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'Reaper Man' and How Artists Talk About Death

A human skeleton, standing upright, animated – an image looking straight through our vulnerable forms, the primary symbol humanity has used for death since the beginning of our existence, the inevitable conclusion encapsulated within ourselves.


A cloak, shrouding the figure – a symbol of mystery, hiding and obscuring whoever, whatever, lies beneath it. The cloak is black – signifying the darkness we see on closing our eyes, the darkness we imagine follows our own end. Signifying the night, the cold, things we associate with death.


A great scythe held in one hand – a farming tool, used for reaping, an act in which great fields of wheat are decapitated, harvested. A distinctly classic, human metaphor for the act of a soul being taken in the same way.


An hourglass held in the other hand – a time measurement tool. A beautiful item reflecting the constant, unavoidable passage of Time, a reminder that this passage will come to an end, eventually. And also an ironic reflection of our own insistence on containing this passage, manipulating it – in whatever way we can.


These images combine to form a single character, a deity in the pantheon of universal human storytelling. This image is of course – the grim reaper, the angel of death, the reaper of souls. Or more simply, we usually just call him Death.


However!


After all that bleak, dark, depressing narration, what if I told you that this description also fits one Bill Door, a new farmhand employed by the elderly Miss Flitworth in a field at the bottom of the Ramtops, a mountainous region on the Discworld?


See, Death has just been informed that he too is going to die one day – an impossibility, surely? Death has always been here. Yet, the messenger – an emotionless, personality-less trio of grey shrouds that Miss Flitworth will later nickname the revenuers – insists it is true.


How does he react? Well, Death now has time of his own, his own hourglass hissing away. So in his own words, he is going to spend it.


This leads to the inciting incident of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novel, ‘Reaper Man,’ where Death himself decides to do something that should be impossible.


Death… decides to retire.


The brilliance of Terry Pratchett as a writer lies in his ability to simultaneously do three things:


  1. Build a compelling and deep fantasy setting.

  2. Write an excellent sequence of hilarious prose and dialogue.

  3. Use these foundations to make a nuanced, fascinating commentary on the real world.


And, though you would be hard pressed to choose a definitive best Discworld novel – they all being so obviously masterful – personally I have always fallen back on ‘Reaper Man’ as… if not the best then definitely my favourite of the series.


Death, as a character, has of course been in the Discworld series since the beginning, always announcing his arrival in GOTHIC CAPITAL LETTERS and generally saying things you wouldn’t expect the literal incarnation of life’s end to say.


This subversive storytelling is one of Terry Pratchett’s defining characteristics as an author, and if you ask me (which you did by opening up this blog post just a minute ago) Death is the single best example of this characteristic. Which is why it made perfect sense to craft Death a story of his own.


However, the thing about Death is that, taking him out of his role, kinda has a big impact on, you know, literally everything else. See, Terry Pratchett uses this novel to position Death as a symbol of a certain type of person, or a certain type of role. It’s one which is obviously immensely important to the order of society and the universe as a whole, but one which isn’t exactly celebrated by the masses.


Death is important, but not particularly liked.


So it’s fascinating to see just how much his retirement throws the rest of the Discworld into chaos. As much as this is a novel about Death as a character, it also takes us through every other aspect of this fictional universe – the ones returning readers are very familiar with at this point. The wizards of Unseen University. The city of Ankh Morpork. The working class people of the Ramtops. From leadership down to the common people, from criminals to the authority who opposes them, the superstitious and the secular, the ‘disappearance’ of Death has had massive repercussions on every single place, person, institution and party on the Discworld. So this is also a novel about life.


And the book explores both of those themes to their absolute fullest, delivering on each of those three skills of Pratchett’s that I laid out earlier.


There are three main strands of ‘Reaper Man,’ and every one feeds both of the others:


  1. Death retiring, and working on Miss Flitworth's farm, coming to terms with what it means to live, to be alive, and to be a living thing. This retirement causes there to be:

  2. An excess of life force in the universe. With nowhere to go, and no one to take it away, it is forced to go back into the world of the living. This causes all sorts of things to fly about, unscrew themselves, and generally go wrong in society. It also causes:

  3. Windle Poons returning to his body after dying. Or, to use his words, to be reincarnated as a corpse. Which lends itself to a greater discussion of the supernatural side of the Discworld, framing them as a sort of oppressed social class which acts as a parallel to Death himself being similarly unfairly shunned.


It’s Death and Windle Poons who drive this narrative forward. Both are old characters. Both never really understood life. And both of them have positive feelings towards Death. Death because, well, he is Death. And Windle Poons because he is a one hundred and thirty year old wizard who is just kind of ready for Death. The interesting thing is how these two interwoven narrative threads parallel each other.


Death spends much of his side of the story trying to figure out how life works – how societies function, how people interact with one another, how the very basic features of a human life, things that are very normal to us but don’t make much sense when you really start to think about it, actually work. There’s almost a comparison here between Death as a cosmic outsider to our lives and neurodiverse people similarly battling against this 'common knowledge' which really isn't as sensible as people claim. But it’s taken to an extreme here in the story – although Death should in theory understand life better than anyone… he doesn’t really understand it at all.


Similarly, Windle Poons dies to discover that Death has already gone, and is thus forced to be reanimated. At this point, he realises how little he ever knew about life. He learns about all the things humans (and primarily wizards) do for no reason, how wonderful life could be, and how the human body functions. The newly zombified Windle Poons ends up feeling more alive after his death than he did before.


It’s not at all heavy stuff, however. The reanimation of Windle lends itself to a brilliantly funny and subversive depiction of supernatural and undead beings in two separate ways.


First of all when the wizards of Unseen University try to, erm, re-dead-ify Windle by practicing common supernatural ideas of how to defeat the undead. Maybe they can’t pass water, maybe we need to stick a steak into his heart (will a celery do?), or scare him with garlic and religious imagery.


Of course, none of this works, and Windle ends up being buried at a crossroads, where he discovers an advertisement inside his coffin for the Fresh Start Club. This is where the greater supernatural side of the Discworld is introduced through zombie activist Reg Shoe, the struggling-to-be-vampires Count and Countess Notfaroutoe, mute banshee Ixolite who leaves a note instead of screaming, the anxious bogeyman Schleppel, and the reverse werewolf Lupine.


Entertaining as these characters are throughout the novel, there’s some really powerful commentary too. How these supernatural outcasts struggle to get by in a world that doesn’t want them. How the living keep pushing people to stay dead. And also the way this group develops – the supernatural beings fulfilling some greater purpose, or finding meaningful companionship, or overcoming their fears, even when they never necessarily end up resembling anything they're supposed to. But isn't that brilliant too?


The book is funny. But it’s also meaningful.


And this of course has not been forgotten in Death’s side of the story. Where we’re presented with Death’s complete lack of understanding of how normal human life works – struggling to introduce himself as he needs to invent a name on the spot, luckily helped out by his new boss and friend Miss Flitworth (this is where the name Bill Door came from – their joint effort to figure out his name) or failing to understand common expressions and catch phrases, as well as trying to understand the way people speak without speaking, such as facial expressions and gestures.


Through this subversive and relatable fantasy-comedy, Terry Pratchett masterfully forms a point of connection and empathy for both Death and the undead. Characters who would traditionally be depicted as only terrifying or detestable are instead likable and amusing. And the book never forgets to give us that supernatural trope-iness we love too – such as with Windle Poons walking with arms outstretched because "that just seems like the way to go about it," or the Notfaroutoe pair struggling to fit into traditional views of vampirism.


But the best use of this subversive trope-acknowledgement does of course come from Death. The way that props and outfits and mannerisms and habits that humans have traditionally described Death as having are all accounted for here – sometimes it’ll be something Death does partake in, other times it’s something he tried and decided didn’t work, yet other times Death is disgusted or disappointed by the idea. There are lots of nods towards and jokes about the way Death as a public figure has been described by fiction and pop culture, as well as by folklore and history. And all the while this Death stands as his own unique character.


Because, while writers and indeed all artists have been talking about death and Death for centuries now, this Death exists in the way that only Terry Pratchett could write about him. And exists to stand for something, within the universe and the fiction itself.


And the great thing is, even when Bill Door eventually becomes Death again, (I don’t consider that a spoiler; it had to happen) his life is never forgotten. It had repercussions. It meant something to Death, to have a life.


There are other great moments I could talk about with this book, but I want to stop here for a couple of reasons. One is that I want people to read this story having as little spoiled as possible – so I hope I’ve convinced you to check it out without spoiling too much. The other is because this essay will give a better indication for exactly what I aim to do with these Analysis essays here on the website. ‘Frankenstein’ was kind of an exception, mostly what I’ll be doing with these writeups is talking about the one thing a book does its absolute best, and exploring what we as readers, reviewers and of course writers can learn about it. ‘Reaper Man,’ as my second favourite book of all time, was the perfect novel to start this style of essay with. Before signing off, I’m going to leave with one more point about Terry Pratchett’s ‘Reaper Man.’


The thing about Death is that it doesn’t just affect humans. It affects all animals – all life, in fact, as the counting pines point out to us. It also affects society and stereotypes. It affects technology and values. It affects governments and cities. It affects stars and galaxies. And whether there is one Death or many deaths, both the concept and the personality (now that he is allowed to have one) are universal.


Thus, there is some absolutely stunning, fascinating explorations of myriad themes in this book that all blend together magnificently – life, death, time, the body, the universe – every single moment is as brilliant as it should be obvious. Such is Terry Pratchett’s genius.


And to highlight it, I want to end on this quotation. You might have heard it before, but you might not know it comes from this book. Here it is:


The journey took an instant that would have taken mere light three hundred million years, but Death travels inside that space where Time has no meaning. Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.

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