Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Wyrd Sisters, Part III

Don’t forget to pack your bread knives—we’re back with the Wyrd Sisters!

Summary

Magrat enters the castle grounds by insisting that she’s an apple seller. In the Great Hall she’s immediately accosted by two guards who bring her down to the dungeon level to rape her. The Fool insists that she be unhanded, but Magrat has the situation pretty well in hand and pummels one guard in the face while threatening the other’s life with her bread knife. She then proceeds to go after Nanny Ogg, after uttering the Fool’s name—it’s Verence, after the old king. Magrat begins using magic on the door, causing it to erupt into sort of a tree. Granny has been watching and suggests that she should have tried it on the rocks, but this works just as well. When they get into the dungeon, Nanny Ogg seems perfectly well; the duke and duchess are screaming because King Verence’s ghost is messing with his knife, the one they used to kill him. Granny suggests that the duke abdicate, but he refuses, point blank. He knows that the child is the only threat to him, and his return is years away.

So the witches all leave, and at the gate, Felmet tells the town that he’s assured that the witches will bother no one anymore. The trio leave the town and talk over what they should do. King Verence’s ghost shows up to ask after his son, able to haunt them because he asks Nanny Ogg to grab a stone from the castle, giving him the ability to appear elsewhere. He knows that by the time his child is grown, Felmet will be well-entrenched on the throne. In the meantime, the witches are almost run down by a local in a carriage on the road because people are losing respect for the witches. Granny loses her temper finally, necessitating a slap from Nanny. She decides they’re going to break their rule not to meddle. Meanwhile, the Fool is trying to convince the duchess that words have power, and is doing so by explaining how they might better rule the land by making the people believe they are being helped when nothing of the sort is going on. The duchess wants to know how they can change the past with words, however, and it is decided that a play making it quite clear that Duke Felmet did not kill King Verence would do the trick. She demands that the Fool find a playwright to do it.

The witches have gathered at the stone to start up proper coven business. The Fool finds Greebo and speaks to him in the same manner as Nanny Ogg, so the cat trusts him and allows him to help him out of the castle. The witches argue about how one might curse the duke, but Granny isn’t having it—she wants him replaced. And she means to do it with a feat of headology the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Black Aliss, a witch before even Nanny’s time. (She’s the one who had the gingerbread cottage from The Light Fantastic.) She was once rumored to have put a whole kingdom to sleep for a hundred years, which isn’t actually what happened; she simply messed with people’s perceptions of time. That’s what Granny wants to do, set the kingdom fifteen years into the future, so Verence’s son will be old enough to claim the throne. They all set off to do their parts. The Fool has made the mistake of trying to take Greebo to Magrat’s instead of Nanny’s for the sake of impressing her, and it gets him fully lost in the woods. It’s a good thing he’s there because Magrat crashes into him when she gives the last of her broom fuel to Granny.

Magrat and the Fool talk, and the Fool admits to her that becoming a Fool is a terrible business and that he doesn’t much like it at all. Magrat admits that she wishes he wouldn’t work for the duke, but the Fool insists that he must be loyal to his master until he dies because that’s the gig. Granny’s broom catches fire and Nanny has to save her. They manage the spell and move Lancre forward fifteen years in time at the same moment Magrat and the Fool kiss—meaning their kiss also lasts fifteen years. Granny figures they will find the king’s son in Ankh-Morpork, and the Fool is being sent away by the duke to find his playwright, which has Magrat awfully vexed. She cannot understand why he won’t defy the duke when he doesn’t like the man, or enjoy being a Fool, but he’s insistent that he cannot break his word.

Commentary

I think the thing that gets me about this attempted rape sequence is that it’s still an anomaly today, the way it’s written here. There are other issues that have taken the upper hand in this conversation these days, starting with the fact that we don’t really need to be depicting rape in fiction as often as we do, and that it’s often only shown as a way to specifically traumatize women (which is wrong because anyone can be raped or sexually assaulted) and make them vulnerable. But this book is over thirty years old, and this reads like it could have been written last year for how it’s handled. Two men try to rape Magrat and she just nopes her way right out of it. The Fool helps a bit, but it’s really mostly her.

And it’s oddly refreshing because it’s not as though Magrat is a Strong Female Character archetype, right? And the 90s and early aughts definitely taught us that the SFC was the only sort of woman who could fend off this manner of attack. Yet Magrat is pointedly not a Buffy Summers, the sort of woman we expect to be able to dispatch monstrous men and monstrous monsters with ease. She’s an odd young witch in poorly done makeup, who was smart enough to know she ought to have a bread knife on hand. So while I’m never happy to read rape or attempted rape scenarios these days, I cannot help but be appreciative of how empowering this segment is, in a very no-nonsense sort of way.

Then there’s the invocation of Black Aliss, who is a play on Black Annis, a sort of English bogeyman who appears as a hag figure. She’s rumored to have plenty of different origins, some of them Germanic or Celtic or even a real life woman named Agnes Scott. It’s a fun play here to have Pratchett meld this stereotype of a hag, a folklore figure that is said to eat human children, with essentially every fairy godmother and powerful witch in fairy tales and fables. She’s Cinderella’s savior and she’s putting the kingdom to sleep in Sleeping Beauty and she also got offed by (presumably) Hansel and Gretel, who shoved her into her own oven.

Because maybe she did eat children after all. No, I’m kidding, but it’s a fun way to bring it back around to Black Annis’s origins as a child-eating villain.

So there’s a lot happening with the Fool in this section, and obviously that’s because he has a much large role to play in the plot, but there are two themes surrounding him that I find particularly fascinating: the power of words and the inherent sadness of comedy. The Fool’s relationship with the duke in this book is all down to his ability to understand that words have power—in fact, they are power. This is very much in keeping with the Fool’s role in most Shakespeare plays—the speaker of truth, the one who uses humor and gentleness to show things clearly. This Fool’s rapport with Felmet has quite a bit in common with the relationship we see in King Lear, personally one of my least favorite Shakespeares… excepting the Fool’s part. He does most of the heavy lifting in that show.

The Fool is trying to show the duke and duchess that they can turn an entire kingdom against the witches simply by putting the idea in people’s heads that they are untrustworthy. And it works, of course, because words do have the power to shape thought, particularly amongst people who are frightened or concerned about their ability to survive; that’s how witch trials come about in the first place. But there’s an interesting moment here when the Fool thinks that what he’s doing with the duke and words has to be better ultimately than swords and fighting—which sounds so sensible, even if it is utterly wrong. And that’s likely because this Fool wasn’t truly meant to be a Fool. Sometimes he acts the part, but this isn’t his calling, which we know from how he talks about going to the school for Fool’s in Ankh-Morpork and learning all the Guild appropriate jokes and humor, which he loathes.

The saying goes that “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” And it can be taken a number of ways, but the point in this context is that comedy is harder than drama any day. The Fool learned that firsthand in a school he never should have gone to, learning to juggle and pratfall even though he’s absolutely no good at it, and resenting it so greatly that he can’t even pretend to enjoy it when Magrat brings up his profession. Anyone who spends enough time around performers knows that comedians are often the most dour and depressed of the bunch, no matter how jovial they appear to be. The reason for this is deceptively simple, to my mind—it takes far more vulnerability, in most cases, to make people laugh. In a Fool’s case, this is true in a literal sense. Fools and jesters are typically viewed as punching bags, and no one knew that better than Shakespeare, which is why Pratchett really begins to dig into that conceit here.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • I have a great deal of sympathy for Magrat’s attempts at makeup. The thing no one ever tells young women and AFAB people is that makeup is a skill that takes time, patience, and determination to get any good at. It’s not something you’ll just understand, the way magazines and television imply. When you start, you will be awful at it, and you will look too pale just like Magrat. See any picture of me in high school—oh wait, you can’t, my foundation was three shades too light for my face and I’m a ghost in every photo.
  • One of my particular favorite shoutouts here is Duke Felmet saying “I have no recollection of it at this time” á la Watergate (also Iran-Contra, but most people are going to think of Watergate).
  • Nanny Ogg thinks that a drop of applejack in your tea isn’t drinking, it’s medicinal, and I’m inclined to agree, particularly when it’s cold out. *stares out window, irate at weather and seasons*
  • The whole aside about Hoki and the “business with the mistletoe” is such a fun aside if you’re even slightly inclined toward Norse myth nerdery, and I do love it.
  • The section where Pratchett describes the passage of time and talks about showing it via a shop window where the fashions change over time (and how that’s the hard part of the depiction) is a reference to the film version of H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, which I am ecstatic over because I have an incurable soft spot for that film… and its remake too, if I’m being honest. I have nothing to say in my defense on that. I’m sorry.
  • “You don’t have to search for people when destiny is involved, you just wait for them in Ankh-Morpork,” is what Granny says, and she’s right. People who have never lived in cities will go on about how it’s too vast and too crowded and it must be so hard to navigate, and that’s not how it works at all. Cities, even the big ones, often feel small, and you will always run into people you know or happen to be looking for at the oddest moments. I ran into a friend from my hometown when I was in Paris.

Pratchettisms:

Magrat had used a lot of powder to make her face pale and interesting. It combined with the lavishly applied mascara to give the guard the impression that he was looking at two flies that had crashed into a sugar bowl. He found his fingers wanted to make a sign to ward off the evil eyelashes.

No one knows why men say things like this. Any minute now he is probably going to say he likes a girl with spirit.

All three stared down the passage at the Fool. He was jingling with rage.

“You’re wondering whether I really would cut your throat,” panted Magrat. “I don’t know either. Think of the fun we could have together, finding out.”

“Yes, bugger all that,” said Nanny. “Let’s curse somebody.”

Greebo’s grin gradually faded, until there was nothing left but the cat. This was nearly as spooky as the opposite way around.

Granny’s implicit belief that everything should get out of her way extended to other witches, very tall trees and, on occasion, mountains.

Next week we’ll go to, “In case you want to wash your hair.” Until then!

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