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.

Thank you Rhianna Pratchett


If there’s one piece of good news in the sad loss of Terry Pratchett, it is in the announcement today by his daughter Rhianna, to whom he has left the intellectual rights to Discworld, that firmly closes the door upon the risk of literary necrophilia.

Ms Pratchett has confirmed that the forthcoming The Shepherd’s Crown, the fifth Tiffany Aching and the Nac Mac Feegle novel, the 41st Discworld novel, will be the last ever.

There will be no attempts to continue, not by herself (though her father gave her his blessing to do so), nor by any person licenced by her.

Thank you Ms Pratchett for making that plain. Thank you for shielding our many lost friends from being distorted at the hands of others, from being sent on false journeys and down wrong pathways, from saying things false, phoney and untrue. Though we will miss them like we miss your father, we are grateful to you for your forthrightness in doing the only right thing to do.

In a world in which the heirs to P.G.Wodehouse and Agatha Christie have gotten so greedy for more that they have commissioned – not merely sanctioned, solicited – the most egregious breaches of their own trust, your resolve gives me a little bit of heart. You can be proud of yourself.