A Humorous Reflection on Death

Today is Friday the 13th, and I’m currently hosting a Discworld reading challenge–so there’s really only one appropriate topic today.  Death.  Specifically, Pratchett’s character of Death.

There are several books with Death as a major character, and you can trust him to make at least a cameo in most of the books.  He looks rather as you might expect Death to look, a skeleton with a dark hood and a scythe.  Despite appearances, he isn’t really a frightening character.  Death never kills anyone; he appears as a guide when someone has died, which I think is an important distinction.

And did I mention also that Death is frequently extremely funny?  He talks IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, so you always know when he’s arrived.  He’s both insightful and a little baffled by humanity, he takes pride in his work, and he seems to be well-meaning as a rule.  One way or another, whether its telling knock-knock jokes or explaining that he really can’t take off his mask, even his briefest appearances tend to be wonderful.

The two Death-focused books that stand out the most for me are Reaper Man and Hogfather.  In the first, Death’s bosses decide he’s going soft and fire him.  He goes off to find a new job on a farm, while elsewhere no one’s dying anymore…  One of my favorites bits of the book is when he’s out cutting wheat (with a scythe, of course).  The woman who owns the farm notices that he’s very fast, but is cutting the wheat one stalk at a time.  She asks why he doesn’t cut a swathe at once, and Death is horrified.  That would be wrong–every stalk must die in its own time, with individual attention.

Hogfather is Pratchett’s Christmas book.  The Discworld’s Santa Clause equivalent goes missing (more or less) and the fabric of mythology and belief begins to unravel–despite Death’s best efforts to fill in.  This is largely focused on Death’s granddaughter, Susan.  You see, Pratchett’s Death has a family.  He has an adopted daughter, who got married and had a daughter.  Susan desperately wants to be normal, but that’s difficult when she’s inherited some of her grandfather’s talents.  There’s a movie version of Hogfather that’s very good; Susan is played by Michelle Dockery, who you might know as Lady Mary from Downton Abbey.

In other Discworld books, if a character dies you can pretty well expect Death to turn up to guide them to whatever awaits.  And odd though it may sound, it’s always fun when Death arrives.

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