Born on the 24th April 1948, Terry Pratchett turned 40 in 1988. At this time he was on the ascendant with a great deal of his success still to come; though he was not yet made a knight (that would be 2009), nor even received an OBE (that would be aged 50 in 1998), at 40 years old his reputation was forming and fanbase growing as his now-celebrated Discworld series left its infancy and Pratchett consolidated the direction of these novels.
The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, had been published in 1983, followed by a sequel The Light Fantastic. The Colour of Magic was not his first book; Pratchett had already written several short children’s stories and one long one, The Carpet People, and two adult science fiction novels Strata and The Dark Side of the Sun. But from the Colour of Magic onwards Pratchett would be writing novels predominately set in his fantasy location of Discworld, a flat earth carried on the back of four elephants, themselves standing on a giant turtle who swims through space. Looking back on the two opening Discworld novels now, they seem strangely conventional compared to his later works, a basic parody of the world of Dungeons and Dragons in which the humour lay in the juxtaposition of everyday concerns imposed upon the fantastic, such as the insurance claims that follow a tavern brawl between dwarves and trolls; there continues to be some debate amongst Pratchett fans over whether these books should be read first by newcomers, or whether it is better to plunge them deeper into the series when Pratchett has found his stride.
The fateful stroke came when the third book arrived and Pratchett changed his central hero; rather than continue to write solely about the cowardly wizard Rincewind and his misfortunes, Pratchett wrote an entirely new cast for Equal Rites, telling of Esme, a young girl who is destined to be a wizard (NOT a witch), and her mentor in this, Granny Weatherwax (DEFINITELY a witch); which was followed by a fourth novel Mort in which the central hero was Death himself, previously a popular cameo in the other three works who was now allowed his own story. Pratchett changed the direction of the series so that rather than being the story of one character, it became the story of an entire world, with distinct characters and cities within it, who would begin to overlap and intrude on one another’s novels as the series grew.
It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel’s eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shriekd: ‘When shall we three meet again?’
There was a pause.
Finally, another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: ‘Well, I can do next Tuesday.’
-Wyrd Sisters, 1988.
Having initially juggled his writing career with other jobs to pay the bills, the 40-year-old Pratchett had only recently been able to give up the day-job in the mid-80’s to be a full-time author. Pratchett was a prolific writer, Neil Gaiman remarked of him that he would write a set amount of words every night, and ‘One night, he finished a novel, with a hundred still to go, so he put a piece of paper into his typewriter, and wrote a hundred words of the next novel.’ In his 40th year, free of other work and focussing purely on his writing then, Pratchett’s Discworld hit its stride with books five and six: Sourcery and Wyrd Sisters. The fifth book returned to Rincewind once more to see what he was up to after a two-book hiatus, but the sixth book – one of his best – took the previous supporting role of Granny Weatherwax and thrust her into the limelight as Pratchett took on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, told from the perspective of the witches. Macbeth becomes a guilty murder keen to pin the blame for the country’s downfall on the witches (Weatherwax and her peers Magrat – the eager new witch who has read all the books – and Nanny Ogg – a woman with a remarkably sized brood and a tendency to sing songs when drunk about the sexual accessibility of a hedgehog); the witches themselves are shown to be essential for the country, helping those in need and keeping things in order, but subjected to suspicion by the smear campaign and witch trials that the new King and Queen try to impose. It turns Shakespeare on its head, and shows Pratchett growing in confidence as he changes his target for parody from the fantasy genre to the Bard of Avon, a risky move of presumption that he utterly gets away with, even when he includes a parody of Shakespeare himself within the tale in the figure of the dwarf Hwel who is cursed with an abundance of inspiration:
Enough inspirations to equip a complete history of the performing arts poured continuously into a small heavy skull designed by evolution to do nothing more spectacular than be remarkably resistant to axe blows […] He began to write […[.
The dwarf stuck out his tongue as he piloted the errant quill across the ink-speckled page. He’d found room for the star-crossed lovers, the comic gravediggers and the hunchback king. It was the cats and the roller skates that were currently giving him trouble…
-Wyrd Sisters, 1988.
What could have been simply a string of gags becomes an intelligent novel probing our preconceptions about witches, women, power and the theatre’s own role in transforming, confirming or creating these ideas in the first place. It is a tale in which reality is shown to be more important than fiction, but in which the fiction can often be more powerful than any reality. After the old king is murdered, his infant child is rescued along with the crown from the clutches of the Macbeths and entrusted to the witches, who in turn hide him away with travelling players. The crown is hidden with the players’ many artificial crowns, and a very dull thing it looks compared to their glittering unreality. The child himself, Tomjohn, is destined to be king one day as the laws of storytelling dictates, but in the end defies the narrative to choose his own fate instead. It is a story in which we are not only made to laugh, but made to question our own presumptions and made to think about the book itself as a construct.
Magrat knew she had lost. You always lost against Granny Weatherwax, the only interest was in seeing exactly how. ‘But I’m surprised at the two of you, I really am,’ she said. ‘You’re witches. That means you have to care about things like truth and tradition and destiny, don’t you?’
‘That’s where you’ve been getting it all wrong,’ said Granny. ‘Destiny is important, see, by people go wrong when they think it controls them. It’s the other way around.’
‘Bugger destiny,’ agreed Nanny.
-Wyrd Sisters, 1988.
The Discworld books would continue to develop in complexity and maturity of tone; the next instalment Pratchett was writing was Guards! Guards! for which he would create (to my mind) his greatest character, Sam Vimes of the City Watch, whose adventures would frequently centre on political turmoil and the grey area between right and wrong. Aged 40, Pratchett had firmly arrived on the literary scene, but his work was still only just beginning.
Pratchett at Buckingham: This post was written by Dr Pete Orford, who provided the entry on Terry Pratchett for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, and last year supervised an undergrauate dissertation which anlaysed Pratchett’s treatment of Macbeth in Wyrd Sisters. Pratchett himself was local to Buckingham; born in Buckinghamshire, his first job being a reporter for the Bucks Free Press for which he also developed his fiction as a contributor of several short stories for children.