Ryan does an amazing job making connections across the series and incorporating audience response and the outside world in what he writes, so I leave that to him. My goal with these posts are to focus on each book as its own work. I try to make it just me and the text.
Part of that, though, is that I bring with me a cultural tradition and set of experiences through which I read these books: the things I know and the things I think I know. And so the character of Death is not just made up of what is on the page, but also of the cultural context surrounding Death figures in the time and place where I grew up and I where I live.
A cursory perusal of Wikipedia tells us that the image of a personified Death figure in black robes with scythe in skeletal hand was first seen in 15th century England; from there, it has become the iconic Western depiction of Death that many of us know and love and fear in equal measure. The Grim Reaper is visual shorthand that borders on the cliche–this is the depiction of Death you see in ::shudder:: political cartoons, often helpfully labeled “DEATH” in white over the black robe.
So OUR Death, the Disc’s Death, comes directly out of this tradition. The grinning skull, the sharpened scythe, the hourglasses–this is familiar territory for Western audiences. How, then, does Pratchett’s Death offer something new to this image? What do Pratchett’s choices tell us about Death as a character? As a concept?
In Reaper Man, when Death becomes mortal and seeks to live a mortal life, he literally becomes a reaper. A bit of an obvious choice, and it certainly makes the title easier, but what does this tell us about Death?
A farmhand is certainly not his only option. It may not even be his most preferred option–in Mort, Death was thoroughly enjoying himself as a short-order cook. But, as with most of Death’s forays into humanity, it was short lived.
For Death, everything ultimately returns to the Duty. Death understands himself and his place in the universe, but it is not a human understanding. Death is the embodiment of his function, and form follows function. Death takes the shape of the Grim Reaper; this metaphor is built right into his bones.
We know that Death can create–as evidenced by the domain he made for himself–but Death is not creative. He does not innovate; he imitates. He needs to come up with a name, and the best he can do is Bill Door. Case closed.
So, in possession of mortality and relieved of the Duty, the Grim is removed and the Reaper remains. And the corn gets harvested one stalk at a time.
Reaper Man goes a step further in defining Death by showing us explicitly what Death is not. His competition with the reaping machine and his disdain for the dramatic posturing of his appointed successor places Death between these two alternatives.
The reaping machine is efficient and indiscriminate, but it is mindless. It harvests until there is nothing left to harvest; the corn stalks pass through unnoticed.
Death’s successor wears a crown. He poses in the lightning. Like the reaping machine, he does not care about those he reaps, but instead of the mindlessness of a machine, he has the arrogance of a god. The living are beneath his notice.
In contrast to both, Death is highly personal. His library is filled with the lives of every person on the Disc. Every living thing has its hourglass. Our Death does not feel, but he does take an interest. He cuts down each stalk of corn, one at a time, because that is the Duty–one life, regardless of what is has done, gets one death.
“What can the harvest hope for, if not for the care of the Reaper Man?”