Oh Terry! …Pratchett, that is…

I heard somewhere that the late Ray Bradbury used to say one should write “love letters” to one’s favorite authors, just to let them know how much you enjoyed what they did.  I thought maybe I’d take his advice before the time slips by and it becomes too late.

Terry Pratchett at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, A...

Terry Pratchett at Worldcon 2005 in Glasgow, August 2005. Picture taken by Szymon Sokół. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The addressee is Terry Pratchett, a writer whom I first discovered decades ago, one who grew on me steadily until by now I can’t imagine the world without his books in it. He’s a writer whose books I have read – and in some cases, re-read – to my children during their formative years. Over the years, I’ve become so intimately acquainted with Terry’s prose, that I find myself thinking about him on a first-name basis – this despite the fact that I have never met the man and don’t expect to. My children got used to having their mother stop after a particularly delicious passage and say, “Oh Terry!” – and then re-read the passage aloud just to savor it.

For those who don’t know him, Terry Pratchett is British. His specialty is humorous satirical fantasy. Basically, he uses a world of his creation as a mirror for ours, to highly amusing and often scathing effect. His world is the Discworld, literally a world in the shape of a disk that rests on the backs of four elephants, which in turn are standing on the back of huge turtle, Great Atuin, swimming endlessly though space. It’s a world where magic is definitely real and science is at best playing catch-up. Over the course of more than thirty Discworld novels, Terry has taken on just about every topic and institution imaginable. (The wonderful advantage of doing humorous fantasy is that you can borrow as much or as little as you want from the real world and the readers won’t mind as long as you make them laugh.)

The first of the Diskworld books (The Colour of Magic, and The Light Fantastic) are satires of sword-and-sorcery. Besides their luckless hero, Rincewind the incompetent wizard, these books feature the 80-something Cohen the Barbarian with his dentures made of diamond troll teeth.

Several books feature witches as main characters, including Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Og (Wyrd Sisters, and Witches Abroad, among others), and more recently Tiffany Aching (The Wee Free Men, and A Hat Full of Sky). The rest of the supernatural spectrum gets in on it too: Elves in Lords and Ladies (they’re definitely not nice), vampires in Carpe Jugulum, werewolves in The Fifth Elephant, and zombies in Reaper Man.

That last book features Death as main character. I’m very fond of Death. Terry gives Death at least one speaking line in every Diskworld novel. (You can always tell because Death speaks in small caps). Although Death starts out as a kind of implacable grim reaper in the first two books, the character soon begins to morph into something more… well… endearing. I can’t say “human,” because of course he’s not. But what can you say about a being that likes kittens and has trouble killing a chicken because, while he shows up at every human death to sever the soul from the body, he’s never actually killed anything before.

To Terry nothing is sacred. He does a number on Hollywood in Moving Pictures, and on rock star idols in Soul Music. Organized religion takes its knocks quite regularly, most notably in Small Gods. The world of academe gets skewered repeatedly as well through the recurrence of Rincewind’s alma mater, Unseen University.

Terry Pratchett kindly posed with his hat for ...

Terry Pratchett kindly posed with his hat for Myrmi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, I do love Terry Pratchett.

He’s a master of humor (of course) but also of story-telling, of characters, and of the well-turned phrase (those Oh Terry’s). There is often a seriousness underlying the humor. (Check out the Terry Pratchett Quotes link, below. His wit and wisdom are just boundless.)   And the thing that most endears him to me is his keen observations of humankind – both as individuals and in aggregate.  In the earlier Discworld books, the observation is sharp and biting. In the more mature works, the sharpness is not lost, but there is also something I can best describe as a subtle affection. He knows us better than we know ourselves – with all our foibles, flaws, and weaknesses – but he also has an inherent sympathy for us. He understands what we’re up against as well as what we’re up to.

I wanted to include a few excerpts. I really had trouble choosing these, because there is just so much that is good in his writing. In fact, there is little that is bad, or even ordinary. Anywhere you open one of his books you quickly come to some choice passage, and it’s hard to find a place to stop the quote because it just keeps on and on being good.  What I had to do was look for bits I thought could stand alone with a minimum of explanation from me.

In the first excerpt, from Interesting Times, Rincewind has been transported to the Agatean Empire by magical means over which he had much less control than he would have liked, and, after some preliminary adventures, he is riding a horse through the Agatean countryside. (This is not Imperial China. It just looks like it.) Terry Pratchett is not generally long on description – just enough to serve the purpose. Here he sketches the appearance of the physical setting in two short paragraphs which segue effortlessly into elucidation of social dynamics.

The hills gave way to scrubland which in turn led down to an apparently endless damp plain which contained, in the misty distance, a river so winding that half the time it must have been flowing backwards.

The land was a checkerboard of cultivation. Rincewind liked the countryside in theory, providing it wasn’t rising up to meet him and was for preference happening on the far side of a city wall, but this was hardly countryside. It was more like one big, hedgeless farm. Occasional huge rocks, looking dangerously erratic, rose out of the fields.

Sometimes he’d see people hard at work in the distance. As far as he could tell, their chief activity was moving mud around.

Occasionally he’d see a man standing ankle-deep in a flooded field holding a water buffalo on the end of a length of string. The buffalo grazed and occasionally moved its bowels. The man held the string. It seemed to be his entire goal and occupation in life.

There were a few other people on the road. Usually they were pushing wheelbarrows loaded with buffalo dung or, possibly, mud. They didn’t pay any attention to Rincewind. In fact, they made a point of not paying attention; they scurried past staring intently at the scenes of mud dynamics or bovine bowel movement happening in the fields.

Rincewind would be the first to admit that he was a slow thinker.  But he’d been around long enough to spot the signs. These people weren’t paying him any attention because they didn’t see people on horseback.

They were probably descended from people who learned that if you look too hard at anyone on horseback you receive a sharp stinging sensation such as might be obtained by a stick around the ear. Not looking up at people on horseback had become hereditary. People who stared at people on horseback in what was considered a funny way never survived long enough to breed.

***

The water buffalo, introduced above, is a recurrent theme. Here’s a bit from further on in the same book ending in an Oh Terry!  A battle is brewing and Rincewind is trying to find a place in which not to get killed…

Cover. Now that was a good word. It was a big plane and the armies weren’t too far away. The hill looked curiously peaceful, as if it belonged to a different world. It was strange that the Agateans, who otherwise seemed to farm everywhere a water buffalo could stand, had left it alone.          

Someone was watching him.

It was a water buffalo.

It would be wrong to say it watched him with interest.  It just watched him, because its eyes were open and it had to be facing in some direction, and it had randomly chosen one which included Rincewind.

Its face held the completely serene expression of a creature that had long ago realized that it was, fundamentally, a tube on legs and it had been installed in the universe to, broadly speaking, achieve throughput.

(Oh Terry!)

***

And in this excerpt, which actually occurs in between the other two, Rincewind enlists the unwitting aid of a local inhabitant, a street vendor (D. M. H. Dibhala, whom he had met earlier), in the fine art of starting a rumor. It is evening, and they are standing on the outskirts of the encampment of a very large army. The passage is an example of Terry’s masterful control of dialog combined with small details that contribute to characterization. (The bit with the asterisk is my explanation.)

“You know how you seriously wanted to become very rich in international trade?” Rincewind said.

“Yes? Can we start?

“Soon.  Soon.  But there’s something you must do. You know this rumor about the army of invisible vampire ghosts that’s heading this way?”

D. M. H. Dibhala’s eyes swivelled nervously. But it was part of his stock in trade never to appear to be ignorant about anything, except, perhaps, how to give correct change.

“Yes?” he said.

“The one about there being millions of them?” said Rincewind. “And very hungry on account of not having eaten on the way? And made especially fierce by the Great Wizard?”

“Um . . . yes?”

“Well, it’s not true.”

“It’s not?”

“You don’t believe me? After all, I ought to know.”*  (* Rincewind is supposed to be the “Great Wizard”)

“Good point.”

“And we don’t want people to panic, do we?”

“Very bad for business, panic,” said D. M. H., nodding uncomfortably.

“So make sure you tell people there’s no truth in this rumor, will you? Set their minds at rest.”

 “Good idea. Er. These invisible vampire ghosts . . . Do they have any money of any sort?”

“No. Because they don’t exist.”

“Ah, yes. I forgot.”

“And there are not 2,300,009 of them,” said Rincewind. He was rather proud of this little detail.

“Not 2,300,009 of them . . . ” said D. M. H., a little glassy-eyed.

“Absolutely not. There are not 2,300,009 of them, no matter what anyone says. Nor has the Great Wizard made them twice as big as normal. Good man. Now I’d better be off  -“

Rincewind hurried away.

The trader stood in thought for a while. It stole over him that he’d probably sold enough things for a while, and he might as well go home and spend a quiet night in a barrel in the root cellar with a sack over his head.

His route led him through quite a large part of the camp. He made sure that soldiers he met knew there was no truth in the rumor, even though this invariably meant that, first of all, he had to tell them what the rumor actually was.

***

Sigh.

I would dearly love to able to write like Terry Pratchett, but that is not my gift.

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Truth, Justice, and the Happy Ending

Parthenon from west

Parthenon from west (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My brother says the main difference between “great” literature and the rest of it is that great literature isn’t allowed to have a happy ending.

If there’s a happy ending to it, it automatically isn’t great.

Of course he’s being a little facetious, but not much. There does seem to be some truth in the notion. If one goes back to the ancient Greeks, for example, (always a good place to start for western culture), those folks wrote just two kinds of plays – comedies and tragedies. There was no “drama” category. A “comedy” was light entertainment, not to be taken seriously. Anything that was serious was a “tragedy.” The distinction still seems to be with us when we get to Shakespeare and it lingers with us today in that you still hear a happy ending described as too “easy” or too “trivial.” Happy endings aren’t “realistic,” people say. If the function of literature is to hold up a mirror to the world that reflects “truth,” then your story ought to be a downer since the real world can’t be counted on to deliver a happy ending.

Happy endings do, of course, occasionally happen in the real world, although arranging one often requires that one chose carefully where to end the story. One of my favorite movies is Apollo 13.  It’s such a great true story.  But that sublimely feel-good moment of homecoming is tempered by the voice-over epilogue that tells us about the subsequent lives of the three astronauts. It’s obvious that “they all lived happily ever after” can’t be literally true – because nobody lives forever. As Peter S. Beagle put it in The Last Unicorn, “There are no happy endings, because nothing ends.”  (That’s one of a number of profound observations made in that book – which I highly recommend.) Tolkien’s variant is better: “He lived happily ever after to the end of his days.” That, at least, is possible.

Cover of "The Last Unicorn"

Cover of The Last Unicorn

My brother’s rather cynical point is that there’s a certain smug, highbrow snobbishness to the rejection of the happy ending. Happy endings are popular, and if one is going to practice “high art” one mustn’t stoop to the level of appealing to the masses.

All of this got me to thinking about why happy endings are so popular. Obviously they make us feel good. We often identify with the protagonist, so a good outcome for the protagonist is, vicariously, a good outcome for us. On the other hand, some of us also take pleasure from reading about bad things happening to other people (generally the rich and famous), as shown by the popularity of the tabloid press. So what, exactly, is going on here?

There are probably various hypotheses one could offer, but the one I’m going with today is simply this:

Human beings crave justice. And justice, in the real world, all too often eludes us.

We want the world to be fair, and it isn’t. We enact laws in our societies in an effort to create justice in the world. We offer up prayers and make sacrifices to our gods in an effort to persuade them to give us – or those we care about – what we believe we each deserve. We join causes, we found nonprofit organizations. Some of us turn to vigilante-ism. If we have managed to come out on top in life, we may persuade ourselves that we have earned it, that those who are less successful must be less deserving. When all else fails, we tell ourselves that death is not the end and that it will all be made right in the hereafter.

Or, if we happen to be writers of fiction, we write stories with happy endings.

I think story-telling is a fundamental human trait, like bipedalism, complex language, tool use, and being a social animal. I previously wrote about the instructive nature of stories, and their entertainment value. But fiction also offers us a powerful opportunity to indulge our craving for justice. When, as a writer, you create a work of fiction, you are the god of your fictional universe, and the temptation inevitably presents itself to make the story turn out the way you know it ought to.  If someone works hard, he ought to be successful. If a person takes on an evil-doer, he should win. The sweet child who faces a life-threatening illness with faith and courage should pull through. Good deeds should be rewarded. Sacrifices should not be in vain.

We know that every story needs conflict in order to be interesting, and conflict implies that something has to go wrong for somebody. We happy-ending-lovers just want the story to turn out right in the end. Is that really too much to ask? I mean, if we want to see things turning out wrong, all be have to do is look around us. I, for one, get tired of all the injustice, the pain, the tears.

Turning out right can mean seeing bad people get their just deserts, as well as seeing good people get their just reward. A story that focuses entirely on a “bad” person could have a “bad” ending and still be “right.” (I just don’t personally enjoy focusing on bad people.) Endings that satisfy my desire for justice don’t have to have “happily ever after” endings.  They only have to make things right.

Two of my favorite movies are Gladiator and V for Vendetta. Neither is a happily-ever-after tale. Both revolve around men who have suffered great wrongs, who have essentially lost everything but their lives, and who are trying to change the world for the better before they die. Both are stories about setting things right.

My husband and I originally had a disagreement about the ending of the movie “Inception.” He thought the little top left spinning at the end was intentionally ambiguous, and he liked that ambiguity. I thought the fact that the top was beginning to wobble meant it would eventually fall. And I also said this was the “right” ending, because the other ending would not have been fair.  The main character had earned the right to the happy ending. (The filmmaker has since weighed in on the issue, and I was right.)

What about you? Where do you stand on truth, justice, and happy endings?