Life’s compasses: What I learned from Terry Pratchett

Earlier this year, I set out to write about the things that are my life’s compasses, and the directions they have sent me in, with the hope that some of the things I have learned will be of help to other people. Previously: Life’s compasses: What I learned from Star Wars Today, the guide we follow is fantasy writer Terry Pratchett. Literary snobs look down on fantasy, and they are often right, But, as observed by science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon: “ninety percent of everything is crap”. Pratchett is in the 10% that is wonderful. In his Discworld series, he reflects on humanity and its failings and triumphs, with a deep and compassionate insight – and with a storytelling power to rival Dickens. I read my first Pratchett novel in my 20s (the not-quite-as-good-as-what-was-to-come Colour of Magic), and have since read everything he has written, many of those books two or three times. And every time, I learn something new. Over time, these particular insights have become part of my mental furniture:


Wisdom lives in unexpected places. Whenever I see an inspirational motto on a pretty background on a social media post, I sigh and wish instead for the Way of Mrs Cosmopolite. She’s a landlady of uncertain mental state who rents a room to master monk Lu-Tze. The monk (who mostly just sweeps things) writes down her trite sayings in a notebook, which he brings out at opportune and inopportune moments to deliver an enlightening phrase. My personal favourite: “It won’t get better if you pick at it.” Think about it – there is nothing in the world that gets better if you pick at it. Many things are best left alone, and almost everything else can only be fixed by taking strong action. Picking is not The Way.


Hard work – just do it.

“If you trust in yourself… and believe in your dream… and follow your star… you’ll still get beaten by people who spent THEIR time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

From The Wee Free Men.


Appearances aren’t everything.

“Glamour. Elves are beautiful. They’ve got”, she spat the word, “style. Beauty. Grace. That’s what matters. If cats looked like frogs we’d realize what nasty, cruel little bastards they are.”

Granny Weatherwax, Lords and Ladies, on the danger of glamour as exemplified in Terry Pratchett’s terrifying portrayal of elves. Remember this quote every time you are about to trust someone because they look good on the outside.


The nature of evil: In the book, Carpe Jugulum witch extraordinaire Granny Weatherwax has this exchange with a priest called Mightily Oats (one of the best things about Pratchett is the names of characters):

“There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example,” said Oats. “And what do they think? Against it, are they?” said Granny Weatherwax. [they being priests] “It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.” “Nope.” “Pardon?” “There’s no grays, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that. And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is. “It’s a lot more complicated than that…” “No. It ain’t. When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they means they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s where it starts.” “Oh, I’m sure there are worse crimes . . .” “But they starts with thinking about people as things…”

There is no better summary of the root of trouble in our world than this. Start looking around you, at wars and dictatorships and oppression: there, at the heart of it, is the treatment of people as though they are things.


What things come down to, in the end, is taking responsibility. Young witch Tiffany Aching, facing the end of the world, in the Wee Free Men:

“You’d better tell me what you know, toad,” said Tiffany. “Miss Tick isn’t here. I am.” “Another world is colliding with this one,” said the toad. “There. Happy now? That’s what Miss Tick thinks. But it’s happening faster than she expected. All the monsters are coming back.” “Why?” “There’s no one to stop them.” There was silence for a moment. “There’s me,” said Tiffany.

In two words, this is how I live my life. When things go wrong, only one person can fix it. No running away, no blaming someone else (even if it’s not my fault). There’s me.

Main image: A saying from The Way of Mrs Cosmopolite, illustrated by using a quote generator site.

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