In Praise of Pratchett: The Shepherd’s Crown

Goodbye, and thanks for all of it, and all of them

The day this was published, there was a lunchtime event at the Manchester Waterstones, with a quiz and a reading from the last Discworld novel. I got 22 out of a possible 28 on the quiz, which wasn’t enough to win me a prize. Rob Wilkins, Terry Pratchett’s friend and assistant read the first part of chapter 2. It was about Granny Weatherwax, and it wasn’t hard to realise, from very early on, what this extract was going to be about. There were people wiping their eyes all round the Events Room, and I’ll admit to being one of them.
I’d toyed with the idea of postponing reading the book. I was in the throes of re-reading Monstrous Regiment and it seemed appropriate to complete reading the whole series, complete writing all these essays about the books and what they’re about and what they do and how I’ve responded. And it put off the evil hour before there were no more Discworld books at all.
But after that chapter – and this was chapter 2, so very early in the book – it wasn’t going to be possible to wait. I went home and I read it. And the longer I read it, the more my heart sank. It had been there in Rob Wilkins’ reading, a little nag of doubt. Granny Weatherwax talking for the last time to Death. Not bargaining or fighting or suggesting, but accepting. Her time was up, and Witches know: shall we go? We have already gone.
Only… it didn’t sound right. Even through the emotion of what we were listening to, there was something wrong. And it carries on through the book, from start to finish. The Shepherd’s Crown was being lauded from all sides, a final triumph, a fine ending. Everyone loved it. But I don’t. The triumph is in self-delusion, in wanting the book to be what we all wanted it to be, in telling ourselves that it is indeed wonderful, that it’s the send-off we dreamed of.
And it’s not. Not for me. It’s a shadow, a shadow of what Terry Pratchett was about as a writer. There were things I was uncertain about in Raising Steam, that I thought then were signs that the Alzheimers was starting to take effect, and The Shepherd’s Crown is far further gone. I don’t recognise anyone in this book. I know them by name, and I know them by place, but I don’t hear their voices, not once.
When Granny talks to Death, it doesn’t sound like either of them. Nor does Nanny Ogg sound like Nanny, nor Magrat like Magrat, nor Ridcully like Ridcully. Nor Tiffany Aching like Tiffany Aching. The most awful thing about this book is that it sounds like it was written in defiance of Rhianna Pratchett’s proclamation that no-one will take up the mantle. It reads like someone who has written a Discworld book but who can’t get under the skins of the characters, cannot make them sound like anything more than a much-dulled, homogenised version of themselves.
Believe me, I am not saying this lightly. I so do not want to be saying anything of this sort. Granny Weatherwax’s death begins the story with a powerful emotional charge, that carries the book for several chapters, although even then the idea that she would hand over her cottage to Tiffany Aching – so young, so not of the Ramtops – and that this would be accepted so immediately and with so little opposition rings false. But, as Granny’s influence fades so quickly away, the story flattens out and gets less and less life-like.
And even as we’re allowing the emotions to carry along, we cannot but help notice that people are not who they ought to be. Nanny Ogg in particular is a parody of herself, drinking to excess, continually telling Tiffany that they are witches and what witches are or do. It’s narrative as dialogue again, even more so, and the worst is the equivalent of the funeral.
In I Shall Wear Midnight, Nanny Ogg transforms the old Baron’s funeral into a celebration and an affirmation of life. We watch her do it, the effect is tremendous: sadness is absorbed into warmth, into Life. She does the same here, or rather we’re told she does. We don’t see it for ourselves, and I at least didn’t feel it.
The problem with all of this is that without the right voices, not least from Pratchett himself, the rest of the book struggles to coalesce into reality. Discworld was a thing of improbabilities, a fantasia of impossibilities, but Pratchett made it believable without effort. Not so here: The Shepherd’s Crown requires a leap of conviction where ordinarily only the tiniest shuffle was necessary.
I’ve heard people query whether Granny’s death was really necessary, but that’s easily answered. It’s key to the plot, which is the final attempt by the Elves to break back into Discworld and take it for their pleasure again: the removal of Granny weakens the boundaries and allows the Elves back in.
But it’s also essential on psychological grounds. Granny Weatherwax has always been the leader witches don’t have, the best and most formidable of them, the last bulwark. Tiffany Aching became Terry Pratchett’s favourite character, and for her to become the best witch, the ultimate bulwark, she either has to beat Granny, or Granny must otherwise be removed. Nobody’s going to buy Granny Weatherwax being outdone, not for a second.
So Tiffany becomes the bulwark, at her young age. We’re not told how old that is, but seventeen isn’t a bad estimate: seventeen, and the chief and most powerful witch, responsible for casting out the Queen of the Elves as she once did when only nine.
Except that the Queen is no longer as powerful as she was. That defeat has damaged her glamour, reduced her status, diminished her. She is overthrown by Lord Peaseblossom, an arrogant, ignorant son of a bitch, elf to his fingertips and stupid with it. The railway is here, weaving webs of iron across the Discworld, swarf is in the very air, the Elves haven’t got a chance, but the crass bully can’t believe in any limits to Elvish power. The Queen is not just overthrown but beaten, mutilated, her wings torn off and she is cast out into Discworld.
Under the nose of Tiffany, of course. Who takes her in, takes her over, and starts to convert her towards humanity.
Redemption, of course. Not for races, this time, but a single individual (two, in fact: Mrs Earwig, the snooty witch, will turn out to be totally proof against Elvish glamour, and top notch in a fight). The Queen learns to become human, to think of and help others, to shed arrogance and glamour. It’s a glorious notion, and one that ends in tragedy when she is slaughtered out of hand by Peaseblossom, but the biggest problem is that I don’t believe a word of it. Tell, not Show. It’s too quick, too perfunctory, too flimsy for me to accept, and the death scene is too short to have the impact that is wanted.
Still, Tiffany marshals her witchy forces and Discworld wins a final victory. Tiffany proves herself not only to be the chief witch, but also the ultimate shepherd, surpassing even Granny Aching, or at least so we’re told.
One point should be made here, as it is in Rob Wilkins’ afterword to the book, which he also read out at that Waterstones event: The Shepherd’s Crown, though complete, is unfinished. It was Pratchett’s practice to polish and polish, to re-write and re-work each novel up to virtually the printer’s door, adding, changing, improving even as he was deep into the next book. This book was orphaned before it could have all that attention, and it is not what it would have been if the extra time could somehow have been begged, borrowed or bartered.
Even on a second reading, not overcome by shock at how unlike Pratchett all this is, I seriously doubt that enough could have been done to remove the most serious flaws in this book. It fails to come alive because the characters fail to stand on the page. Take Geoffrey, the boy who wants to become a witch, and who Tiffany dubs a calm-weaver. He’s an entirely new creation, along with his intelligent goat, Mephistopholes, so the only voice he has is the one in this book, but the voice is never alive. Geoffrey doesn’t have a word of dialogue that sounds as if it’s being spoken by a human being, let alone a teenage boy. Furthermore, between first and second reading of The Shepherd’s Crown, I’d completely forgotten him, so big an impact does he create.
What is he for? What’s Mephistopholes about, especially with that name? (And why, in a non-Christian setting, is that name significant anyway?)
Anyway, Geoffrey is responsible for a new advancement in Discworld, which is the creation of men’s sheds. Even the bored and disinterested King of the Elves gets one, though I can’t say that the concept ever totally convinces. Like the Railway, it’s less a funhouse mirror image turned into a Discworld creation than a straight adoption of something that exists in our world.
Pratchett does better by introducing Railway Arches, though that’s something that will probably be lost on an audience much younger than me: I can’t help but be taken back to the likes of Alf Tupper – The Tough of the Track.
Is there anything more to say? This is a book that falls short of the high standards that Terry Pratchett set for himself and maintained far longer than any writer so prolific had a right to maintain. It fails against those standards, despite the high qualities that the book’s conception embodies. It may well be a better book than many others of that ilk, but I cannot judge it against any other standards than those that have satisfied me for almost half my lifetime.
During that time, Pratchett was a writer of great breadth and depth, of humour and anger, and with the ability to bring the two forces together, time and again. He was a clever and subtle writer, a gifted plotter, with the ability to evoke emotion and insight. My pet hate in writing is the writer who uses the words: As you know… They are an abomination to me, the tactic of a writer who has no better idea of how to convey information to his readers than to have his characters sit around and tell themselves what they already know. They’re cheap, they’re lazy, they’re thin. Hell’s bells, no-one in real life ever says ‘As you know’: any writer worth reading can find a way to say them that a living, breathing person might use.
Terry Pratchett never used the words ‘As you know’ in any form in any of his Discworld books. Until The Shepherd’s Crown. And they’re everywhere. That is what his condition took from him.
I wish I could say better things, but the only thing you can give a writer is honesty in how you respond to their words. And this is honestly not a good book.

In Praise of Pratchett: I Shall Wear Midnight

By the end of this novel, it seemed that Terry Pratchett had completed the story of Tiffany Aching. I Shall Wear Midnight is about many things: her greatest challenge, the completion of her apprenticeship, the resolution of what, after all the misdirection, is her relationship with Roland and the Chalk’s relationship with witchery, and the promise of a genuine, solid romance.
It’s a book of fulfilments, endings and completions. Though it is careful also to be a book of opening, into a future, it is nevertheless Childhood’s End, and for a character who was introduced as a Young Adult, albeit a nine year old, that is traditionally where the story stops. An Adult is something different. Sex changes perspectives.
Once again, two years have passed, and Tiffany is now fifteen, or, as the book puts it on every occasion, ‘nearly sixteen’. She’s back from her apprenticeships in the mountains and is the Witch of the Chalk, fully-fledged, working alone, doing all the things a witch is needed for.
There’s a particularly horrible example of this up front. A man called Petty, an unusually stupid, aggressive and sodden man, has savagely beaten his daughter, to the extent that she has miscarried her baby. What he has done has sparked the rough music, a spontaneous decision by the rest of the people that a situation has passed the point of being tolerable, or else ignorable, and that something will be done about it. It’s a kind of folkloric lynching, to be frank, the difference being that instead of prejudice, it’s a communal purge.
Tiffany has to deal with this in all its cruel, vicious, stupid, pathetic and horrific aspects, including keeping the villagers from murder, however justified. She has to rescue and heal the girl, Amber. She even has, the morning after, to save Petty from hanging himself.
What goes by almost without comment, is that Amber, who has lost her child, is herself only a child, a thirteen year old. As is William, her ‘beau’. Yes, severely underage sex, which is to be perpetuated given that, when we get to the epilogue, a year later, Amber and William are a married couple, at fourteen.
Pratchett once again shows his underlying intelligence as to structure by placing all of this is Chapter Two, and having the sexual aspect be an ironic reflection of the dilemma introduced into the deliberately light opening chapter. It’s the Summer Fair and Tiffany, in her usual green dress, is enjoying herself among the country pursuits, one of which, traditionally, is finding a beau. It’s of concern on two levels this year, one being whether a witch wants, needs or even acknowledges a sexual relationship (Nanny Ogg being the glaringly obvious exception).
The other is that, after three books of preparatory work establishing a common bond between Tiffany and the Baron’s heir, Roland, the moment puberty’s seriously hit, he’s only gone off to get engaged to Letitia Keepsake, a particularly pale, weedy and damp blonde girl, with a seriously bullying, stuck-up, more-aristocratic-than-thou mother of a Duchess.
Or should that be Duchess of a mother?
And Tiffany’s miffed. In her head, she’s accepted it, accepted that what brought her and Roland together to begin with was not attraction to each other, but mutual exclusion over their differences from others. In her heart, though, Tiffany is suffering from the only evidence that she is actually a fifteen year old girl on the cusp of sexual maturity, namely jealousy.
All of this, and the after-effects of the Pettys, takes up quite a bit of space. For once, Pratchett is in no hurry to get to the meat of the story. There is another element to introduce, to dovetail with those already on the page. The Old Baron is still dying, slowly, with Tiffany daily taking his pain away. But the time has come: the old man is temporarily lucid and thoughtful, showing signs of the deeper character behind the bluff Baron-ness that goes with the role. And there is a beautiful moment of memory and delight that is one of the best things Pratchett ever wrote, that merges into the old man’s death.
After which there is mourning, from all the Baron’s subjects, genuine mourning, without pretence or reservation. But there is also a worm in the apple, in the form of Nurse Spruce, a poisonous hater of witches, a castigator of unholy powers, who sows the seed of discord that will twist throughout the book.
Nurse Spruce is the forerunner. She’s lazy, unhelpful, malicious, overtly religious, and she’ll be found to be a thief too, but she’s the poisonous precursor to the Cunning Man, who Tiffany will have to face and overthrow, not only for her own sake, but for that of Witchdom.
The Cunning Man was once an Omnian Priest, in the witch-burning era of the Church. He found and arranged to burn a witch, but fell in love with her and plotted to enable her escape. She, seeing in him all he had done, and the continuing conflict between his ‘duty’ and his impliedly temporary ‘love’, refused escape and clasped him to herself in the fire.
Ever since, he has been a discarnate force, recurring at times, occupying, burning out and destroying bodies as he pursues his rotting, stench-laden pursuit of witchery, mouthing vile imprecations. He has no eyes.
The Cunnning Man is a frightening, corrupt, almost invincible thing. He’s been attracted towards Tiffany because she became visible two years ago, kissing the Wintersmith into dissolution. Granny Weatherwax dismissed him once, but he always returns, because he is Hate and Fear, and there is something of him in every one of us. Tiffany must defeat him. The rest of the witches will stand by, not to help, because a witch deals with her own problems or she is no witch, but to deal with whatever  emerges if Tiffany loses…
Given what the Cunning Man is, actual contact with him must be brief and attenuated in order to keep the book going until the inevitable confrontation. But the rising tide of anger, fear and resentment towards witches in general – which has already spread as far as Ankh-Morpork, where Tiffany goes to break the news to Roland and bring him home – and its personal effects on Tiffany, suspected of killing the Old Baron, are more than enough to maintain the story without any sag, and to build a gradually accelerating sense of menace and tempo.
The biggest surprise comes when Pratchett brings the utterly wet Letitia on stage as something more than the cartoon figure of Tiffany’s resentment. Letitia is indeed weepy as hell, but she has a lot to be weepy about, what with her repressive mother (who, in a glorious nod to Pratchett’s only Twentieth Century superior at light comedy, P. G. Wodehouse, turns out to be a jumped-up Chorus Girl) and the fact that, being a natural, untrained witch herself, her jealousy towards Tiffany has kick-started the whole thing.
With that knowledge in place, and with Letitia’s goodwill tipping the balance back in Tiffany’s favour, Pratchett sets up the climax, which is to take place between the Old Baron’s funeral and Roland and Letitia’s wedding.
Crucial to both is Nanny Ogg, who dissolves the tension of the former by allowing the guests to relax into memory and celebration in a genuinely touching fashion, and who, at Tiffany’s instigation, takes the soon to be blushing bride on one side for a good talk…
But though the elder witches are to hand, the battle is Tiffany’s, and her alone. It doesn’t preclude her from seeking non-magical aid once she realises the course she has to adopt, and whilst that’s meant to be Preston, the young, clever, Castle Guard who is clearly the non-romantic real thing for Tiffany, it expands to include both Roland (covered in pig-shit after his stag do) and the determinedly helpful Letitia.
And, of course, the Feegles, who I haven’t mentioned so far, but who are in the thick of things throughout.
So Tiffany dispels the Cunning Man, until next time. She asks for things from the New Baron that are meant to uplift, improve and expand the horizons for the young folk of the Chalk, in a scene whose spirit and effect is lifted directly from those regular chats with the Patrician at the end of a City Watch book. And she has her beau in Preston, who understands both her and the role he has in her life.
All is well. Tiffany is now a Witch, a Witch of the Chalk, respected in full measure as an equal by her elders. Childhood has ended. All’s right with the world, the story is complete. If only it were.
I’ve left out an awful lot of what goes on in the pages of I Shall Wear Midnight. It’s a big book, in its way, and the many stories are inter-related to a greater degree than most other multi-plotted Discworld books. To go into further detail would mean going into further detail yet, and I’d prefer to allow new readers to take things in from Pratchett, rather than from me.
It is a tightly-woven, beautifully-conceived and effervescently-written book that entirely refutes any suggestion that Pratchett’s condition was affecting his work and that’s what most needs saying.
There is one further aspect of it that needs to be considered separately, and that’s Pratchett’s surprising decision to return to a character long unseen. This is Esk, Eskarina Smith, the girl who became a Wizard a very long time ago in Equal Rites.
Her presence is very odd indeed, and it’s the only thing in this book that I am not sure about. She’s a concrete reminder, and a re-validation of a book that made a very poor start on Granny Weatherwax. She’s also considerably older than she should be for the years that have passed, and which have transformed her into a mini-myth of her own. Structurally, she’s a deus ex machina, removing Tiffany from danger and feeding her exposition about the Cunning Man, before disappearing again, not to have anything more than peripheral effect upon the rest of the book.
Eskarina has the ability to travel in time, an ability that she will, in small ways, exercise for Tiffany’s benefit. She also as a son whom she must protect, but that’s a throwaway line, a dangling mystery that might once have led to a book that will now never be written.
She serves, in the finale, to bring Tiffany face to face with her much older self, Granny Weatherwax old, there to reassure her that all will go well, and drop a stonking great hint that Preston is, indeed, the one, and that Tiffany will be happy.
Except that Pratchett has done this before. It’s all back to sex again, the great absence. How many times has Pratchett done this to Susan Sto-Helit? Wound her up to harmony with a man who can provide her with what is good about a relationship, including snogging sessions in the stationery cupboard, only to vanish him the next time the character is wanted?
There will be another outing for Tiffany, and once again Pratchett will undercut his previous ending and tear it apart. But I’ll say what I have to say about The Shepherd’s Crown soon enough, so let it wait till then.

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?

In Praise of Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky

The original idea behind the Young Adult Discworld series had been perceived as a run of one-offs, set away from the main body and the main characters and settings of the Old Adult series. The revelation that Pratchett had at least toyed with another Maurice book, this time as a ship’s cat, seems to support this notion, but A Hat Full of Sky torpedoed it for sure. We now had a Tiffany Aching series to, ultimately, supersede that of the Three Witches.
Two years have passed since The Wee Free Men (as they had in real life). Tiffany was now eleven and about to leave home for the first time, to enter the service of Miss Level, a witch over towards Lancre, where she expects to learn all about magic and how to use it.
In fact, it’s very much the opposite: Pratchett has made this point many times with both Witches and Wizards, and it’s the one that’s always hardest for the young and eager to learn, which is how not to use magic. Which Tiffany finds both frustrating and easy.
A Hat Full of Sky is actually a very conventional, almost commonplace children’s witch story. Tiffany’s frustration at the lack of direct instruction escalates steadily until she goes off the rails, making exactly all the mistakes that she should be learning not to make, with dire consequences that require the intervention of a senior, and much more powerful witch to show her how to correctly use her powers to resolve the mess she has created.
There’s also the traditional first meeting with her peers, the other would-be witch girls of varying degrees of competence, of course led by the noisiest and most arrogant girl, who thinks she already knows more than everybody else and that her conception of witchery – one hundred and eighty degrees away from the truth but attractive temporarily to the heroine who has not yet learnt better – is the only possible method.
But though Pratchett is using only the most tried-and-tested of materials, that’s merely the framework for the story. Tiffany’s going-off-the-rails moment is less her fault than an issue that arises out of too much natural magical ability and insufficient training. In order to get around a lack of mirrors, she’s invented a spell that gets her out of her own body, a variation on Borrowing that renders her vulnerable to the hiver, a kind of compound mind that seeks bodies in which to hide itself, immediately releasing all their inhibitions.
It’s a necessary Rite of Passage for Tiffany, who commits two very serious crimes when she no longer has her sense of self-restraint, and her strength lies in understanding that she is directly responsible for the actions she takes, since they come from her desires and her desires only, but also that she is now, in a sense, inoculated against temptation and the future risk of becoming a cackling Witch.
And it’s all down to Tiffany, though a lot of it is due to the effective channelling provided by Granny Weatherwax, and even some to the determination of the seemingly hopeless Petulia Glum, a semi-promising pig-Witch to be who, despite her hesitancy and her insubstantiality, aligns herself with Tiffany simply because Tiffany needs help.
The section with Granny Weatherwax, during which Pratchett articulates even further the role of witches as edge people, is surprisingly long: with the exception of the long short story, The Sea and Little Fishes, it’s the longest sequence of Granny that we ever see this side of Carpe Jugulum. And it’s beautifully played in every moment.
Of course, one can’t ignore the Nac Mac Feegle. There’s a new Kelda, Jeannie, and before the end there’s the first Feegle babies, helping to root this Clan into the Chalk, but Jeannie herself has a rite of passage to go through, starting the book by showing jealousy towards Tiffany, who she sees as her rival, however inappropriate the thought may be.
Despite the desperate situation in which Tiffany finds herself, A Hat Full of Sky is still very much a Young Adult Discworld book. There’s a lightness to it, a lack of detail that betrays the fact that Pratchett is aiming at a lower forehead level than usual. Like it’s two Young Adult predecessors, this is seen in the size of the original volume, which was smaller and thinner than the Old Adult books before and after it.
That would not last: when we next see Tiffany Aching, her books will be exactly the same adult size as the standard Discworld format, and the complexity will continue to grow, commensurately.

In Praise of Pratchett: The Wee Free Men

The second Young Adult Discworld book looks, at first glance, to be about the Pictsies, the Nac Mac Feegle, crivens!, the Wee Free Men introduced in Carpe Jugulum and given their heads to rattle, battle and rampage to their hearts content. But it’s not. Instead, it’s about one small girl and the rest of this brand of Discworld novel will be about this one small girl’s progression until she becomes the last character Terry Pratchett wrote about and for whose final book we all awaited with such mixed feelings.
Welcome Tiffany Aching, daughter of the Chalk, witch-to-be.
This first book takes place when Tiffany is nine years old. She’s a quiet, unobtrusive girl, youngest of six daughters, second youngest child. She has brown hair and a very realistic, detached manner. She’s already very good at butter and cheeses, a talent very useful on a working farm, daughter of a farmer who was son of a shepherd.
Or rather the Shepherd, Granny Aching, Sarah Grizzell as was, two years gone at the time of this book, an old lady who knew everything that could be known about the caring for sheep. Not a witch, at least, not in terms that anyone would understand, or anyone who reads these books would recognise, but in her own way, on the Chalk, where witches aren’t supposed to be possible, an equivalent to Granny Weatherwax.
In fact, Granny Aching was the local Wise Woman, which is what witches really are, but the magic she wielded was of knowledge and approbation. She was the one you went to to see if you had done it right. Not the Baron, who owns the land, but Granny Aching, who was the land.
And what Granny Aching was has transmitted itself to the wonderful Tiffany, who is already a witch at the age of nine, albeit one with a lot of formal knowledge to learn, but a witch nevertheless, for the simple reason that she can see what is there, what is really there, and because she watches herself.
Though The Wee Free Men and its successors were always described as Young Adult Discworld, I don’t believe it. Maybe for this book, and its immediate successor, as Tiffany works through the remnants of her childhood and the difficulties of her adolescence. Maybe the authorial gaze is downwards, to a point, writing for children in writing about children. Maybe the geography, as in The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, is imprecise and distant, unlocated on and unanchored to the Discworld itself.
But this is not a book alone. It’s the beginning of a longer story. It’s why there are no more Granny Weatherwax books, because Granny and Nanny, wonderful creations that they are, are finished in terms of development, and because the two younger witches don’t really fit into one role.
Tiffany, though, is at the beginning, and that makes her far more interesting to a writer. She can slip, stumble and fall, she can learn from mistakes, she can from the very beginning accept responsibility in the way of a true witch, and still have to work out how to do it. She’s in a way, a purer version of Granny Weatherwax, who was not bred of the Chalk.
But all that’s getting away from the story itself, and especially from Tiffany’s co-stars, the Nac Mac Feegle. The story itself is strong, bright, clear, a children’s fairy story given a workover in Discworld terms. The Queen of the Elves is taking an active interest in the Chalk, her parasite world has attached itself, intent on sucking until it is full of the substance of elsewhere. She’s already taken the Baron’s son, Roland, a year ago. Now she takes Tiffany’s younger brother, Wentworth.
He might be permanently sticky, useless, self-absorbed and taking up entirely too much of her time in looking after him, but he’s Tiffany’s brother, her brother, which is more important than whether she loves him or not, and besides, she’s the only one who knows where he’s actually gone and that makes her the only one who can get him back. And because she can, she must. It’s her duty. And Tiffany is that kind of sane, rooted, determined child who not only knows what her duty is but understands why it has to be performed.
With only the help of the Feegles – a thousand or so six-inch tall, red-haired, blue-skinned, tattooed, aggressive, raging, Scotsmen turned up until something falls off, warriors – Tiffany goes to Fairyland to get Wentworth back. Roland is a bonus, even if everyone decides afterwards that it must have been him who rescued her and Wentworth. At least Roland knows otherwise.
And so do those who count, namely Tiffany’s fellow witches. That is to say, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, summoned to do as Granny Aching would have done, to nod and say ‘That’ll do.’
The Wee Free Men is a lovely book, a lively book, a vibrant flowing current of life. Because it is this thing called Young Adult, it is more single-minded in its approach to the tale, but because it is Terry Pratchett, it knows when to divert into little eddies and streams that make this a more comprehensively painted world than most children’s books portray.
Crivens! We will not be fooled again!

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…

In Praise of Pratchett: Lords and Ladies

So now I could read the one Nigel bought me as a thank you, and the first words were: “Now read on.”
Actually, they weren’t. Those were the first words of Lord and Ladies, the fourteenth Discworld book, once again starring the Three Witches, but they were also the last words of a prefaratory Author’s Note pointing out that this book, more than others, needed a bit of historical context before we readers started.
Which gets me onto the relevant question of, is this or is it not a sequel?
By some loose standards, nearly the entirety of the Discworld series is made up of sequels, if all you need for a sequel is that the same characters turn up again doing something different. I have already gone on record as saying that the only true Sequel in Discworld is The Light Fantastic, because it follows directly on from The Colour of Magic.
But Lords and Ladies does come close. It runs on from Witches Abroad in the sense that it starts just as soon as Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick (not to mention Greebo) get back from their roundabout trip to Genua, and it’s all about something that happens whilst and because they’ve been gone that they have to put right.
However, that’s not enough for me. There’s no thematic connection between the two books, as in, say Dan Dare’s The Man from Nowhere/Rogue Planet: it’s a what They Found When They Got Back, like Rogue Planet/Reign of the Robots.
Terminology aside, it’s another bloody funny, and cruelly serious book, though in the latter respect, Pratchett’s ‘target’ is something of a strange, and many will think trivial subject.
The ‘Lords and Ladies’ of the title are Elves. They occupy what gets identified, late in the book, as a parasite dimension, forever seeking to break through into the Reality of the Discworld (and that’s a joke in itself). A long time ago, they were banished, kept from returning by a circle of standing stones whose effectiveness comes from their magnetic properties. Whilst the Three Witches were away, Circle Time arrived, when the barriers between the worlds becomes ‘thinner’, and the young girls of Lancre, inspired by Diamanda (real name, Lucy Tockley), began practicing their own, half-arsed version of magic, and inadvertently started the process by which the Elves could break back into Discworld.
Circle Time, incidentally, refers to crop circles, which is another dating factor, this book being published when these strange, unexplained but ultimately mundane features were a serious fad.
The theme makes Lords and Ladies something of a throwback to the early books, a pure fantasy with fantasy touchstones, but immeasurably better because Pratchett is so much better a writer by now, but it does leave me wondering slightly about the point. Because the whole essence of the story is to paint a radically different version of the elves, as creatures of cruelty and terror, whose glamour is a weapon that breaks down human’s minds.
It’s not the flower fairies of Victoriana, and it’s the opposite of the noble, elegant elves of Tolkien, and it makes for a brilliant tale, the first half of which is riven with people’s false but overpowering belief, but given what Pratchett was doing in Small Gods, I can’t help but ask why?
The distinction between the Elves of myth and their reality breaks up the Three Witches almost as soon as they get back. Granny and Nanny are old and wise: they know the reality whereas Magrat would neither know nor understand and their refusal to even tell her infuriates her so much that she walks away.
Besides, Magrat has a destiny, and that is to be Queen. Verence has it all organised, without reference to her: date, venue, catering, guest list, even the wedding dress, tells her about it in brisk, practical manner, not a hint of romance or even affection as soon as she returns. Magrat puzzles over the seemingly magical aspect of that and, being Magrat as opposed to Nanny, never even imagines the real explanation until it drops into her lap, namely, Granny wrote and told him to get on with it.
But there are still two witches in Lancre, or maybe a half dozen if you take seriously any of Diamanda’s coven, which includes Perdita (real name, Agnes Nitt, and destined for a more important role before too much longer). There’s a magical duel that Granny wins by popular acclaim, though not by the actual rules, and Diamanda certainly is not behind the door when it comes to powers, though that’s because she’s being fed by the Queen of the Elves, who has a personal animosity towards Esmerelda Weatherwax from the last time the Lords and Ladies threatened to break through.
And Granny’s strength is not what it might be, for she is subject to distractions. For one thing, she’s practically convinced that she’s going to die. For another, which is probably more important to her, she’s beginning to worry that she’s losing her mind, experiencing vivid memories of a life she’s never lived.
And least important of all, at least to her, is a meeting with one of the wedding guests, none other than the Archchancellor of Unseen University, Mustrum Ridcully himself (with entourage: the increasingly detached from reality Bursar, the young wizard who is the Reader in Invisible Writings, Ponder Stibbins, and, naturally, the Librarian).
Because, long ago, a young wizard courted Esme Weatherwax, when they both were young, though she rejected him, and it’s only Ridcully, full of might-have-beens from the moment he sees her again.
(We’ve seen that before, when Granny was introduced in Equal Rites, but that was Arrchchancellor Cutangle. This version is a much better treatment of the idea, illuminating as to both Granny and Ridcully, then and now, and it enables us to lock away a bit of the earlier book that deserves forgetting).
And that’s where things go wrong. Granny’s got Ridcully’s elephantinely playful post-courtship, Nanny’s being wined and dined by the egregious Casanunda again, and Magrat’s locked herself in with her anger and embarrassment, so none of the Three Witches are watching as the Elves re-enter the Kingdom, bringing with them cruelty and glamour in inseparable manner.
There are three inadequate forces ranged against the Elves: Witches, Wizards and the Lancre Morris Men (there are times when I envy non-English readers of Pratchett, for not having any idea what he’s talking about here). And the Witches have three separate approaches. Granny allows herself to be taken before the Queen, knowing she is beaten but relying on her own weakness to overcome the Elves. Magrat girds herself in armour and exposes her own, shrunken but still whole core of bravery, to bring iron to the Queen.
But it is Nanny who, quietly, and in seriocomic tones, comes to the heart of things in this book. For she leads Casanunda to the lewdly arranged barrows below which the King of the Elves waits, more patient than his Queen, able to outlast the iron in men’s heads until the world changes again. And she calls upon him to intervene, and threatens destructive reprisals if he does not halt the Queen.
And she says the lines that go to the heart of this book, the words that bring everything to one white-hot core, and there’s not the remotest trace of humour in them.
‘I’d be a little bit sorry about that, ‘cos you know I’ve always had a soft spot for you. But I’ve got kiddies, y’see, and they don’t hide under the stairs because they’re frit of the thunder, and they don’t put milk out for the elves, and they don’t hurry home because of the night, and before we go back to them dark old ways I’ll see you nailed.
In a book that has immersed itself so deeply in fantasy and fairytale, these words are the most solid and real, and if Terry Pratchett had written Lords and Ladies in order to provide a reason to put those words in the matriarchal Nanny Ogg’s mouth, whatever he had done would be justified by reason of that truth.
So the Elves cannot win. They cannot stand the iron, and despite her weakness, the iron in Granny’s head cannot be overcome, nor the iron in Nanny’s voice, nor yet the iron in Magrat’s mind, no matter how much it derives from an illusion that shapes the fiction she’s girt about her.
And then there’s a wedding, and after that, for all their shyness and uncertainty and ill at ease, there is Verence and Magrat, King and Queen yes, but husband and wife above all. Discworld’s first marriage: enjoy it, there aren’t any more in the rest of the canon.
This is a beautiful book.

Incidentally, the cover depicted above is that of the hardback. For some reason I’ve never really fathomed, Josh Kirby was asked to paint a new cover, depicting the same scene but giving Nanny Ogg more prominence, for the paperback. It makes more commercial sense, I suppose. But the first version is the better image.

In Praise of Pratchett: Witches Abroad

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.