Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Witches Abroad, Part I

Sometimes the whole coven has to go on a road trip. It’s time to accompany some Witches Abroad

Summary

We have an opening that talks about how stories are not made by characters, but, in fact, work the other way around: Stories are parasites and character are drawn into them. Witches are meeting atop Bear Mountain at the same time that Desiderata Hollow is making her will. She’s not just a witch, but a fairy godmother, and paired to another fairy godmother called Lillith. Desiderata explains to Death when he comes to fetch her that she’s hoping to engineer a situation that gets all three witches (Weatherwax, Ogg, and Garlick) to Genua to see to a ward of hers that Lillith has been manipulating a little too hard. Desiderata goes to her rest while Lillith plots her happy ending in earnest now that the other fairy godmother is out of the way. At the sabbat, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, Gammer Brevis and Mother Dismass are trying to figure out who will take over Desiderata’s territory now that she’s gone. Magrat is suggested, and Granny and Nanny argue about who will go to the late witch’s house to collect the wand.

The wand makes its way to Magrat regardless, due to the note left to the local poacher who buries Desiderata. Granny and Nanny enter Desiderata’s cottage and go through things in an attempt to find a wand that isn’t there, and it’s in the witch’s mirror that Granny sees Lillith; she promptly breaks the mirror. Nanny Ogg tries to find out why she would have done such a thing, but Granny’s not talking. Magrat eventually joins them with the wand and they find out that Desiderata bequeathed it to her. The wand also came with specific instructions: Go to Genua and stop a young woman from marrying a prince. It also contains a post-script telling Magrat not to let Granny and Nanny come along. (Unbeknownst to Magrat, this was to ensure they would, in fact, accompany her.) They are seen off by the town, with Nanny’s son Jason fretting over why his mother would deign to go on such a long trip. Granny finds herself dismayed over Magrat’s choice to wear trousers, and Nanny’s willow-reinforced witch hat and red boots (and her insistence on bringing Greebo the cat along).

They travel for a bit, but Granny won’t allow them to get high enough to see where they’re headed. They land for the night and it’s about to snow, so Granny and Nanny find a dwarf mine and demand to be let inside. This group’s king isn’t exactly happy to see witches, but figures it’s fate because their mine has had a cave-in. Magrat still doesn’t know how to use the wand, but she manages to transform the fallen rocks into pumpkins (everything turns into a pumpkin) by wishing, and the dwarfs are rescued. They give the witches a boat and provisions, and advise them to take the river through the mountains to Genua. As they’re heading down the stream, they find a lot of pumpkin packed for food, along with dwarf bread. A creature approaches them on the water claiming it’s its birthday, and Granny hits it over the head with an oar. Granny and Nanny starts arguing about Nanny’s propensity for singing inappropriate folk songs as Magrat notices that the water is getting choppy and they’re about to head over a waterfall. She tries to fix it with the wand and turns their boat into a pumpkin.

Lillith is using her mirrors to find out as much about the witches as possible while the Duc sulks nearby. She’s done something to him to help him keep up his appearance in front of people, and has promised him a kiss from a young woman. The witches get off the river and decide to follow it by flying. They arrive at a town for the night where the people seem generally dreary. There’s garlic in everything because unbeknownst to the trio, this village is being menaced by a vampire. This comes to an end when, after being foiled twice trying to get into the witches’ rooms, the vampire transforms into a bat and is promptly caught and eaten by Greebo. Lillith has the Duc sentencing citizens for not following “narrative expectation”; they imprison the local toymaker for not whistling or being jolly or telling stories to children. Mrs. Pleasant (a local cook), goes to tell Mrs. Gogol (a local voodoo woman) what Lillith is up to.

Commentary

We’ve arrived at the third Witches book, and it’s great to see our unintended coven thrust back together again. But before I get into that, I’ve got to go off on a tangent because it will not leave me alone:

Somehow I’d forgotten about the New Orleans angle with the city of Genua in this book, and now my brain is utterly melting over the fact that unless people are being extremely dishonest about its genesis (which, why), somehow both Pratchett and Disney decided to set their vaguely “Frog Prince” based stories in New Orleans (or the Discworld equivalent thereof).

I honestly don’t remember which of these I read/watched first, and I’m pretty sure my brain glossed over it by deciding that one was somehow inspired by the other, but this time I got stuck on it and realized that was probably unlikely. I went into some old articles online and found (according to interviews around the film’s development) that the New Orleans setting for The Princess and the Frog was chosen by the creative team because they felt the place had “magical” qualities and it was animation chief John Lasseter’s favorite city. And of course, truth is often stranger than fiction, so it’s entirely possible that this was just a weird fluke of similarity. But there’s also a quote from Pratchett on L-space that states that Genua “is a ‘sort of’ New Orleans with a ‘sort of’ Magic Kingdom grafted on top of it.” So Disney is written into the bones of this book too.

…The hell?

I dunno, I’m just saying, the fact that he starts off with this whole aside about stories being parasites that infect us and do what they’re going to do with people, makes this possibly random similarity feel far more… freaky. I don’t think I’ve ever felt something that could be described as the “heebie-jeebies,” but I’ve got them right now. Sort of comical terror that I wanna shake off my person.

There’s a lot of great stuff happening at the start of this book, including the play on how mirrors function in fairy tales, and the introduction of Lillith (who we don’t quite know the identity of yet, though Desiderata kind of gives it away in thinking of her and Granny Weatherwax together), and the problems with the fairy godmother wand. But really, it’s all about this lengthy Lord of the Rings parody, in which Pratchett seems to be saying “if the Fellowship had been a bunch of witches, this all would have gone much faster.”

You’ve got Granny shouting at the dwarfs to let them inside the mines instead of bothering with their invisible runes; the gifting of the dwarf version of lembas; then a version of Gollum shows up and is promptly whacked on the head with an oar and sent packing. The dwarf bread is actually my favorite of these details because what Pratchett describes is something closer to hardtack, which is what many fans have presumed as the basis of lembas for decades. (There are so many nice internet recipes out there suggesting that you flavor your “lembas” with almond or lemon or cinnamon, and every time I read them, I think nice try.)

But that’s only the first part of the journey. When the witches travel, they wind up having several books’ worth of adventures in one go. Comedy is one reason for this, of course—the more shenanigans you get up to in a small span of time, the funnier things are. But there’s a sort of understated feminism to the whole business as well because the witches can handle so much with so little fanfare. Which, of course they can, because that’s how being a woman works. You’re expected to juggle numerous aspects of life seamlessly because society dictates that it should be easy for you. It’s not, but plenty of women manage it anyhow.

And sometimes that ability to manage just comes down to pure eccentricity. If Gytha Ogg hadn’t insisted on bringing Greebo along, they likely wouldn’t have averted the whole vampire situation without even noticing that there was one. She’s more than earned her garlic sausages in bed, no matter what Granny says.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • In the last book there was a mention of pickles and in this book there is too, and it’s from Magrat talking about pickling pumpkins and Granny Weatherwax being horrified at the mere idea of doing pickling for herself. Apparently witches love pickles, but Granny is sure to get them given to her.
  • There’s that bit about Granny making her goose-grease-and-sage chest liniment, and how it keeps colds away because it smells so terrible that people don’t come near you, and my mind immediately supplied “witch products for social distancing.”
  • TEMPERS FUGGIT. Nanny Ogg is a treasure.
  • Another of Dibbler’s side-businesses—self-help ninja books? That definitely sounds like a thing he’d try to make money from. Wonder who publishes the books…

Pratchettisms:

This is a story about stories.

Most witches don’t believe in gods. They know the gods exist, of course. They even deal with them occasionally. But they don’t believe in them. They know them too well. It would be like believing in the postman.

Granny Weatherwax didn’t like maps. She felt instinctively that they sold the landscape short.

“We’ve got a lot of experience of not having any experience,” said Nanny Ogg happily.

“He’ll miss his mummy if he’s left behind, won’t he,” crooned Nanny Ogg, picking up Greebo. He hung limply, like a bag of water gripped around the middle.

Far more important, in Lillith’s book, were crimes against narrative expectation. People didn’t seem to know how they should behave.

Next week we’ll read up to “But the Assassins had all left years ago. Some things sicken even jackals.”

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