Title: Wyrd Sisters (Discworld Witches)
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1988
Length: 265 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars
I haven’t read all of the Discworld novels. I really had trouble getting into the City Watch series, I like the Death/Mort/Susan books okay, and some of the stand-alones are fun, but, for my money, the highlights of the series are the Witches books.
In Wyrd Sisters, the first proper Witches book (apparently there’s a brief appearance in Equal Rites, but it’s not a full focus), the kingdom of Lancre — a tiny mountainous realm near the magical Hub of the Discworld — is in danger. Its previous king has been murdered, and while that alone isn’t much of a problem (being one of the usual ways for kings to exit the world), the kingdom itself isn’t taking to the new ruler. It can sense that he doesn’t care for it. Unfortunately, he’s being pushed along by his highly ambitious wife — who pretty soon realises that the presence of three witches nearby could pose a significant challenge to her reign. She’s also concerned about the missing son of the dead king — who the witches have packed off with a traveling theatre troupe.
And who are these three witches? Well, there’s Granny Weatherwax (Esme), a curmudgeon of the highest degree famed for headology, indomintable will, and impenetrable boots. There’s Nanny Ogg (Gytha), matriarch of a clan that would put anyone in the Ozarks to shame, who had an adventurous girlhood and doesn’t much appear to have let up even in her advanced time of life. And then there’s Magrat, junior member of the group, a soppy young thing who firmly believes in . I’ve always enjoyed the contrast between Magrat and the others, as Magrat is such a delightfully accurate parody of the New-Age-y types, whereas Esme and Gytha know that the intent and focus of the witch matters a lot more than the type of crystal she’s using or the precise incantation she utters. This leads to a really excellent scene where they summon a demon (despite Esme’s misgivings that demons shouldn’t be pandered to) to try and get some answers out of him — using a washboard for an octagram and a copper stick for a sword of art. They also demonstrate a degree of irreverence for spirits which I thoroughly appreciate:
“Who’re you?” said Granny, bluntly.
The head revolved to face her.
“My name is unpronounceable in your tongue, woman,” it said.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” warned Granny, and added, “Don’t you call me woman.”
“Very well. My name is WxrtHltl-jwlpklz,” said the demon smugly.
“Where were you when the vowels were handed out? Behind the door?” said Nanny Ogg.
In Wyrd Sisters, the trio begins their practice of interfering in as precise a way as possible. They’re not supposed to, you see, and in this plot, it’s particularly complicated, because a kingdom ruled by witchcraft just doesn’t work (and they don’t want to have to be solving everyone’s problems all the time anyway). So they have to find a way to fix things without fixing them. It’s the sort of thing they explore even more throughout the rest of the Witches series — a lot of it has to do with narrative causality, a concept I find fascinating and which I’ll talk about more when I re-read Witches Abroad.
As for that theatre troupe, they’re balanced precariously on the edge of time between when actors were just wandering vagrants in search of an innyard and when they started becoming just a little bit more, building their own spaces, settling down, making the crowds come to them. During the course of the book, they start construction on the Dysk. The troupe is led by Vitoller, an excellent Burbage analog. Their chief playwright is a dwarf, Hwel (a hilarious pun if you know much about the pronunciation of consonants in 16th-century English), through whom Pratchett exercises a great many of his Shakespearean illusions. As Pratchett explains creativity:
Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time.
Hwel, both fortunately and unfortunately, has a head that attracts inspiration particles like a magnet attracts iron filings, with the result that he ends up trying to find room for rollerskating cats or Abbott-and-Costello-esque comedy routines in the middle of his lofty revenge tragedies. And then there’s Tomjon, the missing prince that the witches convince Vitoller and his wife to adopt. Suspecting that they’ve fulfilled a traditional fairy-godmother-type role (though not so much as they will in Witches Abroad), all three witches give the baby blessings — though certainly not your traditional kind. No, they give him far more sensible gifts: that he will always make friends, that he’ll always know all the words, and that he’ll always be whoever he thinks he is. These gifts have the side effect of turning Tomjon into a staggeringly successful actor, who declaims his first words in iambic pentameter, and who can halt a tavern brawl just by standing on top of a table and starting to talk.
I love the witches, and there’s so much delightful about them, but my real glee in this book is with the theatre troupe. There are the obvious Macbeth references, but Pratchett clearly knows his Shakespeare, because he slips in a ton of other allusions as well — Julius Caesar, Henry V, Hamlet, Richard III, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, even Henry IV, Part 2. (And lspace.org has a really excellent annotation if you’re interested in sussing them all out). There’s also a lot of heart and psychological truth (or, as Granny would call it, headology) in the book. I’ve seen it described a lot as Monty Python meets Macbeth, but I think that’s selling the story really short. Take, for instance, the dreams of Hwel. It doesn’t matter that he’s a dwarf who doesn’t like mining and who has rejected the dwarvish lifestyle in favour of taking up acting. It doesn’t matter that he gets called a lawn ornament when he goes out drinking in Ankh-Morpork. It doesn’t matter that he’s a parody of the greatest English scrivener of all time. What matters, at least in this passage, is that he’s a writer.
In his dream gods rose and fell, ships moved with cunning and art across canvas oceans, pictures jumped and ran together and became flickering images; men flew on wires, flew without wires; great ships of illusion fought against one another in imaginary skies, seas opened, ladies were sawn in half, a thousand special effects men giggled and gibbered. Through it all he ran through with his arms open in desperation, knowing that none of this really existed or ever would exist and all he really had was a few square yards of planking, some canvas and some paint on which to trap the beckoning images that invaded his head.
Only in our dreams are we free. The rest of the time we need wages.
I think anyone of a creative inclination knows that feeling. That kind of incisive poignancy cuts through so many of Pratchett’s works. These are humour books, they’re parodies, but there’s still something so real about them. Pratchett uses humour in the absolute best way — to reveal humanity’s soul.
Overall, this is the start of one of my favourite series of all time. It’s been a few years since I read Wyrd Sisters, and I’d forgotten how short it is (really, the only reason I knock off half a point, I could’ve done with a hundred more pages of madness). It’s a really entertaining story, though, and very cleverly crafted. It’s one of my go-to books when someone asks me to recommend them something. Pratchett’s writing is super-accessible without being in any way dumbed down or juvenile. It’s just wonderful, which is why these are some of my favourite comfort books. I can pick them up any time and be happy.