal body, and that was usually concluded long before any of the rites associated with, when you get right down to it, a reverential form of garbage disposal.
Pratchett’s whimsical gloom, his dark levity, is in full flower in Reaper Man, and, while laughs abound, there are more than a few poignant moments.
Such as when Bill Door goes to Simnel who has made a machine that he is calling a Combination Harvester to slice through the fields and bring in the crop in a much faster, much more efficient way than that old human-muscle method.
“We’re going to give it a trial run this afternoon up at old Peedbury’s big field. It looks very promising, I must say. What you’re looking at now, Mr. Door, is the future.”
Bill Door ran his hand over the framework.
AND THE HARVEST FIELD ITSELF?
“Hmm? What about it?”
WHAT WILL IT THINK OF IT? WILL IT KNOW?
Simnel wrinkled his nose. “Know? Know? It won’t know anything. Corn’s corn.”
Yes, corn is corn.
And aren’t we all corn?
Patrick T. Reardon