An almost offensively brief message, but I didn’t want to let another day go by without paying tribute to Terry Jones. I was stunned and sad yesterday to hear he’d died, and at only 77. I didn’t even know he’d been struggling with dementia. It’s a real loss that his colour and wit and imagination have gone out of the world.
I first became aware of Terry’s work through his book of fairy tales that he wrote in the early Eighties when his daughter was born, and then a few years later I read Erik the Viking when I was in Yr 6 (likewise written for his son). It was only after a few more years, when I was old enough, that I discovered he was also the guy in Monty Python – and began to appreciate just how spectacular and important that other body of work was. But while, quite rightly, it’s his work with Python that most people will remember him for (John Cleese has said that Terry’s greatest gift to us was his direction of Life of Brian), for the last few years it’s been his fairy tale-influenced work from the Eighties again that I’ve valued most.
The Fairy Tales book was a thrilling and actually very eerie presence in my early years, which my sister and I would giddily rifle through trying to find our favourites, somehow only to find that they were unfamiliar and elusive on second readings, and sometimes quite disturbing – but they carried the sort of profound lessons that you usually only find in stories that have passed through generations for centuries – or come from the hands of a master. Imagine the despair of the man from the land where people have big noses, who travelled all over the world to find a way of shrinking their noses so they could kiss, only to discover back home (when he’d already shrunk his nose and been rejected by his fellows) that all they needed to do was turn their heads to one side? And I still tell friends today how Erik the Viking changed how I saw the world on a fundamental level, just through one scene where Erik is challenged for the leadership of his band and defeated in feats of strength such as who can hold their hand longest in the fire – but then asks his followers who they would rather have lead them: someone who stepped back before it was too late, or someone who can no longer use his hand? And then only in the last few years I discovered that he wrote the screenplay to Labyrinth, which I loved as a child and have loved even more as a grownup: the sophisticated (or rather, actually, utterly simple) combination of fun, social satire, wonder and real, true mythic wisdom is an amazing achievement, and he played some of the most memorable scenes out of just spinning off sketches of creatures that Brian Froud had sent him.
I really mean it, I feel he truly got inside exactly how the oldest myths and fairy tales work, and understood exactly what we like in stories and why they matter so much to us. And then he was able to express that and recreate it in new, innovative work that carries all the emotional depths of the originals – as if these were fairy tales like any other. Which they were. In doing that, he must have been a truly wise man, and a truly imaginative man – and at the same time made everything so playful that the emotional truths and knife-sharp insights slip in without you even noticing.
Not to mention the fact that he was also a respected and published historian – it was great as a teenager to see that someone had proved you could be an academic AND still create stuff for fun. As a history & mythology geek I LOVED seeing the depths and touches that he brought to Python (the Knights Who Say Ni, those primal foes in the forest with their impossible tasks; Bedivere’s superlative showcase of Medieval scientific thinking). And he did lots to bring history out of the dry, dusty academy too, and excite and inspire people about it: anyone who can write this appeal for teachers to make history fun truly has our best interests at heart.
He loved stories and history – and I do too. But he taught such amazing lessons about them too, while also inviting us all just to play. (They say he used to break down giggling while reading out sketches at Python script meetings.) It’s that playful, intelligent, emotional wisdom that I’ll miss most. Thankyou Terry, wherever you are, for what you’ve given us.