Wyrd Sisters (Discworld #6, Witches #2)

Read2019

AuthorTerry Pratchett

Published1988

GenreFantasy

Length:  368 (paperback)

Selected ByElle Tea

Elle Tea’s Score: Scoring Loved Book

This is the story of Granny Weatherwax, the most highly regarded non-leader a coven of non-social witches could ever have.  Generally, these loners don’t get involved in anything, much less royal intrigue, but then there are those times they can’t help it.  As Granny Weatherwax is about to discover, though, it’s a lot harder to stir up trouble in the castle than have some theatrical types would have you think.  Even when you’ve got a few unexpected spells up your sleeve.  Granny Weatherwax teams up with two other witches – Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick – as an unlikely alliance to save a prince and restore him to the throne of Lancre, in a tale that borrows – or parodies – some of Shakespeare’s most beloved works.

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Elle Tea’s Review

Granny Weatherwax paused with a second scone halfway to her mouth.  “Something comes,” she said.  “Can you tell by the pricking of your thumbs?” said Magrat earnestly.  Magrat had learned a lot about witchcraft from books.  “The pricking of my ears,” said Granny.

Our wee book club has been chugging along now for almost five years, and in those five years we’ve learned one important thing: holidays are no time for literary obligations.  We each love to read – obviously, or… y’know… we’d be the Gigglemug Fiber Arts Club or the Gigglemug Cooking Club or some such – and when we began this venture we agreed it would remain one thing for all time: fun.  Living in the United States, the last two months of every year contain two major U.S. holidays crammed mere weeks apart, and our normally already hectic schedules become pure madness from mid-November through the first week of each new year; it’s become clear over the past holiday seasons in which we’ve had GBC that it becomes… well… a bit of a chore at the end of each year.  So, rather than follow our usual rotation format in which one of us selects the book of the month and all of us report back on it, we decided to try something a little different:

November:  each of us shall read a book we’ve already read at some point in our lives which we believe is worthy of a review here on GBC, either encouraging our followers to give it a go or warning them to not waste the eye strain, and;

December:  each of us shall read a book we’ve never read before and review it.

… falling down a flight of steps with a dagger in your back was a disease caused by unwise opening of the mouth.

So, I made a beeline straight for the Disc.  I have mulled over selecting a Discworld novel as one of our monthly selections, but in the past five years I never have actually done it.  Personally, I think all of you should find a book that resonates with you from the Discworld series and give it a go… the next thing you know, you’ll be snatching up books left and right on topics for which you would otherwise have never given a single fig.  As a life-long lover of all things Ancient Egyptian, I began my Discworld journey with Pyramids (Discworld #7), a stand-alone novel which I read as a teenager a few years after it was published.  This was also the ’90s, when anything related to vampires was hot-hot-hot, so Pratchett’s addition to the mania, Carpe Jugulum (Discworld #23, Witches #6), was my second Discworld book.  My third Pratchett novel was unrelated to the Discworld series: Good Omens, a novel he co-wrote with one of my other favorite authors of all time, Neil Gaiman, at which point I decided I had to read everything this author had ever written and would ever write, and so… I did.

“There is a knocking without,” he said.  “Without what?” said the Fool.  “Without the door, idiot.”  The Fool gave him a worried look.  “A knocking without a door?” he said suspiciously.  “This isn’t some kind of Zen, is it?”

And I love them all.  I love Death, with his white horse and his love of cats (and CAPS).  I love Pratchett’s takes on feminism, his bumbling wizards, his wise but dysfunctional witches, his gods (both big and small), the Nac Mac Feegle, his feline Pied Piper … all of them.  I mean, this was a man who could write an entire novel about the rise of a small-town’s local post office and manage to make it not only interesting but also absolutely hilarious, supremely clever, and, in the end, highly intelligent and thought-provoking.

“Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things.  Well-known fact.”

I love them so much, that I picked up Wyrd Sisters – a Discworld novel I’ve not revisited in over a decade – at the beginning of November with the intention of making it my monthly-pick… only to burn through it within the first few days of the month.  So, I picked up the next book in the Witches series, Witches Abroad, with the intention of making it my monthly pick… only to devour it by the middle of the month.  So, it’s back to the drawing board for me on my November selection, but… hey, now I have two Interim Reviews I can add to the Gigglemug collection!  🙂

“If I’d had to buy you, you wouldn’t be worth the price.”

Wyrd Sisters is marketed as a story about Granny Weatherwax, which is… true, in a way.  But it’s really the first time we get to see all three of the Disc’s most famous witches in action on their home turf: the indomitable Granny Weatherwax, the incorrigible Nanny Ogg, and the industrious Magrat Garlick.  This novel doesn’t focus overmuch on any single witch; while Granny does, as always, seem to lead the pack, we spend the majority of the time with all three of our favorite witches as they go through the Discworld’s real-life versions of two of Shakespeare’s most enduring and well-known works: Macbeth and Hamlet.

“Let him be whoever he thinks he is.  That’s all anybody could hope for in this world.”

Esmerelda “Granny” Weatherwax was introduced in a previous Discworld installment, Equal Rites (Discworld #3, Witches #1), but it is not necessary to have read that novel before taking up Wyrd Sisters, as no references are made to her prior adventures, and her character’s personality is pretty much understood upon introduction in every single book in which she appears.  She doesn’t put up with nonsense or carrying on, for starters.  She is highly methodical, secretly rather soft-hearted, painfully practical, a bit of a prude, extraordinarily powerful, and most importantly, she is never, ever wrong (even when she is, she isn’t).  Witches on the Disc do not have leaders – but if they did, Granny would be it.  While thin and rather tall, Granny is, much to her chagrin, also a rather handsome woman with a lack of warts and stubbornly healthy teeth; to offset these inappropriate physical traits, she insists upon wearing black at all times, dons a tall pointed hat when in public, and isolates herself in a small, crumbling cottage just far enough away from her village to maintain the proper mystique and fear she believes is due a proper witch.

She walked quickly through the darkness with the frank stride of someone who was at least certain that the forest, on this damp and windy night, contained strange and terrible things, and she was it.

Gytha “Nanny” Ogg is almost the exact opposite of Granny Weatherwax.  She is comfortably large, gregarious, outgoing, and approaches most difficulties with childlike enthusiasm.  Nanny laughs easily and often, and she not only makes appearances in her village but is featured in many of their most scandalous, uproarious tales.  She is the matriarch of a sprawling family that spreads from her own village all across the Disc; indeed, it is difficult to find a city, town, or village on the Discworld which doesn’t contain an Ogg or two.  Nanny has a huge, soft heart which she wears on her sleeve, but she reserves the largest portion of it for her perfectly wicked cat, Greebo.  Her cottage is cute and tidy, maintained primarily by a host of daughters-in-law whose names Nanny decidedly fails to ever commit to memory.  While she comes across as rather ditzy and more than a little dotty, preferring dancing, drinking, and snogging to conjuring and such, she is, at times, remarkably – and oftentimes accidentally – wise.  She balances Granny’s stern, taciturn nature, and she brings calm when her counterpart is all storms.

“Everywhere’s been where it is ever since it was first put there.  It’s called geography.”

Magrat Garlick is the most junior witch of what will eventually be known as the Lancre coven, and as she is taught by her elders so, too, do we learn the particulars of witchery in the kingdom of Lancre and the world of the Disc.  Magrat’s head is full of what we’d consider to be fairly standard ideas of magic and witchcraft: witches operate in covens, they are in tune with nature and operate in harmony with the cycles of the seasons and the moon, they access and control their magic via rituals and occult symbols, they ride brooms and wear pointed hats and capes covered in stars and moons, etc.  With her head full of frizzy hair and covered from head-to-toe in occult jewelry, Magrat looks the part of every occult shop owner from here to London and back again, but in Lancre…  Well, the people of Lancre are used to Granny and Nanny and just don’t know what to do with poor Magrat.  She tries so very hard, with her cauldrons and her books of spells, but she just can’t get past the fact that she will never be the part so long as she’s playing the part.

“Witches just aren’t like that,” said Magrat.  “We live in harmony with the great cycles of Nature, and do no harm to anyone, and it’s wicked of them to say we don’t.  We ought to fill their bones with hot lead.”

The story of Wyrd Sisters begins with the murder of a king.  His throne is usurped by his murderer, his own cousin, a man who is haunted not only by his own guilt but also, for a while at least, by the ghost of the very king he slew.  The late king, meanwhile, is, for a time, accompanied first by Death and then by other late denizens of the castle who each died before he or she could fulfill their life’s purpose.  The king worries about his kingdom, he worries about how one goes about being a ghost, and he worries about what the future has in store for him… but he worries primarily about his son and heir, an infant who disappeared, along with the king’s own crown, not long after the king was slain.

Ninety-percent of true love is acute, ear-burning embarrassment.

The new king is, of course, a complete failure at ruling the kingdom.  A duke prior to his ambitious and violent advancement, he was surprisingly content with his life and position until such time as his domineering wife convinced him otherwise.  It was at her urging that he committed the deed that landed him the throne, and his days ever after are spent in guilt-ridden paranoid madness; he cannot stop seeing the blood on his hands, no matter how hard he scrubs… and scrubs… and scrubs…  When he finally snaps, he grabs up the reins of the kingdom in an iron fist and, with his wife as his primary advisor, goes about on a smear campaign of epic proportions, dead-set on ruining the reputations of not only his predecessor but also the witches who it is rumored will come to save Lancre from his and his wife’s rule.

Only in our dreams are we free.  The rest of the time we need wages.

In addition, Wyrd Sisters includes a lovable and rather clever Fool, a theater troupe which puts on a familiar plot-twist of a play, a crown burdened with the history and horrors of every leader who has ever worn it, and a boy who is exactly who he’s meant to be but so much more than he seems.  There’s also cross-dressing, the torture of an innocent (well, this time, anyway) old woman, the beginning of a romance that will play out over the course of subsequent Discworld novels, and, of course, three witches.

It’s Hamlet and Macbeth as written by Monty Python and performed by the creators of The League of Gentlemen.

Genuine anger was one of the world’s great creative forces.  But you had to learn how to control it.  That didn’t mean you let it trickle away.  It meant you dammed it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.

And it’s written so very, very well.  Besides being imaginative and hilarious, the late Sir Terry was a writer at heart; he began his professional career as first a journalist and then a press officer before becoming an author, and I remember reading an interview in which he stated that writing was not only what he did for a living but also his favorite hobby.  And it shows.  In the midst of the most ridiculous scene, using the silliest imagery, and without ever breaking the third wall or yanking the reader back into the real world, Terry Pratchett was able to convey to his readers relevant, deep, philosophical ideas on warfare, religion, leadership, gender equality, border disputes, race relations, and everything in between.  He could even manage to make footnotes something a reader cannot wait to see.

No, things like crowns had a troublesome effect on clever folk; it was best to leave all the reigning to the kind of people whose eyebrows met in the middle when they tried to think.  In a funny sort of way, they were much better at it.

And Wyrd Sisters is no exception – woven into this amusing parody of Shakespeare’s greatest hits are some sobering foods for thought: what does it mean to be a leader; how much time do we waste trying to be our ideal when simply being our version would suffice; why do we use art – be it literature, cinema, theater, video games, etc. – to escape from our own world but then fill that very art with so much of the worst humans have to offer; what does “destiny” really mean, and who, if anyone, is in charge of it… and so much more.

Inside this little world they had taken pains to put all the things you might think they would want to escape from – hatred, fear, tyranny, and so forth.  Death was intrigued.  They thought they wanted to be taken out of themselves, and every art humans dreamt up took them further in.

I haven’t listened to the audio-book version of this novel (Narrator: Celia Imrie), but I have listened to the BBC Radio 4 dramatization and thought it quite well done.  It was greatly abridged, however, so I would recommend listening to it only after having first read the novel itself; the role of Tomjon, for example, is crucial to the story’s plot, but it is greatly reduced in the dramatization.

All told, there are a total of 41 novels related to Sir Terry’s fantastical Discworld, and they cover a wide range of subjects – all with his signature brand of often dry, sometimes ridiculous, always intelligent humor and ready wit.  Of the 41 novels, many may be considered stand-alone tales which require no reading order whatsoever, regardless of the fact that they are typically numbered by their installment into the Discworld and, if applicable, where they fall in a subseries (such as Witches, Death, Rincewind, etc.).  If you’re desperate for a laugh but aren’t sure where to begin, you can always start here, with Granny, Nanny, and Magrat mucking about with Shakespeare; they won’t let you down.

In the end, there’s something for everyone on the Disc.

Elle read the Amazon Kindle edition of this selection.

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