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Terry Pratchett The Spirit of Fantasy
The Life and Work of the Man Behind the Magic
By Craig Cabell
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Craig Cabell
All rights reserved.
Terry David John Pratchett was born on 28 April 1948 in the town of Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. He was the only child of David and Eileen Pratchett of Hay-on-Wye. Terry's father was an engineer and his mother was a secretary. In 1957 the family moved to Bridgwater, Somerset, for a short period, before Pratchett passed his 11-plus exams in 1959 and went to Wycombe Technical High School, Easton Street, High Wycombe. He could have gone on to grammar school but had no desire to follow the purely academic lifestyle.
The school moved to Marlowe Hill in 1966, shortly after Pratchett left it, and is known today as the John Hampden Grammar School.
In Who's Who Pratchett says he was educated in the Beaconsfield Public Library. This slightly flippant remark has an element of truth in it, as it was there he found his passion for books by reading fantastical stories. 'I became a reader at the age of ten and have never stopped,' he said. 'Like many authors, I read all sorts of books all the time ...' What books? Pratchett cites Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows as a major influence on his writing style, and one that has endured over the years. But once he got the reading bug, his appetite became voracious. He states that he had read all the James Bond books available to him by the age of 12, which was most of the original Ian Fleming titles at that time.
When he was old enough, Pratchett took a Saturday job in the local library. He wasn't paid for it, but, as he now jokes, they turned a blind eye to him having about '256 library tickets' – Pratchett left with two carrier bags of books twice a week. So the library really did become an important part of his education, as he recalls: 'One day the librarian handed me three books tied together with string, saying: "I think these will be completely up your street." It was The Lord of the Rings, which I read in one 24-hour sitting.'
The influence of The Lord of the Rings on Pratchett was immense. He describes his feelings of reading the book by discussing the prejudice in it. 'I remember always feeling sorry for the orcs ... the elves always seemed to be up to something and the humans always seemed to fall from grace, but the orcs were the lowest of the low and beyond redemption.'
Pratchett has always had an enquiring mind. The way he questions the different species in The Lord of the Rings is in character with the way he distinguishes different cultures sympathetically in the Discworld series today.
'Rincewind had always liked boredom, treasuring it if only because of its rarity and value ... The only time he could look back on with a certain amount of fondness was his brief spell as assistant Librarian at Unseen University, when there wasn't much to do except read books ...'
When one hears Pratchett recall his bookish youth, one begins to appreciate the grip books had on him and the process that led to authorship. 'It cannot be stressed often enough that before you can become a writer, you have to be a reader, and a reader of everything at that,' he states, and there is a lot of truth in that.
Although Pratchett read as much as he could in many different genres, it was two specific genres that left a lasting impression on him, as he recalls: 'It was science fiction and fantasy that got me reading and science fiction writers in particular have pack rat minds.'
'Rocket ships did not conquer space; they merely challenged it. A rocket leaving Earth at seven miles per second is terribly slow for the vast reaches beyond. Only the Moon is reasonably near – four days, more or less. Mars is thirty-seven weeks away, Saturn a dreary six years, Pluto an impossible half century, by the elliptical orbits possible to rockets.'
Robert A Heinlein (Tunnel in the Sky)
The exploration of space, as written by the great science fiction writers, combined with an early love of astronomy to set Pratchett's young mind ablaze. It is interesting to note that after his first novel (The Carpet People), his next two (The Dark Side of the Sun and Strata) are considered to be more science fiction than fantasy.
'There was no sound now in the observatory, and the lantern waned steadily. Outside there was the occasional cry of some animal in alarm or pain, or calling to its mate, and the intermittent sounds of the Malay and the Dyak servants. Presently one of the men began a queer chanting song, in which the others joined at intervals.'
HG Wells (In the Avu Observatory)
Science fiction writers opened Pratchett's eyes to other possibilities later on, as he explains: 'They introduced all sorts of interesting themes and ideas into their books, and so for me it was a short leap from fantasy and science fiction genres to folklore, mythology, ancient history and philosophy.'
If Pratchett's spare time was spent in the local library or secondhand bookshop (another favourite haunt of the youngster), what was he like at school? Children who read are normally the quiet, often bullied, members of the class, but Pratchett won most of his peers over by being the joker. He used his imagination to make up stories that made the other children laugh, which is often noted as being a quirk of a future writer. Pratchett recalls that he used to doodle and draw characters in his notebooks at school and sometimes he would also write quirky bits of text, some recalled years later as vignettes in his novels. However, one piece he wrote (which he can't now find) was a blend of JRR Tolkien and Jane Austen. He recalls a particularly good bit where the orcs take over the local rectory. So here we have an example of how developed Pratchett's quirky style was in his youth: we have his love of fantasy books, his love of writing, his keen sense of humour, but also, and most importantly, his desire to parody, mixing the greatest book of the 20th century, The Lord of the Rings, with a tried-and-tested literary classic.
'It was like being in a Jane Austen novel, but one with far less clothing.'
Did Pratchett do all this again with his first Discworld novel? No, he didn't. By that time he had moved on and was parodying the whole fantasy genre and only gently parodying characters from peerless classics.
Apart from providing Pratchett with a venue to entertain his fellow students with his literary attempts, how did Wycombe Technical High School develop his talents?
Pratchett recalls that it was noted on his school reports that he had a good imagination, but, as he jokes, the comments were normally written as negative aspects of his school life – comments like 'should pay more attention in class' instead of 'bound for literary stardom'. But the school also nurtured Pratchett's talents, as he wrote his first short story there at the age of 13 ('The Hades Business' in 1961), which was published in the school magazine. Pratchett's headteacher, however, condemned the moral tone of the story. Why? The basic plot was slightly subversive, especially for a child of 13: the Devil is having trouble recruiting souls for Hell, so he decides to get a business partner to create a theme park out of Hades, thus encouraging people to join. The Hades theme park becomes successful – so much so that the Devil decides to give up Hell and return to Heaven – just for a little peace and quiet.
To my mind, like so many of his short stories in the 1960s, there is an underlying message in the story if one wants to find it. Cheats never prosper, for example, could be a good moral pay-off for 'The Hades Business', so I'm sure the headteacher noticed something of merit in Pratchett's work. Despite the headteacher's concerns, other stories followed in the school magazine, such as 'Solution' and 'The Picture'. Two years later (in 1963), 'The Hades Business' was published in Science Fantasy magazine and with the money he made from this sale Pratchett decided to buy himself a typewriter.
Some people also see a comparison with Pratchett's fourth Discworld novel Mort.
These two stories definitely appeared in the school magazine, but as Pratchett never kept copies of them, it is uncertain how many others were printed.
Appearing in Science Fantasy magazine was a great achievement. By August 1963 the magazine was in its 12th year and had won a lot of respect. Volume 20, No 60 (Pratchett's issue) boasted a short story 'Same Time, Same Place' by Mervyn Peake and an appreciation of Peake by Michael Moorcock. Pratchett's achievement of appearing in Science Fantasy magazine at the age of 15 is not one to be taken lightly.
The very act of submitting the story to Science Fantasy magazine shows that Pratchett believed in his own abilities and had a desire to be a published writer. Buying the typewriter proved his passion for doing so. Again, it is an impressive and very single-minded thing for a 15-year-old to do, but he remained level-headed about the future. 'When I was a little lad and thought about being a writer, I remember reading that the chances of making any kind of living at all from it were so low as to be negligible,' he recalled. But the dream was there.
'Like a child lost in the chasmic mazes of a darkening forest, so was Titus lost in the uncharted wilderness of a region long forgotten. As a child might stare in wonder and apprehension along an avenue of dusk and silence, and then, turning his head along another, and another, each as empty and breathless, so Titus stared in apprehension and with a hammering heart along the rides and avenues of stone.'
Mervyn Peake (Gormenghast)
Before the sale of 'The Hades Business', Pratchett had shown no real indication as to what he wanted to do in life. In retrospect, the move from insatiable reader to writer seems a natural one, but it was continued success that inspired him to consider a future as a writer. He wasn't being rejected, he was being encouraged.
Pratchett has described himself as a 'bolshy' kid. This is not to say that he was naughty, just a little headstrong. He knew his own mind and had a determination to see things through. This is echoed throughout his youth, from reading the whole of The Lord of the Rings in one sitting, to studying hard at school. He seemed to know instinctively what his priorities in life were.
So was Pratchett doing well academically? To a degree, yes; but, as he now explains, he did find maths a struggle, eventually parking an early ambition to be an astronomer because it meant you had to be good at figures.
He enjoyed more creative subjects. At school he loved lessons such as design technology (notably woodwork) rather than the more academic lessons such as maths and Latin. Outside school, Pratchett and his father were members of the Chiltern Amateur Radio Club (from the early 1960s), where their sense of humour was clear in their joint call sign: Home-brew R1155. So given the desire to play around with technology combined with a love of woodwork, one might expect that Pratchett seemed destined for a more practical career – not unlike his father – rather than writing. As it turned out, all these practical skills were nothing more than hobbies, as well as fuel for an active imagination.
The young Pratchett continued to do well at school. He achieved five O levels and started A levels in art, history and English, but he heard that there was a vacancy at the Bucks Free Press (a local newspaper). After consulting his parents, he went for the job and, remarkably, he got it, leaving school in 1965. When he got to the newspaper, he found that his education was far from over. He had to take a two-year National Council for the Training of Journalists proficiency course. He would come top in the country. If that wasn't impressive enough, he also passed an A level in English while on day release (his only A level pass).
Pratchett fell easily into journalism. He has described himself as a 'born journalist', and that the pleasure of hitting the keys as a touch typist is almost like a therapy to him. One cannot but agree, because in November 1965 Pratchett found his short story 'The Night Dweller' in a paperback anthology entitled New Worlds SF, edited by Michael Moorcock. 'The Night Dweller' is not considered a milestone in Pratchett's back catalogue. The few copies that come onto the market through antiquarian book dealers are often underplayed today and Pratchett fans are not exactly overcome with enthusiasm for the story either. What is interesting is the fact that Pratchett was still submitting stories for publication and, shortly after leaving school, he had had his second real success as a short-story writer.
Some people call this paperback The Wrecks of Time because the cover of the book depicts an interpretation of James Colvin's headline story inside.
Pratchett's drive, enthusiasm and natural ability had paid dividends again, and his talents as a writer of science fiction and fantasy did not go unnoticed at the Bucks Free Press. Very quickly he was given his own column, taking over 'Story Time with Uncle Jim' in the 'Children's Circle' section. Between 8 October 1965 and 17 July 1970, Pratchett wrote children's stories, sometimes in weekly episodes. In total he wrote 247 episodes, amounting to 67 individual tales, all fantasy stories but none of them with titles. They have never been anthologised in print but most are accessible on a website (www.terrypratchett.weebly.com), where they are now given distinguishing titles. Some of the stories can be viewed as pdfs of the original newspaper, or as text-only documents, whatever suits the reader. None of the stories were written under Pratchett's own name but they include Carpet People and other very Pratchett-like characters and situations, clearly showing the formation of the wit and wisdom of Discworld years before it was conceived. When one reads the stories today, one can detect glimmers of the Pratchett we have grown to know and love over the years, so they are worthy of some analysis here.
'And, picking up their axes, they all walked off into the carpet, to chop down some big hairs to rebuild the village.'
(Part one of an untitled story from the Bucks Free Press)
It was on 8 October 1965 that Pratchett began a 12-part series that is now known as the original version of The Carpet People. It starts with the ash falling from a human's cigarette, floating down to a thick carpet and being noticed by one of the Carpet People who is standing propped up against one of the carpet hairs, 'which to him was as big as a tree'.
Straight away the story is upon us, but then it needed to be. Each instalment of an 'Uncle Jim' story was no more than the equivalent of one side of typed, single-spaced, A4 paper in length. So Pratchett had to engage with his audience straightaway, and the name Uncle Jim and the caveat Children's Circle gave him clear parameters to work to.
There is something very Uncle Remus about Pratchett's tone, as if one expects Brer Rabbit to pop up at any given moment – but perhaps he does, as the whimsical characters are there. In the third paragraph of the first episode of that original version of The Carpet People story, he writes: '... the carpet was bigger than a forest, and was full of cities, towns and small villages, castles and all sorts of tiny animals, even cunning and hairy bandits in the really thick parts ...' And there, 18 years before the first Discworld novel was published, was a flat world – a carpet – with fantastical creatures in a mystical – fantastical – setting. Indeed, there is a fairy-tale quality to all of Pratchett's writing for the Bucks Free Press. In a way, he was recreating the Brothers Grimm short story, but without the menacing undertones.
The Brothers Grimm analogy is an interesting one, as the ancient folk tale was the origin of the fantasy story. Andrew Lang built upon this in a very late-Victorian type of way with his series of coloured Fairy Books, and Arthur Rackham built upon it even further by drawing and painting very sensual-looking fairies in anything from The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Pratchett was fully aware of all this and embraced – and parodied – much of this history of fairy tale/fantasy in his works. Because he had studied it so well, he could avoid fantasy or dip into it whenever he wanted. But with the Bucks Free Press stories, perhaps he was still getting the traditional values of fantasy out of his system; indeed, he wallowed in them sometimes.
Excerpted from Terry Pratchett The Spirit of Fantasy by Craig Cabell. Copyright © 2011 Craig Cabell. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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