In Praise of Pratchett: Carpe Jugulum


Carpe Jugulum was published in 1998, and was the twenty-third Discworld novel. It’s still astonishing to realise that, in all the years and books that followed, there were no more stories starring Granny Weatherwax and the Three Witches.
It’s not that Granny retired: she and Nanny are the principals of the long short story, The Sea and Little Fishes, and the pair have been supporting characters in all but the first of the Tiffany Aching books, but after this book, Pratchett never wrote another book with the Three Witches at its heart.
The title is a riff on the well-known Latin phrase, carpe diem, or, seize the day. In it’s cod-form, Carpe Jugulum stands for seize the throat (though Pratchett translates it as Go for the Throat), and that means our main subject for today is vampires. Vampires out of the dark and Germanic country of Uberwald. It’s the beginning of a series of books that darken the overall atmosphere of Discworld, centring as they do, in one way or another, on that country and its denizens.
It was an interesting period for Pratchett’s fans, as Terry was saying that he foresaw the end of the series, that he thought that there were perhaps another five or six stories at best. We know now that he was wrong, but between the threat of the series ending, and the gradual tilting of focus towards the badder lands of vampires, werewolves and the deep dwarves, there was indeed a darkening of the skies.
The story begins at an awkward angle, with oblique references to something moving like a flame into the Lancre mountains, something that is pursued by something else obscure. Little pieces of story build themselves with little seeming relevance to each other, though everything revolves around one single point: the christening of Esmerelda Margaret Note Spelling, first-born child and heir to King Verence and Queen Magrat of Lancre. Such a little thing, and with so vast an array of ripples.
It’s an unusual angle of attack for Pratchett, whose common approach is to begin the story at the beginning, frequently with the first step. Here, the danger has already begun, far offstage, and before the book begins. I don’t know about anyone else, but I cannot help feeling that something is missing, that there is an opening chapter (or Pratchettian equivalent) left out. It goes with a book that is sometimes quite difficult in its dynamics.
Magrat has invited everyone in Lancre to the Christening ball (we shall draw a veil over voices asking exactly why a baby is christened in a non-Christian society, not to mention what function a Godmother of the non-fairy kind represents). Everyone includes Nanny Ogg and Agnes Nitt, and it especially includes Granny, to whom a special card, with heavily extended curly golden bits round the edges, has been hand-delivered by Lancre’s Postal Service (Shawn Ogg). There’s just one problem.
In fact, there are several. Granny has been sent an invite but she hasn’t received it, because the magpies, attracted by the gold leaf, have stolen it for their nests. Normally, that wouldn’t bother her, since witches turn up wherever they want, whether they’re wanted or not. But this time it’s important to Granny that she is invited, because the consequences of not being asked, of being excluded, are already chiming with what’s loose in her mind.
But invites have been sent elsewhere. Verence is a modern King, not that Lancrastians have the slightest intention of co-operating, and Lancre has to take her place in the community of Nations, so invitations have gone out to other crowned heads. Including heads in Uberwald. Like the Count de Magpyr. Who is a vampire (sorry, vampyre). And everybody knows that a vampire (vampyre) can’t enter a place. Unless he is invited.
So that’s the top story, a dark, invasive story of invitation-led invasion, headed by a Count who knows all the things that everyone knows about vampires and has renamed his kind as vampyres because he, personally, had educated them not to fear all the weapons ordinary folk use against vampires: sunlight, religious symbols, running water, garlic, theft of sock…
And he’s not afraid of the Lancre Witches, especially not Granny Weatherwax, who he regards as being vastly inferior to him, and if she isn’t up to it, neither are the others. The vampires are coming, they’ve been invited, and now that they’re here, they’re going to set up a nice, neat, reliable arrangement, by which everyone will benefit. As long as they’re a vampyre.
That’s the top story, the one that dominates the entire book, as it should do. It’s a story that takes Granny way beyond anything she has previously done, taxing her beyond all her strength, forcing her, despite her pretence otherwise, to rely on someone else, physically, and far from the most expected source. She wins, of course, by a back door way so far round the back that no-one could ever have thought to bar it, and what’s more, wins because of her weakness, not in spite of it.
She’s not the only one resisting the vampyres, not the only witch, but that has to do with the understory, and that’s the one that’s a true anomaly, because whilst the vampyres are overt, and a present danger of calamitous proportions, and every part of their tale is calculated and directed by Pratchett, the understory is something different entirely. I get the strongest feeling that at this level, Pratchett is not in control of the story, that it’s playing out without him having conscious direction of it.
And it doesn’t have an ending, and I think that it couldn’t have an ending within the Discworld series and I think it’s why Pratchett never wrote another novel with Granny Weatherwax at its centre again, nor ever featured Agnes Nitt, nor Magrat again (until the very last book of all). And that’s because Carpe Jugulam isn’t about Three Witches, but Four. And Four’s the wrong number for a coven.
A coven is three: Maiden, Mother and… the Other One. Agnes, Nanny, Granny. But Magrat’s a Witch. She’s the Queen, but she’s still a Witch. And now she’s a Mother. And that changes everything. Though neither she, nor Agnes, nor even Nanny realises it, until too late, the coven changes. And the change pushes Granny out, through the top, as it were, but out. Granny’s too smart not to see that, and too Witch not to feel it. It’s what the ‘missing’ invitation symbolises for her – that everyone else sees it too.
Magrat’s changed, too. Agnes sees it most clearly. Magrat’s no longer the Maiden, and she’s no longer so soppy she’s dripping wet. She’s a Mother, and barely damp, and she even understands a lot of Nanny’s jokes (though the one about the rhinocerous is still beyond her). But she’s changed. It’s having a child, suddenly having something that small and helpless dependant upon her. She’s the Mother and that means Nanny Ogg has to be the other one.
And that’s where it’s all taken out of Terry Pratchett’s hands, because this is something that his characters understand in their very bones and it’s why there can’t be any further Three Witches books any more, because Pratchett leaves the understory resolved, because he can’t, doesn’t dare let it end, because it’s only got one place to go and he can’t allow it to get there. Because it can’t change back.
So there is no room for Magrat, and no room for Agnes, who’s developed a new, schizophrenic relationship with Perdita, because bringing either one of them back restarts the understory. So Granny and Nanny are removed into the background, where they can be fearsome outlines, the horizon to a young witch who is neither Magrat, nor Agnes, nor anyone like anyone else. Tiffany Aching, who is years from coming into being, will have to bear the brunt of Witch stories where Granny and Nanny can be the ever present Cavalry, most effective because they never have to act.
I see that there are many thing about Carpe Jugulum that I haven’t discussed, and for which there is no room now. It’s in this book that we meet our first Igor, and what a wonderful creation he/they is, an instant of comic genius with a million variations. And this is our introduction to the equally marvellous Nac Mac Feegle.
But there are two moments in this book I’d like to comment upon before I leave it. The first comes early, before everything’s even grown into its shape, as Granny puts aside her personal preoccupations to fly to the assistance of a woman, a farmer’s wife, a pregnant woman kicked in the belly by a cow. There’s Death in the byre, and the question is whether it’s for two or one, and which one.
Granny makes the decision, and the baby dies. The midwife faintly disapproves, that Granny has acted independently, that she has not allowed the farmer to choose to sacrifice his wife or his son. And Granny speaks one of the most sober and serious lines Pratchett ever writes, when she asks the midwife if she thinks the farmer is a bad man: and if he is not, why should Granny hurt him so?
And then there’s Agnes. Throughout the story, Agnes finds herself in between two men – not literally, of course, she is the Maiden after all – one for her and one for Perdita, the vampyre Vlad, son of the Count, who takes an unexpected liking to her. At Nanny’s rather explicit urgings, Agnes strings along her would-be lover, and would-be weak link, though she can never bring herself to be less than totally opposed to him, and his ways, and his vampirism.
But for Agnes, and for Pratchett, the moment comes that it’s impossible to get around and still remain human. Granny says it: sin begins in treating people like things, and Pratchett shows it to Agnes, and all of us, and there is no gainsaying Granny’s words. It’s what is so loathsome about our current Government, and about the selfish, spiteful, hate-filled people who elected them, knowing what they will do and who they will do it to.
Agnes is asked to watch the vampires treating people like things, and it’s the breaking point, and it’s the point at which Granny’s careful plan first erupts into action, but it is still the central moment in this book, the point at which acquiescence has to end or we are ourselves not human.
If I’ve offended anyone’s political sensibilities by these last handful of paragraphs, then all I can say is that I don’t fucking care. If you don’t see what Pratchett is saying here, if there is anything in you that starts to say, “Yes, but…” then you should never come near these books again, because you don’t deserve them.

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