‘It’s a big responsibility, fairy godmothering. Knowing when to stop, I mean. People whose wishes get granted often don’t turn out to be very nice people. So should you give them what they want – or what they need?’
In Into the Woods, John Yorke’s excellent examination of stories and why we love them, he says at the heart of all great tales is the tension between needs and wants. The protagonist’s reconciling of learning what they need, rather than what they want, or the subversion of it, is what gives great stories their power. It’s a brilliant book. Yorke is a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Being John Malkovich – two ticks in the plus column for me.
Pratchett loves stories. Many of his Discworld books have touched upon their power and the danger within them. Witches Abroad is his deepest exploration of stories to date, a surprisingly dark take on fairy tales.
Of course, anyone who has seen a classic Disney movie or read a fairy tale knows that they are incredibly Grimm (sorry). Old women being burned alive by a couple of greedy siblings, wolves taking over your relative’s bed, they are full of challenging takes on gender, class and sexuality. Which is why they have tapped into something within all of us.
Magrat, the slightly wet member of the best coven in the Discworld, has been chosen to be Ella’s fairy godmother. Despite express instructions not to bring them, she travels to Genua with Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, only to discover someone has been pulling strings behind the scenes in order to get her own happy ending.
That someone is Lilith Weatherwax, Esme’s sister. Lilith held up a mirror to Life, and chopped all the bits off Life that didn’t fit. Given their frequent use in fairytales, it is not much of a surprise that mirrors feature heavily throughout the novel with Lilith a dark reflection of Esme. Except things aren’t as simple as that. This is the second novel to feature the coven and it is increasingly apparent that Granny is not a terribly nice person. She could conceivably be the wicked witch of the novel and that’s why she is such a great character.
Granny is arrogant, blunt and insensitive. As Nanny herself says: You’d have to go a long day’s journey to find someone basically nastier than Esme…and this is me saying it. She knows exactly what she is. She was born to be good and doesn’t like it. She deliberately tries to wreck a happy ending, where the dowdy maid marries the prince (or in this case, a baron, who used to be a frog. Because fairy tales) and lives happily ever after. When she confronts Lilith at the end, she is furious that she had to be the good sister.
But, as has been the case in the Discworld from the beginning, things aren’t as simple as that. Lilith shows how Granny’s powers could be used for ill. She has supposedly created a magical kingdom, but it is a terrifying dictatorship where people are ‘chopped off’ because they don’t fit her narrative plans – a toymaker who is not jolly enough meets an unfortunate end. Like Moving Pictures before it, there is a unsettling horror-like tone to describing the unreality of Genua.
Granny’s grasp of headology has made her realise that what people want is not what they need. As she puts it: You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage. Besides, you don’t build a better world by choppin’ heads off and giving decent girls away to frogs. Lilith can’t see this, or refuses to, hence her self-absorption with her mirrors. Granny likens her to a ringleader at the circus. It was the things going on around him that made him important. She uses stories purely for her own pleasure.
(Try as I might, I am not sure what Pratchett is saying about his own vocation here. One to think about perhaps when I am writing about one of his later novels)
Not only are we shown that Happily Ever After is a bad thing, how the hero could be (and wishes she was) The Wicked Witch, there is also the figure of Mrs Gogol, a fascinating supporting character. She is a voodoo practitioner, accompanied by her zombie assistant Baron Saturday (a brilliant nod to voodoo culture), and highly ambiguous. Like Granny, she could easily have been the villain of the piece.
Saturday is similarly interesting, when it is revealed he is the zombified former ruler of Genua and Ella’s dad. He hadn’t been a kind ruler. But he’d fitted. And when he’d been arbitrary or arrogant or just plain wrong, he’d never suggested that this was justified by anything other than the fact that he was bigger and stronger and occasionally nastier than other people.
Here is yet another ruthless authoritarian ruler, after The Patrician and Ridcully. And this is where the tension I discussed above comes to the fore. The reader ‘wants’ a fit and proper ruler for the kingdom. It’s how things should be. But we are shown how that bears out in reality and it is terrifying. A fit and proper ruler is a fiction, you need to put up with the best you can get from the real world. At the end of the novel, this could be Ella, as she takes the throne. But if not, Granny can always come back to sort things out again.
Darkness aside, this is a very funny novel. Nanny’s cat Greebo becoming briefly human and embarking on the same violent, sadistic perverted trail of destruction he loved when he was a feline is a joy to behold. Magrat as the belle of the ball as possessed with the confident/arrogant spirit of Granny is wonderful. The junior witch, all dreams and naivety, could be seen as a mere comic foil against which Granny and Nanny’s more unsavoury characteristics spark off. I think this is unfair and Pratchett continues to lay down some character groundwork with her that really pays off in Lords and Ladies.
One minor quibble is they could have got to Genua quicker because everything that happens before is comic whimsy without any major plot happening. However, Pratchett is writing so sharply at present that even the wheels spinning in his plotting are enjoyable. And he learns his lesson in time for Lords and Ladies.
But before we get to that, a theology lesson is in order, as we explore the Small Gods of Discworld…