The only certainty

Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter - Holbein's Dance of Death / Astrologer -
Holbeins Totentanz: der Sterndeuter – Holbein’s Dance of Death: Astrologer

Terry Pratchett Mort Corgi 1988 (1987)

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get round to Terry Pratchett. Maybe it’s because the comic fantasy I’ve sampled up to now has elicited a lukewarm response, humour being such a personal thing. I like word play as much as the next reader, along with left-field concepts, but key literary ingredients such as plotting, a sureness with words and above all characterisation are a must for me; their lack becomes a triumph of superficiality over substance.

Pratchett’s Mort I’ve discovered has both substance and sheen. Fourth in his celebrated Discworld series he skilfully blends whimsy, high fantasy, allusions and, yes, wordplay with a rattling good story, peopled with characters that despite some caricature keep the reader interested right through to the end. Death (yes, the one with a skull face, black cloak and scythe) seeks an apprentice, finding one in sixteen-year-old Mortimer. It adds to the fun if the reader is aware that young Mort’s name is a pun on Death’s own name, but it is never alluded to despite Mort’s irritation that he’s nearly always referred to as ‘boy’. There is love interest, but is it the headstrong Princess Keli or Death’s daughter the prickly Ysabell who grabs Mort’s attention? There is an enigmatic figure, Albert — what is he hiding? There is a comic bumbling wizard, Cutwell, but he isn’t the archetypal aged figure with a white beard. There are also various potential villains but the real interest is in the interplay between Death and his apprentice, who progressively seems to be taking on his master’s characteristics along with Death’s night shift while his master seeks to appreciate the pleasures of the, ah, flesh.

Death with his scythe, from a medieval Tarot card design
Death with his scythe, from a medieval Tarot card design

One essential difference between SF and fantasy that I’ve noticed is this: SF’s science-based world of cause and effect can be hugely affected by chaos theory — the metaphorical spanner in the works is a common plot-driver —  while fantasy’s chaotic worlds are equally often predicated on prophecies that need to be fulfilled — in other words Predestination Rules, meaning no-one can avoid their fate. Now, while it’s said that in our own world nothing is certain but death and taxes, in Discworld Death is the only certainty: in Death’s library each book writes out real lives in real time and Death with his scythe arrives at the appointed time as indicated by a handy hourglass. But — and it is a crucial ‘but’ — what if, somehow, someone’s lifespan is not cut off as preordained? What are the consequences to Discworld’s unfolding history? Will Discworld itself slowly unravel?

It doesn’t sound much of a barrel of laughs, does it? But Pratchett sounds just the right note for me by his dead-pan narration. He doesn’t say ‘Hey, I’m telling a joke and you must laugh here…’ but keeps plot and characterisation right at the forefront of his novel. He slips in his humour through, for example, vivid similes (“Mort and his gold had about the same life expectancy as a three-legged hedgehog on a six-lane motorway”) and violent anachronism (Death in his recognisable medieval guise tells a job-broker that he is an ‘anthropomorphic representation’). In fact Death has a particularly individual way of speaking in capitals: asked if he has any particular skills he replies I SUPPOSE A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF EXPERTISE WITH AGRICULTURAL IMPLEMENTS? Out of context this may seem as funny as a forgotten online password, but within the narrative it works very well. What works less well for me is whimsical exaggeration, and luckily Pratchett confines these to the odd footnote. These still contain the odd laugh-out-loud gem, however:

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.

hourglassI mentioned word play as not being a substitute for plot and characterisation, but it is something I appreciate. Here I will mention only a couple of examples, based around the aforementioned Princess Keli. First, her full name is Kelirehenna, as we only discover in the closing stages; I believe this might be a compound of Kelly (at its peak in 1984 the 15th most popular girl’s name in the UK) and the novel’s dedicatee, Rhianna. Secondly, she is princess of a city-state called Sto Lat, which I fancy is a reference to the city of Astolat in Arthurian legend. However, unlike the Lady of Astolat (also known, thanks to Tennyson, as the Lady of Shalott) who dies because she is snubbed by Sir Lancelot, the Princess of Sto Lat is instead saved from death because a young apprentice is smitten by her, thereby subverting the original.

Mort is a fun treatment of the familiar trope of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Aarne-Thompson folktale motif AT 325 ‘The Magician and his Pupil’) which has persuaded me that I’ve missed too much by remaining aloof from Pratchett.

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18 thoughts on “The only certainty

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    I put off reading Terry Pratchett for a long time too (see my post “My First Terry Pratchett: The Truth”) but I finally succumbed and found, as you say, both substance and sheen. I haven’t read Mort, though, and I must do something about that.

  2. Too many people are put off by Pratchett believing his work to be comic fantasy, and his earlier books certainly focussed on playing around with fantasy tropes. All good fun, but his real genius is that he changed tack as the series went on to use the world and characters he’d created to satirise modern life. He has a very good eye for the absurdities we live with and the wit to skewer them in an entertaining way.
    I read Mort many years ago and loved it. You’ve made me want to read it again.

  3. Welcome to Discworld! I’ve read them all; some at least twice. As Dylan noted, there is more going on behind the veil of fantasy. Part of the fun of Discword is working out what aspect of modern life Pratchett is satirizing. As you read more of the series you will find him poking fun at the media, consumerism, and popular myths. You may even enjoy his spin on Shakespeare. Yes, he takes on the Bard and does it rather well.

    1. As they appear to largely be standalone novels — albeit set in the Discworld universe — I’ll be relying on serendipity to decide what to read next, but I’ll definitely be looking out for the Bard-related title, Sari!

  4. I thought it was inevitable that you would get round to TP.
    Although my first excursion into his novels had me transported all of two inches, a later revisit converted me. For my tastes, the Watch ones are particularly clever. But then, even the witches, like Granny Ogg, tend to grow on one like warts.

  5. Started off with Guards! Guards! back when I stumbled on it working in a library in high school. Couldn’t find anything else then, but found more later and currently own (and have read) virtually all of the Discworlds (and wrote about a couple of them – Thud! and The Fifth Elephant feature in my book).

  6. Be sure to try the Tiffany Aching series, starting with The Wee Free Men, in which Pratchett brings Discworld to a YA audience.

    I think it interesting that Pratchett’s sometime writing partner, Neil Gaiman, wrote The Graveyard Book, in which Death plays an important role. And of course there’s Marcus Zuzak’s The Book Thief.

    1. Thanks for helping me to narrow down my choice by suggesting a good starting point, Lizzie. Will have to find a way to shoehorn more Pratchett into my reading challenge this year!

  7. I’ve obviously read the wrong Pratchetts. I read the first two Discworld novels back when they were first published, and they were OK but didn’t grab me enough to continue. I re-read the first one a few years ago and it still left me only faintly amused …

  8. I’m obviously the wrong person to give any kind of balanced comment on this, Annabel, having only read Mort and his Gaiman collaboration Good Omens,but I wonder if he got more into his stride with later novels, as earlier comments seem to suggest?

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