Death as portrayed in Terry Pratchett’s Mort
In the Discworld series of novels, Death features quite prominently as an important character. But he is granted exclusive attention and centrality in the plot and of the five ‘Death’ novels, i.e., Mort, Reaper Man, Soul Music, Hogfather and Thief of Time ( in order of publication). In his delightfully clever parodies of and unconventionally humorous takes on death as imagined in the tropes and myths of western civilization, Pratchett never fails to entertain as well as stimulate us to re-think on the nature and content of those motifs, widely disseminated in literature and art through centuries. Pratchett visualizes death as an ‘anthropomorphic’ personality. His appearance is suitably dramatic and arresting who is clad in billowing black robes and whose hollow eye sockets seated in his skull are not quite empty-‘Deep within them as though they were windows looking across the gulfs of space were two tiny blue stars…’ Death speaks in a rather curious manner; at their first meeting the words of his utterances appear to directly enter Mort’s brain ‘without bothering to pass through his ears.’ Death also appears to have a remarkable capacity to manipulate with time- to secure Mort’s father, Lezek’s permission to hire Mort as his apprentice, Death places Mort outside Time in a different order of reality. Lezek’s senses are temporarily suspended and his perceptions tinkered with, which remains unknown to him. He is led to believe that his son will learn an undertaker’s profession. To circumvent direct replies to Lezek’s queries regarding Death’s profession, he answers with enigmatic verbal negotiations. When questioned on the nature of his job, Death replies- “I usher souls into he next world.” When asked the extent of his business enterprise, he says-‘From the uttermost depths of the sea to the heights where even the eagle may not go.’ The range and extent of his operations are described in a grandiose, epical manner-‘No further than the thickness of a shadow, where the first primal call was, there was I also. When the last life crawls under the stars, there will I be.’ He is described by the master of ceremonies in Mort and Ysabel’s wedding as the ‘Defeater of Empires, Swallower of oceans, Thief of Years, the Ultimate Reality and the Harvester of Mankind.’ At Liona Keeble’s jobbureau in the city of Ankh Morpork, he introduces himself as the Grave of all Hope and the Assassin against whom no Lock would hold.
As Death and his newly inducted apprentice Mort pass through the crowded streets of Ankh Morpork, teeming with people and pulsing with frenetic life and activity, Mort notices that Death passes through the crowd with ease while has to struggle to gain the slightest leeway, having to push and shove though the crowd, hazarding injury to his person. As Death himself elucidates, this strange phenomenon can be attributed to the fact that people consciously choose to ignore his presence as a lurking, brooding, and at times even haunting reality. They do not see him because they simply don’t want to. Only wizards, witches and cats can sense his presence in a crowd. Death is allowed a fair share of wit and dry humour which he gives expression to, often without realising, in his personal observations or in his interactions with others. For instance, he finds Mort’s ill-fitting and motheaten clothing as adding a new terror to poverty. As his adopted daughter Ysabel says, he cannot feel or perceive emotions of any order. She believes that he rescued her as an orphaned infant lost in a snowstorm because a thought of sadness overcame him on witnessing her helplessness and vulnerability. Death rides the skies majestically on a white stallion, executing his job of ushering souls into the afterlife across the farthest reaches of the Discworld. Endearingly, his horse is named Binky and while it is one of the finest breeds it appears to have a healthy predilection for sugar-lumps and lovingly nuzzles those it is friendly with. Seemingly, it possesses none of the characteristics of a fierce and ill-tempered warhorse. Death’s domain is a world where Time rests still and reality has dimensions different from the rest of the Discworld. Everything strangely exists in different shades of black, even the grass. Only two other people live in his realm before Mort arrives- his adopted daughter Ysabel, who has been aged sixteen for an amazing thirty-five years and Albert who serves as servant, cook, gardener and odd job man. Albert is actually a famous and powerful wizard who took up the job to escape the mortality of human life. Death’s ‘office’ is vividly imagined as a bright, candle-lit room where millions of squat hourglasses are kept on thousands of shelves representing the life spans of those alive. Black sands pour through them, draining away the future into the past. Death’s scythe, which Mort recalls, having seen in his grandmother’s almanac, is now before his eyes. Its blade is thin and transparent and powerfully and evocatively described as ‘a pale blue shimmer that could slice flame and chop sound.
The king of Sto Helit is about to be assassinated and Mort accompanies Death there on his first day at the job. It is not possible for Death to be personally present at all cessation(s) of life but his presence is not reserved for royalty alone, as Mort discovers gradually. He argues with Death on unfairness of the king’s assassination and the injustice of it all. To this Death replies that what is what is fated and pre-destined to happen is inviolable and can be intervened into- it must follow its natural course. He says as a final statement,” Listen, fair doesn’t come into it. You can’t take sides. Good grief, when it’s time, it’s time. That’s all there is to it.” He is however, pleased with Mort’s ‘Compassion’, but it must stay measured to suit the job. As the bolt from the crossbow strikes, Death swings his sword doublehandedly, slicing it through the king’s neck without leaving a mark. The apparition arising from the king’s physical body appears to be far more tangible and palpable as compared to the dead form lying at his feet. Because of a romantic fixation, Mort rescues Princess Keli by executing the assassin hiding in her bedroom, thereby condemning her to remain undead in Death. It is a strange paradoxical disjunction for all concerned in the kingdom of Sto Helit the princess is dead and they all ignore her while making preparations for a full-fledged royal funeral. However, to assert her state of living, she undertakes a process of forcedly and deliberately imposing her persona on people’s memories so that they recognise her as royal heir. They acknowledge her existence with great reluctance and much misgiving. Unknown to Death, Mort’s passions and romantic yearnings for the Princess keli have led to the birth of two realities- for the greater world beyond Sto Helit keli has tragically expired and throne claimed by her evil and scheming uncle the Duke. But in the realm of Sto Helit itself, she is hailed as princess and proclaimed as the future queen. Meanwhile, as he interacts with Mort, Death’s fascination with human affairs grows, much to the surprise of Albert who cannot understand Death’s sympathy for princess Keli. Death takes to allocating his job to Mort and he himself mingles with humans to try and comprehend humans and hilariously, what humans understand as ‘fun’. He tries the four great pleasures of human life – drinking, gambling, fishing and dancing and fails to understand the basis of their great attraction and appeal to men. He laments being who he is in a state of advanced inebriation, saying things like “They all hate me. Everyone hates me. I don’t have a single friend.” He saves a fisher from drowning and takes up a job as a cook in a restaurant,
surprising the proprietor with the incredible rapidity with which he chops vegetables and meats and prepares meals, discovering emotions like ‘happiness’ in the process. Meanwhile, the apprentice begins to acquire more and more of the master’s characteristics. He can now pass through walls, an ability Death loses in the human world. Mort now possesses a voice increasingly like death and he lapses into it quite frequently, unawares. His gait becomes like Death’sskulking, he radiates an aura of danger and menace, and his eyes become blue fire and he believes himself to be Death incarnate. The illusion is firmly broken by a sound and ringing slap from Ysabel. Death his finally summoned to his kingdom by Albert’s rites of magic in view of the distortions and ripples created in reality. The final showdown in the form of a duel between mort and death in the closing stages of the book is spectacular, mesmerising with moments like the random tossing of the hourglasses amidst the eternal roaring sound o f humming life leads to the meaningless extinction of certain lives and the miraculous recovery of a fewthey are seen literally playing with lives. However, mort is spared from imminent death by the intervention of death’s daughter who says that he has no authority to interfere or alter the fates of other lives. Death arrives at their wedding, benevolent and forgiving and his usual reserved self. He wows never to involve himself in human affairs, as it clouds his judgement. Terry Pratchett shows Death in several avatars- terrible, wrathful, petulant, compassionate, sympathetic, amused or joking to create a rich and amalgamation of qualities forming to form a complex, multi-layered, living, breathing persona full of dry and acerbic wit. Death will not be thought of along conventional lines of perception anymore!