A witch didn’t do things because they seemed a good idea at the time! That was practically cackling! You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap. But you didn’t because, as Miss Tick had once explained: a) it would only make the world a better place for a very short time; b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and c) you’re not supposed to be as stupid as they are.
The Tiffany Aching novels have been an unexpected delight. Not for any idiotic snobbery about grown-ups reading YA fiction, as one of the Discworld’s endearing strengths is that of a deeply accessible series. I love how it is open and can be loved by anyone – comedy fans, fantasy fans, satire fans or, dare I say it, people who like those three genres and more. However, I felt this meant it was somewhat unnecessary for Pratchett to write a dedicated YA series.
I’m glad my unspoken, irrelevant old opinion was never listened to. Where recent “grown-up” Discworld books like Monstrous Regiment or Thud! have lacked that lightness of touch that features in Pratchett’s best, the morality tales of the Aching novels are a throwback to those early Discworld books that danced in the light fantastic.
At the heart of Wee Free Men was a story about growing up and choosing to be responsible for your siblings, not seeing them as a threat. A Hatful of Sky was about not becoming self-absorbed as you grow older (remember how Tiffany defeats the hiver that takes her over and forces her to be selfish). Wintersmith builds on these by extolling the virtues of maturity and responsibility. And throws boys into the mix for good measure.
Tiffany is now training to be a witch with Miss Treason, whose hold over her community is powered by ‘Boffo’, literally make-up and trickery bought from a joke shop in Ankh-Morpork. Tiffany’s tutor is another wonderful supporting character. She’s both deaf and blind and terrifies all with her supposed clockwork heart. It’s Boffo of course:
“I’m the wicked ol’ witch girl. They feared me, and did what they were told! They feared joke skulls and silly stories. I chose fear. I knew they’d never love me for telling’ em the truth, so I made certain of their fear.”
Tiffany’s time with Miss Treason takes an unexpected turn when she attends the dark Morris that brings in the winter. She jumps into the round and dances with the Wintersmith, who confuses her for summer. Tiffany soon learns he will stop at nothing to track her down, and she might actually be keen on that happening.
It has been an impressive feat of writing to have Tiffany stand alongside the likes of Weatherwax or Vimes after only starring in two books but she is a wonderful creation. Proud, caring, loyal and a little bit too full of herself, Pratchett treads a thin line between mocking her and lauding her expertly, with this excellent sentence a great demonstration:
There was a lot of things to be done before Tiffany ever got married, she was very clear about that.
It is the depth to Tiffany’s character that means that Pratchett can spin a morality tale without being too preachy. Pratchett is aided in this by the gleefully chaotic existence of the Nac Mac Feegle – Tiffany’s loyal drunken protectors. Our teenage witch is fallible and frequently makes mistakes, like deciding to have a boogie with an elemental force. Like any one of us, Tiffany wants to live a proper life but that doesn’t mean she won’t mess up from time to time.
This questioning of one’s self, the First, Second and Third Thoughts that characterise a witch, is central to leading your life in the right way. The alternative is cackling, with all of the negative connotations it conveys:
‘Cackling’, to a witch, didn’t just mean nasty laughter. It meant your mind drifting away from its anchor. It meant you losing your grip. It meant loneliness and hard work and responsibility and other people’s problems driving you a little crazy a little bit of the time, each bit so small that you’d hardly notice it, until you thought that it was normal to wear a kettle on your head. It meant you thinking that the fact you knew more than anyone else in your village made you better than them. It meant thinking that right and wrong were negotiable. And, in the end, it meant you ‘going to the dark’, as the witches said. That was a bad road. At the end of that road were poisoned spinning wheels and gingerbread cottages.
The mania to that long fourth sentence makes the paragraph for me and it serves as the microcosm of Pratchett’s Aching series. We all have responsibilities. If you have a gift, use it to the betterment of others, not to lord it over them. Moreso than his other novels, Pratchett’s Aching series is a blueprint in how to live. It brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s quote where “fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being”, just with fewer swearwords and more drunken pixies. Or as the Feegle Billy Bigchin puts it here: “A metaphor is kind of a lie to help people understand what is true.”
Pratchett draws out the tension between what we should be and what we are brilliantly. While Tiffany is the heroine, she is someone who questions why she should be a slave to others and their problems. As Granny notes in a conversation about Tiffany’s friend Roland, who is dispatched to rescue Summer according to the tradition of stories, the biggest things we have to overcome are within us. She tells the leader of the Feegles: “He must do it in fear and terror like a real hero should, because a lot of the monsters he must overcome are the ones in his head, the ones he brings in with him.”
The biggest challenge we face is that little voice saying ‘don’t’ in our heads. By the end of the novel, Tiffany realises this. When she speaks to Summer, she draws a contrast between the “silly girl” she was and the “sensible young woman” she is now.
There is some wonderful writing in this novel, an area that Pratchett is sorely underrated in amid celebrations of his fervent imagination. He handles the take on the Orpheus myth brilliantly, marrying it to Tiffany growing up and becoming a teenager. As she takes on the role of Summer, plants flower beneath her feet (a nice throwback to Pyramids) and a cornucopia produces animals and food chaotically at times. There’s an utterly hilarious scene where Tiffany straight up asks Granny Weatherwax whether this whole thing with the Wintersmith and him holding the Discworld to frozen ransom in his quest for Tiffany is about sex.
Miss Tick looked at the ceiling. Granny Weatherwax cleared her throat. Nanny gave a huge laugh that would have embarrassed even the little wooden man.
The opening of the novel, where Tiffany tries to protect her home from the marauding winter is so frantic that I did genuinely think my copy was missing a chapter before it flashes back to tell us what led to this point. The section where the Feegles visit a travelling library has this tribute to their staff: The librarians were mysterious. It was said they could tell what book you needed just by looking at you, and they could take your voice away with a word.
It has one of the great Discworld endings, where Tiffany attends a Morris Dance bringing in the summer and is confronted with the Wintersmith for a final time. She had stopped him by kissing him and completing the Dance of Seasons, while her friend rescued Summer with the help of the Feegle (because DISCWORLD!). It’s a neat surprise when the Fool kisses Tiffany at the dance and it was “only slightly chilly”.
Along with the excellent subplot of the witches coming together to help the dreadful Anagramma become Miss Treason’s replacement (again underlining how doing the right things may not make you happy), it has one of my favourite bits of Pratchett’s writing. I don’t know how to convey this. Basically grab your copy of Wintersmith and go to the end of Chapter 11. If you don’t own Wintersmith, go to a bookshop and buy it. Or read it in the bookshop but make sure you buy another book. Or get down to a library and take it out, along with a few other surprises.
It’s the passage where Tiffany returns home and it’s delightful. Short of writing the entire two page segment out I don’t feel I can do it justice but it sums up the joy and uncomfortableness of returning home. Tomorrow…might become anything. But today, the winter world was full of colour. It’s doubly sad because you know Tiffany is different. Witches don’t fit in so going home must be a challenge, as well as something brilliant. I have Discworld books that I love more but that two page passage is among my favourite bits of Pratchett’s writing.
When I wrote about A Hatful of Sky, I did confess a fear that I was merely telling you how good these books were, rather than showing why. A problem is the fantastic Nac Mac Feegle, who I rarely mention but who form an important backbone of the story. Their antics are difficult to write about coherently because you are talking about comedy, something I find rather hard to discuss without repeating the jokes verbatim.
But they are key to the enjoyment of Tiffany’s books. One downside of the latter part of Pratchett’s career (from about Monstrous Regiment onwards) has been the occasionally didactic nature of his fiction where the reader gets beaten over the head with THE MESSAGE. Going Postal managed to swerve this, thanks to an incredibly accomplished narrative complexity, and how it was utterly hilarious.
The Tiffany novels, with their Discworldian spins on myth and morality plays, could easily slip into the bad habits that marked some of the books around this time. However, the Nac Mac Feegle’s constant presence means the novel is not too much hard work. If only there was a phrase about taking medicine with the aid of something sweet…
To reiterate what I said previously, the relatively weedy size of these posts should not in any way be taken as a criticism of the books. The Aching novels are a joy, books that explore the early Discworld themes and vistas without just being a repetition of Mort or whatever. Pratchett had said he wanted to be remembered for this series of books the most and it’s easy to see why.
Next time! Moist von Lipwig is back, laid back, with his mind on his money and his money on his mind. Will Ankh-Morpork’s prime conman prove too big to fail? See you next week.