This is how many of us who adored Terry Pratchett and his wonderful Discworld books discovered that he had died of a variant of Alzheimer’s Disease in March 2015.
The image of Death (surely one of Pratchett’s best characters) leading various demised mortals into the black desert under the endless night recurs – and is, I think, a brilliant conceit.
We are primed, from earliest childhood, to fear deserts: Taught to see them as arid, inhospitable, rife with bandits, as places full of sinister enchantments (as epitomised by the mirage phenomenon) and – to be blunt – death!
Deserts have come to symbolise a withering, a starkness, a lack, in the human spirit too – have become an apt symbol for those times in our lives when the going is hard, painful and dangerous, even lethal.
We speak of wastelands (a variation of the desert motif), of areas where nothing will grow – and, often, at the centre of these dark and wasted places, there is a legend centring around a king, a king who has been wounded in the reproductive areas – and whose maiming mirrors (indeed, starts) the dying of the landscape.
We rejoice in all that is luscious, green, damp with the world’s abundant waters. We delight in fertility and growth and grass and rich soil.
But deserts, whether geographical or psychological, are vital to the health of both planet and soul. Those who have read Terry Pratchett’s novels will be aware of the irony attendant upon every single soul’s realisation once that famous walk through the black sands starts – and that moment of ‘Aha!’ or ‘Oh, bloody hell!’ seems a brilliant metaphor for something within us which responds instinctively to the desert’s deeper message tugging at our higher selves.
Barren land, land cut back to the bone, can be eerily beautiful. A desert experience, as seen through the eyes of the psyche, can, for all its pain and hardship, contain a rich, if stark, seam of wisdom, of winnowing, of sorting out the true from the trite. Sometimes, we spend so much time looking for life’s oases that we miss the real value of walking through the desert itself. Focused on colours and sensations we associate with life and sex and comfort, we forget that the world has grown deserts for us as well, and that their value, though different, is of equal worth.
Sometimes, I believe, we actually find ourselves during these travels to barren places – and, most wonderfully, our time spent in the stark lands adds grace and beauty and utter relieved gratitude to the more obviously lovely areas.
Polarity is key in this world. I suspect Terry Pratchett, during his too-brief span, supped merrily upon the cornucopia life provides; he also experienced the black sands as his mind grew ever more blurred. But it was a black sand which was familiar – and I am quite sure he walked into it with the same wonder he brought to every other moment.
Change is Death. Death is the ultimate change. We all have to go through many lesser deaths before we are finally gathered back into the Earth’s gentle arms. It is human nature to wish to avoid the difficult, the painful, the arid, the dangerous. But avoidance can store up trouble. That which we resist, persists.
We may turn our backs resolutely upon life’s deserts…
…but are they equally willing to turn their backs upon us?
I think not.
I think that the Dark Night of the Soul, the Traipse through the Black Sands of the Desert, the Wounded King in the Wasteland are all variations of the same theme – and that is the journey to the Underworld (which may, indeed, result in physical death for some) in order to learn vital lessons.
We need them!