What Terry Pratchett taught me about being alive and staying that way

Sir Terry Pratchett died this month, and like many people who grew up with his writing as a constant I partly feel like I don’t know how to be an adult without him ticking away somewhere in the world, producing books that, although satirical, probably contain more life-changing wisdom than any self-help book ever could. When I was a child, my father would bring home every new Pratchett book, read it, and immediately afterwards I would get to (and I say immediately, because I think he often gave up and just let me read it because I was constantly pestering him to finish). And now, at age 27 and with my collection of his books in storage on the other side of the world, I still find myself borrowing my favourites from the Vancouver public library and rereading them for maybe the 50th time. One area in which -- though unexpected -- Pratchett has enriched my life is as a martial artist, through his honest portrayals of combat, his razor-sharp criticism of modern misconceptions about fighting and his absolute and unerring depiction of life as a fragile and easily-ended thing.

Terry Pratchett did not shy away from the realities of combat, and it’s weird to say that in a series that is firmly rooted in the absurd and fantastical that his descriptions of fighting -- and more accurately the consequences of it -- were some of the most realistic I have encountered. Because beneath the benign, almost jovial exterior of his writing there was a hard core of cynical truth, the knowledge that life is short and easily made shorter still, and he felt that it would cheapen his writing considerably to ignore that. Pratchett is credited with saying of his writing (though I cannot find a source), “[Y]ou need to let people know that when a lot of frightened people are running around with edged weaponry, there are deaths. Stupid deaths, usually. I'm not writing 'The A-Team' -- if there's a fight going on, people will get hurt. Not letting this happen would be a betrayal.” And it is that drive to be honest with his audience that has produced an abundance of witty, concise lessons about fighting that have shaped who I am as a martial artist as well as a person. Now for some quotes. I have included some of my favourites, but the reality is what I share here will not do justice to what you would get from reading his books in their entirety, so just go and do that as soon as you’re done.

“You can’t give her that!” she screamed. “It’s not safe!” IT’S A SWORD, said the Hogfather. THEY’RE NOT MEANT TO BE SAFE. “She’s a child!” shouted Crumley. IT’S EDUCATIONAL. “What if she cuts herself?” THAT WILL BE AN IMPORTANT LESSON.” - The Hogfather

Particularly as a sword fighter, it’s easy to forget this. It’s easy to get used to taking hits and becoming desensitized to what a sword is and what it can do, and you see it all the time. Knife fighters who’ve never considered what a knife can do to them if they mess up, or sword fighters who get each other's attention by prodding them with their weapon. All other cultural considerations aside, a sword is a tool for ending people, and given that in this instance the gift-giver is Death himself in disguise I think his faith in its educational nature should be trusted.

“[He] wrote a set of rules for what he termed 'the noble art of fisticuffs,' which mostly consisted of a list of places where people weren't allowed to hit him. Many people were impressed with his work and later stood with noble chest out-thrust and fists balled in a spirit of manly aggression against people who hadn't read the Marquis's book but did know how to knock people senseless with a chair.” - The Fifth Elephant

It’s said that there are no rules in a street fight. This is not entirely true. There are rules. And they are great and noble and really, really admirable. It’s just that the kind of person likely to attack you on the street does not follow them, and if you follow them than you probably won’t have to follow them very long, viz-a-viz, you are dead. This leads nicely into:

“The whole idea of fighting was to stop the other bloke hitting you as soon as possible....” - The Fifth Elephant

I heard this from Terry Pratchett first. I actually learned it working as a night club bouncer. Winning a fight is not about scoring points. It’s about ending the fight as soon as possible, and if you can end it before it begins, that's even better. Sometimes you can do this by simply not being where the fight is, or sometimes it just means hitting someone before you find out what they are pulling out of their jacket. If that seems a little extreme, see the above point regarding rules. 

“In order to have a change of fortune at the last minute, you have to take your fortune to the last minute.” - Thief of Time

Don’t quit. Too often I see people give up in sparring once they think they are beaten (I’m guilty of it too), but before that final blow has been struck. It may be an effective time-saving method in training, but in a fight you will do what you do in training, and if you practice giving up early, guess what you’ll get really good at? You don’t know when your opponent is going to screw up, so never quit. Luck can change with the abruptness of an emergency brake, but if you give up, than you’ve decided it’s over and luck doesn’t really have much left that it can do for you.

It is not difficult to believe that a man so in tune with his mortality that he had Death as a main character would hold such an understanding of the nature of combat and would express so well the sheer fragility of life in his work. Pratchett's books are a testament to the fact that any genre, written in earnest and with awareness and wit that can contain life-changing wisdom for everyday existence, and from an early age his books gave me an appreciation of the ever-present threat of death and injury that has carried into my practice as a martial artist. This is not presented in a morbid way, but as simply a leg of the journey. By naturalising death in such a real way, even in an unreal setting, Pratchett captures something that many depictions of violence fail to: that it is neither glamorous nor is it cool, but simply part of life, and like every unavoidable thing you may encounter in your mortal span, it’s better to be good at something and hope you never need it than it is to find yourself making excuses for your lack of preparation to the man with the pale horse (whose name is Binky).

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
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