Sir Terry Pratchett died in 2015, but he will forever number among the greatest fantasy writers of the last century. His defining work, the Discworld series, spans more than 40 novels full to the brim with the most memorable characters you could ever hope to meet. The fact that they are hilariously funny, filled with parody and wordplay, can obscure the fact that they also do everything we ask of great works of fantasy: you’ll find in them thoughtful worldbuilding, innovative magic systems, noble heroes, all manner of villains, and strangely poignant stories that grapple with the human (and dwarven, and goblin, and otherwise) questions at the bottom of it all. They aren’t just great fun or great fantasy. They reveal a sly and observant view on human nature.
Pratchett made an indelible mark on the fantasy genre landscape. To many of us, he was a kindly uncle or grandfather figure, the one we could count on to tell us most wonderful stories.
Today is Sir Terry’s birthday, and in honor of a tremendous life lived, we present ten things you may not have known about a wonderful man and an exceptional author.
Adventures in Knighthood
Pratchett, a British citizen, was knighted in 2009. In response, the newly minted Sir Terry went on to create a coat of arms for himself. It bears the motto “noli timere messorem” which means, of course, “Don’t fear the reaper.” It has an ankh on it, in honor of his Discworld hub of Ankh-Morpork, and an owl carrying two books. He also went out and made himself a sword, because a knight isn’t a proper knight without one. Instead of buying one in a shop, he went into the fields behind his home, dug up some ore, and took it to a local blacksmith. He added special iron from a meteorite and smelted it himself.
“Thunderbolt iron, you see—”, Sir Terry said in a newspaper interview, “Highly magical, you’ve got to chuck that stuff in whether you believe in it or not.”
I’m Ready For My Closeup
With over 40 Discworld books to choose from, it’s rather amazing more of them haven’t made it to the big screen. There have been attempts, some more successful than others. Three books have made the leap from page to screen: Hogfather, Going Postal, and The Color of Magic. In each film version, Sir Terry has a brief blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo.
In Hogfather he’s a toy maker. In The Color of Magic, he’s an astrozoologist. His best part is playing a mailman in Going Postal. His wry wit and sparkling personality completely take over the moment he’s on camera. Not many can say they stole the show from the man playing Lord Vetinari, Charles Dance himself!
This Guy Gets Around
Until 2005, Terry Pratchett was the top-selling author of all time in the UK, only unseated by the juggernaut that is J.K. Rowling. His books have been translated into 36 different languages, and have sold over 80 million copies world wide. He was once called “the most shoplifted author in Great Britain,” which he took as a compliment.
As a young child, one of Sir Terry’s hobbies was astronomy. He collected trading cards about stars and planets like some kids collect Pokémon cards. He spent much of his youth looking into a telescope, and it was his interest in space that sparked his passion for genre fiction. As an adult, Sir Terry built a small observatory in his back garden.
To honor Sir Terry, NASA named a small asteroid after him. It’s called 127005 Pratchett.
The Librarian of Unseen University fan favorite character in the Discworld novels. He’s also a primate. Technically, he was once a wizard, and through some magical mishap, was turned into an orangutan. (He much prefers it, to be honest.) Sir Terry loved orangutans, so much so that he became a trustee of the Orangutan Foundation, which strives to keep them from going extinct. In 2013, Sir Terry went to Borneo with the BBC to film a documentary called Facing Extinction, where he met some orangutans and tried to raise public awareness of their plight.
One of Us, One of Us
Sir Terry was just as big of a nerd as his fans. The Luggage, a memorable Discworld character (if a sentient trunk counts as a character), was created during a game of Dungeons & Dragons in his youth. He enjoyed video games like Thief, Half Life 2, and Doom. He painted Warhammer miniatures and expressed a desire to one day write a book set in that universe. (Imagine what a Terry Pratchett Warhammer book would have been!) Sir Terry also loved technology and embraced new advances. In the 1990s he was even active on a Usenet group about his books. Usenet! Those were the days.
Sir Terry was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease in 2007. He called it “the embuggerance,” and faced it with his patented brand of humor and philosophy. Not being one to let anything stop him, he became an early adopter of voice recognition software, once typing out his books became too difficult.
“It really isn’t a problem,” he said in a 2013 NPR interview, “I’m a bit of a techie anyway, so talking to the computer is no big deal. Sooner or later, everybody talks to their computers—they say, ‘You bastard!’”
After his diagnosis, Sir Terry became a staunch supporter of Alzheimer’s research, donating millions of pounds to finding a cure, as well as advocating for right-to-die legislation. A documentary produced by the BBC called Choosing to Die followed him as he looked into assisted suicide. It won a Scottish BAFTA and an International Emmy.
While there are many reoccurring characters in the Discworld books, the most memorable is Death. He speaks in capital letters and has a fondness for humans that sometimes seems at odds with his job description. The character appears in every single Discworld book except one, The Wee Free Men. A version of him even makes it into Good Omens, the fantastic book Pratchett co-wrote with his good friend Neil Gaiman. Not to be too much of a downer, but the character of Death was also the one who announced Sir Terry’s passing on his Twitter account. (The tweet was actually written by his long-time friend and assistant, Rob Wilkins.) It read:
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
In Good Hands
After Sir Terry’s passing, it was announced that his daughter Rhianna is the new custodian of his works, including the legacy of Discworld. Rhianna Pratchett is a fantastic writer and producer in her own right, working in video game storytelling; she is most recently responsible for the latest Lara Croft games. While she has made it clear there will be no more Discworld novels, she has mentioned work is underway on TV adaptions of several fan favorite books in the series. Currently, there are plans to make the City Watch books into a humorous police procedural series, and Good Omens is also in production, with Gaiman developing the scripts for the six-part series.
GNU Terry Pratchett
Sir Terry Pratchett passed away on March 12, 2015. His fans, brokenhearted as they were, found solace in a quote from Going Postal, one of his best novels.
“A man’s not dead while his name’s still spoken.”
Taking inspiration from this, Pratchett fans set out to make sure his name could never be forgotten. In Going Postal, a series of telegraphic like towers called clacks will send a memorial bit of hacked code if a worker has died. It was called GNU, and ensured the name would go up and down the lines for as long as there were lines to travel. G stood for passing on the message, N meant “not logged,” and U meant it must be sent back when it reached the end of the line. Thus, GNU Terry Pratchett was born.
Fans worked to insert “GNU Terry Pratchett” into everything they could get their hands on. It became a Twitter hashtag, found itself embedded in everything from HTML to WordPress coding, and became part of many Discworld fan’s signatures on fan sites, thus ensuring Sir Terry’s name is going back and forth across the internet millions of times a day. Now that’s devotion.
Happy Birthday Sir Terry. Thank you for all the incredible books.
What’s your favorite Terry Pratchett novel?