Death appears in every Discworld book except for The Wee Free Men
Death, is a fictional character in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Discworld’s Death is a parody of several other personifications of death. Like most Grim Reapers, he is a black-robed skeleton (usually– he wears the Dean’s “Born to Rune” leather jacket in Soul Music, and overalls in Reaper Man) carrying a scythe and, for royalty, a sword (he once told Mort). Unlike many of them, he has a personality beyond this. He is a ‘anthropomorphisised personification of a natural process’/a God of the disk world and sometimes has his duties carried out by his appretice Mort, or Death’s granddaughter Susan.
Death is one of the most popular Discworld characters. His steed is a great pale horse called Binky who is very much still alive (in Reaper Man it is remarked that he tried riding a steed of flames and a skeletal one, but the former was constantly setting the stable on fire, and he got rid of the latter because he grew tired of “constantly getting off to wire bits back on”). His hollow, peculiar voice is represented in the books unquoted ; it is peculiar because since he is a tall skeleton, he has no vocal cords to speak with, and therefore the words enter your head with no involvement from your ears, the books get this across by having his “speech” in small caps. In The Colour of Magic (the first Discworld novel), and in Eric, all direct written references to Death are proper nouns, 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. Most people just 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. In Wyrd Sisters Death briefly took the place of an actor playing him in a play and was shocked to discover when he walked onto the stage that all of the audience could see him as they were expecting Death to appear; it was stated that he was quite nervous at this as he is usually seen only by one person at a time and was not comfortable with so many people watching him. Death can of course ignore things like walls or magic spells that stand between him and his object: this is because he’s much “realer” than they are. A castle might stand for centuries, but Death has existed for billions of years: to him, the walls of the castle are less substantial than a cobweb. However, he can only go where people believe in death, as shown inHogfather, and can only see people who can die, as shown in Thief of Time.
It is also mentioned in The Colour of Magic that wizards, witches, and significant figures (e.g. kings) have the “privilege” of being collected by Death himself upon their death, rather than one of the lesser entities. Indeed, wizards and witches have prior knowledge of the time of their deaths and expect Death to keep to schedule. Most other deaths are collected by another functionary, but with the exception of Mort and Susan (both acting as “authorized” replacements for Death), there has only been one “collection” described in the books by anyone other than Death, attempted of Rincewind by the anthropomorphic personification of Scrofula. However, Death himself must collect some souls in order to keep the momentum of death going, worked out by a system described as the ‘nodes’. These nodes seem handily to be most of the characters who die in the course of the novels, as Death almost invariably turns up whenever any character dies, sometimes (especially when taking bad characters’ lives) replaced by the Death of Rats, mentioned below in this article. As well as wizards and kings, he has shown up for numerous ordinary people, at least two dogs, a swan, and once for a tube worm (he used a one inch long scythe on it). He was present at the beginning and end of Time in one novel. He has also appeared even in situations where characters might potentially die. These events are usually of importance within the story, so Death’s appearance may simply be considered a plot device. Death mentions in Guards! Guards! that he does personally collect the souls of ordinary people. This suggests that Death’s conception of an important person is not, necessarily, the same as a human conception. Possibly he is able to judge “significant” deaths based on an understanding of the broad sweep of history andchaos theory. He may also do ordinary deaths judging by the showyness of the death (such as a beggar being incinerated by a dragon, the first dragon-based death in centuries).
Death is efficient but not cruel, and sees his job as a necessary public service. His task is not to kill, but to collect. He harvests the old, worn-out souls of the dead so they may be properly “recycled” into fresh new lives. As shown in Reaper Man his is a necessary service as life force that isn’t “recycled” properly tends to start producing unusual behavior (i.e. poltergeists).
He is immensely fond of cats, and so dislikes anyone who is cruel to cats, much like Pratchett, (who can see him at all times) and curry (although he doesn’t need to eat), which he tells Mort is like biting a red-hot ice cube.
Death is fascinated by humanity, hence the above attempts at living beyond the role, and why he once adopted an orphaned child named Ysabell (see below). His interest is coupled with bafflement: it’s a favorite point of Prachett’s that the habits and beliefs are grown into instead of being rationally acquired are an essential part of being human. As Death is an outside observer, his imitations are intricate but marked by a fundamental lack of comprehension. When acting as a stand-in for the Hogfather he starts by greeting the children he meets in the course of his duties with from force of habit, until reminded not to do so by Albert. In Going Postal, he is faced by the rare occasion of a golem’s death, whereby he is unable to understand the golem’s lack of desire to move on onto the afterlife, instead choosing to stay in a barren plain.
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) as well as the Dungeon Dimensions. He has on a number of occasions bent the rules to allow a character extra life. 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 including chess (though he consistently has trouble remembering how the knights move), and another game – which the challenger lost despite having “three streets and all the utilities”. In one case, Granny Weatherwax was able to play cards against Death in a successful bid to save a child’s life (Granny’s hand had four queens, while he only had four’ones’ – it is suggested that Death knew the true value of the hand but was prepared to pretend otherwise for the child’s sake). In many ways, he is a character who epitomises the bleakness of human existence – in the book Reaper Man, in which he is rendered temporarily mortal, 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. Terry 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 actually quite a malicious character. At one point he deliberately stops a character’s heart. By the time of Mort he had gained the sympathetic and humorous personality that would make him so popular. In more recent novels, he has been used to examine recent developments in theoretical physics as, being a supernatural being, he is able to witness such events firsthand (although, being a cat lover, he is not fond of the Schrödinger’s Cat thought experiment).
Some readers have suggested that Death may have been partially based on the Doctor from Doctor Who. Both are beings who can travel anywhere in time and space, are fascinated with humanity but do not always understand it, live in domiciles that are significantly bigger on the inside than the outside, and have granddaughters named Susan. Pratchett has stated that “As far as I’m aware, the Death/Dr Who ‘coincidences’ are in the mind of the beholders. Death can move through space and time, yes, but that’s built in to the character. I made his house bigger on the inside than the outside so that I could have quiet fun with people’s perceptions”.
The initial books did not pronounce themselves about the gender of Death, giving an ambiguous “it”. However, in Reaper Man, Death is unambiguously identified as a male. 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, and also seen as this when he needs to be seen by the living.
In the Spanish translations of the books, it was not possible to be ambiguous about Death’s sex, because Spanish Language must provide a grammatical gender to each object (table is female while pencil is male), sometimes even changing the gender of synonyms (computer can be ordenador (male), or computadora (female). Thus, translator Cristina Macía chose the female gender for Death, as death in Spanish; muerte, is female. It had to be changed when Reaper Man was published, and justified in a footnote. It seems the latest editions of Mort corrected Death’s gender.
In the French translation, though the noun for death (la mort) is feminine, the actual gender when conjugating is masculine. The translator, Patrick Couton, justified the fact by a pun in a footnote: “La Mort est un mâle, car c’est un mal nécessaire” (Death is male because it is a necessary evil/male). In French: mâle = male and mal = evil are pronounced almost identically. The translator footnote has become a running gag in the French translation, “Death is male because there are horseman and no horsewoman of the apocalypse”.
In the Polish translation by Piotr W. Cholewa Death is masculine, despite the noun (Śmierć) being feminine in Polish. As a result Death is definitely male and is addressed exclusively as He (On).
In the Croatian translation Death was female up to Sourcery where it was changed to a male persona. The changing of his gender is addressed at the beginning of the book via a translator’s commentary.
In the Russian translation of the Discworld series (different translators, all translations edited by Alexander Zhikarentsev) Death is masculine (despite the noun смерть being feminine in the Russian language and the Russian tradition to depict death as an old woman) and his gender is explicitly stated when he first appears inThe Colour of Magic.
In the Czech translation by Jan Kantůrek, Death is masculine, although the noun smrt (death) is feminine. Kantůrek used the name Smrť, which is obviously derived from “death”, but has no independent meaning.
In the Hungarian translation by Dr. Anikó Sohár, Death is indirectly suggested to be masculine (Hungarian language does not feature genders at all). Death is called “a Halál” with a definite article and a capital “H” (meaning literally “the Death”). The masculine characteristics is emphasized via addressing of Death by other characters, which utilizes variations of the Hungarian equivalents of “(my) Sir”, “Mr” etc.
In the Bulgarian translation by Vladimit Zarkov, Death is masculine, although the noun смърт (pronounced as “smurt”) is feminine. There the name is just Смърт (in English Death) and in some books Albert addresses Death as My lord, Master (господарю).
Relations and associates
Death is both the servant and a part of The Old High One known as Azrael, the Death of Universes and ruler of all deaths.
Ysabell, Death’s adopted daughter, first appears in The Light Fantastic, and has a significant role in Mort. In this novel Mort is given the job of Death’s apprentice, and he and Ysabell get married. Their child is Susan (below).
Death’s granddaughter Susan is first tapped to fill in for him during the events of Soul Music, and is again called in Hogfather. She also plays an important role in Thief of Time. She would give it all up if it weren’t for Binky, below.
Death’s domain has a “groundskeeper” named Albert. He is not dead, but instead was brought to Death’s domain when he performed the Rite of AshkEnte backwards. He entered the land of Death with around three months left before he was due to die. Subsequent trips to the Disc on errands for his master combined with the unfortunate shattering of his lifetimer in Soul Music have left him with a mere five seconds of life remaining.
In the earlier books and Thief of Time Death works with War, Pestilence and Famine, the other threeHorsemen of the Apocralypse (though, when War, Pestilence and Famine get their horses stolen in Sourcery, they sarcastically rename themselves The One Horseman and The Three Pedestrians of the Apocalypse). Like him they have become more human than their roles require. Death himself explains this; in Thief of Time, he says that “form defines function“. In Thief of Time, Kaos, the Fifth Horseman, was introduced, having previously left before they became famous and now works as a milkman under the name Ronnie Soak (this is probably a nod/reference to the Beatles). With the exception of Thief the other Horsemen do not generally appear in the books focused on Death, even when there is a potential narrative reason for their involvement.
Binky is Death’s steed. He is a real horse; Death tried a skeletal steed, but kept having to stop and wire bits back on. Death also had a fiery steed, but that one repeatedly set his barn – and his robe – on fire. He is called Binky, instead of something more fearsome, because Death thought Binky was a nice name. Binky is more intelligent than most horses and is a pure, milky white (it is noted in some novels that Binky is an exception to the usual equestrian rule of all pale-coloured horses being officially ‘grey’). He can fly (though really he just creates 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’s well-treated, and loyal to his master and Susan when she’s filling in for him. His shoes are made by Jason Ogg, the Lancrastian blacksmith of mythical skill. He is not immortal, but while in Death’s service does not age. Binky gains a part of his power by sharing one of Death’s qualities: he’s so much “realer” than ordinary things (for instance, walls, great distances, or time), that he can simply ignore them. When Susan observes Binky apparently walking on air and asks Albert if he’s a real horse, she’s told, “There’s no horse realer than that one, Miss“.
“My Little Binky” (a reference to My Little Pony) was a gift given to Susan Sto Helit, Death’s granddaughter, for one of her early birthdays. Her parents returned the gift, fearing that this would make her a less “normal” child.
The Death of Rats
The Death of Rats 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, and occasionally rodent-like humans, as well as assisting Death in other ways (he drew Death’s attention to interference by the Auditors, demonstrating improbable statistics by using a machine that measured how often a piece of toast dropped butter-side-down). He was one of a disparate multitude of Deaths (down to the Death of Microorganisms) created during Death’s absence in Reaper Man. Upon Death’s resumption of his duties, he reabsorbed the identities of all the millions of Deaths into himself. The Death of Rats, however, refused to be reabsorbed and, even though Death initially said he would not let the Death of Rats remain separate, Death nevertheless kept him around as company. The Death of Rats resembles a rodentine skeleton on its hind legs, wearing a black robe and carrying a tiny scythe.
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 (as in ‘Quoth the Raven’ from the poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe. The ‘N’ word he doesn’t like to say is Nevermore, also from the poem) who also acts as his translator (and says he’s “in it for the eyeballs“). The Death of Fleas also escaped reabsorption, but has not been seen since Reaper Man.
The Death of Rats’ jurisdiction also seems to cover certain kinds of ‘ratty’ humans, such as Mr Clete in Soul Music. In Maskerade the Death of Rats took the soul of the Opera House’s ratcatcher, who then got reincarnated as a rodent. The ratcatcher protested that he did not believe in reincarnation, and got the answer “reincarnation believes in you”.
The Death of Rats, like Death, speaks in small caps, but has a vocabulary consisting of words such as ‘ Squeak ‘, the last used when it laughs, although its speech can be interpreted from context much like the Librarian’s.
In the mythology of the Clan (from The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents) the Death of Rats is known as the Bone Rat. He appears in the book for Dangerous Beans, but is stopped by Maurice, who trades one of his many own lives with Death in exchange of Dangerous Beans’s.
A talking raven. He hangs around with the Death of Rats. His name derives from the famous line in the poem by the poet Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (“Quoth the Raven, ‘Nevermore’.”) except this raven “doesn’t do the N word”. He got his name because his previous owner, a wizard, had no sense of humour. At times he acts as steed and interpreter for the Death of Rats and he has a constant craving for eyeballs – a species characteristic (which, he recalls, resulted in an unfortunate end to ravens working under Blind Io, the king of the Discworld Gods, who has innumerable eyeballs floating around his head. This is a nod to Odin/Woden (King of Norse/Germanic Gods) who had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, meaning Thought and Memory). He was originally one of the ravens from the Tower of Art, the magical properties of which gave him his ability to speak.
He was first seen in the Discworld novel Soul Music, and since then has made appearances in all novels involving Susan Sto Helit. Neil Pearson voices him in the Sky One adaptation of Hogfather.
The New Death first appears in Reaper Man when he comes to collect the old Death, now known as “Bill Door”. The New Death comes from human belief, but he is quite different from the original. Though he has the usual black robe, he is a larger figure than Bill Door and has only smoke underneath his robe, rather than bones. His horse is the classic skeletal steed, as opposed to Binky. In place of a face or skull, the new Death wears a crown, and is prideful, dramatic, 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 old Death finds infuriatingly overdramatic. When he corners Bill Door, he mocks him and beats him instead of finishing the job.
The new Death is destroyed when Miss Renata Flitworth comes to Bill Door’s rescue by giving him some of her life, so that he can briefly escape “death“. Bill Door then kills the new Death with the harvest scythe he used on the farm; just a humble garden tool, not the infinitely sharp implement of Death, but sharpened by his own rage. Bill Door was disgusted and horrified by New Death choosing to wear a crown, and his victory is the triumph of the compassionate “reaper man” over the tyrant who has no care for the harvest.
Rite of AshkEnte
The Rite of AshkEnte(also Ashk’Ente or Ash’Kente) is the ancient magic ritual that summons and binds Death to the circle and prevents him from leaving until invited to do so by the summoning wizard. In Eric, Death appears outside the circle, behind the wizards (“Who are we waiting for exactly?”), and in Reaper Man a wizard comments that he believes he only stays in the circle for the look of the thing. Mort, however, was almost forced to respond to the summons, and Susan was summoned and subsequently bound. This does not, however, appear to apply to Death himself, possibly for the same reason that Tiffany Aching was never actually Summer.
Since Death is professionally involved in almost everything that is going on everywhere, the Rite is usually performed so that he can be asked questions. Death hates this because he is always summoned at the worst possible time, such as when he is at a party. The senior wizards performing the Rite are not too happy about it either, though, since they don’t enjoy drawing Death’s attention to them; they are often more senior than they’d like.
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, wizards 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. There are nine ways of performing the Rite, but eight of them cause instant death and the ninth is very hard to remember.
The founder of Unseen University, Alberto Malich disappeared from the world when he tried to perform the Rite backwards. Apparently, he thought that an inverted Rite of AshkEnte would keep Death away from him, allowing him to live forever. Unfortunately, what actually happened was that he was summoned to Death (quite possibly, the wizards are trying to work their way around this). He has since elected to stay in Death’s domain as Death’s manservant (as no time passes there, it might be said that Alberto’s ambition of immortality was fulfilled after all).
In the Discworld books, the Rite has been used a number of times:
- In The Light Fantastic, Death was summoned to be asked about the imminent destruction of the Disc.
- In Mort, Albert, briefly returned to the world, summoned Death who was having a vacation to let him know that Mort, his apprentice, was making a terrible job as replacement. While the Rite was being performed, it almost summoned Mort instead.
- In Eric Death was asked about an occult disturbance that turned out to be Rincewind.
- In Reaper Man, where Death had been forced to retire by the Auditors, an Auditor appeared in Death’s place to inform the wizards about the situation.
- In Soul Music, where Death had again taken a break from work, the Rite instead summoned his granddaughter by adoption, Susan Sto Helit.
The Rite is also used in the computer game Discworld 2. However, the game requires the player to find not only the three small sticks (of equal length) and 4 cc of mouse blood mentioned above, but also dribbly candles, a vile stench, and some glitter. During the ritual, the wizards perform an off-key version of “Day-O (Banana Boat Song)” and Death appears behind them, fresh from vacation, wearing a cork hat.
Portrayals of Death
In the 1997 animated adaptations of Soul Music and Wyrd Sisters, Death was voiced by Christopher Lee. In the 2006 Sky One adaptation of Hogfather he was voiced by Ian Richardson allowing him to make use of his famous catch phrase in the House of Cards trilogy. The actor who played the physical Death in Hogfather was Marnix Van Den Broeke, a 6 foot 7 inch Dutchman. In the 2008 adaptation of The Colour of Magic, Van Den Broeke reprises the physical role, with Lee returning to the voice after the death of Richardson.
Death has been voiced in all five BBC Radio adaptations of Discworld novels. Geoffery Whitehead played the part in the adaptation of Mort, John Rowe played him in The Amazing of Maurice and His Educated Rodents Michael Kilgariff appeared as Death in Epiosde 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). His voice has also technically been performed by Terry Pratchett, Nigel Planer,Stephen Briggs, Tony Robinson and Celia Imrie in their audiobook readings.
Death has appeared in various other media, in the Discworld Game Series he is voiced firstly by Richard Wilson and later by Nigel Planer. Death has also been played by numerous actors in amateur stage productions of Mort, Soul Music and Hogfather, as well as various other plays based upon the novels.
The Death of Rats has appeared in the animated Soul Music and in the radio serial 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, whilst in the Discworld 2 game, the voice is credited as Katherine the Crocodile.
THE DUTY is what Death refers to as his task of ushering souls in to the next world. While Death will often delegate this task to a lower functionary, it is expected that he will always personally attend the death of a wizard, witch, or other significant person (such as a king or queen). Though he will harvest ‘insignificant’ souls, such as that of an insect, from time to time, in order to keep perspective.
Death’s scythe is the instrument wielded to harvest most souls of the dead. However, Death also carries a sword, which is used exclusively on those of Royal birth.
He lives in an extradimensional realm called Death’s Domain. Within the domain, his home looks like a normal upper middle class Victorian house with a garden (with little skeletalGarden Gnomes, as well as skeletal fish in a pond), is well-tended, but is predominantly black and decorated with a skull and crossbone motif. It is called Mon Repos, and is much, much, much bigger 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 as an alternate representation of the people he influences during his work. There is also a swing, created by Death for Susan, which mainly serves to further prove Death’s lack of understanding of traditional physics. When he discovered that he had tied the two ropes to branches on either side of the trunk, he simply removed the offending trunk as opposed to repositioning the ropes. This has not in the least affected the growth of the tree (another obvious example of Death’s misunderstanding of things). Inside, he has many strange things, such as doors that are several metres tall and at one and the same time a few feet tall. He also has a bathroom (Never used by him, but by Albert) with a bar of bone-white, rock-hard soap, a towel rack with one real towel, owned by Albert (the other towels are as hard as the rack, and attached to the rack, because Death doesn’t get an idea of basic towel-ness, among other things).
The Domain is sometimes called Mon Repos. Death lodges here with his manservant Albert (Alberto Malich, founder of Unseen University), as well as the Death of Rats, and its mount Quoth, a raven, and, by the time of Hogfather, has begun to collect cats. The rooms are significantly larger on the inside, though most mortals don’t notice the extra space (as much as a mile) between the center of the rooms and the walls, or even walk through said space. Normal humans in Death’s domain note that it has been constructed from an outside perspective, as though everything in it was created by someone with no concept of such things and merely had them described to them. Rooms include:
- Death’s study
- The kitchen (where Albert fries things)
- The Hall (where there is a grandfather clock with a scythe blade for a pendulum, counting the passing of seconds)
- The Hall of Lifetimers (may be the same room as the Hall), where the timers that show the passage of peoples’ lives are kept. There is a side room to the hall were the Lifetimers of personifications, including his own are kept.
- The Library or Hall of Records, where books on every subject are kept, including those that chronicle peoples’ lives, past and present (at least some anthropomorphic personifications are listed here, as seen in the book Hogfather).
The grounds of Death’s manor include:
- The stables of Death’s steed, Binky.
- A maze (which Death cannot understand, as he always knows where he is, and more importantly, where the maze is)
- A patch of real earth dug as a watermelon pit (needs confirmation) by Albert.
- Opaque ponds on which skeletal fish swim
- A tree that is missing several feet of its trunk (and none of its health) where Death made a swing for Susan
- And surrounding the domain to the mountains at the horizon, a field of golden wheat that is eternally ripe but never harvested (as created following the events of Reaper Man).
Although Death may be an anthropomorphic personification, he is not without family. Death has a daughter named Ysabell (whom he adopted after her parents were killed in the Great Nef desert), and a grand-daughter named Susan (who is the daughter of Ysabell and her husband, Mort).
Although never terribly pleased to do so, Susan will occasionally take over the responsibilities of THE DUTY when Death becomes distracted, whether from becoming overly philosophical, or taking too much of an interest in humans.