Thursday, 17 October 2013

Posthumous but not post-humorous

For want of a better title, have a terrible pun.

So something which has always struck me in a lot of media is the difficulty of dealing with the deaths of characters. Finding the balance between what is narratively satisfying and what is starkly real and shocking.
To explain more precisely, if a character dies, you kind of want them to finish their character arc first, and then live long enough to say something very characteristically them so you feel a sense of resolution. On the other hand, sometimes a character death is there partly to be a shock out of nowhere, and indeed, in real life people don't necessarily die at the optimum time in terms of their personal narrative, so you may wish to portray that sudden-ness and pull out that shock value on an unsuspecting audience.
A possibly related point to this (though I won't know for sure until I've finished talking about it) is that of course in some cases characters who do get the sudden unexpected deaths are just bit parts and background characters, which gets you your sudden-ness and shock without throwing up potential issues in your general narrative because those characters aren't the focus of it, but on the other hand this can be criticised for that very reason - that these characters are denied their own stories to be turned into sudden death fodder (Such as the ever ubiquitous example of the Star Trek redshirts).

I've been moving towards a point, ever so slowly.
The point, which prompted me to make this blog post, was that I realised an instance where these issues are somewhat sidestepped, in a book series of which I am inordinately fond - Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld series. In Discworld books, of course, characters do often die suddenly, and sometimes without getting much time on the page to establish themselves as characters. But then, in a large number of cases, they are allowed a certain amount of easing of the passing, a certain amount of resolution, posthumously, because Death turns up to collect them, and we are allowed to read this posthumous conversation.

This means that the sudden deaths are still there, and they still have the same potential impact on the other characters in the story, but we as the readers get the more hopeful feeling that everything is basically alright, because we see that it's not all over for them, and that their concerns in life are not necessarily their concerns after death, so resolution of all those concerns feels less necessary.
And then of course another theme fairly common in Discworld in general is various means by which ones illusions are stripped away and you see things clearly. Dying is one of the more common instances of this, and this makes for interesting reading as we can compare the reactions of different characters as they experience this newfound clarity.
Contrary to my title, often these scenes are not actually humorous. In fact they can in many cases be wuite touching. But I wanted to make a terrible pun.


The particular case I was noting this in is Small Gods. So I'm going to talk more specifics, ergo there will be spoilers.
If you have not read Small Gods, please do so. And any other Discworld books you can get your hands on, in a sensible order (You may find this helpful). You can come back and read the rest of this blog post later.

Alright, I assume everyone still reading has read Small Gods.
So, it's interesting noting, as I say, the different reactions of people who have their illusions stripped away upon death, particularly in the context of Small Gods and its attendant theme of religious morality and so on. Because on arriving in the desert, the illusions are gone, and it's all down to what they believe (I think it says as much at some point in the book). What they really believe, in their heart of hearts. And you compare that between theose who've been somewhat uncertain throughout their life, having to deal in practicalities which took them outside of the religious rules they were supposed to obey; and Vorbis, who had certainty you could smash rocks on as he lived by those rules. And Brutha, of course, who was somewhere in between.

I think it's particularly noticeable if you put the passages side by side.

General Fri'it:
"There were no lies here. All fancies fled away. That's what happened in all deserts. It was just you, and what you believed.
What have I always believed?
That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out alright.
You couldn't get that on a banner. But the desert looked better already.
Fri'it set out."

Private Ichlos:
"Ichlos looked at the sands stretching away. He knew instinctively whathe had to do. He was far less sophisticated than General Fri'it, and took more notice of songs he'd learned in his childhood. Besides, he had an advantage. He'd had even less religion than the general.
... [snipping out some less relevant bits]...
Ichlos set out. On the whole, he thought, it could have been a lot worse.


In both cases, clearly, a fairly quick dose of clear introspection is enough for them to feel that they had nothing in particular to be ashamed of in going to be judged. They've done right by their own standards, and so carry on as they would have in life, setting striaght out on the important task at hand - to whit, crossing the desert.
By contrast...


Vorbis:
"Now he had to cross the desert. What could there be to fear-
The desert was what you believed.
Vorbis looked inside himself.
And went on looking.
He sagged to his knees.
I CAN SEE THAT YOU ARE BUSY, said Death.
'Don't leave me! It's so empty!'
...[more snippage]...
Death paused. YOU HAVE PERHAPS HEARD THE PHRASE, he said, THAT HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE?
'Yes. Yes, of course.'
Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG."


and...


Brutha:
"'Ah. There reall is a desert. Does everyone get this?' said Brutha.
WHO KNOWS?
'And what is at the end of the desert?'
JUDGEMENT.
Brutha considered this.
'Which end?'
Death grinned and stepped aside.
What Brutha had thought was a rock in the sand was a hunched figure, sitting clutching its knees. It looked paralysed with fear.
He stared.
'Vorbis?' he said.
He looked at Death.
'But Vorbis died a hundred years ago!'
YES. HE HAD TO WALK IT ALL ALONE. ALL ALONE WITH HIMSELF. IF HE DARED.
'He's been here for a hundred years?'
POSSIBLY NOT. TIME IS DIFFERENT HERE. IT IS . . . MORE PERSONAL.
'Ah. You mean a hundred years can pass like a few seconds?'
A HUNDRED YEARS CAN PASS LIKE INFINITY."


Obviously there's more to it if you read the scenes in full, such as the fact that in line with one of the things I said in my sort of preamble, Private Ichlos isn't a character until he dies, but is granted more of a narrative identity in his post-death scene ("Now he was more than just a soldier, an anonymous figure to chase and be killed and be no more than a shadowy bit-player in other people's lives. Now he was Dervi Ichlos, aged thirty-eight, comparatively blameless in the general scheme of things, and dead.") But I picked out the sections I felt were most relevant to simply comparing the four of them. Well, mostly the first two and Vorbis. The section of Brutha's was more for its inclusion of Vorbis, and for his very astute observation. At which end of the desert are you judged? The simple inference once you consider the question is of course that you are judged at the end of the desert at which you start, and the judge is you yourself, once you've had your illusions stripped away to give you that clarity (An idea which has been used elsewhere of course, including being revisited in a much later Discworld book, and also it happened on Red Dwarf).

Returning to my initial point about narrative satisfaction, anyway, the two soldiers and Vorbis are excellent examples of it. Fri'it was plucked out of the storyline somewhat abruptly. There's a certain amount of shock value to his death. But he has his chance to make his peace on-page after his death. Private Ichlos was a non-character, he was there purely to be shot and killed for trying to follow his orders as a soldier should and for no fault of his own, but posthumously he was granted some identity in the story. And then Vorbis, the villain of the piece, again died very suddenly, and his death was almost brushed over in the ensuing reascent of Om. It would be easy to feel that it was somewhat too good for him, and that he didn't really receive a proper comeuppance. But that's because his comeuppance was then in the posthumous scenes, in his sitting in despair in the desert for a hundred years that passed like infinity, to be eventually... I suppose almost granted absolution by Brutha, the book's protagonist, at the end. It highlights the difference between the two of them, as well.

Anyway. Small Gods is still a very good book, very interesting, I'm sure someone into philosophy and ethics and theology and whatnot could have a field day with analysing all the different atitudes and ideas expressed just by Vorbis, Brutha and Didactylos. But I'm more into narratives, and this was the thought which really jumped into my head as I was revisiting the story.

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