And so the running figure in the hat that says Wizzard fades into the distance, and there through the open door is a desert under a twilit sky, and in the foreground, filled with all the slowness of time, stands Death.
…Let’s read Mort.
This is going to be a somewhat different reader response, because for me Mort is a different kind of book. I’d never read any of the Wizards books before writing about them for this blog, and so I came to them with no prior attachments. With this one, I do have attachments. Mort was one of the first Pratchett novels I read and is therefore the the mental equivalent of a warm drink by the fire on a cold night.
But I also remember that Mort disappointed me in some ways, particularly in the third act. So in rereading this book, I wanted to know how Mort holds up and to better understand what works about it—and what doesn’t.
What’s Alive About Mort
Returning to this book for a reread, I can happily say that Mort still works in the ways it first worked for me. Pratchett does so much right, and some of scenes here rank among Discworld’s most iconic. Take the scene in which Mort, all alone, meets Death for the first time. In the empty town square, in the cold and the dark, on Hogswatch night, this awkward boy takes his first tantalizing steps into a world much bigger than he, and in some ways it feels like our first proper introduction to the Discworld. Death looms, Death falls down—Pratchett tells us everything we need to know about everybody’s favorite anthropomorphic personification to be going on with.
Likewise, take the scene in which Mort, all alone, meets death for the first time—that is to say, the acting of dying. The scene with Goodie is poignant and bittersweet, and again we get a deft introduction to the world of the Disc. These moments sing.
And there are the characters themselves. Mort is a sympathetically beleaguered character. Ysabell’s abrasive personality belies a lonely interior. And there’s Death, immediately majestic, mysteriously, and ironically mundane. He’s the real success of this book, but Mort and Ysabell (and to a lesser extent Keli and Cutwell and Albert) are competently drawn. Like many of Pratchett’s early characters, there’s not much complexity to these people and I’m not sure they quite come alive for me, but they do provide a sturdily built structure on which to hang a narrative.
Of Stakes and Structure
Narrative, however, is where things go a little off the rails. Despite great scenes and reasonably interesting characters, the resolution of the plot is a mess. This is early days for Pratchett, and you can tell that he’s still working out how to structure his books. Why does Death let Mort live? Mort’s statement of “I might” and Death’s ensuing laugh feel tenuously constructed and not quite the clever outcome the narrative sets me up to expect. (I never thought I’d say it, but reconning this is one thing that Soul Music does right.)
Similarly and much more problematically, there’s how the collapsing reality is dealt with: a literal deus-ex-machina explained by Death having “had a word with the Gods,” who apparently are taking requests now. Somehow, the narrative seems to have wound itself into so tight a corner that no satisfying conclusion is possible.
I’m suspicious that these problems have to do with fantasy pacing, which demands a certain structure that Pratchett increasingly moves away from in his work. It’s a long distance between Mort, with its hugely abrupt resolution and Hogfather, which has not one but three endings, or Lords and Ladies, which contains a climax that takes up nearly half of the length of the book. Pratchett learns with time how to let action unravel. We’re not quite there in Mort.
The Life and Death of Literary Heroes
The one other puzzling thing about this book isn’t so much a problem as an intriguing happening. And it has to do with what makes a character live (that is, keep going, book after book) or die (that is, to not continue to the next book). I ponder this because I find Pratchett to be one of the best writers of characterization in all of literature (which is to say books, not pretentious capital-L Literature, but I digress). And against the knowledge of Pratchett’s astonishing character work…there’s Mort.
Everything—everything—about this book tells us that Mort, gangly, awkward, bookish Mort, will be our hero, that if there is to be another book about Death, it’ll be through the eyes of his apprentice. This boy is set up as supremely out of place in his village, goes through a rite of passage in which he is initiated into both Death’s world and bustling, garish, noisome Ankh-Morpork, is tutored by a wise mentor, defies said mentor, hits puberty, sees horrible things, saves the princess…everything about the narrative is tuned so that Mort is the guy we follow in the next book, and the next book, and the next.
And then a curious thing happens in the last few pages of Mort. If I had to pinpoint it, it’s precisely when Death tells his apprentice, “YOU COULD HAVE HAD ETERNITY” that it’s suddenly clear that there will be no more books about Mort and Ysabell. It’s almost the same thing in the book that directly precedes Mort, Equal Rites, in which we follow young Esk through a hero’s story up…and then we reach those final lines, and we know: there will be no more stories with Esk. But! At the same time, we are aware that there’s this wiry old woman in Esk’s story who is poking a bony finger into the narrative like a cat eyeballing you while knocking over a glass of water (I know, I went there…). Somehow you know it’s going to be her. She’s going to carry the story forward, not our protagonist, not our hero. Likewise, as Mort exits the stage and the lights go down, it’s Death who is left standing in the spotlight…
In both cases, we lose our heroes and gain something else. It’s hard to call either Death or Granny heroic in the way that Mort or Esk are heroic. We meet both of these non-heroes from outside, through the hero’s eyes, and it’s these external and slightly unknowable figures who we are left to labor with through all the dark places of the world. Both are also slightly underbaked—can you imagine later Granny panicking? Death sneering? Not me, not really. They have room to grow as characters but they also have room to be further characterized. They aren’t whole yet. And where characters like Mort and Ysabell are used up by their story, Granny and Death burn through their narratives and want for more.
(Sidenote: Maybe this is why the Watch books are so satisfying—Guards! Guards! tells us immediately that the wind is blowing due Vimes, and, well, it is, and does, for a further six books. We know our misfit hero from the first.)
So maybe that’s it, or maybe it’s not. But in Mort I think we get a bespoke hero made just for the narrative and just for us. Meanwhile, Death causes narratives to happen, and that proves more intriguing and more difficult to fully know. Mort saves the princess, but Death gets the sequel.
But in the end, whatever issues Mort has—and have them it does—Pratchett gives us a compelling little story in the early days of a more narratively lawless and wild Disc. It’s messy and uneven and frankly that’s part of the fun. It’s not perfect, but it’s perfectly endearing.
I don’t know if this will become a mainstay for my posts, but I like to keep track of things and I like to see how the world meshes together over time, so here’s a list of Pratchett tropes to begin tracking as we go…
It’s Bigger on the Inside: Continuing in a long, proud tradition of old eccentric gentlemen owning spatially problematic wardrobes or police call boxes, Death (definitely old, definitely eccentric) owns a house that is rather more spacious inside than its humble exterior might suggest.
…But It Just Might Work: In what may be the first of many instances in Discworld, Pratchett tells us that the existence of a world going through space on the back of four elephants standing on a back of an enormous star turtle is so absurd that the odds of it existing are “millions to one.” So, naturally, it exists.
Ook?: Hey, it’s the Librarian! Oddly enough, Albert calls him a monkey twice without him getting upset. Still some way to go to get to the Librarian we know and love, eh?
I Can’t Be Having With That: Cutwell drains a bottle of Granny Weatherwax’s Ramrub Invigoratore and Passion Philtre, Onne Spoonful Onlie before bed and that Smalle. Ah, I love Ye Olde English spelling and syntax.
See Me: This book is full of Prachett’s tendency toward cinematic visuals. Take for instance how the final grain of sand in Mort’s hourglass spins slowly down and impacts “soundlessly, throwing up a tiny crater.” It’s perfectly tuned to film’s visual lexicon.
He’s Gone Again: For the first time (and certainly not the last), Death goes missing. Things and stuff ensue.
The Lifting Power of the Average Grandmother: As he will many times over, Pratchett writes elderly women as figures of power and poise possessed of scrappy no-nonsense iron cores. Here it’s Goodie Hamstring, and I like it.
It’s My Birthday: A Tolkien reference! As he will do again and again, Pratchett paraphrases Gildor’s advice to Frodo regarding Gandalf: “Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards because a refusal often offends, I read that somewhere.”
And until next time, Hubward Ho!