The Shepherd’s Crown and Saying Goodbye to Terry Pratchett

The Shepherd’s Crown and Saying Goodbye to Terry Pratchett

My fantasy involves an immortal Terry Pratchett churning out novel after novel, for generations over generations, across time, across technology—an immortal Discworld, ruled by its avuncular and prolific writer—forever.

Terry Pratchett changed the face of contemporary fantasy forever. Writers come and go, and every writer invariably exercises his craft in the shadow of some other, greater writer, imitating another voice before stepping comfortably into their own—but there has never been a writer quite like Terry Pratchett, and there may never be another writer quite like Terry Pratchett. Pratchett published The Color of Magic in 1983, well before the author of this article was born, and since then he’s been a prolific work-horse of a writer, producing a tremendous body of work from a seemingly inexhaustible well-spring of pure imagination.

He was the rarest kind of writer—the kind of writer who wrote for the love of his own stories, who produced voluminously, without hardly a lapse in his productivity over a career of thirty years.

In 2007, Pratchett was diagnosed with Posterior Cortical Atrophy (PCA)—a rare and early form of Alzheimer’s Disease. In our hearts, we all knew the fantasy of an immortal Pratchett and an undying Discworld was just that, a fantasy, realized only in a metaphorical sense; but I don’t think any of us were ever prepared for this news. Pratchett fought valiantly against Alzheimer’s for eight years. He fought through his writing. He was always a productive writer, but the onset of PCA instilled a powerful urgency in him. He wanted to produce as much writing as he could, finish as many unfinished stories as he could, and leave his readers with as long a legacy as was possible, before leaving us behind.

Pratchett passed away in March of 2015. We knew the day had to come, sooner or later, but even after eight years, none of us were truly prepared. The Shepherd’s Crown, published posthumously, is Pratchett’s final novel. It is the capstone at the summit of a towering yet, inevitably, mortal career.

At his height, the Discworld novels were essentially about its inhabitants, their lives, their adventures, and the way they saw the world. The cast of Discworld were a set of finely sculpted lenses through which Pratchett observed his own world; and like all good satire, Discworld was a microcosm of our own world, and the outlandishly fantastical backdrop functioned as a foil, bringing the psychology and politics of its characters into sharp relief.

This is why Guards, Guards! is more than just a satire of the old dragon-slaying trope of traditional fantasy, but a powerful and occasionally disturbing look into the small, banal evil perpetrated by crowds and mobs. Similarly, Feet of Clay is more than just a riff on golems, but explores what it means to be an automaton, and what it means to be your own person.

It is always a slippery and dubious business to read a work of fiction autobiographically, and to try to draw parallels between the arc of a novel’s story and the arc of its writer’s life, but Pratchett wrote The Shepherd’s Crown knowing full well that it would likely be his last novel. Toward the end of his life, his novels took on self-reflexive qualities as the shadow of Alzheimer’s loomed over the pages. As Pratchett’s own life changed irreversibly, so did Discworld; Making Money and Raising Steam advanced the setting’s timeline by introducing steam power and Victorian-esque industry.

We will never have the chance to read Pratchett’s Twilight Canyons, a story about a community of elderly people struggling with memory loss, who nonetheless manage to defeat a dark lord.

Even in Pratchett’s unwritten stories, Alzheimer’s disease makes its presence known. We will never have the chance to read Pratchett’s Twilight Canyons, a story about a community of elderly people struggling with memory loss, who nonetheless manage to defeat a dark lord. Even for a Young Adult novel, The Shepherd’s Crown has a splash of that melancholy, somber self-reflexion that pervades Pratchett’s work in the sunset of his life.

Ostensibly, The Shepherd’s Crown is a story about Tiffany Aching, young witch of the Chalk, and one last great adventure against the Elves. But it is also a story about death, passing on, and leaving a legacy. Unlike Pratchett’s previous work, The Shepherd’s Crown is far less subtle in expressing its themes. Discworld novels almost always open with someone’s death, but the scene almost always feels like a prologue, a way to dim the lights and set the tone, and hint toward the overarching theme of the book.

In The Shepherd’s Crown, death is a constant presence—not the character, Death, who features in his own set of eponymous Discworld novels, but the death of a character central to the Discworld mythos. This is the story of the hole she leaves behind in the world, and the efforts of its characters to fill that void, to come to terms with her passing, and to find a way to move on together.

Consequently, The Shepherd’s Crown is the perfect send-off to Terry Pratchett. It is Pratchett’s own way of saying goodbye to his readers, to his world, and to himself. It is our way of coming to terms with his death, vicariously, through Tiffany Aching and the cast of the novel. In a way, The Shepherd’s Crown is metafiction, written with an autobiographical slant, impossible to ignore the parallels between the end of Pratchett’s life, and the analogous passing of one of Discworld’s central characters.

We are never quite ready for the death, and never quite ready for Death’s arrival in this novel. Death himself never seems quite comfortable with this, his one, final duty. It happens so early in the novel that the remainder of the book feels elegiac, like a funerary lament. Even the voice of the narrator is subdued, quiet, lacking its usual tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, its wry perspicacity, and its tendency to leap from character to character, tangent to tangent. The novel is quiet and understated, contemplative and introspective, but not without good humor, good cheer, and genuine warmth.

It is a bittersweet novel, and a fitting close to a magnificent career, and a magnificent life.

The Shepherd’s Crown closes on a sweet note, a smile and a wink, and a gentle contemplation on the immortality of our loved ones. We carry them on in our memories. They instill the world around us with the echoes of their character. The Shepherd’s Crown is the last Discworld novel we’ll ever see, but not the last we’ll ever read. Terry Pratchett left us with a lifetime’s worth of stories.

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