Nov 17 2011 11:00am

Gallows Humor and Occasional Profanities: An Appreciation of Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett. Photo by Robin Matthews.

“We should warn you that over the next 6 minutes we’ll hear Terry Pratchett talk of this dark subject the way he writes: with gallows humor and the occasional profanity.”

Thus did NPR’s Steve Inskeep introduce his August 11 interview with Sir Terry Pratchett on the subject of legalized assisted suicide, an issue in which Pratchett has become heavily invested following the “embuggerance,” as his 2007 Alzheimer’s diagnosis shall forever be known. I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever heard a warning for “gallows humor” used as an introduction to anything on Morning Edition, or anywhere else for that matter. To Pratchett’s admirers, that humor is one of the man’s great qualities, along with his beautifully transparent prose and usefully cynical, yet surprisingly optimistic worldview.

Pratchett’s oeuvre extends well beyond the Discworld, but I must somewhat shamefacedly confess that the Discworld books (and the Neil Gaiman collaboration Good Omens) are the ones with which I’m most familiar. In this respect, I suspect I’m not in a minority of Pratchett fans. Of course, the Discworld books alone are no small thing on which to build a reputation and a dedicated fan base. What began as a series of jokey fantasy-genre send-ups about a bumbling wizard, a tourist, and a homicidal clothing trunk has grown into a fully-realized funhouse mirror version of our own world, complete with a postal service, a newspaper, drug problems, and racial and religious strife. Which isn’t to say that the fun has gone out of them, at least not for me. The jokes haven’t gone away; they’ve become subtler instruments — laser scalpels instead of great heavy axes.

True, the latest Discworld novel, Snuff, is probably one of the darkest, encompassing as it does the lethal human prejudice against goblins and the continuing struggle of reluctant hero and born policeman Sam Vimes (who still chafes against the title and the accoutrements of  His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Ankh; Commander Sir Samuel Vimes) against the devils of his nature. This is a novel where one clear-eyed character says, “I tell you, commander, it’s true that some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they’re doing it for the best, especially if there is some god involved.” — a Pratchett axiom if there ever was one.

It could all be deeply depressing if it weren’t for the humor keeping it afloat. There’s the Jane Austen joke, and the obsession of Vimes’s son with all manner and making of animal excrement. There’s a boat named the “Wonderful Fanny” (which is even funnier and more rude if you’re British), and all of the deadpan satire1 that Pratchett’s fans have come to love. And here’s the thing about Pratchett’s satire: no matter how stupid, foolish, snobbish, or shortsighted the people he’s sending up may be, he never entirely loses his empathy for them. The greatest mistake a satirist can make is to be contemptuous, and Pratchett knows better than that. Very few people in his world are completely bad or completely irredeemable, and those few that are generally have a number of springs unfixably loose in their clockworks.

You could argue that some of Pratchett’s storylines have slipped into a kind of predictability in the last several years — in the Witch books, for instance, a seasoned reader can guess that some kind of fairy-tale or fantasy trope will get twisted on its ear, and that Granny Weatherwax will end up pulling the fat out of the fire with some kind of highly dangerous witchery while Nanny Ogg keeps things grounded with her… decidedly earthy outlook on life. A Watch book is guaranteed to be a police procedural involving some kind of corruption in high places, the eventual exposure of which Vimes may or may not have been quietly maneuvered into by the über-Machiavellian Lord Vetinari. A Death novel almost invariably hinges on some key component of the universe: Time, mortality, the human capacity for fantasy.

But the familiarity of the plots is part of the point, considering that the Discworld books themselves are also about the classic narratives that we tell ourselves, that we use to make sense of the world. The familiar plots are the necessary frames that contain the trenchant observations on human nature, the gently head-shaking bemusement at the universe and the silly things people do in it.

Most Discworld fans have favorite “arcs”; mine are the Watch and the Death books. Throughout the Watch books — Guards! Guards!, Men at Arms, Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, Night Watch, Thud!, and now Snuff — we’ve followed the evolution of Sam Vimes, the copper’s copper, and one of my favorite fictional heroes. He’s intelligent and dryly funny, a classic “only sane man,” and a devoted family man, but what I find most compelling about him are his ferociously dogged attempts to bring justice to the world, despite the best efforts of his fellow man (and dwarf, and troll, and other) and his own darker temptations to thwart him.

The Death books — Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather, The Thief of Time — deal with something at once much bigger and much more basic: the source code of the universe, as it were. Such abstractions are made accessible through the Disc’s version of Death, the seven-foot-tall skeleton who has perhaps absorbed a bit more humanity than he lets on, and his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, who acts as the sensible, hard-nosed bridge between ordinary people and the metaphysical high castle of anthropormorphic personifications — a perspective from which Vimes’s precious justice is clearly seen for what it is in this conversation between Susan and Death in Hogfather:

“All right,” said Susan, “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable.”


“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers?”


“So we can believe the big ones?”


“They’re not the same at all!”


“Yes. But people have got to believe that or what’s the point?”


Some might find the idea of a mechanistic universe made bearable only through human fantasy to be unbearably bleak. But somehow, Pratchett leaves the reader not with despair, but with hope and indeed a kind of renewed faith in humanity — the realization that despite our species’ predilection for stupidity and cruelty, there is something sublime and valuable about our existence. After all, Death’s worst enemies are the Auditors of Reality, life-hating entities of such pure, hyper-rational order that they can only barely be considered entities at all. In theory, Death isn’t supposed to take sides, but invariably, he comes down on the side of the confusing, untidy, occasionally well-intentioned people who make the world such an interesting and troubled place to live in. 

It’s this wryly humanistic quality that makes Pratchett’s books special, and why I’ve admired his work so much and for such a long time. When he announced his diagnosis, he observed that there was no doubt time for a few more books yet — and we may all hope that there is still time yet for more.


1And the footnotes, bane of e-readers everywhere.

Karin Kross lives and writes in Austin, TX. She can be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter.

This article is part of Barnes & Noble Bookseller’s Picks: ‹ previous | index | next ›
Otto Krumholz
1. Otto Krumholz
Spot on, but how could you omit "Feet of Clay", for my money one of the best of the Watch books? Dorfl the agnostic golem has long been a personal favorite.
Karin L Kross
2. KarinKross
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. And it's not even as if I couldn't see Feet of Clay from where I was sitting when I was writing this! Sorry about that.
Gonzalo San Martin
3. Gonzalo
Thanks for the article. The more people realise that Pratchett's fantasy
is merely a setting (detailed and beautiful and fascinating in its own
right) and a vehicle for expressing his brand of humanist philosophy,
the more might come to appreciate just how much their lievs could be
Otto Krumholz
4. dubsub
That quote is my favorite quote from all of Discworld. I have it stored away on my computer and even casually reading it in your article now brought a lump to my throat.
Bleak, but still strangely uplifting.
Otto Krumholz
5. omega_n
That was a beautiful paean to one of the great writers of our age. Thank you. The Watch is definitely my favorite sub-series, though Death and the Witches aren't far behind.
Chris Palmer
6. cmpalmer
That scene from Hogfather is my personal favorite as well. There is a remarkable amount of religion, philosophy, psychology, and sociology expressed in that simple exchange. "TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE"

A close runner-up would be the description of Wen, the Eternally Suprised from Thief of Time. It's hard to argue with it as a life philosophy.
The first question asked is, “Why was he eternally surprised?”

And they are told: “Wen considered the nature of time and understood that the universe is, instant by instant, re-created anew. Therefore, he understood, there is, in truth, no Past, only a memory of the Past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you
closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.”
7. Hatgirl
Karin, if you haven't read Pratchett's Bromeliad Trilogy (beginning with Truckers) and Johnny Maxwell Trilogy (beginning with Only You Can Save Mankind) you are in for a treat! Theoretically "for kids", they would be on my list of Desert Island Pratchett Books, ahead of some of the Discworld series (and I really love the Discworld series). Go read 'em now! *poke poke*
Otto Krumholz
8. meteorplum
Karin, what's your opinion of the Tiffany Aching books? If I were cynical, I'd suggest that those books were a way to "sideboot" the Witches. But I think they are great books.

Otto Krumholz@1, Dorfl may be agnostic, but he is observant. :-)
Otto Krumholz
9. a-j
Joining the love for the Hogfather quote. Entertainingly here in the UK several of our literati have given Sir Pterry the rather back-handed compliment of assuming that's the 'falling angel/rising ape' line is a quote from someone else, you know, a proper writer.
As I commented on the post here specifically on Snuff, I think it's easy to forget how much anger is a driver for Pratchett's fiction, anger at the contempt of the 'great' for the 'little'. It runs through just about all his books, but is probably strongest, imo, in Snuff and Going Postal.
meteorplum@8 - butting in before Karin, sorry, but I like the Tiffany Aching books. They can be seen as a sort of 'Young Granny Weatherwax Chronicles', but Tiffany is a fully formed character of her own and the Nac Mac Feegle are one of Pratchett's greatest creations.
Karin L Kross
10. KarinKross
@meteorplum: I have actually only just started on the Tiffany Aching books, so stay tuned. :)

@a-j: Agreed; I'm pretty sure that Snuff is one of the angriest Pratchett books that there is. See also Death's rage at the Auditors of Humanity in Hogfather.
Otto Krumholz
11. DL Morrese
Karin, Thank you so much for this post. Terry Pratchett is my favorite author and you have summed up the reasons why very, very well.
Stephanie Stein
12. stephaniestein
This is such a beautiful summation of how I feel about Terry Pratchett, and why I won't stop recommending him even to friends who rarely-to-never read genre fiction. He goes so far beyond being simply "funny," and you've hit the nail on the head with your note on compassion.
Jennifer Kendzior
13. irisclara
Snuff reminds me a lot of Thud!, not just in the treatment of other races but also in the inspirationally fair-minded way Vimes thinks of the other races. The way he shows that you don't have to lower your standards to include "lower" people. That, I feel, is why Vimes wants the Watch to include as many races as possible. If justice a fantasy, then the more people share it the bigger and more powerful it becomes. That was the horrible thing about the goblins. They didn't even think of their situation as injustice, just the way things are.

Pratchett gives me strength to see injustice and fight it. Nation is another great book on this theme. When injustice is the status quo, then we must be strong enough to change the status quo.
Otto Krumholz
14. Momtozoo
Sir Terry Pratchett is an amazing author - I've read his stories as they came out (yes, I'm old) and have always been awed, and sometimes saved, in my youthful angst, by his humor and understanding. Even in his character's anger there's humor, and in his humor, humanity.
Tony Linde
15. tonylinde
Just come to this thread. The Death quote above is also my favourite. I'd add the one from Granny Weatherwax about all crimes, all sin, coming from treating people as things.

Another vote here for Tiffany, my second favourite character after Susan.

I, personally, think that if all that survived of our world into the future were the Discworld books, the future would think we were a people with a highly developed sense of morality. What a shame they'd be wrong and aren't we truly lucky to have Terry to remind us of what we ought and could be.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment