Fifty Years of Terry Pratchett

Meet Death

Rhianna Pratchett

Rhianna Pratchett

Rhianna Pratchett is an award-winning cross-media writer, story designer and narrative paramedic and the daughter of Sir Terry Pratchett.

As an aspect of the entity Azrael, Death of Universes, the Discworld’s own anthropomorphic personification of Death takes the traditional form of a scythe-carrying, black-robed skeleton. His eyes appear to be two tiny blue stars flaring within his boney sockets, as if viewed across the gulf of space. Death has no need for vocal chords, his sonorous voice arrives directly in the heads of those he speaks to without bothering to pass through their ears. It might come as a surprise to most that his steed is a flesh-and-blood stallion by the name of Binky, but as skeletal horses need wiring back together on a regular basis, a real horse makes far more sense.

Death on a skeletal steed by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

A small proportion of Disc inhabitants have the ability to see Death as he truly is while they are still alive, these include witches, wizards, children and cats. Others who encounter him tend to redesign what their eyes are telling them and typically see a bearded man who could be classed as a little on the thin side. This can be rather frustrating for children, such as the innkeeper’s child in Reaper Man who could not understand why no one seemed to realize they were drinking and playing darts with ‘a skelington with clothes on’, never mind wondering why all the drink didn’t fall through. Despite having no internal organs, Death also enjoys the occasional curry, which he pays for from his collection of coins that have been left for him on the eyelids of the deceased over millennia.

Copyright by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

While Death is incapable of having a biological family of his own, he did adopt a child, Ysabell, who he inexplicably took into his care when she was orphaned in the Great Nef desert. Through Ysabell’s marriage to Death’s temporary apprentice, Mort, he also has a granddaughter, Susan Sto Helit. Despite not knowing the truth about her grandfather until she was sixteen, Susan has stood in for Death on the odd occasion, such as when he went AWOL during the events of Soul Music. The Death of Rats could perhaps be considered a child of Death, coming into existence when Death was made redundant in Reaper Man. Despite absorbing all other animal incarnations of death back into himself, Death decided to let the Grim Squeaker remain in existence and even help in his duties.

Each Discworld inhabitant has their own hourglass timer stored carefully in Death’s Domain, and their lifetimes are measured in the grains of sand trickling away. Not every timer is the same size, or even the same shape. Rincewind, a wizard who has had more near-death experiences than he can count, has a timer which is described as something that could have been created by ‘a glassblower with the hiccups in a time machine’. When the sand runs out, there’s no guarantee that Death will personally attend a demise. Understanding which deaths he will facilitate requires a good knowledge of point incarnation and node focusing. In Mort he finds it easiest to explain it as, ‘GENERALLY I’M ONLY EXPECTED TO MAKE AN ACTUAL APPEARANCE ON SPECIAL OCCASIONS.’ Wizards, witches, royalty and significant or infamous figures are usually collected by Death himself, though he is not swayed by status and has even been known to attend personally to a tube worm, a tiny sea creature, and a sack of drowned kittens, the latter making him ‘VERY ANGRY INDEED’.

Copyright by Discworld artist Paul Kidby

Death has come close to being wiped from existence due to evolving something of a personality. Upon his forced retirement in Reaper Man, he was given his own hourglass and got to experience his life ticking away. Despite his time being very limited, he shared his remaining sand with a dying child in order to keep her alive as he worked to save her. He has been known to cheat on several occasions, from turning a lifetimer upside down, to throwing a game of cards in order to extend the lives of a few who would have died otherwise. Acts such as this indicate that he has developed a degree of empathy for humanity.

Death can be summoned and temporarily bound by mortals through the Rite of AshkEnte, something that he often finds inconvenient and irritating. Modern wizards, like witches, have discovered that the rite can be performed without all of the ancient ceremony and paraphernalia. Interestingly, the rite will summon whoever is currently performing the duties of Death, which indicates that Death is a role, rather than a specific being.

Death is rarely thanked for his tireless devotion to his duty, yet, despite the very occasional lapse, he will carry it out until the death of the universe itself. Mort felt the weight of this knowledge when he took on Death’s role and remembered being summoned into reluctant existence at the moment the first creature lived, in the certain knowledge he would outlive life until the last being in the universe passed to its reward, when it would then be his job, figuratively speaking, to put the chairs on the tables and turn all the lights off.