As I get further into Discworld with these re-reads, the thing I worry about most is repeating myself too much. I believe that some of Pratchett’s ideas and philosophies should be revisited when they come up, partly because they are more than just ideas; they add a texture to the narrative that gives Discworld the organic feel that I mentioned in a previous article.
However, I am also aware that in a series of over forty books – and therefore over forty articles – I am in great danger of talking too much about the same, or similar, things. Some of them will, therefore, focus on a singular occurrence in the text (something I have already done in my ‘Sourcery’ read, talking only about Rincewind). The necessity of this, I hope, comes from keeping the articles interesting and varied. In that vein, this is going to be about Death, the main character in ‘Reaper Man’ and, along with Granny Weatherwax and Sam Vimes, one of what I personally call ‘Pratchett’s Big Three’.
‘Reaper Man’ is the tale of what would happen if Death just walked away from his job one day and did not come back. The undead take centre stage in Ankh-Morpork, including the recently deceased wizard Windle Poons, who has until this book been a bit part in the world of the Unseen University. Whilst he is rampaging around the city, very annoyed that Death has not paid him the personal visit that all wizards are promised, Death is being edged out of his eternal task by Azrael, Death of Universes, and his Auditors.
I’ll be honest and say that the reasons for this have eluded me both times that I read this novel, but I’m sure someone much cleverer than me would be able to pick them out of what I think is some of Pratchett’s densest and least accessible text. This failure on my part aside, Death ends up working on a farm under the name ‘Bill Door’, wearing stylish dungarees and living quite happily besides everyone else, who see him but don’t really see him for what he is. It is a trick he has used before and we are used to the idea that he is essentially free to walk amongst humans undetected.
The thing that struck me the most about Death, from ‘The Colour of Magic’ all the way up to ‘Reaper Man’, is that he is probably the singular character in Discworld who has the most heart. Do not forget that he adopted a child who had been abandoned and took her into his realm, from the sheer notion that he should care for her. He is kind and gentle with animals and people, especially children, and he tries particularly hard to ease the passing of most characters we see him come into contact with. In this novel alone, he saves the child of the pub landlord by sharing his very limited life timer with her. When Miss Flitworth dies at the end, after he has been restored to his rightful position, he is careful with her soul and gives her the best death he can possibly give her.
His inclination towards good interests me because he is a product of the ‘belief’ of the people, just like all such beings on the Disc are. The gods, who are often presented as vindictive, petty and even cruel, behave exactly how you would expect a god to behave if it were being imagined by its wary and often scared worshippers. Death is not vengeful or frightening, as you or I would probably imagine a manifestation of such a thing to be.
He is simply someone who does his job and does it with no little amount of compassion. I think this creates a thought-provoking interpretation of how the people of the Disc, on a whole, view death. They do not fear him, or whatever it is that lies beyond; it is just a thing that happens, whenever it will happen, and because of this laissez-faire attitude, Death is free to develop a personality around that which suits what the people expect of him. He is strikingly individual, his own man as it were, and a character worthy of admiration.
He does not do it for the glory, of course; when he fights ‘New Death’, who has risen to take his place, he is angrier than he has ever been; ‘NO CROWN, said Bill Door, looking directly into the smoke. NO CROWN. ONLY THE HARVEST.’ This Death is a loyal servant, and one you can absolutely count on to always do the right thing, no matter how much you might wish that he wouldn’t.
“…no-one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away… The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”
(I don’t think I am going to stop finding these little moments that make me emotional about Sir Terry all over again.)
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