he sudden appearance of a tall, black-robed character speaking in unquoted capitals is the first hint that something has gone terribly awry. On March 12, 2015, the world saw these words appear on Sir Terry Pratchett’s Twitter feed: AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. One of the world’s most beloved authors had finally succumbed to the rare form of Alzheimer’s with which he had been diagnosed eight years prior.
It was a fitting tribute to Sir Terry’s work that the news was delivered by Death himself. Out of 40 Discworld novels, Death makes an appearance in all but two, and features as a main character in five. The character of Death is far more complex than simply a “grim reaper,” though he clearly borrows the reaper’s aesthetic.
Death, as Sir Terry imagined him, does not choose those who will die; he simply collects their spirits and helps them cross over to whatever happens next. Death is something of a philosopher—having a rather unique perspective on the human condition—and is surprisingly sympathetic to humanity.
Though Death is, with extremely rare exceptions, an unavoidable reality, he is not unkind. Death is not, in Sir Terry’s world, an enemy to be feared. His is an appointment to be avoided, surely, but Death himself is not our enemy.
It would be nice if we could end there, if we could simply say “farewell” to Sir Terry, imagining him meeting Death, shaking his hand, and moving on to whatever comes next. It would be nice, but it would be for our own comfort and not truly representative of what Sir Terry believed.
In the Discworld companion book, Art of Discworld, written several years before he received his own diagnosis, Sir Terry writes on the character of Death: “Sometimes I get nice letters from people who know they’re due to meet him soon, and hope I’ve got him right. Those are the kind of letters that cause me to stare at the wall for some time…”
Death himself gives us some insight into the situation. In the novel Hogfather, Death has a conversation with his human granddaughter (long story), Susan, about the nature of belief. Susan is logical, her world is black and white. Death, on the other hand, sees the need for people to believe.
“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need…fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
For all that his imagination had created a world populated by gods, monsters and anthropomorphic personifications, Terry Pratchett was a humanist. He did not believe in the supernatural, but he did believe in humanity’s ability to imagine a world that is better than the current world and to “believe” that world into existence. As Death points out to Susan, YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME?
If we side completely with Sir Terry, we have to ask, “Is everything worth believing in just a lie we tell ourselves in order to create a more liveable world?” If so, it seems like a secret we’d best keep quiet. When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate speaking of “truth”, Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” Pilate’s truth was that he could have Jesus crucified. In the face of that, even the most beautiful lies melt away like a snowflake in the August sun.
Sir Terry admired many of our truths and is frequently quoted as having said that he was “rather angry with God for not existing.” Still, despite recognizing the need for the human race to believe in something in order to be “the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape,” he simply could not, with intellectual honesty, believe in any world beyond our own, based on the evidence he had.
So in the end, Death as a personality was just a literary device for Sir Terry. It seems unfair to imagine him believing his own fantasy in order to face death like an old friend. To be sure, Sir Terry faced his death with great dignity, but he did so without giving in to sentimental superstition; I think he died believing that it truly was the end.
Even for those of us within the realm of “orthodox” Christianity, there is tremendous diversity in beliefs regarding what happens to us after we die. Within my own theology there is still room for the possibility, for the fervent hope, that when at last Death takes my own hand and leads me from this world into the next that I may yet find a surprised but delighted Sir Terry waiting for me there. ♦