As you probably know, Sir Terry Pratchett died today. His is a great loss to the world of letters — but I still can’t think about him without smiling.
I can’t help but think that he’s got Death chuckling. In small caps.
He was a very funny writer of wildly amusing fantasy novels, and so it could occasionally be easy to overlook how profound some of the ideas were that he was exploring in his books.
Here’s one of my favorite bits, a piece from one of his wonderful Discworld novels, Witches Abroad. It focuses on the nature of narrative:
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is Power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped spacetime, have been bowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strong have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling… stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.
This is called the theory of narrative causality, and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.
Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or, if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.*
*And people are wrong about urban myths. Logic and reason say that these are fictional creations, retold again and again by people who are hungry for evidence of weird coincidence, natural justice and so on. They aren’t. They keep on happening all the time, everywhere, as the stories bounce back and forth across the universe. At any one time hundreds of dead grandmothers are being whisked away on the roofs of stolen cars while loyal alsatians are choking on the fingers of midnight bandits….