Just as in the first Three Witches – and given the importance of Nanny Ogg and even Magrat Garlick in these stories, I refuse to call them Granny Weatherwax books – there’s a moment of roar-out-loud laughter, early on, that bespeaks Terry Pratchett at his most hysterically pure.
Let’s not get into why at the moment, but our favourite coven is traveling by water underground, through caverns that have never known the light of the sun, when they discover that someone is following them. A small, grey, vaguely frog-like creature, with pale, glowing eyes paddles a log up to them, grabbing the side of the boat in its long, clammy fingers. “’Ullo,” it hisses, “it’sss my birthday.”
Of course, this is one slightly more for Pratchett’s native audience, but in the wake of a certain film trilogy, there’s probably no-one under the sun who, at that moment, isn’t mentally rearranging his or her map of the known Fictive Universe to attach the Discworld to the edge of Middle-Earth. Though, whilst I am in no position to criticise the man’s sense of humour, I do think Pratchett missed a trick by not having someone say, “Mark my words, yon slimy bugger’s going to cause someone an awful lot of trouble, one of these days.” That’s how I always remember it, even if that’s nothing more than a ‘Play It Again, Sam’.
So why are Granny, Nanny (with her ‘just-an-old-softy’ cat, Greebo) and Magrat on this underground river. Well, yes, there’s a story behind that. In fact, there’s nothing but stories behind that, stories imposing their views upon the world, aided and abetted by someone who is far away in terms of Discworld geography yet far too close to home.
Witches Abroad is the first book in which Pratchett explicitly identifies the force of stories, and how strongly they influence not just the Discworld but also the larger world, in which we read, and dream and act under the influence of patterns of behaviour whose universality dictates our responses. Homo Narrans: Storytelling Man.
Stories, or more precisely, happy endings are the wellspring for this book. Fairly Godmother Lilith de Tempscire rules the distant city of Genua (think New Orleans, turned up until.. you got it) under an iron grip. Its old king is dead, to within a given value of Dead, its new king sleeps in a pond at night (until he gets kissed) and the King’s daughter works in a kitchen whilst her two sisters live in luxury, and her name is Emberella.
Yes, this is a book bound in fairytales, all jammed in together and overflowing, instantly recognisable even when seem from somewhere three-quarters of the way round the back in the Pratchett style.
However, everybody gets two Fairy Godmothers, and Emberella’s good one is Desiderata Hollow, a Lancre Witch who’s been travelling. Or rather, was, because Desiderata is waiting for her last visitor, tall fellow, grins a lot, talks LIKE THIS. Desiderata has never been strong enough to defeat Lilith, but she knows only one person who might be, and who might have a reason to be. The problem is getting Granny Weatherwax to do something she doesn’t want to.
The solution is to leave her Magic Wand to Magrat Garlick, send her on a Quest to Genua (because she’ll certainly go) and order her to forbid Granny and Nanny not to go with her, because that’ll certainly determine them to take a journey that crosses virtually the entire main Discworld continent. Especially when Granny catches a glimpse, in a mirror, of who she’ll be up against.
So that’s why the witches float down an underground river. It’s also why they fly broomsticks for long periods, keep touching down in villages where the two elder witches display the worst habits of English tourists in foreign places (well, not the wanton sex, though you wouldn’t put it past Nanny at times), whilst Pratchett keeps teasing us with what’s happening in Genua, where the voodoo of Mrs Gogol and her zombie servant, Saturday, are awaiting their arrival.
Normally, I’d be critical of such an extended journey, as so often they’re used to spin things out, pad a story to a greater length by delaying getting to grips with the real events, and given that the Three Witches take nothing from their journey that actually gets used in the climactic events, this would seem to fit that criterion.
But I can’t do that here, because the stops in the journey are all part of the book’s theme, yet more examples of fairy-tale settings that the Witches move through and explode, unconsciously a psychological apprenticeship for what Granny at least knows they will consciously have to do when they finally reach Genua. And because they’re all so buoyant and hilarious and so beautifully exploded by the solid reality of the Three Witches, a catastrophe curve in motion, and for the sake of lines like, “Vampires have risen from the dead, the grave and the crypt, but have never managed it from the cat.”
Once in Genua, the theme becomes even more explicit than before. Lilith wraps the city even deeper in webs of happy endings. Granny, Nanny and Magrat try to disrupt the tale by destroying its basic pillars, but it’s not as if Lilith hadn’t foreseen this, nor had the power to redo it: after all, she knows what to do with a magic wand whilst Magrat can’t get hers to produce anything except pumpkins.
However, if Lilith can alter a frog’s morphogenetic field to get it to convince itself it’s a human, Granny and Nanny can do the same for a cat, and a right piratical human Greebo becomes. Add in the world’s greatest lover, Casanunda (a dwarf with his own step-ladder, as you might guess) trying to get it on with Nanny Ogg and the whole thing roils in confusion until Granny comes face to face with Lilith.
Or, to give her her proper name, Lily. Weatherwax. As in Granny’s elder sister.
You may call it a cliché, or recognise instead that it is pure Story: the siblings, one good, one evil. And evil seems greater but will be defeated by good. But not for the reason you might expect, that good is good and so it wins but because Pratchett has throughout Witches Abroad been lovingly shaping story and equally lovingly blowing it apart, Granny is the stronger because she is the good sister, and she is the good sister because she was forced to be.
Because Lily stole away being the bad sister. Because Granny had in her heart and her head every bit as much understanding of evil, and power, and self-indulgence, enough to have been as bad as, if not badder than her sibling, but who because of Lily, had to be the Good One, which she has forever resented with the force that makes her stronger than her sister.
So there’s a happy ending after all, but it’s not the ending planned by Lilith de Tempscire, nor that proposed by Mrs Gogol and Baron Saturday, the voodoo woman and the dead king that Emberella doesn’t recognise as her parents. It’s the only happy ending worth the price, and it’s the only happy ending Granny Weatherwax will ever hand out, the one where you get to do it yourself. Without influence, without magic leaning on your shoulder, its very presence turning all good intentions bad. You get your life to lead: how much happier can it get?
So, their foreign holiday ended, the Three Witches head for home, laden down with the usual cheap souvenirs and presents without which it can hardly be said to have been a holiday. But they go the long way round, and see the elephant.