World Literature

Terry Pratchett

 

BORN: 1948, Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England

NATIONALITY: English

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

The Colour of Magic (1983)

Interesting Times (1994)

The Johnny Maxwell Trilogy (1999)

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001)

The Bromeliad Trilogy (2003)

 

 

Terry Pratchett. Gareth Cattermole / Getty Images

 

Overview

Terry Pratchett, the author of the increasingly popular Discworld series, is widely known for writing tales of witches, wizards, and sons of Satan—all with a sly sense of humor. Called the ‘‘master of humorous fantasy’’ by a critic for Publishers Weekly, Pratchett is also regarded as a serious craftsman but with an unusual cult following: the second-most-read author in England and the seventh- most-read non-American author in the United States.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Prodigious Beginning. Terry Pratchett was born on April 28, 1948, in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, England, to David and Eileen Pratchett. He had no siblings. At eleven years of age, he passed his eleven-plus exam and entered High Wycombe Technical High School. Getting what he has said is most of his education from the Beaconsfield Public Library, Pratchett read constantly, turning often to the works of H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, and ‘‘every book you really ought to read,’’ he later reported.

Early Interests in Astronomy. Pratchett developed an early penchant for space and astronomy. included in his boyhood collection were Brooke Bond tea cards and a telescope, which he hoped would be a part of a long career in astronomy. However, having weak skills in math, the young Pratchett turned back to reading and, in particular, to science fiction books, including his favorite, The Wind in the Willows (1908), by Kenneth Graeme. He also began to write; at thirteen he published his first short story, ‘‘The Hades Business,’’ in the school paper. The story was then published by a local magazine, bringing Pratchett his first income. This, according to his official Web site, enabled the young prodigy to purchase his first writing equipment, a secondhand typewriter.

Early Writing Success. Pratchett began studying English, art, and history in school, and eventually decided to become a journalist. By age seventeen, Pratchett left school to begin work with Bucks Free Press and wrote his first novel, a humorous children’s fantasy titled The Carpet People. The book was published in 1971.

The Discworld Series. With the success of his first novel, Pratchett continued to write and publish, delivering to his soon-to-be-fanatic readers The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). Two years later, his creative efforts launched him into literary stardom: beginning the same year, he became press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) covering three nuclear power plants and published The Colour of Magic (1983). The novel was the first of his ‘‘Discworld’’ works, novels of science fiction and fantasy set in a flat world. The planet is supported on the backs of four gigantic elephants astride the shell of an immense tortoise swimming in space.

Pratchett continued with the comedic and fantastic Discworld series, which features witches and wizards and gnomes and trolls, presenting them to an eager readership. The Light Fantastic (1986), Equal Rites (1987), and Mort (1987) were the first sequels. As the Discworld series grew rapidly in production and popularity, numerous offshoots entertained Pratchett’s avid followers—including Discworld reference books, guides, and maps; short stories; animations and theater productions; and television programs.

Continued Accolades and Awards. With the publication and astonishing success of his fourth Discworld volume, Mort, Pratchett decided to turn to writing fulltime. In addition to writing thirty-six Discworld books, Pratchett started to write graphic novels and comic books for Discworld. Game designers and platforms delivered numerous versions of Discworld role-playing games. By 1989 Pratchett and his Discworld series had been honored with the British Science Fiction Award, a first of several awards the comic author was to receive.

In the early 1990s, Pratchett also delivered another award-winning series featuring Johnny Maxwell. After a trio of successful works dubbed the Bromeliad Trilogy, Pratchett began the Johnny Maxwell trilogy with Only You Can Save Mankind (1992), followed by Johnny and the Dead (1993) and Johnny and the Bomb (1996). All were exceptionally well-received. The second volume won Pratchett the 1993 Best Children’s Book award from the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. By 1996 he was reportedly the top-selling and highest-earning author in the United Kingdom; by 2003, he was second only to the author of the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling.

Ongoing Productivity and Popularity. Pratchett met and married Lyn Purves at the start of his writing career. Together they raised daughter Rhianna, who was born in 1976. The Pratchett family moved southwest of Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 1993 and still reside there. In 2007 Pratchett was diagnosed with a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease called posterior cortical atrophy. As the disease began to impact his physical efforts at writing, Pratchett has become an active fundraiser, making charitable contributions himself, including the sum of one million U.S. dollars to the Alzheimer’s Research Trust. His donation reportedly prompted a mimicking movement online, whereby Pratchett fans began a campaign they call ‘‘Match it for Pratchett,’’ in hopes of raising another million for Alzheimer’s research.

In 1998 Pratchett was named an Officer of the British Empire ‘‘for services to literature.’’ In 2002 he received the esteemed Carnegie Medal from the British Library Association for one of his many popular children’s books, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents (2001). Pratchett’s work has been translated into thirty-three languages and has sold more than forty-five million copies.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Pratchett's famous contemporaries include:

Vladimir Bukovsky (1942-): Russian authorand activist, he is most noted for being a former Soviet political dissident.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947-): First Lady to the forty- second president of the United States and junior U.S. senator from New York, in 2007 she became the first woman to be a serious contender for the nomination by a major political party for U.S. president.

Ken Follett (1949-): British author of historical and thriller fiction, he has sold more than one hundred million copies of his books.

Robert Haas (1941-): American poet who has served two terms as U.S. poet laureate (from 1995 to 1997) and has contributed greatly to contemporary literature.

Stephen Hawking (1942-): British theoretical physicist who is known for his important work on relativity, black hole, and radiation theory.

J. K. Rowling (1965-): British author famous for her Harry Potter books and the best-selling author in history.

 

Works in Literary Context

Classical and Popular Characters. Several influences are built into Pratchett’s works. As he told James Naughtie at the BBC Radio show Bookclub, he leans on characters from ancient history, classic literature, and popular culture, and adds his own brand of humor. Indeed, it is the original sources that provide inspiration for and give impetus to his humorous style.

Satire and Parody. The outside influences that inform Pratchett’s humorous work became more than inspiration for his humorous style. Satire is apparent in his fantasy and science fiction. Naughtie notes that Pratchett’s Discworld series began as a parody of the fantasy genre, but over the course of development, it turned into ‘‘a satire on just about everything.’’

As a critic for Authors and Artists for Young Adults adds, ‘‘Discworld—as well as most of Pratchett’s other works—also offers humorous parodies of other famous science fiction and fantasy writers, such as J. R. R. Tolkien or Larry Niven.’’ Pratchett also spoofs (or parodies) contemporary concerns. For instance, he spoofs death in Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Predictions of Agnes Nutter, Witch (1990, cowritten by Neil Gaiman). This novel is like several in this genre, a send-up of modern horror themes—particularly The Omen series of films and the series’ imitators. When the son of Satan is misplaced and raised as a nice child, the schedule of Armageddon is thrown awry, and the powers of heaven and hell must pitch together to work things out.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Few subjects escape Pratchett's satire, which mocks the publishing and filmmaking industries, histories, cultures, music genres, philosophies, politics, and religions, among others. Here are a few works by writers who also have fun with satirizing universal concerns or parodying more serious works:

Animal Farm (1945), a novella by George Orwell. In this satirical allegory, the farm animals are stand-ins for Bolshevik revolutionaries who plot to take over the human- run farmstead.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), a play by Oscar Wilde. This satirical comedy of errors heavily mocks the etiquette of high society.

Main Street (1920), a novel by Sinclair Lewis. In this satirical work, the author makes commentary on contemporary American values.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), a play by Tom Stoppard. This play is a modern parody of several elements in Shakespeare's Hamlet (1599-1601).

 

Works in Critical Context

Pratchett has earned an esteemed reputation with both the public and the critics—most notably for his Discworld series.

Discworld Books (1983-2007). Critical reception for the thirty-plus volumes in the series has been almost unanimously favorable. Critic David V. Barrett made a general comment in a New Statesman & Society review, saying that the novels of Discworld ‘‘are works of marvelous composition and rattling good stories.’’ Making more specific comments, a Publishers Weekly critic in a review of the Discworld novel Interesting Times (1994) wrote, ‘‘Pratchett is an acquired taste, but the acquisition seems easy, judging from the robust popularity of Discworld.’’ Of Lords and Ladies (1992), a dark-side study of elves, Library Journals Jackie Cassada concluded that the volume shows why Pratchett ‘‘may be one of the genre’s ... most inventive humorists.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Pratchett has become one of the rare contemporary novelists who has a cult following. This is evident in the substance and numbers of message boards where fans discuss his works at great length. Visit the message boards at TerryPratchettBooks.com. Read several postings from at least three forums. Then, given the contents of the threads, make an effort to characterize the Pratchett Fanatic, or cult follower. Use critical thinking skills to determine who the ‘‘typical’’ reader is, identifying gender, geographic location, and age.

2. On the Web site Books at Transworld (www.booksat transworld.co.uk/) is a quiz titled, ‘‘Can You Survive the Discworld Quiz?’’ Before going to the quiz, work with a partner to come up with your own Discworld trivia quiz. When you finish, go to Transworld (or Trivia Net) and take one quiz. What do your two trivia quizzes have in common? How are they different?

3. Pratchett’s books, especially the Discworld series, have generated a phenomenal collection ofcartoons, shows, comic books, guides, and games. As a group, decide on one Discworld book and prepare a small study guide for students. This might include a character guide, a list of important locations and the flora and fauna found there, information from previous Discworld books relevant to the current story, and themes found within the work. To aid in the project, research the many well-developed sites dedicated to games, themes, and other elements of the Discworld series.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Periodicals

Barrett, David V. ‘‘Serious Fun.’’ New Statesman & Society, January 3, 1992: 33.

Cassada, Jackie. Review of Lords and Ladies. Library Journal, September 15, 1995: 97.

Publishers Weekly. Review of Interesting Times, March 31, 1977: 67.

Web Sites

Anthony, Jason. DiscWorld Monthly. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.discworldmonthly.co.uk.

Books at Transworld. Terry Pratchett at Transworld. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.booksattransworld.co.uk/terrypratchett/home.htm.

Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Terry Pratchett Summary Bibliography. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Terry_Pratchett.

Naughtie, James. BBC BookClub. ‘‘Interview: Terry Pratchett Turns 60.’’ Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbc7/drama/pratchett.shtml.

Smythe, Colin. The L-Space Web. Terry Pratchett Biography. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.lspace.org/about-terry/biography.html.

Terry Pratchett Books. Terry Pratchett Official Website. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.terrypratchettbooks.com.

Trivia Net. Discworld Quizzes. Retrieved June 4, 2008, from http://www.triv.net/html/discworld.htm.