In Praise of Pratchett: Wintersmith

In the last dozen years of his life, Terry Pratchett wrote more books about Tiffany Aching, young witch in training, than he did about any of his other characters and scenes. There were two City Watch books, three about Moist von Lipwig, three about the Wizards (counting two Science of Discworld stories) and one non-series book (Monstrous Regiment). These are set against five Tiffany Aching books, of which Wintersmith was the third and the midpoint.
We hardly needed telling that Tiffany Aching was Terry Pratchett’s favourite amongst all the characters he created, did we?
Wintersmith was also the first Young Adult book to be published in the same full-size hardback as the other Discworld books.
Though Tiffany’s still only a young girl (she turns 13 during the course of this story), the subject of this book is sex, and of course Pratchett’s regular theme of what it is to be human. Tiffany finds herself being pursued by two very different suitors, one very ancient yet even more ignorant of the subject of sex than a twelve year old girl who’s grown up on a sheep farm and has older, married sisters, the other an undeclared, only just vaguely adolescent who’s got even less idea than the Wintersmith.
Surprisingly, Pratchett begins in media res, and very close to the end, before winding back to the beginning. It’s an unusual technique for him, not repeated elsewhere in the Discworld books, and I query its effect, given that it mainly calls attention to itself without necessarily advancing the story in any better direction to know what the issue is to be ahead. Indeed, I think it would probably have been better to employ the usual purely linear approach, and let the danger creep up slowly and subtly.
Tiffany is currently with Miss Treason, a witch out Lancre way who has been blind for decades and sees out of others eyes, usually mice. She takes Tiffany to see the Dark Morris, the version of the Morris that brings in the Winter Solstice, that ‘kills’ the Summer and brings forward the Winter. Something about the music draws Tiffany in, impulsively, recklessly, to dance the invisible part of the Fool: as a consequence, she is seen by the Wintersmith, the essence of Winter. He takes her for the Summer Queen and falls in love with her.
For her, he will make himself human, whatever that requires. For her, he will make her the Summer Queen herself. For her, he will make Winter last forever, freezing everybody and everything until eternity.
Though the consequences were unintended, they are Tiffany’s to deal with, and she shows her essential nature by accepting that: witches take responsibility, witches deal with things. Even when they don’t know what to do and are faced with an indomitable force throughout a long winter of other duties.
Because even in the face of deadly danger, when it’s not actually in your face itself, a Witch’s responsibilities are still there, and Tiffany is still learning. For instance, from Miss Treason, before she dies of being 113, our girl learns about Boffo. It’s not actually magic in itself though it is a magic: the power of advertising, if you will. Giving the people what they expect to see in order to be able to give them what they need.
Underneath the idea, which is quite ingenious and perfectly Discworldian, there is however a slight degree of contempt for the ordinary, everyday, perfectly stupid mass of people who fall so easily for Boffo. Pratchett is regularly angry at stupidity that accepts, indeed rushes towards mental imprisonment in systems, and this wilful blindness towards what is no more than jokes, tricks and costumes is an offshoot of the same sense, but expressed without the anger.
It isn’t helped by the fact that Tiffany’s ‘enemy’, Anagramma Hawkins, who inherits Miss Treason’s cottage, says these things out loud. Of course, Anagramma being Anagramma, and a pupil of the entirely misdirected Mrs Earwig, we’re supposed to discount everything she says as being wrong, but I can’t help but think that sometimes the innate stupidity of the basic Discworld peasant could do with being enlightened, rather than indulged.
Anagramma gets the cottage by Granny Weatherwax’s contrivance. It’s a subtle move in a game of power with Mrs Earwig (that the latter hasn’t a hope in hell of winning): Anagramma gets the cottage in order to fail spectacularly at being a witch, to demonstrate how misguided Mrs Earwig is. However, Tiffany isn’t about to see the people who depend on their Witch suffer, and compounds Granny’s victory by teaching Anagramma how to do the job well. Including Boffo.
All of this is sideshow to the main event. The Wintersmith is coming and Tiffany still has no idea how to stop things, though in the event it will mean leaving the Ramtops and returning to her home ground of the Chalk, her place of power, as we know from that opening chapter.
But I did mention above that Tiffany has two suitors in this book, and her second beau, though removed from the rest of the story, has a more direct role to play in the ending.
This is Roland, the Baron’s son, and he’s now 14, going on 15. He’s been a bit of a cypher to date, but now Pratchett has him demonstrate qualities that enable him to move up to the somewhat nebulous role of Tiffany’s maybe-one-day-when-they’re-old-enough boyfriend. Of course it’s in their future: they write letters every week that contain absolutely no mention of love whatsoever and are too embarrassed at being near each other to actually say anything when they meet. It’s obvious.
But Roland’s life isn’t all peaches and cream right now. His father, the Baron, is dying, his Aunts (who will be his guardians) are infesting the castle, rapacious harpies both, and Roland is a virtual prisoner, except that the locks are on the inside and he holds the keys. And he’s turned into a quiet, intelligent, determined young man, with a thoughtful head, which puts him in control of the situation. He’s going to be fit for Tiffany when the time comes, and he’s going to be the ‘hero’ who, accompanied by the Nac Mac Feegle, braves the underworld to free the Summer Lady and allow Tiffany to restore everything to the way it should be.
Which she does with a kiss. Not of passion, but of heat, melting the Wintersmith, and ending the winter as it ought properly to end. At the last, it came down to the lambs. The Wintersmith killed a dozen lambs with his cold, so Tiffany’s anger, born of her Granny Aching, kills the Wintersmith, in his proper season.
Much of Pratchett’s work utilises mythic elements, but usually for the purpose of mockery, of narrativium. Wintersmith is comparatively rare in taking a mythic situation quite deadly seriously, and responding to it in serious mythic manner.
So Tiffany triumphs again, further proving her entitlement to the respect and friendship of such luminaries as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and furthering her reputation among her contemporaries, even Anagramma. And still only thirteen. Whatever will the girl achieve next?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.