They seem such slight things, the Discworld books. Mostly slender paperbacks with the unmistakable art on their covers and the absurd premises piled on one another (it’s turtles all the way down), usually stacked up in the first few pages. Suddenly it’s a couple hundred pages later, there has been laughter, there has been at least the hint of tears, and the absurdities haven’t become any less so, but they have also become, somehow, inevitable.
Rendering Death as a major character, both sympathetic and drily — one is tempted to say bone-drily — humorous, is one of Pratchett’s significant achievements over the course of the first ten books. In the eleventh, Reaper Man, Death takes center stage.
Death discovers an hourglass with his own name on it, sand slipping from above to below, indicating with greater inevitability than even taxes, that he did not have much time left. At first he protests, and then he does what many mortals would do if they knew how much time they had remaining to live: he walks right off his job.
“But … the sand, sir. It’s pouring,” [said Albert, servant in Death’s household].
“But that means … I mean …?”
IT MEANS THAT ONE DAY THE SAND WILL ALL BE POURED, ALBERT.
“I know that, sir, but … you … I thought Time was something that happened to other people, sir. Doesn’t it? Not to you, sir.” By the end of the sentence Albert’s voice was beseeching.
Death pulled off the towel and stood up.
COME WITH ME.
“But you’re Death, master,” said Albert, running crab-legged after the tall figure as it led the way out into the hall and down the passage to the stable. “This isn’t some sort of joke, is it?” he added hopefully.
I AM NOT KNOWN FOR MY SENSE OF FUN.
They go out to the stable, where Death saddles up his pale horse one last time.
AND I MUST LEAVE NOW.
“What, so soon?”
CERTAINLY. MUSTN’T WASTE TIME! Death adjusted the saddle, and then turned and held the tiny hour-glass proudly in front of Albert’s hooked nose.
SEE! I HAVE TIME. AT LAST, I HAVE TIME!
Albert backed away nervously.
“And now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?” he said.
Death mounted his horse.
I AM GOING TO SPEND IT.
Without Death taking care of business, things begin to go awry on the Disc. Not just with mayflies, unexpectedly lasting more than their appointed day, but with life forms and all kinds of life force. One of the peculiarities of dying on the Disc, established in prior books, is that wizards get a personal visit from Death when their appointed hour has come, and they also know when it is time. The oldest wizard of the Unseen University, Windle Poons, has scheduled a going-away party at age 130, and invited all of the other senior wizards. His body duly expires, but without Death around to usher him to whatever comes next, something vital of Poons hangs around. Not content with the in-between existence, Poons reanimates his own corpse and joins the ranks of the undead. Poons soon finds an undead support group whose members include vampires, lycanthropes, a banshee that cannot wail but must deliver its news by letter, and a bogey-man.
Meanwhile, life-force is building up in Ankh-Morpork, animating objects and throwing other things badly out of whack.
Also meanwhile, Death has made his way to an isolated farming village in the foothills of the Ramtop mountains. He answers a faded Help Wanted sign at a farm and accepts employment as seasonal help with the harvest. Given his previous occupation, his conversational skills are a bit awkward.
“My name’s Miss Flitworth.”
“I expect you have a name, too,” she prompted.
YES. THAT’S RIGHT.
She waited again.
“What is your name?”
The stranger stared at her for a moment, and looked around wildly.
“Come on,” said Miss Flitworth. “I ain’t employing nobody without no name. Mr …?”
The figure stared upwasrd.
“No-one’s called Mr Sky.”
MR … DOOR?
“Could be. Could be Mr Door. There was a chap called Doors I knew once. Yeah. Mr Door. And your first name? Don’t tell me you haven’t got one of those, too. You’ve got to be a Bill or a Tom or a Bruce or one of those name.”
ONE OF THOSE.
ER. THE FIRST ONE?
“You’re a Bill?”
Miss Flitworth rolled her eyes.
“All right, Bill Sky …” she said.
“Yeah. Sorry. All right, Bill Door…”
CALL ME BILL.
“And you can call me Miss Flitworth.”
… She squinted at the figure. Somehow it was very hard to be certain what Bill Door looked like, or even remember the exact sound of his voice. Clearly he was there, and clearly he had spoken — otherwise why did you remember anything at all?
“There’s a lot of people in these parts as don’t use the name they were born with,” she said. “I always say there’s nothing to be gained by going around asking pers’nal questions. I suppose you can work, Mr Bill Door? I’m still getting the hay in off the high meadows and there’ll be a lot of work come harvest. Can you use a scythe?”
Bill Door seemed to meditate on the question for some time. Then he said, I THINK THE ANSWER TO THAT IS A DEFINITE ‘YES,’ MISS FLITWORTH.
So begins Death’s season among the living. He learns more about people and conversation; he learns that the men at the pub like someone better if they’re amusingly bad at darts than if they’re perfect aims; he learns that small children can see his true nature; he learns about time and sleep and dreams and more. He is still Death.
The hay meadow was high on the hill behind the farm, overlooking the cornfield. [Miss Flitworth] watched him for a while.
It was the most interesting technique she had ever witnessed. She wouldn’t even have thought that it was technically possible.
Eventually she said: “It’s good. You’ve got the swing and everything.”
THANK YOU, MISS FLITWORTH.
“But why one blade of grass at a time?”
Bill Door regarded the neat row of stalks for some while.
THERE IS ANOTHER WAY?
“You can do lots in one go, you know.”
NO. NO. ONE BLADE AT A TIME. ONE TIME, ONE BLADE.
“You won’t cut many that way,” said Miss Flitworth.
EVERY LAST ONE, MISS FLITWORTH.
TRUST ME ON THIS.
That’s how Pratchett delivers his deeper thoughts: with a laugh, a very, very sharp instrument, and unexpected humanity in even the least human of characters. Fittingly, Death gets all the best lines in the book. Equally fittingly, he does not have the final word.
Although this is Death’s book, it needs the other half of the story, the part that shows what happens when there’s an unexpected excess of life. That half messier, not as clean or focused, and consists in nearly equal parts of foolishness and people just getting on with things. Some characters put on airs, some try to hide things they think are shameful, some are trying to change how the world sees them and their kind, and some are making do with the situation they find themselves in.
The living bumble their way toward a solution to the problems at hand, while Death contends with several things that are truly new to him, even if many of those have long been known to mortals. There are also nods to the world outside the book: a guardian of an ancient treasure notes that a few weeks previous, a fellow with a whip and a hat had made it as far as the rolling stone ball; finally released from undeath, Windle Poons leaves a celebration with the words, “I’m just going out. I may be some time.”
It’s not the jokes that will stay with me, I suspect. It’s Death’s question as he argues for caring, for meaning, for creating justice: WHAT CAN THE HARVEST HOPE FOR IF NOT FOR THE CARE OF THE REAPER MAN?