Weird Era Cont. – Wyrd Sisters

Wyrd SistersThat’s just about land…It’s not the same as a kingdom. A kingdom is made up of all sorts of things. Ideas. Loyalties. Memories. It all sort of exists together. And then all these things create some kind of life. Not a body kind of life, more like a living idea. Made up of everything that’s alive and what they’re thinking.

Oh yes. That’s more like it. After the misstep of Sourcery, where everything good about Discworld was missing amid poor plotting, derivative scenes and (absence of) character, Pratchett hits the equivalent of a 30 yard screamer here.

Many see this as the first ‘proper’ Discworld novel, as Pratchett balances humour, weirdness, social satire and invention with ease. I think that’s unfair on both Mort and Equal Rites – both are flawed but share a lot of the characteristics of what makes his novels uniquely Discworldian. But Wyrd Sisters sings in a way the others to date have not.

This could be the Bard’s influence. Wyrd Sisters is a comic version of Macbeth – something that flew so high over my 12 year old head when I first read it, it probably interfered with winged creatures. Pratchett’s plotting, Sourcery aside, had been steadily getting better with each novel and here there’s a solid core to the story that Pratchett uses to make his typical leaps of the fantastic from.

And Granny Weatherwax is back. REJOICE (I’m not speaking as Death here). She is one of the Ramtops’ infamous coven, who decides to hide away the recently murdered king’s son with an acting troupe at the start of the novel, a move that shoves a broomstick up proceedings.

There are some wonderful things happening here, as the evil Lord Felmet, the Macbeth of the novel, tries to crack down on the social menace of the witches. The concept of an entire land rebelling against its new leader, from animals to the very geology of the kingdom crying out to Granny, is brilliant.

The reader is swept along so much with the traditional trope of ‘outcast son regains the throne’ that they fail to miss that the proper king has been under their nose throughout the book – the subtle positioning of The Fool as the ‘rightful’ heir (according to the witches who place him on the throne at the end of book) is an impressive and surprising feat from the author.

Another thing I love about this novel is something that should be a criticism. At this point I should probably say SPOILER in CAPITAL LETTERS, but this was a novel published more than a quarter of a century ago so we can all be grown-ups about this. In order to bring Tomjon into adulthood, so he can regain the throne and bring peace, prosperity and other positive things beginning with p into fruition, the witches fast forward the Discworld fifteen years, ageing the future king.

And it makes absolutely no sense. At all. Every character seems to stay the same age (I think). The only character who seems to have aged significantly is Tomjon. But he is surrounded by people who have acted alongside him for a decade and a half but don’t seem to have aged, the same as other characters like Lord Felmet.

So do people age quickly or just jump forward in time? We don’t know, but the absolutely brilliant bit of handwaving at the end of the novel, when a minor character and the mayor debate the absurdity of what has just happened, is masterful. They are quickly relegated into background chatter as the dramatis personae decide The Fool is the fairest king of the land.

Unlike his previous novels, where the narrator is an active character in the book and far from subtle, this wink at the reader is quietly done and brilliantly handled. For such a plot development to be handled in a cheeky, postmodern way is a great example of how strong Pratchett has become as a writer in a very short period of time.

Another example is some weird/wyrd things going on in terms of authority, one of Pratchett’s more long-running themes. The king has been wrongly ousted by the nefarious Felmet, but as the novel goes on the reader learns he was no saint himself,with frequent reference to his penchant for burning his subjects’ abodes. It’s left to the reader to thrash out the morality of this.

Like the best pastiches, Wyrd Sisters takes Macbeth and builds upon it. So Pratchett uses the play to add his own favourite threads such as the weight of power and need to wield it responsibly, as well as people’s duty to do what they are best at, rather than what they want.

There are some wonderful character moments in the relationship between Tomjon and his adopted father Vitoller. The somewhat pompous actor is brilliantly a background player in the novel but Tomjon’s strength of character, enthusiasm and morality is down to how he was raised, rather than because of his real father, a man he never knew with a penchant for pyromania. Tomjon’s arc ends with Hwel remarking that he was his father’s son, and no mistake. His simple response of I thought I had better be carries a wonderful power.

Shocking I know but I loved this book, as should be clear from my wide-eyed cherry picking of so many bits from the novel and how this is my longest post to date. And there is so much left to talk about. I haven’t mentioned how easily Nanny Ogg and Magrat fit alongside Granny Weatherwax. I’ve ignored Hwel, the Shakespeare of the novel, and how frustrating the reader feels writing a book must actually be, given how much irritation Pratchett conveys in the creative process of a dwarf writing plays. I haven’t had a chance to talk of how Pratchett explores the power of art in his explorations of Hwel’s plays. The play was like some marvellous intricate painting, a feast of impressions close to, a mere blur from the distance. And I have omitted The All-Time Worst Pun in the Discworld series thus far – talking about how the pay is the thing rather than the Hamlet quote. I literally groaned when I read it.

After a number of *almost* novels, everything clicks so snugly into place that the reader gets that great satisfaction from a story that just fits together nicely. This was another from my childhood and it was heartening to enjoy something I read and reread as a child some 20 plus years on.

Next up we are heading to wherever the hell the Middle East is in the Discworld. Let’s get lost...

Previously on Pratchett Job:

The Magician Versus the Headache – Sourcery

Death is not the end – Mort

Rebel Girl – Equal Rites

[AHEM – The eagle eyed among you will have noticed you got a two for one Pratchett Job special today. This is mainly because after the negativity surrounding Sourcery, I didn’t want to drag you away. As any of you who have read Pratchett know, we are at the start of a very special run of novels. Wyrd Sisters is the very first step]

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6 Comments

  1. I think the idea with the time spell (from reading it a long time ago) is that, while Tomjon is away from Lancre, the witches do a fairy-godmother-sleeping-castle type spell that ‘freezes’ Lancre for 15 years while Tomjon grows up outside.

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    1. This is my understanding too. If you think about it too hard, it causes all sorts of problems when any of the Lancre characters meet people from their past from anywhere else on the Disc (Ridcully and Granny meeting again in Lords and Ladies, for example), so I tend to pretend it didn’t happen. As, it seems, did Terry. (Nitpicking the continuity is a sign that you love a series, since it means you’ve read it many times, so I suppose it’s kind of a compliment!)

      One of my favourite lines from Wyrd Sisters is Magrat’s run-in with a guard: ‘ “I like a girl with spirit,” he said, incorrectly as it turned out.’

      By the way, I have only just found your blog and it’s great – am very much enjoying reading my way through your reviews of the Pratchett archive!

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  2. “the witches fast forward the Discworld fifteen years”
    No, just the Kingdom – which is why the witches had to fly around it – which is frozen for 15 (or was it 20?) years, while Tomjon & the rest of the world ages normally.

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    1. ” But he is surrounded by people who have acted alongside him for a decade and a half but don’t seem to have aged, the same as other characters like Lord Felmet.

      Actually – no. His father aged. The only one we don’t feel like he “aged” and is still around TomJon is the dwarf, and we know dwarfs age differently.

      There IS something about it that bugs me though. After Esme moves the kingdom in the future, they discuss if they should go to Ankh-Morpork to see TomJon, and Nanny mentions her daughter (grand-daughter) is there and recently had a baby that she (Nanny) hasn’t seen yet. At no point does it occur to them that those relatives have aged significantly. Also, Lancre being known for exporting people to the outside world would also have such split families who would find out about the age difference.
      I believe Terry’s intention was to use the fact that this is just an isolated village that keeps to itself and no one would notice what happens there for 15 years – even if it disappears for 15 years (what happens to all the letters sent to it in this time and that didn’t get replies). And even if the people that live there stay the same age (that girl I used to like is still 16… how so?) – that happens with Nanny’s family and could almost happen to Magrat and Verance had he left the kingdom. But at no point does it cross anyone’s mind.

      Also, a few months later, in Witches Abroad, Magrat keeps pounting how Granny never uses magic, and Magrat WAS THERE when Granny moved the whole kingdom 15 years in the future. I cannot stress this enough.

      One of the excuses for such inconsistencies Terry uses are that Time changes and is broken, and is fixed and mended all the time, so no book happens in the same “time” as any other book – like they all happen in slightly different paralell universes.

      Wyrd Sisters is one of my top 5 DW books, it is on top of my head whenever anyone asks for a starter discword book, but they are those classic-definitioned plotholes that ruin the consistence of the plot.

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  3. A lot of readers seem to overlook this, but Wyrd Sisters is not only referencing Macbeth, but also Hamlet.

    The ghost of the king, the travelling players, the play within a play to depict what ‘really’ happened, etc. But of course it is the murderer who commissions the play to get his own ‘truth’ out there, instead of the victim’s son trying to unmask him.

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