Identifying Identity.

Two of my favorite authors are Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.  I know of people who think of them as, not interchangeable, but linked, primarily because of the absolutely wonderful Good Omens.

I read them for different reasons. Neil Gaiman I read for his words — smoky or brilliant, or enveloping like burgundy velvet.  (I knew I was in love when I read “Richard knocked back the green liquid, which tasted of thyme and peppermint and winter mornings” in Neverwhere.) Who can see such wild and wonderful worlds as that found in Neverwhere, or characters as deep and interesting as in American Gods. Who can show us the the other side of what we know, as the in short story “Snow, Glass, Apples.”

His words, above all, are pretty, often jewel-like.

Terry Pratchett, on the other hand, I read for ideas. Not that he can’t knock back a good phrase himself: from Reaper Man comes “Light thinks it travels faster than anything but it is wrong. No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.”
But his books, clothed as they are in the comic relief of the Discworld denizens, often have at their core reflections upon the world.

I have not read all of the Discworld books; for one thing, I have tended to concentrate on those revolving around the City Watch and Sam Vimes. (Sam Vimes may be my favorite character in literature, after Elizabeth Bennett.) Those I have read, I have tended to reread and re-reread, and each time I am struck by how deep they go, while on the surface appearing to be light and frothy.

And a central issue that arises again and again is of identity.  Who are we, exactly? Are we who others define us to be?  Are we who we appear on the outside? What about those other selves, those other parts of self?

[Cut for spoilers.]

In Men at Arms, Carrot, who is a dwarf because he was raised as a dwarf (in spite of being six feet tall and gorgeous), is shown to possibly be the rightful king of Anhk-Morpork. Carrot never acknowledges his own heredity, choosing instead to identify as belonging with those who adopted and raised him. Identity as an issue of self.

In Feet of Clay, a golem is, in the end, liberated from a life of empty servitude and wordlessness, in spite of the feelings of much of the populace.  Identity as an issue of freedom.

In Thief of Time (my second favorite Pratchett book), two people are more than twins; for them to be whole, they must meet and become who they are destined to be.  Who they are is a result of who their parents were — identity as an issue of family. And, perhaps, destiny.

In Night Watch, my favorite book by Pratchett and the best thing he’s ever written, Sam Vimes is sent back in time, and forced to relive his own past, albeit from a different perspective.  Identity as an issue of personal history.

In Thud!, there are two different strands of inquiry at work. The first is outward looking: who are we as a people, as a society? And what lies will we tell, what atrocities will we overlook, in order to protect that identity?*  And how do we move past that? Identity as an issue of tribal origin.

More personally, there is the issue of the other parts of self: Sam Vimes fights against  a creature which would usurp his will, leaving him at the mercy of his own destructive urges. He has created his own watchman, who will “keep the darkness in,” preventing him from turning into the man he knows he could all too easily become, allowing him to be who he needs to be in the world to live by his own values.  Identity as an issue of will, and self-control.

And in Reaper Man, Death takes a holiday where he assumes a disguise. Even Death, as certain as well, himself and taxes, has an identity that is mutable and contextual.  Identity as an issue of … change, perhaps.

I keep reading these books because they fascinate me and challenge me to understand the forces that go into shaping my own identity, and how I see the identity of others.  I think that happens to be a very good thing.

Thank you, Sir Terry.

*I will exercise restraint here and not discuss the relevance of this line of thought to the current American political situation.


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