April 21, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #6: Wyrd Sisters


Continuing my occasional series in which I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.

Up next, the sixth book Wyrd Sisters.

First Appearances:  Nanny Ogg, Magrat Garlick, King Verence II, the kingdom of Lancre

Introduced to Discworld:  the power of theater, and a ton of Shakespeare references

The plot:  Three witches–Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick–are meeting for the first time in the kingdom of Lancre.  Granny and Nanny are older witches who’ve known each other for a long time, while Magrat (her mother couldn’t spell), is fairly new at being a witch and thought that bringing a coven together was a nice idea.  The other two just go along with it.

Meanwhile, the king of Lancre, Verence the first, has just been killed by an ambitious Duke and becomes a ghost while a loyal follower escapes with the crown and his infant son.  The follower gets the baby and the crown to the witches before he himself is killed by pursuing lackeys, but Granny takes care of them with a strong stare (headology at work).  Knowing keeping the baby will probably lead to all sorts of trouble, the witches convince a traveling theater troupe to take the baby that they quickly name Tomjon and hide the crown with the props.  Each witch gives the baby a blessing and off they go.

The problem is the duke now ruling the kingdom was prodded by his wife, a duchess, and if a murderous duke obsessed with a dagger before him with an ambitious wife and three witches doesn’t sound familiar to you, you might want to go read Macbeth and then come back.  I’ll be waiting here.

Done?  OK.

It turns out that when people take thrones for love of power and not actually wanting the actual kingdom, this upsets the balance of things.  It also appears that the duke and duchess aren’t particularly afraid of witches, and removing them by magic would actually put the witches in charge, and magic isn’t supposed to rule (see the previous Discworld book, Sourcery), so that idea is out.  The castle’s Fool, a nonviolent sort with a penchant for talking like a Shakespearean fool, particularly the one in King Lear (reading this one too might not hurt), suggests that words have more power than killing people and burning down their houses, royal standbys, and that a play done right could convince people that old king Verence was a bad king who died in an accident that the duke had nothing to do with.  Such plans can also go a long way towards discrediting witches.

If there’s one thing that should be said, its that the last thing you want to do to a witch is rob her of her respect.  Granny Weatherwax won’t sit for that.  And while she can’t remove the duke with magic, she and the others can use magic to push Destiny along a little bit to ensure that baby comes back and takes his rightful place as soon as possible.

Because, you see, words have power, but so does headology.

Commentary:  If Granny Weatherwax was a little off in her first appearance in Equal Rites, she seems to be exactly right here.  She’s a woman who has certain ironclad ideas on things, and while she may not be overly cosmopolitan, she is eminently practical and not someone you should cross.

What makes Granny work here, something missing from Equal Rites, are the other two witches.  Nanny Ogg and Magrat are both a sort of ridiculous that Granny isn’t.  Granny wouldn’t go along with Nanny’s general goofiness and certainly doesn’t care for Nanny’s drunken singing of hedgehogs and wizard’s staffs, nor her gigantic family and particularly mean cat.  She seems to at best tolerate Magrat’s “New Age” way of doing things as well.  Her motives are different too.  Nanny does stuff for her family and to enjoy life.  Magrat does things because she thinks its the right thing to do.   But Granny acts when she’s pushed into a corner, or when she feels her personal rules have been violated, particularly in a way that rebounds negatively on herself.

The humor of this book is divided up between both putting on a play from Shakespeare’s time, as well as dozens of references to Shakespeare’s actual work.  The opening line of Macbeth is echoed when the book opens on the witches gathered around a cauldron asking, “When shall we three meet again?”  The answer comes as, “Well, I’m free next Tuesday,” as opposed to discussions of when the hurburley’s done and the battle’s lost and won.

Pratchett also managed to work one of his favorite themes in that people should be allowed to do what they want and not what society expects of them.  Tomjon doesn’t want to be a king when given the opportunity.  The Fool, another Verence as it turns out, was pushed into Fooling as the family business and hates every minute of it.  The duke wants to be a king (maybe), but not for the sake of the kingdom.  The kingdom is immaterial to him, but not to the kingdom itself.  That’s a Shakespearean theme if ever there was one, namely how when the wrong man sits on the throne, the entire kingdom suffers.

Common Discworld songs come up here for the first two.  Nanny’s two favorite songs, “But the hedgehog will never be buggered” and “A wizard’s staff has a knob on one end,” are both sung at different points (the former is a long running gag where every time Nanny is singing it, Pratchett wrote a new verse), but the Dwarf drinking song that is simply repeating the word “gold” over and over comes into play as well.

The last song there is revealed by Hwel, a dwarf who wants to write plays instead of working as a miner.  He’s basically the Discworld Shakespeare, and he has dreams involving movie comedy stars of the real world that he knows are funny but don’t seem to be as such when he writes them down.

The duke’s efforts to use a play to discredit his dead predecessor and the witches of course goes wrong, mixing and matching HamletMacbeth, and Richard III in interesting ways.  Death himself takes the stage as himself, but forgets his lines.  The duke stabs everyone around him with a stage knife that couldn’t hurt anyone, laughing maniacally.  And the duchess reveals her belief that fear is the real motivator of human beings before Nanny steps in with a well-aimed cauldron.

This book is one of the instances where knowing a thing or two about whatever it is the characters are dealing with (in this case, Shakespeare), is helpful, but not really required.

Next book:  It’s hard for a young man to come to terms with his father’s death.  It’s harder when the young man is now the Pharaoh of an Egyptian-like nation.  Come back for the next entry on the one-shot novel Pyramids.

Previous entries:

The Color of Magic

The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites