Though it’s not usually regarded as being among the Great Discworld Books, Reaper Man deserves a much higher reputation. It deals with Death, and death, and to speak of death means to speak of Life, and Reaper Man in its most fundamental moments is about what it means to Live.
In this book, Pratchett shows for the first time his understanding of the internal need of his characters to grow, to take on board the experiences he gives them, and to respond to those experiences by changing. Rincewind had, by this time, appeared in four books (five, counting his cameo in Mort) without being in the least bit different: the failed wizard, the inveterate coward, the one who runs away from danger only to land in even more danger.
Death might have been the only character to turn up in every book so far, but he had starred in only one, the afore-mentioned Mort. Now, what happens to Death in Reaper Man, indeed the whole perilous situation that arises in the two halves of its plot, is as a consequence of Mort, the outgrowth of what Death exposes himself to whilst he allows his apprentice to assume the Duty.
Now, Death has taken an interest, has begun to wonder about these humans that he meets but once, and that briefly. He has begun to develop a personality, as well as a function. And as a consequence, he attracts the attention of one of Pratchett’s greatest creations: the Auditors of Reality.
They’re not yet fully developed, not up to direct intervention in their quest to order existence into lines of utter predictability, but they petition their ultimate master, Azreal, and the outcome is that Death shall be replaced. Death is put out to grass, and his retirement gift is his own hourglass, but unlike the one he has always retained – the clock to his job – this clock (suitably gold) has grains of time in it, rushing towards the bottom.
So Death is sent out to live what remains of his life, subject for the first time to Time, among humans. He becomes a workman for Miss Flitcroft, who owns a farm by an un-named village in an unidentified part of the Disc, and is paid sixpence per week to bring in the harvest. The Reaper Man becomes the reaper man, Death has to learn Life among those with whom he has always lived, and thus he grows more appreciative of what life is, what has to be gone through, and what has to be accomplished under the knowledge that the end is always the same, the end.
Death’s lack of comprehension, his complex approach to fitting in under his new name of Bill Door, is not only hilarious, it is funny, and touching, and it takes Pratchett into regions considerably more serious than Discworld books are popularly supposed to be, yet without which the books would only be funny, and would end up being forgotten.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the book’s ending. Death has been made to step down and, in due course, there will be a replacement (the delay in such succession is the wellspring of what is happening in the other, lighter-hearted, part of the story). But the new Death is a creation of the Auditors: it is melodramatic, it is shapeless, it relishes the bringing of death, it works in multitudes, it does not see death as something that happens to individuals, only as death itself. Pratchett is a little too blatantly allegorical in contrasting Bill Door, cutting a field of wheat stalk by stalk to a primitive, horse-driven Combine Harvester – the first instance of technology finding its idiosyncratic way into Discworld – but Bill Door’s instinctive shrinking from the Combination Harvester is nothing as to Death’s outrage at the New Death, and especially at the crown it wears.
Though the odds are stacked up against him, Death overcomes the New Death and, with a sense of empathy that will ever afterwards inform him, persuades Azrael to restore him to his job.
Pratchett comes into his own in these parts of Reaper Man, understanding the voice he has, awakening to the fact that Discworld is not just an entertainment park in its own right, but a focus for those things that, deep within us, we have to say.
That Reaper Man is not seen as one of the essential Discworld books is entirely down to the fact that it’s not simply a book about Death. I’ve always seen it as such, in a sequence from Mort to the later books that co-star Susan Sto-Helit. However, it’s just as much an Unseen University Faculty series book as it is Death’s: indeed, Pratchett emphasises the dual nature of the story by using different densities of font to immediately identify which half of the story we’re in. Though I can’t help but think that by using a near-Bold font for the Faculty half suggests a greater weightiness that is entirely misplaced.
Though the other half of the story ultimately descends from the same starting point, there is no overlap or crossover. The closest we come to this is a Rite of Ashkente that doesn’t summon Death, merely an Auditor.
No doubt it’s careless reading on my part but, in years of focusing upon Death’s role, I’d overlooked the prominence of Ridcully and the Faculty, for a second novel in succession. What they have to deal with is the absence of Death in its aspect of nobody actually coming to pick up the dead: in particular, 130 year old Windle Poons, whose return to his body in the absence of any kind of eternal rest to go to upsets all the other wizards.
(Ponder Stibbins hasn’t yet made a mark, but the Senior Wrangler is to the fore).
So the surplus Life Force, as well as animating Windle Poons and inspiring the ever-fanatic Reg Shoe to start campaigning for Undead Rights, has to go somewhere. It starts by popping up as snow globes which then turn into shopping trolleys (as you’d expect…) and matures into trying to take over Unseen University in its mature form as a Shopping Mall.
It may not be the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions but I’m sure it sits down at the same family meals.
It’s funny, but so’s Death’s side of the story, and the Faculty story melts into insignificance besides that.
And I suppose so does Reaper Man‘s overall ratings. It’s a mix of the mature Pratchett with a throwback towards the juvenile Pratchett, though the mature writer is rather better at juvenile than his younger self.