Things I’ve Learned from Terry Jones and His Tales

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Python alumnus, Terry Jones has been battling dementia, but his written witticisms will continue to inspire me. Image: AP file by Chris Pizzello
Python alumnus, Terry Jones has been battling dementia, but his written witticisms will continue to inspire me. Image: AP file by Chris Pizzello

The worlds of music, entertainment and literature have taken quite a blow so far in 2016.

As a result, there have been several beautiful tributes to those who have passed. Writers and reviewers have looked back on the “professional” portfolios of iconic musicians, actors, authors and athletes, and shared their memories and what that person’s work has meant to them and many others.

I’m not faulting the writers for these posthumous reactions, particularly since some of these deaths took the world by surprise. I do, however, find it rather sad we always wait until we can’t speak directly to that person. We don’t always need to put these things off until it is too late to let someone know how their work has influenced and inspired us, celebrities or other.

One creative force — or farce — in my life has always been the humor of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, of which a brilliant, funny and talented comic actor and writer, Terry Jones was a member.

For those who haven’t heard the news, Jones has been battling dementia and, according to a statement on British Academy of Film and Television Arts from Jones’s representatives, has been diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a variant of Frontotemporal Dementia. This degenerative condition will continue to affect Jones’s ability to speak, as well as understand the spoken word. He can no longer give interviews, but his legacy will be celebrated at BAFTA’s Cymru Awards in Wales in October.

Jones was, of course, best known by the public as part of the Python troupe, but what many people may not know is he has created many books for readers of all ages.

He was an amazing wordsmith, who had passion for storytelling, mythology, history and cultures. His 1989 comedy Erik The Viking is actually based on his middle-school worthy read, The Saga of Erik The Viking from 1983. More enjoyable is his 1985 book of a young boy in search of the Land of Dragons in Nicobobinus (recently made into a family musical), his off-beat poetry in The Curse of the Vampire’s Socks and Other Doggerel and his collections of Fantastic Stories, Fairy Tales and Bedtime Stories, and several others.

His series of Lady Cottingon’s books on fairies and goblins, with the illustrations of Brian Froud, are magical and macabre reads for fans of the 1986 fantasy Labyrinth, which Jones himself helped write.

Terry Jones was a lover of history, humor and tall tells, and he wrote stories for readers of all levels.
Terry Jones was a lover of history, humor and tall tells, and he wrote stories for readers of all levels.

He also devoted much of his creative efforts on both fiction and non-fiction accounts of history in both books and television specials on ancient Rome, the Crusades, and medieval life. Some of these works, I’ll admit counter many of my own beliefs and opinions, quite bit for that matter, but I will always respect Jones as a tremendous writer.

I might not have always agreed with Jones’s perspective on history, politics or religion, I always appreciated the thoughtfulness his put into his words. Whether I felt compelled to nod my head in agreement or raise a skeptical eye towards his opinion, I learned some wonderful things through his stories and characters:

• It’s okay for fairy tales (and other stories) to be happy. In a 1994 interview in The Guardian, he said he began writing his own fairy tales, because he found many of the classics rather, well, grim.

“I always thought fairy tales had happy-ever-after endings. And I didn’t want my five-year-old daughter going to sleep thinking: ‘Thank goodness they tortured that old woman to death.’ That’s when I decided to write Fairy Tales, my own book of stories. And they came easily, I suppose, because my mental age is about 10.”

• “The straight way’s short, but the long way’s pretty ” — from Fairy Tales.

Whether you’re going to a Goblin City or just taking a weekend outing, remember the journey is often as important as the destination. When we rush from Point A to Point B, it can be easy to overlook the beauty and excitement along the way.

•  “Nobody ever called themselves ‘barbarians.’ It’s not that sort of word. It’s a word used about other people. In fact, it’s a term of otherness.” from his non-fiction Barbarians. Some may pick up on this as a “truth is relative” comment, but I don’t see this quote that way. Instead, it reminds me we tend to see ourselves and our behavior differently than others see us. Be careful judging others too harshly, for our actions are being looked over as well.

• “That’s not fair!” — Sarah

“You say that so often, I wonder what your basis for comparison is?” —  Jareth, The Goblin King from Labyrinth

Jones wasn’t the only author of the Labyrinth story, but his humor and wit was very evident.

As a teenager, I sympathized with Sarah, but today I find myself quoting Jareth when I hear “that’s not fair” from my own kids. No, life isn’t fair. It never will be. Quit whining, fight the good fight, and never feel sorry for yourself. Trudge on through that labyrinth and find your fate, with or without help. Victimization, in my opinion, is the worst enemy of claiming victories, even small ones.

• “If a person weighs as much as a duck, they must be made of wood, and therefore, a WITCH!” — Sir Bedevere in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

This one actually taught me the world, and its occupants, can be ridiculous. Logic can be skewed. Words can be twisted, and circular reasoning can leave your head spinning.

By all means, laugh. Laugh and find humor in things. This is the difference between merely sustaining your own existence on this earth, and actually living your life with joy.

Now, the quotes, lessons and meanings of Jones’s word may be interpreted, to quote Monty Python, “completely different” by each reader. These lessons depict what I learned from the worlds of Jones. I encourage everyone to read at least a couple of his books and determine their own meaning, whether they are looking for enlightenment, education or simply entertainment.

Regarding the latest news on Jones’s dementia, I have recently learned there may be an endless amount of stories and adventures hidden in the depths of one human mind, but due to time and physical limitations, not all of them will find their way out into the open.

If you have an idea, put it in writing now. Sketch your ideas. Jot down your musings. Sit down and tell others your tales. Never be afraid to share your imagination with others, because you will not always have that chance.

However, there is an even more important lesson Jones has taught, and is still teaching my children and myself. In a world where we are often measured by the sum of our “notable” achievements, these are just a small part of who we are.

The true measure of a person is the legacy of their character. It’s how much their love for life, friends and family comes out in their everyday existence.

You could have a list of bestselling books, a shelf of little gold statues, a resume of grand titles, honors and accolades, but those are mere trinkets compared to the warmth and light you spread to those around you. From everything I’ve read about Jones, his light may flicker a little less vivid, but it is still glowing and warm.

pythons
Terry Jones, pictured with his fellow Pythons circa 1970, and in 2014. Images: BBC (left) and Andy Gotts.

Terry Jones was a character, but he also had character. It was evident by the comments made by his friend, fellow Python member and author Michael Palin the day after Jones’s condition was revealed to the world.

“The progress of his dementia has been painful to watch and the news announced yesterday that he has a type of aphasia which is gradually depriving him of the ability to speak is about the cruelest thing that could befall someone to whom words, ideas, arguments, jokes and stories were once the stuff of life,” Palin wrote in a Facebook post, accompanied by a recent photo of him and his friend of more than 50 years.

Palin assured people although Jones may not be a visible public figure in the future, he is still very much a source of friendship and joy for those around him.

“Not that Terry is out of circulation. He spends time with his family and only two days ago I met up with him for one of our regular meals at his local pub,” Palin wrote. “Terry doesn’t say very much but he smiles, laughs, recognizes and responds, and I’m always pleased to see him. Long may that last.”

Here’s hoping it does, and from one mother of two kids who love to read, laugh and learn, Jones’s writings and witticisms will long last, even beyond many of our years on this planet.

The future is never certain, and it may be much more subdued for Jones, but as for his histories and tales, they will forever be “fantastic.”

Advertisements