Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Witches Abroad, Part IV

A ball, a slipper, and Baron Samedi makes his appearance… It’s time to finish Witches Abroad!

Summary

Nanny and Granny steal the clothes of a couple of guests and make their way through the ball, spotting Magrat holding court to one side while they sample the buffet table. Nanny is located by Casanunda, a dwarf who is “reputed to be the world’s greatest lover.” Granny is dancing with a colonel (leading of course), and swings by Nanny and her new dancing partner right as the Duc arrives with Lily Weatherwax. The story gets to work, and the Duc (now the Prince) begins to dance with Magrat, and both seem entranced. Granny knows the power of the sequence, and that it won’t be broken until the clock strikes midnight. They’re three hours from that, so Nanny and Casanunda head up to the clock tower to move the mechanism along faster. The clock strikes twelve and Magrat realizes that her dancing partner is wearing smoky glasses. She removes them and finds inhuman eyes. She runs, losing a glass slipper on the stairs (you can’t run in those things), which the Duc picks up.

Granny focuses on how she can break the story, walks over to the Duc, takes the slipper from him and lets it smash to the floor. The story wobbles, Mrs. Gogol works magic from afar and prepares to attack, Greebo goes to the palace kitchens and gets fish heads and milk from Mrs. Pleasant. Lily isn’t impressed with Esme’s interference, and there’s another slipper to give the Prince anyhow. Magrat is revealed to be the wrong girl, however, so Nanny insists that they try the shoe on her, since that’s how the story goes—it fits her perfectly. Granny reveals that Lily’s prince is actually a frog, but Lily doesn’t see the issue. Where Ella is waiting, Mrs. Gogol’s hut emerges from the swamp and she encourages the girl to come with her. Lily imprisons the witches so her story can come out right, knowing they’ll escape. They sit in their cell and try to figure out how they’ll get out. Casanunda appears and offers his help, but there’s not much doing at the moment (and he reveals himself to be only the second greatest lover on the Disc). Legba appears and then Mister Saturday, who makes a hole in the wall for them to escape. Mrs. Gogol appears, and so does Greebo, who fights one of the guards aiming a crossbow at them.

Baron Saturday arrives at the ball; new music begins and he dances down the steps. The Prince is horrified and demands that a guard kills him. He can’t, of course, and is struck dead by Mrs. Gogol’s magic. Lily tells Mrs. Gogol that she doesn’t belong there anymore, and tries to fight the baron, but nothing works. She concentrates all magic in the area, turning the Prince back into a frog, and Baron Saturday steps on him. He tells the room that they can have him back as ruler (he was the Baron Lily killed) or they can have Emberella. But Granny isn’t happy with how the story is being changed because Mrs. Gogol’s magic is now the primary influence instead of Lily’s, when magic should be out of the whole process now. Granny confronts Mrs. Gogol and explains that she’s won and has to stop interfering, which Mrs. Gogol doesn’t like at all. They set a challenge between them, but the terms get wooly because Granny wants Mrs. Gogol to leave the city alone and also leave Lily to her. Mrs. Gogol happens to have a doll that was meant to be for Lily, but could be Granny instead. Esme doesn’t care; she respects Mrs. Gogol, but this is her family, so she goes to look for her sister. Mrs. Gogol begins stabbing the doll, asking Granny to stop before she kills her.

So Granny sticks her hand into a burning torch, setting the doll aflame.

She runs after her sister and Nanny and Magrat head after her. The Baron points out that Mrs. Gogol promised him death and vengeance, but Mrs. Gogol reckons that Lily Weatherwax will get what’s coming to her. They turn the kingdom over to Ella—their daughter—who immediately ends the ball and decides to go dance at the carnival. Death comes for Baron Saturday; this was always their scheduled appointment. Mrs. Gogol goes back to the swamp. Granny confronts Lily, but Lily threatens Nanny and Magrat’s lives unless Esme says she’s won and lets her start over with Genua. Granny agrees, says she’s won, then drops herself off a parapet. But it was a gambit, and after Nanny and Magrat go after her, Granny confronts her sister. She breaks one of her mirrors, telling Lily that she’s finally going to get the hidin’ she deserves because all the fun she had with magic meant Granny had to be the good one all her life. And it was hard. The sister mirror reaches out and pull Lily into it. Granny reaches for her and cuts up her arms, which is the state Nanny and Magrat find her in. Lily is stuck inside the mirror amongst billions of reflections, and Death tells her she will stay there until she finds the reflection that’s real. Esme is in the same place, but she knows which one is real straight away and wakes. Magrat throws the godmother wand into the swamp, and the three witches head home together… the long way, so they can see the elephant.

Commentary

This book is about a lot of things, but I think the thing that hits the hardest for me is Esme Weatherwax telling her sister that all the trouble she caused meant that Granny was stuck being the good one, and how much that stings. It’s probably strange for it to resonate with me so much because I’m an only child; I’ve never had a little sibling I had to shelter or set an example for. But it seems to me that this dynamic can play out in many types of relationships. Between children and parents (in either direction), between friends, between surrogate siblings. The pain here isn’t out of a desire to be bad, of course, but an acknowledgement of how much strength it takes to do the right thing. And there’s nothing quite so taxing on one’s ability to do the right thing as watching other people get away with anything they like sans consequences. We’ve all had those moments. It’s like the opposite of schadenfreude. There must be a word for that.

I do find myself wishing that we knew a little bit more about Lily Weatherwax, though. Because I want to know why she needs this so badly, what led her to it aside from just the abilities themselves. I understand her function in the story, but I don’t feel like we really know her by the end. We only know how Esme feels about what she does.

There’s a moment here where Mrs. Gogol is reflecting on the people of Genua who are not those living in the fancy houses and going to balls. The invisible ones who are not the subject of stories. The narrative states: “Stories are not, on the whole, interested in swineherds who remain swineherds and poor and humble shoemakers whose destiny is to die slightly poorer and much humbler.”

But the thing is… some stories are. Which is probably where the “on the whole” caveat is coming from. It’s a very European thing (that has bled into the U.S. via colonizing forces), this conceit of stories that herald from the epic tradition where stakes have to be higher than anything in order to warrant a telling. It is also a conceit that’s being more readily challenged in this day and age, and I find myself wondering if Pratchett would tell this story differently now. If there would be room for the shape of smaller stories within this book, and questions about their configurations. This ultimately plays back into my earlier assertion that what’s really being used here is the tyranny of fairy tales’ shapes, and how that is ultimately what Granny is fighting back against.

There’s another interesting aspect here about the Baron and the concept of monarchy and ruling classes within the Discworld. Mrs. Gogol thinks about how Saturday hadn’t been a particular good guy when he ruled Genua, but “at least he’s never told people that they wanted him to oppress them, and that everything he did was for their own good.” This is entirely similar to how to witches viewed Lancre’s king before he’s killed and usurped by the duke and duchess, and I think that’s extremely relevant to the overall worldview offered by the Disc.

Pratchett is pulling a lot from the fantasy tropes that he grew up on, and that combined with living in England means that monarchy is always going to be something worth dissecting. If it’s the system you’ve got—which is true for quite a bit of the Disc—then you’re not going to spend a whole bunch of time considering whether kings and queens are a good thing. You’re going to ask what makes them good or bad. And, of course, the truth of the matter is that monarchy is an inherently flawed system, and Pratchett obviously knows this. So rather than tackle the “morality” of monarchy (because there isn’t one), we stumble upon a general consensus between populations with different rulers, namely that the best rulers are the ones who let you get on with your life and never pretend that they’re on your side. Which seems a likely perspective for our own world too, for peasants who never had much control over their own circumstances.

I will say, all analysis aside, Granny’s use of headology to reverse-destroy a vodou doll by sticking her arm into a torch is one of the best callbacks Pratchett has done thus far, and also proof that the most dramatic moments in a story require practically no explosions and high-octane action whatsoever. Which is really probably what Granny means by headology in the first place.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Okay, but I feel the need to point out that lobster is on the banquet spread for this ball, and if Pratchett is going to devote so much time (rightfully so) to talking about how truly great cooking comes from people eating the scraps that the rich don’t want, then we need to acknowledge the fact that lobster only became “rich people food” in the last century, specifically since WWII. It used to be food that anyone ate if they lived on the coast, it was fisherman food, and then the advent of transportation and industry changed that.
  • Mrs. Gogol’s hut moves on duck feet, which is a sort of shoutout to Baba Yaga’s house on chicken feet. And while I’m not always against splicing story bits together in fantasy, the lack of anything Russian in Genua makes that stand out weirdly?
  • I think this bit here at the end is the first time Magrat calls Nanny Gytha? *sniffs*
  • Granny insisting that plenty of places are like home, but only one of them is yours is just… my heart.

Pratchettisms:

There was a slight struggle as the colonel tried to lead, but he soon gave in, partly in the face of Granny Weatherwax’s sheer refusal to compromise but mainly because of her boots.

What Granny could achieve with two pounds of hobnailed syncopation Nanny Ogg could achieve merely with her bosom.

Somewhere in the genetics of the Weatherwaxes was a piece of sapphire. Maybe generations of them.

She hated everything that predestined people, that fooled them, that made them slightly less than human.

The invisible people knew that happiness is not the natural state of mankind, and is never achieved from the outside in.

Nanny Ogg and Magrat came up onto the roof like avenging angels after a period of lax celestial quality control.

Next week we start Small Gods! We’ll read up to:

“Most pressing and urgent business. Which only he can attend too.”

citation

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