What would it be like to witness your own funeral? I must admit this rather adolescent train of thought occasionally creeps into my adult daydreaming but I doubt I am the only one. What would people say about you? If you had a choice, how would you sum up your life to your friends and family? What would everyone’s reaction be when your final song is played and it’s “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” by Iggy Pop and the Stooges?
It comes as no surprise that there is an elegiac air to The Shepherd’s Crown, the final book in the Discworld series. As we embark over the jump just be warned that from that point onwards, there will be a lot of spoilers. This post will still be here when you have read the novel.
From the earliest Discworld book, Pratchett wrote eloquently and emotionally about death and its effects. There’s a brilliant scene in Mort, only four books into the Discworld, where Death ushers Goodie Hamstring into the afterlife. She goes willingly, telling the Grim Reaper: “It gets thin, you know. Life, I’m referring to. You can’t trust your own body anymore, and it’s time to move on. I reckon it’s about time I tried something else.” It was an early sign the Discworld would be a lot more than just a riotous take on the fantasy genre.
It’s hard to distil an entire series of books just down to one theme but I feel at its core the series is about life and death. The importance of a life well lived, and an embrace of death and what it pushes us to do while we are all here. Death is ever present on the Discworld, appearing in all but two books of the series. For books so in awe of fantasy, the reality that death waits for us all is in every novel. And we shouldn’t be afraid. We should live our lives in the best way we can, and remember those who have moved on. As this quote from Reaper Man reminded us all when Pratchett died: No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.
The Shepherd’s Crown could be seen as a meta-eulogy, with Pratchett using this book’s themes of death to talk about his own impending passing. For Discworld fans, the death of Granny Esme Weatherwax is incredibly sad, entirely predictable and inevitable.
I’ve spoken before about how Vimes (unfortunately) became somewhat of a pet for Pratchett, with him softening towards the character as his novels progressed. But he never did that with Granny. Carpe Jugulum was one book too far for her, a repetition in parts of Small Gods and Lords and Ladies. But then she was spirited off to become a character in another hero’s story, popping up in the Tiffany Aching series. It was a tremendous piece of ruthlessness by Pratchett.
I would never purport to know Pratchett but Weatherwax’s sardonic hardness feels like the closest thing he has come to writing himself into the books. We were told by Neil Gaiman no less about how anger fuels the Discworld. Weatherwax’s mix of fury and (deeply hidden) love feels like the voice of Pratchett. I could be (and probably am) wrong.
Granny’s death opens The Shepherd’s Crown and the first few chapters are some of Pratchett’s best writing. It has taken him 41 books, but Pratchett has saved arguably the best description of her for his final book: Granny Weatherwax was like the prow of a ship. Seas parted when she turned up. Similarly the scene where we learn of how the Discworld hears of her death is terribly affecting, all the more so for long time readers.
I felt Raising Steam was in part a farewell to the Discworld but it’s all the more emotive here as the world reacts to the departure of its greatest character. Like Tiffany Aching zooming across the skies on her broomstick, we are quickly taken to see the reactions of Vetinari (YES!), the History Monks and Eskarina from Equal Rites, WHO HAS A FREAKING SON!!!!
Granny’s death kickstarts the plot, with those nefarious elves not learning the lessons of The Wee Free Men or Lords and Ladies and thinking they could invade the Discworld again. The fools. A coup in the fairy kingdom has led Peasebottom to take over from The Queen, who is banished into the Chalk. Meanwhile, in Esme’s absence, Tiffany is dubbed her successor and struggles to take care of both The Chalk where she comes from and the kingdom of Lancre, where Granny lived.
As plots go, this is Lords and Ladies Mark II (oh hold on, that was Carpe Jugulum, with vampires replacing fairies). But given how throughout his career Pratchett would return again and again to plots and have just one more go in order to crack them, we can hardly criticise him for doing so here again.
And it doesn’t hearken back to just one of his great books, it also calls back to Equal Rites in the form of Geoffrey, a polymath determined to become a witch. Aside from the book’s opening and close, the best of The Shepherd’s Crown belongs to Geoffrey. He could be funny, he could sing songs, and somehow he made everything…a bit better. The scene where he helps the old men of the Chalk find their place in the world, now that their youth has deserted them, by introducing them to the concept of sheds is Pratchett at his best – comic, without sneering at his creations, and warmly intelligent, by subtly showing the reader how important it is that everyone find their place in life, whether it’s a precocious witch or an old soldier.
You’ve probably expected a “but…” during the past few paragraphs and it’s a shame I have to do so. I’d have loved to have said how The Shepherd’s Crown stands against the best of the Discworld, to use the cliche of a “dazzling return to form”. But I can’t. I said I would judge Pratchett’s books as I did his pre-Embuggerance material and it is clear there are gaps throughout. In his wonderful afterword, Pratchett’s assistant Rob Wilkins writes of how Terry would write books like solving a puzzle. He would start somewhere, telling himself the story as he wrote it, writing the bits he could see clearly and assembling it all into a whole – like a giant literary jigsaw – when he was done.
Missing pieces seems the best description for the problems with the book. Elements of the plot don’t ring entirely true, like how no-one is able to help Tiffany in her travails until they suddenly have to in the final act. While it is reminiscent of Lords and Ladies, it is lacking in the startlingly chilly atmosphere that book, one of Pratchett’s best, is saturated in. Parts of the book felt like placeholders for “something happens” – Tiffany’s relationship with the doctor Preston was one of Pratchett’s best romances but their solitary scene here is very clunky.
And parts of the book are clearly set up for something Pratchett was sadly never able to finish writing. Neil Gaiman revealed in The Times last weekend Pratchett’s plans for Weatherwax’s cat You. According to Pratchett’s one time collaborator, when she died Weatherwax would “borrow” You to keep an eye on Tiffany by inhabiting the feline. He said: “And there was going to be the final scene when she said, ‘I am leaving on my own terms now’, and then Death turns up to take Granny Weatherwax for good.”
This was something I expected and I would be curious if you did too. It was neatly woven throughout the book and then just didn’t happen. And given Pratchett’s admirable campaigning for the right to die and departing life on your own terms in the same way as you lived it, it felt the fairest ending for Granny.
These feel like quibbles. As Wilkins notes: If Terry had lived longer, he would almost certainly have written more of this book. That much is obvious and I want to stress how utterly impressive it was to continue to write in the face of the Embuggerance. Five books, five bestsellers, and an additional five books in The Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter. Oh, and the small matter of outlines for at least four others. I would have loved to have read the tale of The Twilight Canyons and how a group of old folk manage to defeat a Dark Lord and discover missing treasure in spite of their ailing minds.
(Along with Rob’s wonderful afterword, which I could have just typed out verbatim in lieu of my review, there is also a lovely tribute to Pratchett’s editors, Philippa Dickinson and Sue Cook, for their tireless help and encouragement that kept the words flowing. That was one of the lines that affected me the most in reading the novel)
Pratchett’s indomitable will to keep going is what stays with me. He revelled in creation, in making readers laugh, in forcing them to think, in forcing them to change the bad things in the little ways each of us could. This is the happy memory that I will cherish, how an ill man was able to write a scene so moving as Tiffany building a shepherd’s hut just like her grandmother owned. And she could see the sun rise, and set, and the moon dance through its guises – the magic of the everyday that was no less magic for that. How the entire series, anger and all, could be distilled into this one line: Humans need other humans – it’s as simple as that. And how he was able to save one of his worst/best puns for his final book when describing a drink. It looked a rather poisonous green before it was heated up, but in most cases the end certainly justified the greens.
I. MEAN. REALLY.
Regardless of what nagged at me because it didn’t quite work, what I felt most of all when reading The Shepherd’s Crown was gratitude at getting to read the series in the first place. Sure it reminded me of Lords and Ladies, but that only forced me into thinking that it’s been literally weeks since I last read it and surely it’s about time I dug it out for another reread?
And with the end of The Shepherd’s Crown comes the end of Pratchett Job. It’s been almost a year to the day since a throwaway bid on eBay led to 46 Terry Pratchett books being dropped upon my doorstep. It took me some six months to get through 40 books until Raising Steam, with Clare North’s The Fifteen First Lives of Harry August the only non-Pratchett book I read between September and April. (It’s very good, by the way)
I’ve been surprised by how much I have enjoyed this whole Pratchett Job thing. I did fear when I won the auction that I would live to regret the huge box of books that lies under my bed. But it’s been an enlightening experience.
I’ve always been interested in what leads us to make the decisions we take as adults. Just why did I develop a penchant for indie rock, appalling puns and fantastical fiction? As I noted in my piece for the Guardian, reading Pratchett as an adult did help shed light on some of this. My personal dislike of absolute certainty and the desire to keep asking questions, especially of yourself, is something I had not realised came from Pratchett. There are many others. I am sure you have your own. If you can’t remember them, why not reread the Discworld yourself? Maybe not all 41 but the spines of a few of your favourites could do with being cracked open again.
Before I leave this, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go a bit Gwyneth Paltrow here and thank some people. Top of the list is my awesome girlfriend Beth, who has been a constant champion of this damn fool project from the off, my first reader and excellent critic. She has yet to read a Discworld novel but probably knows more about the series than most by now.
There’s my top flatmate Mike, another supportive voice and skilled writer himself. If you are a fan of sport, you could do worse than subscribe to his excellent SportCut newsletter. Thanks to the wonderful team at Guardian Books – Justine Jordan, Claire Armistead, Sam Jordison and the peerless Alison Flood – Tom Chivers at Buzzfeed, Kat Brown at the Daily Telegraph, Jared at Porno Kitsch and Chris Lindsay and Robbie Meredith (among others) at the BBC.
Massive thanks to you, whose visiting of this site never failed to amaze me. I have had a frankly startling number of views since I began this so thanks to those who read liked, retweeted, favourited or commented on posts. Thanks to the members of the Football365 Forum, the Discworld Reddit, the Terry Pratchett Patchwork Pieces Google+ group and various Facebook fan sites, all of whom were generous with their time to read my warblings.
Most of all, thanks to Terry Pratchett, whose books have been a wonder to revisit or read for the first time. I had said he is one of the best authors the UK has produced and still fervently believe this. I hope Pratchett Job went some way in showing you how.