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Terry Pratchett, RIP

Terry Pratchett, a kind man and wonderful writer, died this morning. He had been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s in 2007.

His work was brilliant. When I was writing my dissertation, which became my first book, about feminist revisions of fairy tales and classical myth, I loaned Witches Abroad, a novel about fairy tales, but really about stories and how important it is not to let them control us, to my advisor. She gave it back to me the following day and said she’d had to put it down after ten pages, because reading it was too much like being inside my head. My head. I first read Terry Pratchett when I was…10, first read Witches Abroad when I was 15. That’s how much his writing and philosophy have shaped me–reading my favorite of his books was too much, for my advisor, like being inside my head. And I don’t think I could ever receive a greater compliment.

Why is his death, the death of a white, male satirist and fantasy writer, worthy of note on a feminist blog? More than one reason, but let me begin with his books about witches.

When I assigned Witches Abroad, a novel about a coven of three witches, two elderly and one young(ish), a student once said to me “I kept waiting for Magrat [the young witch] to do something, to take action–it took me forever to realize that she wasn’t the protagonist! The book isn’t about her!” No, it’s not. How many books do you know that are about, that center, old women, particularly powerful old women? How many books that feature as the driving relationships, relationships between old women, conflict between two [spoiler] elderly sisters, and the love between two elderly best friends (another reason I love the books–is there any doubt that Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are the most important people in each other’s lives? Nanny Ogg has buried three husbands, and doesn’t seem to miss ’em, but when Granny depends on her, she hustles)? Pratchett wrote several. For Pratchett, we did not stop existing, did not stop being worthy of story and development and complexity, when we got old. Indeed, Granny Weatherwax, in a confrontation with the Queen of the Fairies in Lords and Ladies specifically rejects the notion of staying young (and therefore beautiful) forever:

“That’s the thing about witchcraft,” she said. “It doesn’t exactly keep you young, but you do stay old for longer. Whereas you, of course, do not age,” she added….”And, my lady, old I may be, and hag I may be, but stupid I ain’t….You know I never entered your circle. I could see where it led. So I had to learn. All my life. The hard way. And the hard way’s pretty hard, but not so hard as the easy way. I learned….[Y]ou know nothing, madam, nothing. What don’t die can’t live. What don’t live can’t change. What don’t change can’t learn. The smallest creature that dies in the grass knows more than you. You’re right. I’m older. You’ve lived longer than me but I’m older than you. And better’n you. And, madam, that ain’t hard.”

In We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the Rwandan genocide, Philip Gourevitch argues that power, put simply, is the ability to force other people to live and die in your story of them, that Hutu Power created a narrative in which Tutsis had to be killed, and forced Rwandans to live and die in that narrative. Those kinds of stories surround us–about black people, about Jews, about women, about all of us–and we all live within them and fight them as best we can. Witches Abroad is about not falling for stories, even powerful ones, even seductive ones, not letting stories control you, not letting yourself become just a cardboard character. And that is a political message. You can change stories, if you know them well enough. You don’t have to follow the path that a reigning ideology has laid out for you. Not that it’s easy to buck that system–stories fight back, well, we all know that. But you can, and you must, because otherwise you are made less than human. And importantly, Pratchett tells us, you can’t do it just by wishing.

And Pratchett wrote Hogfather, about the importance of the stories we tell ourselves, the lies, the non-physical truths, about the existence of justice, about belief in those stories and how important that is. But even in Hogfather, there are some stories you don’t put up with–The Little Match Girl, for instance. In Pratchett’s version, the entity currently playing the part of Father Christmas shows up and saves her from freezing to death, because that story is harmful bullshit. And we get to make that call–in fact, we have to make that call. It’s our responsibility as thinking human beings. It’s what makes us thinking human beings.

So yes, I think Pratchett deserves a memorial on a feminist website. Because we fight those stories every day, and we try to make new ones out of the old ones we have lying around, and Pratchett shows us that not only do we have to, but that age does not have to stop us, that we can get more powerful and more important as we become old women, not less.

22 thoughts on Terry Pratchett, RIP

  1. Awesome post. He will be badly missed.

    But even in Hogfather, there are some stories you don’t put up with–The Little Match Girl, for instance. In Pratchett’s version, the entity currently playing the part of Father Christmas shows up and saves her from freezing to death, because that story is harmful bullshit.

    For all that the religious ending is bullshit, the description of trying to sell matches in the freezing cold- knowing you could light one for a temporary reprieve, but at the cost of everything else- is one of the most succinct and effective descriptions of genuine poverty I’ve ever read.

    1. Thanks!

      I agree, and for me that makes the “happy” ending all the more egregious–it’s trying to use religion to make all that suffering all right, and it isn’t all right.

      1. It’s a religious story that is frankly more honest than most I’ve heard. You can take out the idea of heaven. And just interpret it as death at least means that the suffering ends. It acknowledges the dark side of life and death is sometimes the only end to suffering.

        1. You can’t take out the idea of heaven, because that’s what happens in the ending: her grandma comes and takes her to heaven. That’s the story:

          She took the little maiden, on her arm, and both flew in brightness and in joy so high, so very high, and then above was neither cold, nor hunger, nor anxiety–they were with God.

          And that’s supposed to be the consolation for all her suffering:

          No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.

          It’s one thing to say that death is the end of suffering when the person has some horrible illness. But HCA treats poverty like an unavoidable illness or a weather system, and isn’t it lovely that she could see all that splendor and joy of heaven in death?

          Well, no, it’s not, and I find that kind of pap really insulting. As Pratchett wrote: “Maybe if you stopped telling people it was all sorted out after they died, they’d try sorting it out here.”

          It may be honest for a religious story, but for a fairy tale, it’s crap.

          And HCA has a nasty sadistic fetish for torturing little girls in his stories: The Little Match Girl, The Red Shoes, The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf (it’s also the happy ending of The Red Shoes; after Karen begs the woodsmen to chop off her feet, she hides herself away and when she’s old the Virgin Mary comes to take her to heaven where nobody asks her about the red shoes, all because when she was a kid she wanted a pair of pretty shoes, and was so happy about them she did a dance step in church. I ask you.). It’s creepy.

        2. I disagree with EG – I don’t love the story, but I think it’s a condemnation of the people who let her die – they explicitly DON’T know that she’s reunited with her grandmother in heaven. They don’t even have that very very thin and appalling justification for letting a little girl freeze to death.

          I have my issues with HCA, but I don’t think he was the flavor of religious that doesn’t bother with helping people now because heaven exists so who cares about earthly suffering.

  2. Also, the thing about Granny and Nanny is that not only are they two old women, they are two old women who chose different paths (beyond ‘witch’). Nanny is a matriarch of a clan of descendants, while Granny has devoted her life to mastery of a craft (both the magical aspects and the social aspects). In their arguments, they throw out lines that indicate that Nanny and Granny would be miserable at living each other’s lives and can’t understand why the other likes her life, but I always got the impression that both had found the right life for her. (Even when Granny was melancholy that her life path was very different from most women in her setting, I think she didn’t regret it once she thought about it.)

    1. I agree. At the end of Lords and Ladies, when Ridcully asks if she thinks that somewhere, everything all went right, she says “Yes. Here.” I don’t think she regrets it at all, she just becomes somewhat wistful, sometimes. And I like your point about there being more than one path for powerful women.

    2. Oh, and I love that Nanny Ogg, when she wants to be, is still utterly sexy and attractive, not because she looks young, because she doesn’t, and her face is a mass of wrinkles, but she’s just really compelling, and the world’s second-best lover is entranced.

      1. The fact that an elderly woman “with a face like a withered apple” is written not only as unashamedly, unabashedly sexual, but as somebody incredibly desirable is a powerful, powerful thing.

        Casanunda is a fun character for a lot of reasons, but I can’t even think of another character written by a well-known and popular author who makes it very, very plain that an older woman is sexy as hell.

  3. EG, if you were to recommend one of Terry Pratchett’s books to read, would it be Witches Abroad?

    1. Oooh, tough call! It probably would be. That’s my favorite. But I also love Guards! Guards!, which is a hard-boiled detective story about a series of murders committed by a dragon in Discworld (Pratchett’s fictional world)’s biggest city, and is also about the murderous power of petty spite and nastiness.

      But I love Witches Abroad so much! I think you’d like it, too. Try to get the British editions if you can; the American editions are ugly, in my opinion.

      1. Thanks! (I could probably benefit from a book showing that “we can get more powerful and more important as we become old women, not less,” given how sad I’ve been lately about growing older — probably due in large part to my feelings of wistfulness that I never had the opportunity to be young, at least not in the way I wanted to be.)

        1. Good Omens is also an amazing, brilliant, and hilarious book, and possibly a good place to start if you’re not particularly oriented to the fantasy genre (like me.) I’m surprised that no one has mentioned it, because I would put it amongst my favorite books of all time. It ultimately got me reading more Pratchett and I can definitely second EG’s recommendation of Guards! Guards!

          It’s a shame, a couple of months ago I could have given you a copy of each when I liquidated my library.

          Many of the Discworld novels (and Good Omens) have been serialized for BBC Radio 4 and they are uniformly of excellent quality.

      2. My first Terry Pratchett was the Hogfather and I loved it. Susan Sto Helit, Death’s grand daughter, stars. I recommend this one to begin with, I understood the world pretty well.

    2. Small Gods, 100% (EG’s picks are awesome too). One of the funniest, most incisive, and still fundamentally compassionate pieces of satire I’ve ever read.

      1. Small Gods was AMAZING.

        My personal favourite(s) are probably Nation, which was absolutely stunning and heart-wrenching, while still being funny and kind. (Also a very smooth treatment of gender-segregated patriarchies and colonialism.) And I really loved the Bromeliad trilogy, which is a beautiful critique of organised religion while still being freakin’ hilarious. Also Thief of Time, just for being funny as fuck.

        1. I LOVED Nation.

          Spoilers ahoy:

          I especially loved the fact that the protagonists did NOT marry off at the end. Close friends, yes. Deeply beloved, yes. Ambiguous ending which I will not spoil, yes. Mawwiage and babies ever after? No.

    3. I love Feet of Clay. It’s in the middle of the Night Watch series. But so good, and pretty much stands alone. Feminist issues, Social Justice issues. Just brilliant.

  4. I was very much tempted to scroll past this article when I saw it in my feed reader earlier, not wanting to believe Terry Pratchett dead. He’s been such a large presence in my life since I was about 14 that it feels somehow wrong to think of him as not present anymore. And I certainly hope that he influenced me as much as I sometimes feel he did: His characters being among the loudest voices of my inner chorus.

    [For a specifically feminist reading of his work I’d also point to the Tiffany Aching series and the stand-alone novel Monstrous Regiment. The former is ostensibly written for young readers, but that (as usual) doesn’t mean much. For me at least it had a massive impact and ranks very high among my discworld favorites. The latter follows the eponymous regiment through a war that, by all rights, should already be lost and shines a strong light on the ways in which a society can turn dysfunctional, despite a lack of actual villains.

    And: E.G., could you point me to your first book?]

  5. It fucking sucks. He was one of my top 5 favorites. I’ve even managed to get my jail bird brother into them. Maybe he’ll learn something.

  6. Such sad news. I have been rereading Colleen McCullough’s Rome novels since her death, and have nearly finished, so now I know what I’ll be rereading next.

    Alongside all the other tributes to Sir Terry that I was happy to see on the web this week, I was gladdened to learn that I can look forward to a new Tiffany Aching novel in a few months. He’d just finished it and sent it to his publisher.

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