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: 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: Wyrd Sisters


This is the one.
It’s the opening scene. A blasted moorland. High mountains. A flash of lightning illuminating a dreadful scene. Three huddled figures around a bubbling cauldron. An eldritch shriek splits the night: “When shall we three meet again?”
Then, after a pause, an ordinary voice replies, “Well, I can do next Tuesday.”
It’s the archetypal Terry Pratchett moment, and I howl with laughter every time I read it, every time I think of it. Let’s face it, if you haven’t laughed at that, you and I have absolutely nothing to talk about.
To put it at its simplest, this is where it clicks. Where everything comes together, without a single false note. Where Pratchett starts pulling comedy gold out of everything in sight. Where story, character and theme blend together to make each element a simple delight and the whole something far greater than the sum of its parts. There will be the odd, less-than-brilliant book to follow, but they’re going to be rare, and even the least of these will still be better than nearly everything around them.
The prentice phase is over.
Wyrd Sisters brings us back to Granny Weatherwax, or rather it re-introduces Granny, along with the rest of the Three Witches, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Forget the Granny we saw in Equal Rites, think of her as a distant relation, the Earth-2 Granny, this is the real thing. The Kingdom of Lancre solidifies around them. The Fool capers dismally, concealing not only a very keen intelligence but also a solid core of human decency, of a kind that will grow to be the underlying characteristic of all Terry Pratchett’s work.
It’s revealing nothing anyone doesn’t know to call this book a Shakespearian adventure. It’s full of exaggeration and inversion, puns and jokes, madcap notions and – which is what always distinguished Pratchett from his (laughable notion) competitors – the gift of depicting a thing in the elemental form that underlies it. It’s about the Theatre, about the ability to lie openly and create the truth. About a form of magic vastly different from that which the Witches manipulate, because it is made between human beings collectively.
The plot is nicely basic. King Verence of Lancre is assassinated by his cousin, Duke Felmet, at the behest of the latter’s bullying wife, the Duchess. Both the Duke and Duchess are, in their separate ways, quite mad. They’re obviously MacBeth and Lady M, though Pratchett distributes the latter’s role between the two conspirators.
There is an heir, a baby, rescued from the melee, and placed by Granny and the coven with strolling players, where he becomes an actor. But the Kingdom needs his return, and despite having made a very good case why Witches can’t meddle and raise Kings, Granny moves Lancre through fifteen years to enable an adult TomJohn to return to his inheritance.
Except that he doesn’t want it. And fortunately there’s a slightly elder half-brother, named Verence, who can take over as King. Kind, conscientious, ecstatic at being able to rip of the hat with the bells on it, not to mention interested in Magrat.
And he and TomJohn really are half-brothers, which is not to say that the late King Verence I is necessarily their father…
What Pratchett had found in this book was the sense of Discworld being a mirror, a twisted, funhouse mirror, but not of Fantasy but rather of Reality. Fantasy ceases to be the subject of Pratchett’s humour, and becomes the vehicle. Each book from now on will have a theme at its heart that resonates, which Pratchett digs into, and draws out of it unexpected insights and deep wisdom, all of which is expressed through laughter.
Let’s not leave without noting the first appearance of Nanny Ogg. Granny’s old friend and sidekick, Nanny arrives full blown, a force of nature in herself, complete with her enthusiasm for that unusual folksong about Hedgehogs. Nanny, the all-mother, the living proof of matriarchal supremacy, secure in her domain.
It’s leaping ahead, but Pratchett once commented that he’d made Nanny a mother of fifteen, and started throwing in names for sons and daughters willy nilly. One day, he thought he’d better add them all up, and found he had named exactly fifteen. He seemed to be a bit surprised at that. I’m not. Whether you call it That From Which It Comes, a la Dave Sim, or a subconscious sense of structure, as I do, it’s a great thing to have.
A lot of writing comes from far more than deliberate thought.