Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Wyrd Sisters, Part II

Everyone gather in the greenroom for warmup exercises before the curtain. We’re continuing Wyrd Sisters

Summary

A year passes and Vitoller is talking to his dwarven playwright Hwel about their next production, which is to be a comedy titled A Wizard of Sorts, Or. Please Yourself. The year ends and suddenly the Ramtops are devoid of the usual magic running through the area. There’s a trembling like an earthquake and Duke Felmet suspects that the witches are working against him. The Fool explains that words can have a great effect and unwittingly suggests that the duke could handle the witches by spreading rumors about how evil they are. Granny feels that something is off, meets Magrat, and they both head off to Nanny Ogg’s house, where she’s having a massive Hogswatchnight party with her family. They convince her to check on the problem with them and summon a demon in her back room, who they wheedle into telling them the truth. Turns out the land itself is what’s causing the trouble—it wants a king who will care for it, and the duke is not that king.

Granny realizes that when she had tried to put herself into the mind of whatever was causing the trouble, she’d somehow glimpsed the mind of the whole country. She goes home and still feels that things are off—when she heads out into her yard, it’s full of animals that stare at her pointedly. Granny insists that she can’t do anything about the current king because that’s not the way of things, for witches to meddle. In the meantime, Tomjon (the little prince, given away to Vitoller and his wife) hasn’t said a word by the age of three, until he’s prompted and suddenly spouts a whole monologue. King Verence’s ghost makes the mistake of finally going to the kitchen and finds the ghosts of all the animals he’s ever eaten. He runs into Greebo and decides that the cat is his best shot at getting a witch to come to the castle, which he needs if he’s ever going to find someone to communicate his plan too. The Fool is busy remembering his childhood, and how his grandfather had beat him the one time he’d uttered a joke of his own design rather than a Guild-approved one; he comes across Magrat in the woods and means to approach her before realizing that she’s a witch and turning tail toward the castle.

The witches meet again, and Granny explains that the land is upset with the new king after Nanny talks about how unhappy the people of the kingdom are as well. Magrat’s heart isn’t in the meeting, and she tells the other two they’re silly old women and leaves. Granny and Nanny get into a fight because Nanny could tell that Magrat was distracted by a crush on the Fool and Granny thinks it’s nonsense and not proper for witches to get married like Nanny did. They dissolve the coven and storm off. Magrat begins assembling all the items for a love spell and Nanny heads to the castle to see about Greebo, who has been missing. While Magrat gets stuck in the rain looking for ingredients, she runs into one of Nanny Ogg’s boys (Shawn), who tells her that Nanny has been arrested by Felmet for breaking into the castle, and that he’s heading to get her other sons and perhaps Granny too, because she’s a witch. Magrat is furious and tells him that she will be handling it, striking off toward the castle.

The duke and duchess taunt Nanny Ogg, keeping her in the dungeons where they tell her they plan to torture her for spreading lies about the duke. Once they leave, Nanny starts up a conversation with King Verence, who she can see, of course. He apologizes for getting her into the situation, and explains that he’d been trying to attract a witch on purpose—but he’d assumed she could use magic to get out of it. Shawn goes directly to Granny to tell her what happened, and also asks about all the rumors people have been spreading about her and his mother. Granny realizes that she has to do something about this or the witches will lose their respect. Magrat gets herself all done up and grabs a breadknife before setting out. Granny encounters more of the villagers and hears their complaints that what the duke is doing must be the fault of witches. She insists all of this is a misunderstanding and heads for the castle gates, getting one guard to let her through because she’s known him his whole life, the other because she’s handy with a hat pin. Nanny, in the meantime, tells the duke and duchess that she knows how they killed the king, and the duchess demands that she tells her who else knows, or she will torture the information out of her…

Book Club Chat

The discussion here about front doors and back doors, and which ones you use, and how witches always use their back doors, is a whole essay unto itself, really. Because it’s a cultural thing and a regional thing and an architecture thing, and a bunch of other things besides. Of course, in the case of witches, there’s an issue of secrecy that is being very gently pushed to the fore as well; witches aren’t supposed to show everyone that they’re practicing witchcraft (even if we acknowledge that they’re accepted on the Disc in their communities, it’s still an issue). If you want a spell or an ointment or some advice, you should probably come around the back door. But it led to me thinking about the places I’ve lived during my life, and which ones had front and back doors, and how I used those spaces. It’s weirdly fascinating to consider.

So there’s a thing here in the narrative about Granny figuring out that the land itself is upset about the duke taking over because he doesn’t care about it. And when she’s talking to Nanny Ogg about it, they both note that King Verence wasn’t necessarily a good guy, but he still had an affinity for the land. The metaphor that they wind up using is that it’s like a dog—a dog doesn’t care if their owner is a good or bad person as long as they’re good to the dog themselves. It’s a great metaphor because I do love dogs, but it’s also incredibly true. My dog would love anyone who cuddled him enough and gave him food. But more importantly, love of dogs is often used as a marker for whether or not a person is trustworthy; the trope to mark villainy is called “kick the dog” for a reason.

We’re supposed to believe that a person who is good to dogs is inherently good, but that’s not accurate at all; it is more accurate to say that a character who is good to dogs (or really any animal) is still engaged with their humanity. The latest television iteration of the Punisher springs to mind on this one; Frank Castle does horrific things, but he rescues an abused dog. The point is not that Frank Castle is forgiven because he cares about one fluffy animal; the point is that, because of the dog, the audience know he’s still engaged with the human part of himself that craves connection, that there’s a part of him that feels empathy. By that same token, the fact that Duke Felmet is abhorred by the land because he has no connection to it is a mark of the inhumanity in him.

Anyway, that was a long aside about how people’s connections to dogs are used in fiction. That’s where I’m at this week. Think I might take a break and pet my dog.

The Fool’s role in giving Felmet the idea of how to turn the people against the witches is extremely unsettling because Pratchett knows plenty about the actual history of witch hunts and is bringing that knowledge to bear here. But it’s more unsettling because those methods are still used today, even in fiction; I was immediately put in mind of what the Tenth Doctor did to Harriet Jones after she disappointed him, tanking her entire political career with the words “Don’t you think she looks tired?” And that was done pointedly, intentionally, with the knowledge of how many women’s lives and careers are destroyed by rumor and hearsay. It’s the reason why Granny is so adamant about them maintaining their respect—and she’s right. Without it, they’ll be turned on in an instant.

So when Granny wants to get into the castle to find Nanny Ogg, she starts by pulling her town cred on one of the guards, but the other one isn’t from the Ramtops, and insists that she cannot work her magic on him. So she stabs him with her hatpin. And I love this because there’s historical precedent for woman using hatpins to defend themselves against predatory men, to the point where people started to suggest that women who used hatpins were menaces to society. Hatpins also got longer and more easy to impale people with at a certain point. There are swaths of newspaper articles from the early 20th century highlighting this—it was known as “The Hatpin Peril”. Basically, the hatpin was the predecessor to mace.

In Granny’s case, it’s still a mark of her status as a witch because she uses the pin to keep her pointy hat in place, but as it’s often highlighted: Witchcraft has commonly been the word assigned to all forms of “women’s magic”. Anything that people (primarily men) can’t and don’t want to understand about women gets labelled as witching. And while it’s not my favorite thing that we see the coven fall apart so quickly once Magrat gets a crush, I do appreciate the fact that the witches are all very different types of witches because being a witch is essentially a longform metaphor for womanhood. Witches can’t all be the same because women are not all the same. This trio are a testament to that.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Is the dwarf’s name Hwel meant to be a play on Hwæt? It must be, right? Right? Hwæt is known primarily for being the first word of Beowulf, but it was used at the start of basically every Old English story or recitation as a way of getting people’s attention. (It literally means “hey!” or “listen!”) Granted, this might not be true; there are some scholars who don’t think that it’s supposed to be an exclamation, but I’m pretty sure it was thought of as such when Pratchett was writing this, so… It makes sense because both sound like they’re meant to be interruptions, but Hwel’s name is comical for seemingly mimicking a word with far less vigor. “Hwelllll,” you can just hear someone saying…
  • I do love the footnote about Goodie Whemper being a research witch and what that entails, and the fact that it invokes using egg white because it figures that researching for witching would come awfully close to baking. Baking is witchcraft, and maybe the only kind of witchcraft that I’m any good at, so I appreciate the nod.
  • The twin ghosts in the castle holding hands and being creepy. Gotta love a Shining reference.
  • “Witches never curtsy” says the footnote. They only bow. Damn right.

Pratchettisms:

A year went past. The days followed one another patiently. Right back at the beginning of the multiverse they had tried all passing at the same time, and it hadn’t worked.

She’d just thought the word “systolic,” and it certainly wasn’t in her vocabulary.

All cats give that impression, of course, but instead of the mindless animal self-absorption that passes for secret wisdom in the creatures, Greebo radiated genuine intelligence. He also radiated a smell that would have knocked over a wall and caused sinus trouble in a dead fox.

The sweat of auto-suggestion dripped off his nose and vanished before it hit the floor. Greebo watched with interest as ghostly muscles moved on the king’s arms like footballs mating.

There was another silence while they stared at one another, nose to nose, but this silence was a whole quantum level of animosity higher than the last one; you could have roasted a turkey in the heat of this silence.

Next week we’ll be reading up to:

“When?”
“Whenever!”

citation

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