(This is the Fourth entry in the Terry Pratchett Project. Here are the First, Second, and Third.)
“Mort”, published in 1987, serves as the fourth entry in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. While the first three books serve as criticisms or parodies of fantasy fiction, “Mort” feels more like Pratchett is finally having a go at creating something of his own.
What he chose was a story featuring a young man named Mort becoming an apprentice to the anthropomorphic personification of Death. The narrative explores Mort’s coming of age, the nature of reality, and the humanity of Death.
This novel is considered the first in the series of Death Novels of Discworld. When Pratchett focuses on the character of Death, he often does so to explore what it means to be human. He writes Death as a caring and merciful figure, because “there is no justice in life, there is just him,” a line repeated in this book three times.
This book is still very early in Pratchett’s career as a writer. I read it with the benefit of knowing how far he would explore some of the ideas he touches on in “Mort”. I don’t think this book by itself is necessarily profound or life changing; however, I think as he keeps working at these ideas he eventually comes to some of the most powerful writing that I’ve read.
When I think about how Pratchett’s work has changed my life, I’m often thinking about things that involve Death. This character comes to mind when I think about the value of writing or stories, what it means to be human, or the mercy and hope we can find in an otherwise cruel existence.
With this essay I’ll be focusing on what Pratchett teaches us about what it means to grow up, his first look at Death as a character, and the rather fuzzy nature of reality.
Coming of Age
The beginning of the book is a conversation between Mort’s father Lezek and uncle Hamesh about not really knowing what to do with the kid. They describe him as all knees and elbows and naturally curious in a way that would get him in trouble. He was honest and dutiful, at least when he remembered to be. But there wasn’t any place for him in the family or the family business.
This is the framing device that sets up the rest of the book, because the suggestion they come up with is to send Mort to a job fair to get him “sorted out,” which is where he meets Death and the rest of the story’s events unfold. I don’t suspect Pratchett was making very deep commentary between entering into these markets being the start of your march towards death, but it does exist if you dig.
If we’re talking about growing up, the exchange Mort has with his father just before leaving to be Death’s apprentice is a key sequence.
“You’re really going to have to do better than this,” he said. “Don’t you understand, boy? If you’re going to amount to anything in this world then you’ve got to listen. I’m your father telling you these things.”
Mort looked down at his father’s face. He wanted to say a lot of things: he wanted to say how much he loved him, how worried he was; he wanted to ask what his father really thought he’d just seen and heard. He wanted to say that he felt as though he stepped on a molehill and found that it was really a volcano. He wanted to ask what ‘nuptials’ meant.
What he actually said was, “Yes. Thank you. I’d better be going. I’ll try to write you a letter.” (Page 16)
Within the events of the book Mort never talks or writes to his father after this passage. Even when he gains powers to transverse nearly the entire world at will, he doesn’t stop in to say hello. When he is confronted with the many problems, both mundane and supernatural, he never turns to his family for help or perspective. The line about writing a letter is a lie that we all recognize and that Mort and his father likely recognized within the scene. It is just a polite thing you say.
And I think it’s kind of a shame that within the book it is never revisited. The second Mort marches towards Death is the second he has marched away from his family. And I think that rings true for many young men going out on their own. At one moment in time you have a family that takes care of you and the next moment you don’t, beyond family reunions during the holidays. While every family structure is going to be different, I think it is fair to say many people recognize this kind of relationship and estrangement from the people they grew up with.
As a man on his own, Mort starts his tutelage under Death to learn the uttermost secrets of time and space. This amounts to shoveling a large amount of horse shit. After completing that task, Death asks Mort if he understood how these two things were connected.
“Well, I think it was because you were up to your knees in horseshit, to tell you the truth.” Mort (Page 33)
The lesson is that some jobs just need doing, but this is less a comment on the nature of working in society and more an allegory for the nature of death and the harvesting of souls. It’s a shitty job, but someone has to do it.
Pratchett doesn’t spend too much time commenting on what a young boy’s first job is like, but he has one particular section where Mort mentally subdivides the labor before him into smaller sections. I found this a fun commentary on the divides we make to get through the work day. Do you have an hour left on the clock? That’s a long time. Except it’s only fifteen minutes four times and fifteen minutes is nothing. That’s just five minutes three times. Your shift is basically over.
As part of Mort’s apprenticeship he stays at Death’s house with the butler Albert and Death’s adopted daughter Ysabell. Both Death and Mort’s father indicate that Mort should be looking to settle down with a lady, with Death often nudging Mort into developing an interest in Ysabell. I suspect this is one part joke and one part commentary on the expectations put on young men growing up.
The curious thing is Mort has effectively no interest in sex, but it is continually thrust on him.
There are several scenes where he is either propositioned directly, teased, or pointed to the nearest brothel. Ysabell actively tries to expose cleavage to get his attention. An old witch dies and becomes a barely clothed nymph-esque spirit that teases him with an “erotic cheshire kiss.” The wizard Cutwell is constantly making masturbation jokes. It feels like every character, except Mort, is lowkey horny in the novel.
There is a part in the story where Albert finds a stack of books about young ladies laying around and scolds Mort for ogling into their lives, assuming the boy is using it for masturbation. It is later revealed it was Ysabell reading them to learn about romance.
While Mort doesn’t express any real sexuality, he does develop a clear crush on one of the other characters. During the story, when Mort goes with Death to reap individuals across the world, nobody can see them. There is one exception, where Mort is seen by the beautiful princess of Sto Helit, Keli. This act of being seen, when nobody else seems to notice him, has a clear impact. He becomes obsessed with her and we can read it as perhaps his first crush. The result of this will eventually lead to the main conflict of the book, which I’ll get into in a later section, but for now let’s focus on a teen’s first love.
Mort doesn’t really know what to do about his feelings. So, naturally he becomes completely obsessed and he asks for a night off from his Death’s apprentice duties, just to see her. He buys a fast horse, races 20 miles from Ankh-Morpork to Sto Helit and repeatedly bangs his head into a wall while attempting to walk through it. The overall goal of all of this is a bit of a mystery, but it’s a decent representation of our young adult behavior when we are loaded on hormones, developing crushes, and going insane.
Beyond his father leaving him at market, his undertaking with a new job, and his crush on Keli, there isn’t much else in terms of growing up Mort does in the book. The book quickly pivots from this coming of age story into a playground to explore the nature of being Death and metaphysical concepts around reality*. They do make some comments in the middle and end of the book about Mort standing taller or appearing more mature, but it feels like background noise to the real plot that we’ll discuss later.
While the new direction isn’t strictly a bad thing, it does create some narrative whiplash as the story moves further and further away from Mort. I could say there would have been a few ways to have written this book with a stronger consistent narrative, where Pratchett could have focused more on growing up or more on Death, but he beat me to it by thirty years with subsequent books exploring these topics with greater focus and clarity.
*Editor Note: I’d argue there is somewhat of a connection between these two halves of the story. You, Faye, were already familiar with Death and his realm and all the rules of how dying on the disc works, but at the time this was written, none of that existed independently of Mort as a character. I do think him entering the larger world and seeing something as frightening and looming as death itself broken down into the component parts of paperwork, to-do lists, and night shifts is a good metaphor. When you’re young you imagine the most terrible things in life are caused by malevolent forces out to get you specifically. As you grow up you realize it’s mostly all bureaucracy all the way down.
Death as a Character
We know a little bit about Death from Pratchett’s first two books, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. In those books Death was more an antagonistic force trying to reap the wizard Rincewind, who had chronic near-Death experiences. Death didn’t feel particularly thought out in previous books beyond the gimmick of being an anthropomorphic personification of death, but it is worth noting his house and daughter do make an appearance prior to “Mort”. It is also worth noting Pratchett did have this idea of death already rattling inside of his mind.
“The Death of the Disc was a traditionalist who prided himself on his personal service and spent most of the time being depressed because this was not appreciated. He would point out that no one feared death itself, just the pain and separation and oblivion, and that it was quite unreasonable to take against someone just because he had empty eye-sockets and a quiet pride in his work. He still used a scythe, he’d point out, while the Deaths of other worlds had long ago invested in combine harvesters.” (The Light Fantastic: Page 98)
What we learn about Death in “Mort” is that he loves cats. He forgoes the use of a skeleton horse because it takes too much time wiring it back together when it falls apart. He keeps a living horse he named Binky as his steed, and treats him very well. He adopted a human girl for no particular reason after her parents died in the desert, and a man-servant/ancient wizard as a butler for company.
He keeps an entire estate around his house full of all things black, skull, and bones. This includes black trees, apples, flowers, and so on. Mort describes the environment as having several different unique shades of black, as though an entirely new color wheel existed in just blackness. Ysabell says Death’s problem is he can’t create, just copy, and that in fact everything they see in Death’s Domain is a copy.
When Death is first teaching Mort the job, Mort attempts to stop an assassinations. He is not able to, because one cannot cheat fate, but fears Death will discipline him or send him away for trying. Death says that he’d never send a person away for showing compassion, but he might if Mort showed pleasure with reaping.
“You cannot interfere with fate. Who are you to judge who should live and who should die? — you must learn the compassion proper to your trade. A sharp edge.” (Page 48)
As Mort starts to explore what it means to be Death, Death starts to explore what it means to be human. This involves him fishing, dancing, gambling, and drinking. While drunk he talks about being alone and having no friends. The entire sequence is his attempt to find what joy there is in living. A larger theme we see explored with this character is the confusion of life’s attempts to live. Given just how short a time people have to grow, dance, and love — what keeps them going? When you’re alive for just the blink of an eye compared to eternity, why have hopes or dreams?
With Mort taking over his job, Death finds himself with extra time and grows aimless. Eventually he goes into a job broker and interviews to find work, but the meeting doesn’t go well.
“It would seem that you have no useful skill or talent whatsoever,” the broker said, “have you thought of going into teaching?” (Page 173)
After terrifying the job broker by allowing him to see the true horror of death, he is able to get a job as a line cook and describes the experiences as happiness. This goes on until the Rite of AshkEnte is performed and summons Death to the Unseen University, where he is informed that Mort has buggered up reality something bad and his services will be needed again. Annoyed and angry, Death summons Mort for judgment and they have a duel.
The central theme to Death is that there is no justice, there is just us — or often, just him. During the duel, some characters comment that they believe Death wants Mort to win. That Death wants there to be some justice or wants the world to work in some different way than it does. And while they comment on that, they also say that it won’t matter and Death will win. Death is the only absolute reality, the only truth in the world, and the grim job of the reaper never ends.
Death wins the duel and holds a scythe blade to Mort. He tells the boy that he has no idea how sorry this makes him. Mort responds that he might. Death pauses at this comment, then starts laughing, before having a change of heart.
And what we learn is that what Death really wanted from this entire experience was to just have a single person understand what it was like to be him. What it was like to hold eternity and watch every bit of life fade away into oblivion, because somebody needed to do the job.
While I wouldn’t want to compare myself to the anthropomorphic personification of Death, I can relate on some level being an activist. What I tell people who are interested in getting involved is that you should expect criticism over love. Often you’re alone, rarely do people help you, but everyone is around to tell you how to do your job better. And while it’s work that needs doing, while it’s important work, it is also difficult, lonely, vast, and everyone expects someone else to be the hero.
Outside of Death and Mort, this book deals with the nature of reality, with the central premise being the only thing truly real is Death.
The first thing that Death teaches Mort about being Death is how to walk through walls.
“They walked out through the wall. Mort was halfway after them before he realized that walking through walls was impossible. The suicidal logic of this nearly killed him.” (Page 46)
Mort asks Death if walking through walls is magic and is told it isn’t. Death says that once Mort can do it himself, then there will be nothing more Death can teach him. Throughout the book we see Mort fading into walls to escape thieves, running through closed doors at a bar, having crossbow bolts pass through him, and his own arms casually passing through solid objects.
The reason is that he is more solid and more real than anything else, because death is more real than anything else. And while during life we can talk about truth and philosophy, the only real truth is that “This Too Shall Pass.”
Death also doesn’t use magic to disguise himself. He freely walks around the world as an improbable skeleton with tiny blue stars in the vast galaxy of his eyes. He says that cats and wizards can see him, because they’re trained to see what is really there. And this could be a commentary on how we all try to avoid thinking about death. We try to pretend it can’t happen or won’t happen, but it’s the only thing that we can be absolutely sure will happen.
In lighter tones, he also juxtapositions this to how aristocrats are accustomed to ignoring things already, like poverty or the struggles of the servants.
Beyond the nature of death, we’re also looking at the nature of reality. As I alluded to previously, the central conflict in the plot is that Mort rescues princess Keli. What I didn’t mention was that by doing so he may unravel reality. She was supposed to die by the Duke’s hands. And while she was spared by Mort and she still draws breath, she becomes a true living ghost. A being that people can’t see, don’t remember, and are perplexed by interacting with when they do.
The comedy of the book is that she hires Cutwell, who as a wizard can actually see her, to announce her existence to everyone. He tries getting town criers to shout her name, he hangs posters of her face everywhere, and does everything in his power to shift the bias of reality back into her favor. And all the while, a sphere of actuality starts to close in around her, fixing reality and putting everything back in its proper place.
“Mort thought that history was thrashing around like a steel hawser with the tension off, twanging backwards and forwards across reality in great destructive sweeps.
History isn’t like that. History unravels gently, like an old sweater. It has been patched and darned many times, reknitted to suit different people, shoved in a box under the sink of censorship to be cut up for the dusters of propaganda, yet it always — eventually — manages to spring back into its old familiar shape. History has a habit of changing the people who think they are changing it. History always has a few tricks up its frayed sleeve. It’s been around a long time.” — (Page 118)
The conflict in the book is that there are two concurrent realities: one where Keli had died and the Duke had taken over and one where she hadn’t. It’s difficult to read this story in our modern world, given that we live in so many concurrent realities at the moment between people in America thinking an election was stolen or a pandemic was a hoax. These aren’t disagreements about the impact of events, but about reality itself.
And while the events of “Mort” wrap the conflict up in a neat bow, we’re still seeing which reality will win out in our present and what will determine our future.
The impression I got from reading this book is that Pratchett was having a great deal of fun writing it. I, like most people, refer to the clever little things he does with language as Pratchettisms, and this book was ripe with them.
“One of them had drawn a knife, which he waved in little circles in the air. He advanced slowly towards Mort, while the other two hung back to provide immoral support.” (Page 54)
I wouldn’t be surprised if you found something as clever as that on each page, if not multiple instances of it. I think the story of Mort was somewhat weak compared to what Pratchett will eventually write. However, it contained the beginning essence of so many ideas I know he will explore.
It is maybe not a surprise that the fourth book out of the forty he wrote was not his masterpiece, but it was fun and interesting. And honestly this is where time didn’t do it favors for me, because it lived in the shadow of its own future. If I could read this book fresh and it was the latest thing Pratchett had just written, I would probably tell you the book is amazing and to expect big things from that Terence fellow.
The creator had a lot of remarkably good ideas when he put the world together, but making it understandable hadn’t been one of them.
Death gave Mort the look he was coming to be familiar with. It started off as blank surprise, flickered briefly towards annoyance, called in for a drink at recognition and settled finally on vague forbearance.
“You’re a wizard. I think there’s something you ought to know,” said the princess.
THERE IS? Said Death
(That was a cinematic trick adapted for print. Death wasn’t actually talking to the princess. He was actually in his study, talking to Mort. But it was quite effective, wasn’t it? It’s probably called a fast dissolve, or crosscut/zoom. Or something. An industry where a senior technician is called a Best Boy might call it anything.)” Used again on Page 191
“Mort backed away until he felt the roughness of a stone pillar on his neck. Death’s hourglass with its dauntingly empty bulbs was a few inches from his head.
Mort yelled and swung his sword up, to the faint cheers of the crowd that had been waiting for him to do this for some time. Even Albert clapped his wrinkled hands.”
Written by: Faye Seidler
Editing by: Shane Thielges