The great modern fantasy novelist Terry Pratchett (author of the much-loved Discworld novels and many others) died this week (Thursday, 12th March) after a long struggle with a rare form of Alzheimer’s. He campaigned for euthanasia, most memorably in an eloquent and moving 2010 Richard Dimbleby lecture delivered on his behalf by Tony Robinson. (Shaking Hands with Death)
In his final tweet, he departed this Earth with typical wit and nod to the modern (the ‘final tweet’: a very modern phenomenon):
In typical Pratchettian fashion, his fans started a petition soon after – asking Death to let their idol come back. (https://www.change.org/p/death-bring-back-terry-pratchett).
What impressed me about Pratchett’s parthian shot – however sad his premature death at the age of 66 – was the spine-tingling way he seemed to enter his own narrative with those final words (as when the protagonist of Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’ entered into his own painting after his death). It is the ultimate meta-fictional valediction.
As artists, the hope is that we can ‘live on’ through our art – in Terry’s case, he seems to be suggesting he will live on in his art.
The way we depart – the manner, the timing – is something we can rarely control. People, loved ones, die suddenly all the time. We seldom get a chance to control our exit from this world – though Pratchett and others campaign(ed) for the right to – and yet in Pratchett’s case he was an artist to the end.
Sir Terry Pratchett RIP
While contemplating mortal thoughts, here is a famous literary example of a ‘beautiful death’ from which it is possible to glean wisdom – plucked from the dragon-scorched hoard.
Beowulf goes into battle alone. All but one of his company have fled – but young Wiglaf rallies to his lord’s aid. Together they overcome their adversary, but the price of victory is high. Beowulf is mortally wounded. Dying, he asks Wiglaf to show him the hoard he has won with his life. The champion of the Geats casts his fading gaze upon its gold. He offers loyal Wiglaf reward and dies.
You have completed your major project – there it sits: a pile of manuscript pages, perhaps a couple of inches high; or a modest shelf of books. Not much to look at for a life’s work. Yet you should be proud. It is an achievement. Look upon it for a while, and reflect upon all the experience, all the hard work, that has gone into it. Beowulf, mortally wounded, wants to gaze upon the treasure he has paid for with his life’s blood. He says to his loyal retainer, Wiglaf:
‘Make haste that my eyes may behold the treasure,
The gleaming jewels, the goodly store,
And, glad of the gold, more peacefully leave
The life and the realm I have ruled so long.’283
Wiglaf quickly obeyed his dying lord’s wish and entered the barrow, where he beheld: ‘glittering jewels and gold on the ground’284. It had remained hidden for centuries – although much of it remained glorious, glittering in the gloaming, there were also ‘many a helmet ancient and rusted.’ The poet observes dolefully: ‘Many an arm-ring cunningly wrought,/Treasure and gold, though hid in the ground,/Override a man’s wishes, hide them who will!’285 There are many creative endeavours that sadly remain undiscovered, unappreciated. Unread manuscripts, gathering dust in drawers. Unseen canvases, rolled up. Unheard poems. Unsung songs. Unperformed plays, and unbuilt buildings of exquisite design. Many others, destroyed (as the MSS of Beowulf nearly was) or lost, a museum of What Ifs…? This is the cruel reality of the creative mainstream – for every book published, untold thousands will never get that book deal. With digital publishing it is possible to self-publish these days, but the chances of many people reading it are slim – with the odd exception that ‘goes viral’. So many people are self-publishing that it almost makes it meaningless – and the true gems get lost in the crowd, like the real Grail hiding amongst many other chalices, goblets and false cups. Nevertheless, we should always honour our muse and write it ‘because we have to’, until the fire in the head peters out, the midnight disease is extinguished – like the dragon slain by Beowulf:
‘The ancient sword with its edge of iron
Had slain the worm who watched o’er the wealth,
In the midnight flaming, with menace of fire
Protecting the treasure for many a year
Till he died a death.’286
Wiglaf carries out what treasure he could – into the cold light of day, bitter with the sea air – and showed it to his stricken lord. The sight of it brings a strange satisfaction to his face:
‘aged and sad,
Beowulf spoke, as he gazed on the gold.’287
This is what he had fought for, struggled for, journeyed towards – for so long. It was his wer-gild, his blood-price – his death, waiting for him, in a cold barrow, underground:
‘I gave my life for this golden hoard’288Was it truly worth it? Well, Beowulf – locked into his warrior culture and his character – had little choice it seemed. It had his name ‘written on it’. Strangely poignant then, that his wish is to be buried with it – it had only just seen the light of day – and a ‘stately barrow’ raised over him on the headland, visible to all:
‘It shall be for remembrance among my people
As it towers high on the Cape of the Whale,
And sailors shall know it was Beowulf’s barrow.’ 289
Is there a sense in which this is a hidden desire of all writers – to create a lasting legacy, something that will survive of them into posterity – a kind of immortality? And as such, is every such project a rehearsal of death – a preparation for ‘going away’, an extended suicide note, or ‘letter to be read in the event of my death’? With his magnum opus complete, the artist/author may well feel like ‘breaking his brushes’ like Steinbeck. His ‘antagonist’ – that which had defined him – lay defeated:
‘The monster that slew him, the dreadful dragon,
Likewise lay broken and brought to his death.’ 290
Their respective fates – the warrior and the monster – are intertwined. The Higher and Lower Self, the Avatarian and Atavistic Impulses, have been reconciled and have cancelled each other out – the creative charge has been neutralised, or perhaps consummated in this fierce coupling – the ultimate sex magic – and now both lay, mortally wounded by this post-coital majeure morte:
‘Beowulf bartered his life for the treasure;
Both foes had finished this fleeting life.’ 291
Wiglaf, after reprimanding the ten ‘battle-dodgers’, foresees strife and ruin befalling his nation. He arranges for the funeral pyre of Beowulf to be made and piled high with grave goods:
‘The Geat folk fashioned a peerless pyre
Hung round with helmets and battle-boards,
With gleaming byrnies as Beowulf bade.’ 292
Once the pyre cooled sufficiently, a barrow is raised over it. No one will wear Beowulf’s treasure – no son or wife will continue his line. The warrior-king, in obsessive pursuit of his quest, has left this world alone – but not unloved, for his people hold him in high regard, as the magnificence of his barrow attests. The dragon is pitched over the cliff-top into the waves; and the treasures are once more consigned to the soil:
‘They bore to the barrow the rings and the gems,
The wealth of the hoard the heroes had plundered.
The olden treasures they gave to the earth.’ 293
So, all must be let go of. We offer up our treasures. The final creative act is often the hardest – one of letting go. A project which has possessed us for perhaps years, has become such a huge part of our life – must now be forsaken. It can trigger significant grief – and leave us feeling empty: a hollow victory. Sometimes, authors do not want to finish their project, do not want to let go. It seemed Tolkien experienced something of the sort – with his Middle-Earth becoming his ‘precious’. But eventually, we have to drop the One Ring of our magnum opus into Mount Doom – it is only healthy. The gold forged in the fires of Mordor, must be melted:
‘The precious hoard
Shall burn with the hero. There lies the heap
Of untold treasures so grimly gained,
Jewels and gems he bought with his blood
At the end of his life. All these at the last
The flames shall veil and the brands devour.’ 294This is the hard truth of the creative process. The final phase seems like one of destruction. We must be prepared to cut our ties to it – snip that umbilical cord – for it to live on, to have a ‘life’ of its own. It is in other hands now – for them to make of it what they will. Our words are our offering to the ‘void’ – a message in a bottle. We cast it out into the great unknown – wish it well – and walk away, perhaps heeding William Blake’s wisdom:
‘He who binds to himself a joy
Does the wingèd life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.’
The crucial question here is – to paraphrase the father and son dialogue from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road (2006): ‘are you a carrier of the fire?’ Are you prepared to keep it alight and pass it on? That is all we can do:
We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?
Yes. We are.
And nothing bad is going to happen to us.
Because we’re carrying the fire.
Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.295
Extract from Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest by Kevan Manwaring (Compass Books, 2014)