The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire! But not in the fun song kind of way. We’re back to Reaper Man…
The wizards arrive at the palace to utter chaos and the site of high priests, a fight breaks out between the groups, but Ridcully and the Chief Priest talk privately to make sure that it’s not either of their sides causing the trouble, and decide to present a united front to talk to the Patrician. (Ridcully and the Chief Priest also happen to be brothers.) All the heads of various orders talk to the Patrician, but everyone insists that the current outbreak is not their doing, and there’s nothing to suggest otherwise. Mrs. Cake gets in touch with her spirit guide and decides that she should talk to the wizards and tell them what she thinks is going on since they’re one of the few groups she hasn’t irritated beyond their ability to cope—she usually harasses priests of various gods and temples instead. Meanwhile, Bill Door starts his first day on the job for Miss Flitworth, insisting upon cutting down the grass one blade at a time, feeding her pig, and instructing her rooster on how to properly crow. He goes into town to the one tavern, meets the locals and befriends them by pretending to be terrible at games. (The tavern keeper’s little daughter knows he’s a skeleton, but she’s ushered out.) He goes back to the barn to sleep and Mis Flitworth brings him warm milk.
Windle Poons goes to his first dead rights meeting, and the wizards decide they ought to summon Death, as they’ve done before. Only this time it doesn’t work, and Death doesn’t show. Instead, one of the Auditors shows up and explains that Death has been retired and that there will be a disruption in service until a suitable candidate can be found for replacement. Windle meets a collection of undead at his meeting, including vampires, a wereman, a banshee, and bogeyman, and another zombie who runs the group. He heads back to the University and the bogeyman (Schleppel) follows. Poons asks if he knows why the screws are unscrewing and the bogeyman tells him it’s an overabundance of life-force, which he thinks he should probably look into.
On the farm, Miss Flitworth invites Bill inside for the evening to have tea. She tells him that she lost her father some time ago, and that once she was going to be married, but her fiancé died the day before their wedding in the avalanche. (The people in town clearly do not believe this; they think he ran out on her.) She thought there was no point in going on about it like a character in a book, so she bagged her dress and invited people over to eat the wedding breakfast food. Bill asks if he can stop her owl clock because it’s aggravating to him, then goes back to the barn when he goes to bed. He has a dream of being called back to his job and is startled to have dreamt at all. He asks Miss Flitworth about dreams and they talk about the inevitability of death, which she doesn’t worry about overmuch, but he is beginning to worry about quite a lot. He encounters it more on the farm through the rat poison Miss Flitworth puts down and the chicken they kill for dinner. The little girl (named Sal) comes to talk to Bill again, and he can’t prevent her from saying he’s a skeleton, but she seems alright with it. That night Bill meets a new Death—the Death of Rats. They have a brief chat and Bill gives it a piece of cheese. He tries not to sleep for fear of dreaming again, but he does.
That night he wakes to Miss Flitworth screaming: There’s a fire in town at the inn, and she insists they must help or it will spread. It turns out that Sal is still inside, and Miss Flitworth demands a ladder, something to get in to her girl. Bill doesn’t think they should interfere; he believes it would be meddling in fate because everyone has a time to die. Miss Flitworth slaps him in the face and tells him he will leave her farm tonight, moving to the help the townspeople. Bill looks at his hourglass and realizes that he’s not out of sand, and he doesn’t care about fate anymore. He walks into the fire, and comes back out with the child, who he takes back to Miss Flitworth’s bedroom and places on her bed. He calls for an apothecary, and tells Miss Flitworth to watch the girl and not let the apothecary take anything from the room when he leaves. He has given Sal his timer, his time, even though he doesn’t have much left. Miss Flitworth finally realizes who Bill is and confronts him as he’s trying to sharpen her scythe. He explains everything, including his life, and the fact that he thought he could maybe use the scythe to fight when the new Death arrives for him and the girl. He is not optimistic about his chances, however. Miss Flitworth suggests that he keep hope—Bill is moved by this and asks if she’ll fetch him a steel.
Look, obviously I think that Terry Pratchett is an incredible writer or I wouldn’t be here doing this. He has created created a literal world full of stories and characters that many people love the world over, and so many of those tales are worth recounting and sharing and dissecting.
But the Death books are always the ones that make me cry.
There’s a certain obviousness about that, I suppose, because the character is designed in such a way that he confronts most of life’s biggest questions and conundrums and hardships. In effect, Pratchett’s Death stories are always about life and the meaning we infuse it with. Death stories are about the little things that mean everything in our specifically human view. They are also largely as philosophical, as sentimental, even arguably as religious as Pratchett ever gets. And I say that because I truly do believe that many fantasy authors create their own versions of faith through their writing, and in some ways, I think that Death is who Pratchett believes in. I think he proves it over and over again with these books, and there’s something deeply personal about that.
I suppose I also wonder if Death is really the closest we get to Pratchett’s heart. As a writer, he’s not exactly a romantic fellow. Oh, he writes about plenty of relationships and falling in love and families, but there’s always this charming layer of no-nonsense about it. Maybe even a bit of embarrassment? As a satirist, it’s difficult not to treat a romantic sensibility without a little side-eye, and that is liberally applied in how Pratchett writes interpersonal relationships. It’s refreshing on the one hand, but when you’re looking at such a large body of work, you do wind up with some questions about the person who wrote it. How they feel about feeling in general.
All of this is to say, yes, I am crying right now. Thanks for that, Sir Terry.
As with the previous section we went through, this book is largely about time and how it registers to the human mind. Death notices his hourglass is running no matters what he does, and this knowledge begins to frighten him because he realizes that he has no control over it: “While he had been waiting to experience sleep, something had stolen part of his… of his life.” There are many stories where gods or deities become mortal, get the chance to live through the human side of things, but there’s something particularly arresting about Death’s experience here—because unlike most figures who get to experience humanity for the first time, there’s nothing malicious or cruel in his nature. He doesn’t understand these things because he is utterly removed from the context, and now, for the first time, he isn’t. He realizes that time creates pressure on the living, that the knowledge of our lives being temporary is ever-present. He wonders why anyone would want to live through that at all.
When you’re human, you’re aware that it’s the only game in town, and most people just try not to think about it. Death is new to the whole gambit, however, so he doesn’t have that ability yet and the anxiety just leaks right out of him. But he does have just enough humanity to think to sacrifice his own time to a little girl who is meant to die in a fire.
It’s rather reminiscent of his treatment of those drowned kittens, in fact. There is a vacancy of feeling, a confusion around emotion, until there suddenly isn’t at all.
One of the other ways that Death stories function is via their ability to take note of the many ways that most humans bog down their lives in vagaries and social rules that on the surface make no sense at all. Death devotes a considerable amount of time to trying to glean what people actually mean beneath what they’re saying. He feigns inability at most games because it makes the townspeople like him. It’s distressing on the one end because this is a thing that plenty of human beings do on a daily basis—not everyone understands the social rules imposed around them, particularly as they pertain to speech and how people get around saying what they mean. But it also works to make Death more human than ever before because this is the first time he’s truly cared about getting it “wrong.”
But for all that Death doesn’t have to worry about, we see glimmers of what he misses out on in the meantime. Relationships with other people is certainly one. And there are concepts as well—like having hope wherever there is life. We could certainly go and back and forth over wether hope is a good thing (people have, and do, frequently from philosophical and practical standpoints), but the real magic here is in learning something new that he can bring to bear in a moment when giving up seems to be the only viable option.
Now we just wait and see where that leads.
Asides and little thoughts:
- First reference to Maurice and his educated rodents is in here, and I’d totally forgotten that.
- It’s not truly relevant to the overall arc of the story, but the whole bits with the Chief of the Fools around his “sharp retort” pun and how everyone handles it is… *chef’s kiss* It’s a real skill to be able to do “everyone in a room” scenes in prose, and being able to do that make it funny is harder still, which is the reason we’re all still reading Discworld books.
- In point of fact, “dropping a portcullis through that avenue of conversation” is a phrase that should be used in common vernacular. Please help me to do this.
- I like the idea of Death playing as the boot in the Disc’s version of Monopoly.
The place seemed to be in the grip of a selective and tidy-minded hurricane.
There was a noticeable drop in metaphorical temperature.
A small rug sinewaved past at eye level.
She was quivering with self-importance, like a small enraged football.
Belief is one of the most powerful organic forces in the multiverse. It may not be able to move mountains, exactly. But it can create someone who can.
Amazing. To feel you were a tiny living thing, sandwiched between two cliffs of darkness. How could be stand to be alive?
It was amazing how many friends you could make by being bad at things, provided you were bad enough to be funny.
Sleep. He could feel her prowling around. Sleep, with a pocketful of dreams.
Next week we read up to “And then he heard the music.”