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.

In Praise of Pratchett: Maskerade

I’ve managed to get several of my Discworld books signed, with a variety of messages (especially the time the whole family attended and we got a bunch of books signed in one go, there being five of us). Maskerade holds something of a pride of place among such books as it was bought as a present for my fortieth birthday (even if I had to buy it myself), and Sir Terry signed it to me with a Happy 40th Birthday wish (and a quick sketch of Death’s scythe).
It’s another book about the Three Witches or, as Pratchett takes quick pains to establish with a parodic gesture to the opening of Wyrd Sisters, the Two Witches. Magrat Garlick is now busy being Queen and, five months after the wedding, presumably no longer qualifies for the Maiden part of the traditional Maiden, Mother,… Other One line-up. But, wet hen that she was, Magrat was right about one thing: the basic unit of witches might well be one, but the correct number for a coven is three, and that means there’s one missing.
Granny Weatherwax is getting nervous, and that is making Nanny Ogg worried. Granny’s bored. There’s nothing in Lancre to challenge her, and without that her mind may be prone to Wandering. Nanny reckons that her friend needs a distraction, such as training up a new Third Witch. Fortunately, there’s an ideal candidate in the village, with the touch of the craft already, ideally suited to be the Maiden’s role.
This is Agnes Nitt, she who was wont to call herself Perdita in Lords and Ladies. There’s just one little problem. Agnes has enough of the craft already to see where her future lies and she’s not in the least bit keen to spend it running around at the beck and call of two old ladies, who don’t actually do any magic at all, just this stupid headology and coloured water. So Agnes – or rather, since she can re-invent herself, Perdita – has run away to seek her fortune, in Ankh-Morpork.
Now Granny’s certainly not going to stoop to run after Agnes, not even when Nanny paints a picture of a naive young Lancre girl, on her own in the city, in need of protection, but fortunately there’s another factor that satisfies Granny’s pride. For Nanny Ogg has become an author.
Yes, Nanny has sent a bunch of recipes to a printer in Ankh-Morpork with two dollars to cover the cost of printing them up. Being Nanny, all the recipes have one common effect, an effect that has led to the book being entitled The Joye of Snacks and selling like, er, hot cakes. So much so that the printers have generously returned Nanny’s two dollars with an additional three, that she’s holding onto very tightly in case they realise their mistake.
The book has been published as by ‘A Lancre Witch’, which raises Granny’s hackles, despite Nanny’s fine distinction that Esmerelda Weatherwax is in fact THE Lancre witch. And Granny has a harder-headed attitude to publishing than Nanny, to the extent of calculating that her friend has something like three thousand dollars due to her. And whilst she won’t go chasing after Agnes, she has to see that Lancre Witches aren’t being disrespected, whether Gytha Ogg likes it or not. And if they bump into Alice in passing, they can help her out as well.
Speaking of Agnes, after the usual embarrassing mistake about the Guild of Seamstresses, she’s ended up taking her one undeniable talent to the obvious place: Perdita has joined the Opera. Not quite in the manner she would have liked, since her appearance is against her when it comes to the business of stepping out on stage and getting the plaudits due her, but her voice – and the control she can exercise over it – is superb, so she can’t be excluded.
At least, not physically. Since the true *star* role is reserved for Christeen, who can no more keep a tune than she can keep a thought in that pretty head of hers, but is both skinny and blonde, Agnes is allowed to sing though Christeen. It’s both embarrassing and insulting, but Agnes accepts it because she is endowed with a wonderful personality. As for the insults, well, everybody does this, openly to her face.
Pratchett has great fun with the Opera, its tensions, pressures and craziness, its complete divorcement from reason and rationality, and there’s plenty to laugh about, though the only ‘truth’ he extracts in demonstrating what Opera truly consists of is that it spends its entire time surfing the edge of the catastrophe curve of Impermanence. No wonder that everybody is so incredibly tense when any day, every day, could be the last. The last day that those finely trained talents which make up one’s life are the perfection your being, Opera itself, demands. The first sign of a crack isn’t simply the beginning of the end, of transition: it is the end, and everybody lives on on the blade of forcing that not to happen, not now, not today.
The story, as in the plot, comes from the inevitable existence of a Phantom.
Here, he is the Opera Ghost, and in suitable fashion there are actually two of him, one benign and caring only for the music, the other cynical and homicidal. Agnes finds herself trying to unravel the mystery of the Opera Ghost, and indeed successfully identifies him with the person who is such an unlikely figure for the role, only to fall foul of her own senses. It takes Granny and Nanny, the former posing as an extremely rich Opera patroness with the latter’s royalties, to see through the extremely simple fact about masks.
Given that the story involves murders, and is set in Ankh-Morpork, we see the first instance of what Pratchett later identified as a bit of a problem: if the story comes to the Big Wahoonie, how do you keep the City Watch out? That side of things is dealt with here by restricting the Watch’s overt presence to such obvious characters as Colon, Nobbs and Detritus, but Pratchett provides a far-from-overt Watch presence in the form of Andre, the organ-player at the Opera, who will turn out to be a member of the Cable Street Particulars, the Watch’s new undercover branch (secret policemen for secret crimes, as the off-stage Vimes puts it).
That’s an interesting, and fully logical development, though Pratchett undercuts it by having Andre implicitly distracted away at the end to become a full-time musician. The Cable Street Particulars is a revival of an old name in Ankh-Morpork history, whose true provenance won’t be encountered until Night Watch, and other than a passing mention in the next book, the new version drops out of sight, never to be used again. Then again, the developing City Watch strand does rest heavily on the public performance of Justice, making the Particulars an anomaly.
Mentioning the Opera Organ, which is a Bloody Stupid Johnson, reminds me that the Librarian also pops into the story, but even though we’re in Ankh-Morpork, home to Unseen University, neither Mustrum Ridcully nor the Faculty appear, having featured in six of the last eight books.
One thing that’s struck me most forcefully on this re-reading, to an extent I’d never fully appreciated before, is how savage Pratchett is with Agnes, and just how much that has to do with her size and weight. The key characteristic with Agnes, indeed the only thing anyone can think of whenever they so much as think of her, is that she is fat. Of course she was always going to be fat: Magrat Garlick was resolutely skinny, with stringy, uncontrollable hair, so Agnes would naturally have to be fat, albeit with good hair.
But Agnes isn’t merely fat. Though Pratchett never directly says it, even through the mouth of the most nasty person in the book, Agnes is beyond ‘fat’. She’s hideously, discomfortingly, unhealthily fat, fat as an object of scorn. It’s plain beyond measure that Agnes is perfectly suited to be the Maiden because, let’s face it, no bloke will ever want to shag that, even in a darkened room.
And everybody keeps saying it, even when they’re being at their nicest, to Agnes’ face, over and over: you’re fat, you’re fat, you’re fat fat fat.
I wouldn’t mention this if it wasn’t so emphatic, so unending, and it’s carried on to an extreme which is extraordinarily unusual, in fact wholly uncharacteristic of Pratchett, whose anger and disgust is usually reserved for those who deserve it, and not someone who’s supposed to be a heroine. But there’s no denying it, on a level he may not have consciously understood, Pratchett is disgusted with Agnes, and nowhere is that more drastically demonstrated than in a tiny piece of offhand cruelty near the very end.
Agnes has tried to make a life of her own, and the prospect of it is there. She has her voice, she has talent oozing out of it, though her fatness is a barrier to its proper deployment. Agnes will only ever be the voice for someone more photogenic, like Christeen, a life for which Granny has a disinterested scorn.
So Agnes is beaten, and has to return to Lancre to take up the life ordained for her, but before she can do this she has to not merely be beaten, but broken, defeated absolutely, crushed. Granny and Nanny travel back to Lancre in the comfort and dryness of a coach. Agnes has to walk, drenched to the skin in incessant rain – yes, go on, make the fat girl walk, get some of that pork off her – and when the coach passes her, it passes her. Agnes defied Granny, and has to be made to pay.
And given that Agnes only ever appears in one more book, the cruelty is all the more blatant for having no ultimate purpose.
To end on a brighter note, returning to the Opera aspect, Pratchett, as I said, has great fun satirising its foolishnesses and foibles, especially the outlandish and implausible plots. By the end, though, the real Opera Ghost has found an antidote to Opera, in the form of the invention of musicals, which Pratchett, half-seriously, presents as Opera That People Enjoy And Which Sells.
If you’re going to riff off The Phantom of the Opera, I suppose you’ve got to expect a bit of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, even when, over here, a bit of Lloyd-Webber is way too much. This may be another generational thing, but whilst I don’t like Opera, that’s because it operates on a musical level high above my tastes, and I wasn’t sympathetic to the diss of suggesting that Lloyd-Webberesque stuff is better somehow.
My, I’ve got all creaky about this book, haven’t I? And yet it’s another Pratchett stormer. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.
Though I’m obviously not as large as Agnes Nitt…