The Day The World Went Away – The Shepherd’s Crown

ShepCrowUs witches don’t mourn for very long. We are satisfied with happy memories – they’re there to be cherished.

What would it be like to witness your own funeral? I must admit this rather adolescent train of thought occasionally creeps into my adult daydreaming but I doubt I am the only one. What would people say about you? If you had a choice, how would you sum up your life to your friends and family? What would everyone’s reaction be when your final song is played and it’s “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” by Iggy Pop and the Stooges?

It comes as no surprise that there is an elegiac air to The Shepherd’s Crown, the final book in the Discworld series. As we embark over the jump just be warned that from that point onwards, there will be a lot of spoilers. This post will still be here when you have read the novel.

OK?

OK.

(Remember: SPOILERS)

From the earliest Discworld book, Pratchett wrote eloquently and emotionally about death and its effects. There’s a brilliant scene in Mort, only four books into the Discworld, where Death ushers Goodie Hamstring into the afterlife. She goes willingly, telling the Grim Reaper: “It gets thin, you know. Life, I’m referring to. You can’t trust your own body anymore, and it’s time to move on. I reckon it’s about time I tried something else.” It was an early sign the Discworld would be a lot more than just a riotous take on the fantasy genre.

It’s hard to distil an entire series of books just down to one theme but I feel at its core the series is about life and death. The importance of a life well lived, and an embrace of death and what it pushes us to do while we are all here. Death is ever present on the Discworld, appearing in all but two books of the series. For books so in awe of fantasy, the reality that death waits for us all is in every novel. And we shouldn’t be afraid. We should live our lives in the best way we can, and remember those who have moved on. As this quote from Reaper Man reminded us all when Pratchett died: No one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.

The Shepherd’s Crown could be seen as a meta-eulogy, with Pratchett using this book’s themes of death to talk about his own impending passing. For Discworld fans, the death of Granny Esme Weatherwax is incredibly sad, entirely predictable and inevitable.

I’ve spoken before about how Vimes (unfortunately) became somewhat of a pet for Pratchett, with him softening towards the character as his novels progressed. But he never did that with Granny. Carpe Jugulum was one book too far for her, a repetition in parts of Small Gods and Lords and Ladies. But then she was spirited off to become a character in another hero’s story, popping up in the Tiffany Aching series. It was a tremendous piece of ruthlessness by Pratchett.

I would never purport to know Pratchett but Weatherwax’s sardonic hardness feels like the closest thing he has come to writing himself into the books. We were told by Neil Gaiman no less about how anger fuels the Discworld. Weatherwax’s mix of fury and (deeply hidden) love feels like the voice of Pratchett. I could be (and probably am) wrong.

Granny’s death opens The Shepherd’s Crown and the first few chapters are some of Pratchett’s best writing. It has taken him 41 books, but Pratchett has saved arguably the best description of her for his final book: Granny Weatherwax was like the prow of a ship. Seas parted when she turned up. Similarly the scene where we learn of how the Discworld hears of her death is terribly affecting, all the more so for long time readers.

I felt Raising Steam was in part a farewell to the Discworld but it’s all the more emotive here as the world reacts to the departure of its greatest character. Like Tiffany Aching zooming across the skies on her broomstick, we are quickly taken to see the reactions of Vetinari (YES!), the History Monks and Eskarina from Equal Rites, WHO HAS A FREAKING SON!!!!

Granny’s death kickstarts the plot, with those nefarious elves not learning the lessons of The Wee Free Men or Lords and Ladies and thinking they could invade the Discworld again. The fools. A coup in the fairy kingdom has led Peasebottom to take over from The Queen, who is banished into the Chalk. Meanwhile, in Esme’s absence, Tiffany is dubbed her successor and struggles to take care of both The Chalk where she comes from and the kingdom of Lancre, where Granny lived.

As plots go, this is Lords and Ladies Mark II (oh hold on, that was Carpe Jugulum, with vampires replacing fairies). But given how throughout his career Pratchett would return again and again to plots and have just one more go in order to crack them, we can hardly criticise him for doing so here again.

And it doesn’t hearken back to just one of his great books, it also calls back to Equal Rites in the form of Geoffrey, a polymath determined to become a witch. Aside from the book’s opening and close, the best of The Shepherd’s Crown belongs to Geoffrey. He could be funny, he could sing songs, and somehow he made everything…a bit better. The scene where he helps the old men of the Chalk find their place in the world, now that their youth has deserted them, by introducing them to the concept of sheds is Pratchett at his best – comic, without sneering at his creations, and warmly intelligent, by subtly showing the reader how important it is that everyone find their place in life, whether it’s a precocious witch or an old soldier.

You’ve probably expected a “but…” during the past few paragraphs and it’s a shame I have to do so. I’d have loved to have said how The Shepherd’s Crown stands against the best of the Discworld, to use the cliche of a “dazzling return to form”. But I can’t. I said I would judge Pratchett’s books as I did his pre-Embuggerance material and it is clear there are gaps throughout. In his wonderful afterword, Pratchett’s assistant Rob Wilkins writes of how Terry would write books like solving a puzzle. He would start somewhere, telling himself the story as he wrote it, writing the bits he could see clearly and assembling it all into a whole – like a giant literary jigsaw – when he was done.

Missing pieces seems the best description for the problems with the book. Elements of the plot don’t ring entirely true, like how no-one is able to help Tiffany in her travails until they suddenly have to in the final act. While it is reminiscent of Lords and Ladies, it is lacking in the startlingly chilly atmosphere that book, one of Pratchett’s best, is saturated in. Parts of the book felt like placeholders for “something happens” – Tiffany’s relationship with the doctor Preston was one of Pratchett’s best romances but their solitary scene here is very clunky.

And parts of the book are clearly set up for something Pratchett was sadly never able to finish writing. Neil Gaiman revealed in The Times last weekend Pratchett’s plans for Weatherwax’s cat You. According to Pratchett’s one time collaborator, when she died Weatherwax would “borrow” You to keep an eye on Tiffany by inhabiting the feline. He said: “And there was going to be the final scene when she said, ‘I am leaving on my own terms now’, and then Death turns up to take Granny Weatherwax for good.”

This was something I expected and I would be curious if you did too. It was neatly woven throughout the book and then just didn’t happen. And given Pratchett’s admirable campaigning for the right to die and departing life on your own terms in the same way as you lived it, it felt the fairest ending for Granny.

These feel like quibbles. As Wilkins notes: If Terry had lived longer, he would almost certainly have written more of this book. That much is obvious and I want to stress how utterly impressive it was to continue to write in the face of the Embuggerance. Five books, five bestsellers, and an additional five books in The Long Earth series with Stephen Baxter. Oh, and the small matter of outlines for at least four others. I would have loved to have read the tale of The Twilight Canyons and how a group of old folk manage to defeat a Dark Lord and discover missing treasure in spite of their ailing minds.

(Along with Rob’s wonderful afterword, which I could have just typed out verbatim in lieu of my review, there is also a lovely tribute to Pratchett’s editors, Philippa Dickinson and Sue Cook, for their tireless help and encouragement that kept the words flowing. That was one of the lines that affected me the most in reading the novel)

Pratchett’s indomitable will to keep going is what stays with me. He revelled in creation, in making readers laugh, in forcing them to think, in forcing them to change the bad things in the little ways each of us could. This is the happy memory that I will cherish, how an ill man was able to write a scene so moving as Tiffany building a shepherd’s hut just like her grandmother owned. And she could see the sun rise, and set, and the moon dance through its guises – the magic of the everyday that was no less magic for that. How the entire series, anger and all, could be distilled into this one line: Humans need other humans – it’s as simple as that. And how he was able to save one of his worst/best puns for his final book when describing a drink. It looked a rather poisonous green before it was heated up, but in most cases the end certainly justified the greens.

I. MEAN. REALLY.

Regardless of what nagged at me because it didn’t quite work, what I felt most of all when reading The Shepherd’s Crown was gratitude at getting to read the series in the first place. Sure it reminded me of Lords and Ladies, but that only forced me into thinking that it’s been literally weeks since I last read it and surely it’s about time I dug it out for another reread?

And with the end of The Shepherd’s Crown comes the end of Pratchett Job. It’s been almost a year to the day since a throwaway bid on eBay led to 46 Terry Pratchett books being dropped upon my doorstep. It took me some six months to get through 40 books until Raising Steam, with Clare North’s The Fifteen First Lives of Harry August the only non-Pratchett book I read between September and April. (It’s very good, by the way)

I’ve been surprised by how much I have enjoyed this whole Pratchett Job thing. I did fear when I won the auction that I would live to regret the huge box of books that lies under my bed. But it’s been an enlightening experience.

I’ve always been interested in what leads us to make the decisions we take as adults. Just why did I develop a penchant for indie rock, appalling puns and fantastical fiction? As I noted in my piece for the Guardian, reading Pratchett as an adult did help shed light on some of this. My personal dislike of absolute certainty and the desire to keep asking questions, especially of yourself, is something I had not realised came from Pratchett. There are many others. I am sure you have your own. If you can’t remember them, why not reread the Discworld yourself? Maybe not all 41 but the spines of a few of your favourites could do with being cracked open again.

Before I leave this, I’m afraid I’m going to have to go a bit Gwyneth Paltrow here and thank some people. Top of the list is my awesome girlfriend Beth, who has been a constant champion of this damn fool project from the off, my first reader and excellent critic. She has yet to read a Discworld novel but probably knows more about the series than most by now.

There’s my top flatmate Mike, another supportive voice and skilled writer himself. If you are a fan of sport, you could do worse than subscribe to his excellent SportCut newsletter. Thanks to the wonderful team at Guardian Books – Justine Jordan, Claire Armistead, Sam Jordison and the peerless Alison Flood – Tom Chivers at Buzzfeed, Kat Brown at the Daily Telegraph, Jared at Porno Kitsch and Chris Lindsay and Robbie Meredith (among others) at the BBC.

Massive thanks to you, whose visiting of this site never failed to amaze me. I have had a frankly startling number of views since I began this so thanks to those who read liked, retweeted, favourited or commented on posts. Thanks to the members of the Football365 Forum, the Discworld Reddit, the Terry Pratchett Patchwork Pieces Google+ group and various Facebook fan sites, all of whom were generous with their time to read my warblings.

Most of all, thanks to Terry Pratchett, whose books have been a wonder to revisit or read for the first time. I had said he is one of the best authors the UK has produced and still fervently believe this. I hope Pratchett Job went some way in showing you how.

#gnuterrypratchett

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30 Comments

  1. Wonderful post, and wonderful blog. Thank you very much. I’m halfway through The Last Hero as a result of your recommendations from this blog, and I’ve got Night Watch and Thief of Time still to come. I was a bit unlucky in when I picked up Pratchett again, and the books of his I picked up from the intervening years; discovering how good he became has been a great pleasure. Your thoughtful, insightful and beautifully written blog has enhanced that pleasure.

    I’m not sure about Granny being Sir Terry’s avatar – and I wasn’t convinced by Neil Gaiman’s attempt to cast him as a man fuelled by anger. Getting upset because you’re late for an appointment doesn’t exactly mean you’re Basil Fawlty. Any character that represents him would have to have a dark sense of humour at the heart of their personality, and I think that means it’s Vetinari. The discworld’s puppet-master, fiercely committed to the autonomy and dignity of those he rules, laughing and marvelling at their actions, while at the same time controlling everything that happens? I think that fits. Better than anyone else, at any rate.

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  2. A wonderful review: winning combination of clear-eyed, informed and affectionate. Yes, I expected the thing that you expected too. Husband has reached first mention of You and said likewise (unspoilery comment I hope. do kill that last sentence if not.)

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  3. I read one review which mentioned that the very final word in the final Discworld book is “despair” as though this was somehow a hidden coda for Pratchett fans to discover, but in truth this novel and the reaction to Terry’s death reflect on our instinctive reach out to other people in times of sadness and bereavement.

    As Pratchett wrote, “Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things” and The Shepherd’s Crown works, despite its flaws, because it hangs on how humans (and elves) react to the death of one character.

    Chapters 2 to 4 are genuinely moving, and as I posted on the F365 forum, it was a bittersweet pleasure to walk, for one last time, through Pratchett’s wonderful world.

    Thanks for the blogs, I didn’t always agree with what you said, but it was always interesting

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    1. That was the Byatt review, wasn’t it? I thought it an odd thing to bring attention to as it’s rather bleak! And also flies in the face of Rob’s lovely afterword and the acknowledgements. The rest of her review was fantastic though, albeit chock full of spoilers.

      Thanks for sticking with me, despite failing to appreciate my consistently correct opinions :p

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  4. *SPOILERS*

    I had ordered The Shepherd’s Crown online, but on the publication day it had an estimated delivery date of 4-7 September. I decided to peek at a review and read the first paragraph of AS Byatt’s review in the Guardian, which included a mention of Granny’s death. Had to cancel the online order and go buy it immediately.

    What I found interesting was that with that sequence occurring so early in the book (and especially with the call-outs to elsewhere on the Disc) the book almost felt like it was intended to mark a move to a new phase, rather than an ending – though I have no issue with the decision that this should be the last book.

    Regarding You, it was obvious that something was going on, with borrowing a definite possibility – especially in the scene with the Elven King. I was certainly waiting for a payoff which never came.

    More generally there were several threads that felt like they weren’t properly woven together. Geoffrey was wonderful, but his story almost happened alongside the main one, without properly integrating with it. Mrs Earwig’s opening scene seemed to set her up for a larger role than she had, and the the nature of her resistance to the Elvish glamour could have benefitted from a little more exploration. Nightshade’s arc was brutal – for her to be cut down so abruptly after being won round (too easily?) by Tiffany was harsh, and left her as little more than motivation for Tiffany – almost approaching “fridging” territory. Also, it never

    I did enjoy it immensely though – I laughed out loud frequently, usually at Nanny Ogg or the Feegles (it might help that I’m an Irishman living in Scotland). I particularly enjoyed having Magrat back again.

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    1. I’d agree with most of your criticisms and had thought of including some of those in my write-up. Who Mephistopheles actually was was an another interesting thread that never got developed.

      I was also delighted to see Magrat again. Her character arc from Wyrd Sisters through to Lords and Ladies is one of my favourite from the entire Discworld series.

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  5. All you can say Is thank you Sir Terry your gift to the world will last far into the future.

    On the last book, it’s like all the Tiffany Aching, good funny but not his best work. That’s my opinion only you are more than free to disagree.

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  6. I wasn’t sure what was going on with You (clearly a name designed to confuse), but it felt to me very much like the misdirection around Young Esme (Magrat’s daughter) in Carpe Juglem. Granny borrowing into You just feels a bit too obvious, as you say though, it’s obvious that this book was never quite finished.

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  7. This book was a nice read, better than I expected. I for one am very glad that Granny wasn’t borrowing You to keep an eye on her successor. I feel that would be out of character. Granny would have confidence in Tiffany, and not stayed behind. Remember the broomstick refueling scene in Wyrd Sisters, and Magrat thinking something on these lines?
    This trait ties neatly into what I missed most in this book: character development for Tiffany. At one point a direction for this is hinted at, when she realizes that she never saw Granny wash other’s clothes or clipping nails. Granny, like Granny Aching, could make people help themselves or each other (it’s spelled out in a conversation with Miss Tick in Wee Free Men; Miss Tick says she’ll never be that good). It would have been nice if Tiffany could have shown some of that talent at the end of the book.

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  8. Thank you for your interesting bookreviews. I’ve read them all, just to have a look at other minds at this theme.
    I red the book in 2 days and what never happened before, I wished to go through very quick, to get it done.
    The first chapters of Grannys dead were necessary just to complete the series of Lancre and they were indeed written well in the Pratchett style, also the end, when Tiffany found out at least where and as what she would live.
    But all things between were totally written just to fill the chapters. As you say, Lords and Ladies 2. Sad, really! But of course I treasure this last story as I’ve treasured all the others, and when rereading, I know, I’ll read the beginning and the end and leave the middle part out.
    I don’t agree with Mr. Gaiman, there had to be a final scene, where it’s clear, that Granny’s soul lives in “You”, it was clear from the beginning, that there is a connection and I’m in favour of authors, who don’t have to explain it all explicitely. Reading such things between the lines is much much better, and that’s the last really good remembrance of the genial author T. Pratchett.

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    1. I do see what you mean regarding You. But I think this was a case where it would have been better for having been made more explicit.

      I’ve said before how I like books that don’t spell everything out for the reader but by having included that scene, it would have been a neat final goodbye to Granny.

      Thanks for reading these ☺

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  9. Many thanks for your reviews. I’d been with the Discworld books pretty much since they started but has given up on them after Unseen Academicals, but largely because of accidentally coming across this Blog a few weeks ago, last Thursday when walking past Waterstone’s and seeing the display of The Shepherd’s Crown in the window, I thought ‘why not?’ and went in and bought it.

    It is very much an unfinished work, but the opening chapters with Granny Weatherwax’s death and the reactions to it are beautifully written and alone are well worth the price of entry.

    And as you say, to still be able to come with such an outrageous pun as ‘the ends justify the greens’…. Chico Marx would have been proud of that one.

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  10. What a fantastic final post. I truly enjoyed reading this blog and the memories it brought with it. I read The Shepherds Crown in two days and had much the same takeaways as you. Especially about You, as a matter of fact. Curious how you felt about some other items…

    I thought that the Nac Mac Feegles were on the sideline a bit in this one to allow room for Tiffany and her story to thrive. While I am OK with that, I wonder if Terry had planned to add more humor-driven scenes for them.

    The Roland part seemed a little forced to me… I wish that page and a half (I’m estimating) had been used for some other purpose. Roland feels like a side character now, but again wondering if this was to be fleshed out more.

    The Elf Queen, Nightshade, was surprisingly written. At the start, I’d never had expected her to end up where she did. Her plot was interesting to me. With Terry, the world is grey, and I felt like that was the point here; you can’t 100% classify somebody as evil or good, despite what we’ve been led to believe in previous stories including the elves.

    Finally, did you have a ‘Return of the Jedi’ moment like I did near the end? I’m OK with it, but I did wince a bit at the cliche.

    All in all, I will forever love this book as the final in not only Tiffany’s story, but all of Discworld. It was nice to say farewell to some of my favorite characters, however briefly.

    Thank you so much for putting so much time and effort into your reviews. They will certainly provide additional insight when I start my own re-read of the series.

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  11. Do not ask me how I found your blog – I have no idea – I must have turned left at the unseen university instead of right. But I am glad I did as I am enjoying reading through your thoughts and comments. I Have now finished The Shepherds Crown – which I enjoyed but can see that it was to an extent unfinished – but who are we to complain – we must let our own imaginations finish it off for us. The question I would like to ask of people is how they became TP fans – for me it was middle to late 80’s – I had an Amstrad computer or something like that and a game called The Colour Of Magic – it said you needed to read the book to complete the game – well bought the book – never completed the game – but have been hooked ever since – although I believe you can download it from the Internet – might have to give it another go !!!

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  12. We learn about Eskarina’s son in “I shall wear midnight”. Magrat’s three children though were the best part of TSC for me.

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  13. Everyone wants to be nice. This book-i am 1/2 way in- is almost as unreadable as raising steam. The characters are parodys of their previous selves. Things are told to us rather than revealed by action and conversation between the very real fully complex people I love in Terry’s world. Its full of this almost smaltzy nostalgia and honor for granny, of an absurd concern for thought of protocol on the part of Tiffany as if all her previous life and her knowing of granny had made no dent on her being.
    To me it feels like painting with numbers. Heres Nanny –she does or says something she has done before without being alive in that now –really with so little complexity of being or perception as to to be a cardboard cut out. I hardly believe Terry wrote this or Raising Steam either. His voice and flavor of depth and affection is almost completely lacking in both of these books.
    I was re-reading Masquerade
    when I got Crown. I went back to it to finish it after putting down Crown and could exhale again in only several pages of real TP dialog and story making after having to hold my breath in a long painful cringe during 100 pages of
    crown.

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    1. I would agree that in the Shepard’s Crown is unnecessary and in it’s 80% finished state should not have been released but I did not mind the “Steam Engine Time” book though.

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