Death is a fictional character in Terry Pratchett's Discworld series and a parody of several other personifications of death. Like most Grim Reapers, he is a black-robed skeleton usually carrying a scythe. His jurisdiction is specifically the Discworld itself; he is only a part, or minion, of Azrael, the universal Death. He has been generally used by Pratchett to explore the problems of human existence, and has become more sympathetic throughout the series.
|First appearance||The Colour of Magic|
|Created by||Terry Pratchett|
|Location||Death's Domain and everywhere else|
|alias Bill Door (Reaper Man), Beau Nidle (Soul Music), and Mr Scrub (Soul Music)|
Death has appeared in every Discworld novel, with the exception of The Wee Free Men and Snuff, and had a possible cameo at the end of Johnny and the Dead (the character was not identified, but spoke in unquoted small caps). The Discworld books with Death as a leading character, starting with Mort in 1987, are:
Death's hollow, peculiar voice is represented in the books by unquoted Small caps; since he is a skeleton, he has no vocal cords to speak with, and therefore the words enter the head with no involvement from the ears. His "voice" is often described using a morbid metaphor, such as two slabs of granite being rubbed together, or the slamming of coffin lids; these descriptions have become less frequent in later novels. In the first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic, as well as in Eric, all pronouns referring to Death are capitalized; thus, for example, "he" is written as "He". This is usually reserved for the Discworld gods and is not featured in any of the other novels.
Death is not invisible; however, most people's brains refuse to acknowledge him for who he is, unless he insists. Under normal circumstances, only those of a magical disposition (e.g. witches and wizards), children, and cats can see him, or allow themselves to see him. Due to his eternal nature, Death can ignore such things as walls and magic spells; he exists throughout all time, so things lasting merely centuries are not as real as he is. He can adjust time with regard to himself and others near him, completing tasks very rapidly from a normal perspective. He can only go where people believe in death and can only see people who can die. In this sense, he is similar to the gods of the Discworld, in that he is powered by mortals' collective belief in him.
Wizards, witches, and significant figures such as kings have the prerogative of being collected by Death himself, rather than one of the lesser entities. Most other souls are collected by another functionary, such as the anthropomorphic personification of scrofula. Death himself must collect some minimum number of souls, worked out by a system called the "nodes", in order to keep the momentum of dying going. His selection of ordinary deaths may be based on the showiness of the death, such as a common thief being incinerated by a dragon. In addition to wizards and kings, he has shown up for numerous ordinary people, at least two dogs, at least two kittens, a swan, and a red, flower-like sea creature. These events are usually of importance within the story, so Death's appearance may simply be considered a plot device. He has also appeared in situations where characters are in mortal peril; for example, Death has appeared before Rincewind on numerous nearly-fatal occasions. Similarly, in Thud! Samuel Vimes has a near-death experience, which means that Death has a corresponding "near-Vimes experience", in which he appears before the stricken Vimes sitting in a deckchair reading a mystery novel.
Death is fascinated by humanity. His interest is coupled with bafflement: it's a favorite point of Pratchett's that the habits and beliefs that are grown into instead of being rationally acquired are an essential part of being human. As Death is an outside observer, his imitations of humanity are intricate but marked by a fundamental lack of comprehension. When acting as a stand-in for the Hogfather (a figure similar to Santa Claus) he starts by greeting the children with Cower, brief mortals from force of habit, until reminded not to do so. He is especially intrigued by humanity's ability to complicate their own existence, and their ability to actually get up in the morning without going insane from the sheer prospect of what life entails (from his perspective).
This fascination with humanity extends to the point of sympathy towards them, and he will often side with humans against greater threats, notably the Auditors of Reality. He has on a number of occasions bent the rules to allow a character extra life (e.g., the little girl rescued from the fire in Reaper Man). Death has also indicated that he will oblige dying humans by playing a game with them for their lives, much like the personification of Death in The Seventh Seal; the games he offers include chess, though he consistently has trouble remembering how the knights move, and another game (referred to by Death as "Exclusive Possession" in the book, presumably based on Monopoly), which the challenger lost despite having "three streets and all the utilities". Granny Weatherwax was able to play cards against Death in a successful bid to save a child's life, Granny's hand having four queens while Death's had only four "ones". (A hand of four aces would generally beat a hand of queens in poker, but Death chose to consider them low, giving the old witch a "wink" in the process.)
In the same way that his granddaughter, Susan, has been described as "Helpfulness Personified" in terms of her personality, Death, by his own admission, could very well be described as 'Duty Personified' in terms of personality; in Hogfather, in a discussion with Albert, Death comments If I had a first name, 'Duty' would be my middle name. He does not cause people to die, nor does he concern himself with their goodness or badness in life; it is simply his job to collect their souls at the appointed time. Somewhat like a garbage man making his rounds emptying the trash cans, Death performs a vital but thankless task.
In many ways, he epitomizes the bleakness of human existence. In Reaper Man, in which he is rendered temporarily mortal (or at least the imagination of being mortal, since his state of being "it/death" is, as mentioned in Discworld Noir, constant), he becomes frustrated and infuriated with the unfair inevitability of death, a theme that continues through later books. In Soul Music he expresses misery at the fact that he is capable of preventing deaths but is forbidden to do so; during his time as the Hogfather, he uses his new dual role to save a little match girl from dying of the cold by giving her the 'gift' of a future, thus allowing him to avoid the usual complications that arise from him breaking the rules. Despite his general lack of emotion, the Auditors of Reality are one of the few things actually capable of angering him. He also gets angry upon hearing of Rincewind: In Eric, for example, his eyes turn red at the mention of Rincewind. Pratchett even says in The Art of Discworld that he has received a number of letters from terminally ill fans in which they hope that Death will resemble the Discworld incarnation (he also says that those particular letters usually cause him to spend some time staring at the wall).
Death has developed considerably since his first appearance in The Colour of Magic. In this, he was quite a malicious character and follows Rincewind around wanting him to die after circumstances resulted in Rincewind 'missing' their scheduled 'appointment'. At one point he deliberately stops a character's heart, though this may have been Death's stand-in, Scrofula. By the time of Mort he had gained the sympathetic and humorous personality he has in later books. In later novels, he has been used to examine developments in theoretical physics as, being supernatural, he is able to witness such events firsthand, although being a cat lover, he is not fond of the Schrödinger's cat thought experiment, believing it cruel to the cats involved.
Death resides in an extra-dimensional realm called Death's Domain. Within the domain, his home looks like a Victorian house with a garden and is well tended, but is predominantly in shades of black and decorated with a skull and crossbones motif. It is called "Mon Repos", (Quirmian for "my place of rest"), and is much larger on the inside, because Death has not quite mastered the art of scale. Similarly, because he does not quite understand real distance compared to perspective, the surrounding terrain is actually relatively close, but blurred to appear farther away. Death adds a large golden wheat field to the grounds after the events of Reaper Man. There is also a tree swing, created by Death for his granddaughter Susan, which swings through the trunk of the tree. (There is a joke common among engineers that pictures a rope-and-board swing as envisioned by various corporate entities. The last illustration is usually the simple swing labeled "what the customer wanted". The one in which the swing passes through the cut-through trunk of the tree—the upper part of the tree being propped up by sticks under the branches—is usually attributed to engineers. Many of Pratchett's fans work in engineering and science.)
In addition to the inside of the house being larger than the outside, there are doors that reach a height of several yards and at the same time are only a few feet tall. He has a bathroom which he never uses, with a bar of bone-white, rock-hard soap and a towel rack with hard towels attached to the rack. The only usable items in the bathroom are a small bar of regular soap and one normal towel, both brought there by his manservant Albert.
The plumbing of his house has greatly confused him, and in Death's Domain it is explained that the pipes are completely solid, as is the u-bend for the floral-decorated toilet. The towels he originally constructed are also useless; he didn't realize that they had to bend, fold and be soft. In his 'bedroom' (which he never actually sleeps in), he has a violin, which he attempts to play. As with everything in his domain, he cannot create, only mimic, so he creates a racket, instead of music. This is said to greatly frustrate him.
Furthermore, Death's house is full of cats, roaming around. Moreover, he is also responsible for sending cats to heaven as mentioned in "The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents" where Maurice encounters Death himself.
The initial books did not pronounce themselves about the gender of Death, although Ysabell called him 'Daddy', using the pronoun "it". In Mort Death's pronoun is given as "he" and "his" without the special capital as in the earlier books. In Reaper Man, Death is unambiguously identified as a male, and in Soul Music and Hogfather Susan calls him her grandfather or "Granddad". When asked to describe Death, in the second Discworld computer game, the protagonist Rincewind hazards a guess, "Well, I suppose he's a man. You have to look at the pelvis, don't you?" In the comic strip adaptation of Mort, Death is seen in mirrors as a black-bearded human wearing a black cloak, a look he takes when he needs to be seen by the living.
Many languages must provide a grammatical gender to each object, and death is often a feminine noun. As such, translations of early novels sometimes refer to Death as a woman. This is generally changed, by the time of Reaper Man. Also, the personification of Death varies from country to country leading to further confusion, for example the Russian personification is that of an old woman, the Czech version uses a (normally non-existent) male variant of the usually female word for death for his name. Explanations are given in footnotes, often with a pun.
In the earlier books and in Thief of Time Death works with War, Pestilence, and Famine, three other Horsemen of the Apocralypse. Like him they have become more human than their roles require. Death himself explains this in Thief of Time by saying that "form defines function." In Thief of Time they are reunited with Kaos, the Fifth Horseman, who had previously left before the group became famous and now works as a milkman under the name Ronnie Soak. With the exception of Thief of Time, the other Horsemen do not generally appear in the books focused on Death.
"Mort", short for Mortimer, but which also means 'death' in Quirmian (and also in French), is the title character in Mort. He is first seen as the overly-thoughtful son of a farmer in the Octarine Grass Country, near the Ramtops. Having proved himself unworthy as a scarecrow he is chosen by Death to be his apprentice. Mort's father gave his consent, mistaking Death for an undertaker. Mort is described as being very tall and skinny, with muscles like knots in string. He has a shock of bright red hair, and walks as if he is made entirely of knees.
Mort starts off at the bottom, learning to accept his position while mucking out the stables, and trying to ignore Ysabell, Death's adopted daughter. When Death feels in need of a break, Mort takes over The Duty. Unfortunately for Mort, his feelings for a teenage princess of Sto Lat get in the way of his job and he starts off a chain reaction of events by impulsively preventing her assassination. Reluctant to tell his master about his gaffe, Mort tries various unsuccessful methods to fix the situation. After fighting and losing to Death, Mort is given an extra lease on life when the Grim Reaper chooses to turn over his Lifetimer, allowing Mort to stay in the world of the living.
After the events of Mort, Mort leaves Death's service and marries Ysabell. The couple are given the title of Duke and Duchess of Sto Helit, and they later become the parents of Susan Sto Helit. They subsequently meet their end after a freak accident sends their carriage plunging into a ravine, as revealed in Soul Music. They had discussed this with Death and had turned down his offer to extend the duration of their existence, by letting them stay in his domain, on the grounds that it wouldn't be the same as actually lengthening their lives.
In The Light Fantastic, Rincewind overhears Twoflower teaching the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, (Death, Famine, Pestilence and War) how to play bridge. At one point, War calls out Death with "Mort" but we later learn that the only people in the room (other than Twoflower) were Death, Famine, Pestilence and War. The name might be a possible reason as to why Death chose Mort as his apprentice especially as, when Mort first introduces himself to Death by name, Death's reply is What a coincidence.
In the Cosgrove Hall Films animation of Soul Music, Mort is voiced by Neil Morrissey. In 2004 BBC Radio 4 adapted Mort, with the title character voiced by Carl Prekopp and Ysabell being voiced by Clare Corbett. Mort is included in Wayne Barlowe's Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy.
Ysabell is the adopted daughter of Death, who saved her as a baby when her parents were killed in the Great Nef desert (no explanation has been given as to why he did this; Ysabell said that "He didn't feel sorry for me, he never feels anything... He probably thought sorry for me."). When first encountered she is a sixteen-year-old girl with silver hair and silver eyes who, it transpires, has been sixteen for thirty-five Discworld 'years' (no time passes in Death's Domain). During her encounter with Rincewind (see below), her behaviour is sufficiently flamboyant as to cause him to believe she is "bonkers". When Mort first encountered Ysabell, he was given the impression of "too many chocolates" (though Pratchett notes that he would have described her as "Pre-Raphaelite" if he had ever heard the word). She also has a fixation for the colour pink.
Ysabell first appeared in The Light Fantastic, where she met Rincewind, and was surprised to learn that he was not actually dead. This state of affairs might not have continued long if the Luggage had not intervened. During the events of Mort it became clear that Ysabell was competent in carrying out the work of her father including The Duty and 'doing the nodes'. This mainly involves figuring out which deaths needed to be attended to personally, an important aspect of all reality. Before Mort arrived she shared her home with Albert, Death's manservant.
Susan Sto Helit is Mort and Ysabell's daughter and only child. When she first appears as a schoolgirl in Soul Music, Susan has just inherited the duchy on the death of her parents. From the time she was a small child until the start of the book, when she is sixteen, her parents have hidden her background from her and brought her up to be logical, and it comes as a shock when the Death of Rats and Quoth the raven come looking for her. She has to act as a stand-in for Death when he disappears, but subsequently returns to her education. Despite the fact that she has inherited all of her grandfather's abilities, she longs to be normal, and gets human jobs, first as a governess (in Hogfather), and then as a schoolteacher (in Thief of Time). Death is constantly dragging her back into the world of the occult. At the end of Thief of Time, she begins a relationship with Lobsang Ludd, the anthropomorphic personification of Time.
Albert (originally known as Alberto Malich) is Death's manservant, butler, and cook. Once a wizard and founder of the Unseen University, he attempted to gain immortality by reciting the Rite of AshkEnte (a ritual to summon Death) backwards, believing this would force Death to stay away from him. Instead it brought him directly to Death's Domain. Since time in Death's Domain does not flow in the same way as it does on the Discworld, Albert succeeded, in a way, at gaining immortality. Before returning to the world during Mort, "Albert" had 91 days, three hours and five minutes of Time left on the Disc, most of which he spent shopping and using the soap and baths at the "Young Men's Reformed Cultist of the Ichor-God-Bel-Shamharoth's Association" (Death is not very good at making plumbing). As of Hogfather, he has only a few seconds left, and can no longer leave Death's side. Albert is a highly idiosyncratic cook, believing everything needs to be fried to get rid of the germs, including porridge.
Albert's childhood was touched upon lightly in Hogfather, revealing that he comes from a very poor family (even by Ankh-Morpork standards). This novel also suggests that he is fond of pork pies with mustard and adores drinking sherry.
There was a statue of Alberto in the hallway of Unseen University, inscribed (apart from the usual student scribbles) with "We Shall Not See His Like Again." This, of course, turns out to be entirely wrong. After the destruction of the statue in Mort, and the wizards' belief that the returned Albert was the statue, it is suggested that a new one be built in a very secure place—such as the dungeon (allegedly to prevent it being defiled by students). Alberto Malich was a powerful wizard, perhaps the most powerful a wizard can be (though not likely a Sourcerer). This is reflected in how easily Albert devised a spell to slow the passage of time (a near-impossible feat with Discworld magic) indefinitely around a small area.
When Death goes missing in Soul Music, Albert tries to find him on the Disc, but gets robbed and his life-timer (hourglass of life) is broken. After this incident, Albert has approximately 34 seconds left, and thus cannot return to the world of the living anymore, as Death cannot make his life longer. The remaining sand is now kept in a bottle in Albert's bedroom. Albert is able to temporarily return to the Discworld during the events of Hogfather, although in this instance he merely inhabits the pseudo-reality created for the Hogfather to allow him to travel around the entire world in a single night, and hence is not actually in the world, strictly-speaking.
While Death and Albert seem to get on rather well, it is a fragile relationship. In Mort, Albert returns to the world to help Death, but seems ready to attack him when it looks like he has his former job as Archchancellor back. He also seems not to trust Death with his life-timer, which is why he takes it with him in Soul Music, despite Death later reflecting that such an action was pointless as he would never have done anything to it. Frequently, Albert finds himself trying to keep Death "on course" when his master becomes too human. He and Susan do not get on very well.
Binky is Death's steed, named so by Death because it is "a nice name". He is a living horse; Death tried a skeletal steed, but kept having to "stop and wire bits back on". Death also tried a fiery steed, but it repeatedly set his barn and his robe on fire.
Binky is rather more intelligent than most horses and is pure, milky and white (it is noted in some novels that Binky is an exception to the biological rule of "grey" equines). He can fly by just creating his own ground-level, as well as travel through time and across dimensions, sometimes leaving glowing hoofprints in his wake, but is in all other respects a perfectly ordinary horse. He is well-treated, and loyal to his master and Susan. His shoeing is done by Jason Ogg, the Lancrastian blacksmith of mythical skill. Binky is not immortal, but while in Death's service does not age. Binky gains part of his powers by sharing one of Death's qualities: he's so much "realer" than ordinary things such as walls, great distances, or time that he can simply ignore them.
Death gave Susan a "My Little Binky" gift set for her third birthday. It was returned by her parents, fearing that it would make her a less "normal" child.
The Death of Rats, also known as the Grim Squeaker, is not, strictly speaking, a personification in his own right but rather an aspect of Death allowed an independent existence. His purpose is to usher on the souls of dead rodents, as well as assisting Death in other ways. His jurisdiction also seems to cover certain kinds of "ratty" humans, such as Mr. Clete in Soul Music, Mr. Pin in The Truth, and Mr. Pounder in Maskerade.
He was one of a disparate multitude of death-personifications created during Death's absence in Reaper Man. The Death of Rats refused to be reabsorbed into Death himself upon the latter's resumption of his duties; therefore Death kept him around for company. The Death of Fleas also escaped resorption, but has not been seen since Reaper Man. The Death of Rats resembles a rodentine skeleton walking on its hind legs, wearing a black robe, and carrying a tiny scythe, his form having taken shape from the latent form of Death himself in Reaper Man, as he came into existence in the vicinity of Bill Door.
The Death of Rats more easily finds ways around the Rules than Death does, and has assisted Susan in Soul Music, Hogfather, and Thief of Time. He sometimes travels with a talking raven named Quoth who also acts as his translator.
The Death of Rats, like Death, speaks in small caps, but has a vocabulary consisting of words such as Squeak, Eek, Ik and Snh, the last used when it laughs, although its speech can be interpreted from context much like the Librarian's.
In the mythology of the Changeling Clan in The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents the Death of Rats is known as the Bone Rat.
A talking raven. He hangs around with the Death of Rats. He was named Quoth by his previous owner, a wizard with no sense of humour who was attempting to make a joke by referencing the famous line in "The Raven" by Edgar Allan Poe. Quoth refuses to give in to this stereotype by saying "the N word" (Nevermore). At times he acts as steed and interpreter for the Death of Rats. He has a constant craving for eyeballs (a reference to ravens pecking the eyes out of corpses) and frequently mistakes various other objects for eyeballs, such as olives and walnuts. He was originally one of the ravens from the Tower of Art, the magical properties of which gave him his ability to speak.
The New Death appears in Reaper Man when he comes to collect the old Death, then known as "Bill Door". The New Death is the old Death's replacement as a result of the plot by the Auditors to rid the world of sloppy thinking.
The New Death comes from human belief, but is quite different from the original, having been formed from modern Discworlders who think of death as being a malevolent force rather than the simple cessation of life. Though he has the usual black robe, he is larger and has only smoke underneath his robe, rather than bones, and wears a crown, to the disgust of the original Death. He rides the classic skeletal steed, in contrast to the special, but nevertheless very real, Binky. Instead of a scythe he wields a weapon "which may, at some point in its evolution, have incorporated aspects of a scythe, in the same way a scalpel incorporated aspects of a stick". In place of a face or skull, the new Death wears a crown, and is prideful, dramatic, cold, and cruel; the literal embodiment of humanity's fear of death. He chooses to arrive exactly at midnight and appears in a flash of lightning purely for the dramatic effect, something the old Death finds demeaning and rather excessive. When he corners Bill Door, he mocks him and beats him instead of finishing the job.
The new Death is destroyed by Bill Door, using the scythe he used on the farm; a humble garden tool, not the infinitely sharp implement of Death, but sharpened by his rage and the harvest. Bill Door was disgusted and horrified by New Death's callous attitude toward humanity, and his victory is the triumph of the compassionate "reaper man" over the tyrant who has no care for the harvest.
The Rite of AshkEnte (also Ashk'Ente or Ash'Kente) is the ancient magic ritual that summons and binds Death into a circle and prevents him from leaving until invited to do so by the summoning wizard. This may be wishful thinking on the part of the wizards as, in Eric, Death appears outside the circle, behind the wizards, and in Reaper Man a wizard comments that he believes Death only stays in the circle for the look of the thing. The Rite is not tuned to Death himself, but rather whoever happened to be doing the job; Mort (then Death's apprentice) was almost forced to respond to the summons, and Susan Sto Helit (his granddaughter) was summoned and subsequently bound. This does not appear to apply to Death himself, although he may do so out of politeness.
Since Death is professionally involved in almost everything that is going on everywhere, the Rite is usually performed so that he can be questioned on otherwise inexplicable phenomena. This is usually done only when all other avenues have been exhausted as most powerful wizards are quite old and therefore unwilling to attract the attention of Death. Death hates being summoned because he is always summoned at the worst possible time, such as when he is at a party.
The Rite is also the reason for Albert's affiliation with Death; while he was still Archancellor of Unseen University, Albert attempted to become immortal by performing the Rite backwards, reasoning that this would banish Death away from him, but instead it transferred Albert to Death's realm, where he decided to remain on the grounds that time didn't pass in Death's realm and he is thus essentially immortal.
There are twelve ways of performing the Rite, but eight of them cause instant death, and so might just be considered to summon Death in the "usual" manner, and the ninth is very hard to remember. This leaves three ways to safely summon death: Although the Rite can be performed by a couple of people with three small sticks and 4 cc of mouse blood or even with a fresh egg and two small sticks, the wizards (Ridcully excepted) prefer to do it the old fashioned way, with heavy equipment consisting of numerous drippy candles, octograms written on the floor, thuribles, and similar paraphernalia. They feel it's not "proper" wizardry if it's not showy enough.
In the Discworld books, the Rite has been used several times:
Death has been voiced in all five BBC Radio adaptations of Discworld novels. Geoffrey Whitehead played the part in the adaptation of Mort, John Rowe played him in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, and Michael Kilgarriff voiced Death in Episode 4 of Small Gods. In both Guards! Guards! and Wyrd Sisters Death is credited as being played by himself (In Guards! Guards! he is actually voiced by Stephen Thorne who also played Sergeant Colon).
Death has also been played by numerous actors in amateur stage productions of Wyrd Sisters, Mort, Soul Music, and Hogfather, as well as various other plays based upon the novels.
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death's arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.
Fans launched a tongue-in-cheek petition on Change.org, requesting for Death to return Pratchett to life because "Terry Pratchett turned Death from a figure of hate into a much loved and sometimes welcomed character. No-one else cared about you Death. You owe him!"
The Death of Rats has appeared in the animated Soul Music and in the radio play of The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, but has not been given a voice credit for either. In the Hogfather TV series the voice was credited to Dorckey Hellmice (an anagram of Michelle Dockery who played Susan Sto Helit in the same TV series), while in the Discworld 2 game, the voice is credited as Katherine the Crocodile. The Death of Rats also appears in Discworld Noir.
Albert also makes an appearance in the computer game Discworld 2: Missing Presumed...!?, voiced by Nigel Planer.
After Granny Weatherwax had performed chiropractice on Death's arm: "I have to know. What would have happened if I had not... lost?" "At the cards, you mean?" "Yes. What would you have done?" "Well," she said, "for a start ... I'd have broken your bloody arm."