Apr 20 2015

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett

The witches from Equal Rites return in Wyrd Sisters, and it is clear that by this stage of the Discworld series, Pratchett has really begun to hit his stride. From the title page, where he says that Wyrd Sisters is “Starring Three Witches, also kings, daggers, crowns, storms, dwarfs, cats, ghosts, spectres, apes, bandits, demons, forests, heirs, jesters, tortures, trolls, turntables, general rejoicing and divers alarums” it is clear that Pratchett will be riffing on Macbeth throughout the book. As indeed he does with the very first scene:

[A fire] illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?”
There was a pause.
Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: “Well, I can do next Tuesday.” …

Two pages of introduction later

In their clearing above the forest the witches spoke thus:
“I’m babysitting on Tuesday,” said the one with no hat but a thatch of white curls so thick she might have been wearing
a helmet. “For our Jason’s youngest. I can manage Friday. Hurry up with the tea, luv. I’m that parched.”
The junior member of the trio gave a sigh, and ladled some boiling water out of the cauldron into the teapot.
The third witch patter her hand in a kindly fashion.
“You said it quite well,” she said. “Just a bit more work on the screeching. Ain’t that right, Nanny Ogg?”
“Very useful screeching, I thought,” said Nanny Ogg hurriedly. “And I can see Goodie Whemper, maysherestinpeace, gave you a lot of help wit the squint.”
“It’s a good squint,” said Granny Weatherwax.
The junior witch, whose name was Magrat Marlick, relaxed considerably. She held Granny Weatherwax in awe. It was known throughout the Ramtop Mountains that Mss Weatherwax did not approve of anything very much.

An author can’t riff on Macbeth without murder most foul, and that happens about a dozen pages into the book. A rising Duke murders Verence, King of one of the small domains near the territory of Granny Weatherwax and the other two witches. Verence winds up as a ghost, and soon discovers that he is one of many haunting the castle.

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. She raised her eyebrows at Nanny Ogg. Old Goodie Whemper had been an excellent witch in her way, but far too fanciful. Too many flowers and romantic notions and such. …
“Hoofbeats?” said Nanny Ogg. “No-one would come up here this time of night.”
Magrat peered around timidly. Here and there on the moor were huge standing stones, their origins lost in time, which were said to lead mobile and private lives of their own. She shivered.
“What’s to be afraid of?” she managed.
“Us,” said Granny Weatherwax, smugly.

The dead king of course has an infant heir, and his last faithful servants deliver both heir and crown to the witches for safe-keeping. After a brief discussion of whether taking in the babe constitutes “meddling,” which is not done, the witches accept him, and the plot is nearly off and running. The one missing element is a troupe of strolling players, and a few pages later they do in fact stroll by and stay a while. Long enough for a childless couple among them to adopt the babe, having no idea of his identity, and for the witches to stash the real crown among the prop crowns, where it is not nearly flashy enough to attract attention.

Now that the elements are in place, readers can bounce along, enjoying the story in its own right as well as how the novel varies from Macbeth. There is no need for Pratchett to up the stakes, as he did in Sourcery; the conflicts and situations that arise from the opening and the characters themselves are more than sufficient to propel the story. One of the joys of the book is the sheer variety of funny bits. Pratchett still has the one-liners and set-pieces that marked the first books in the series, but he is also building humorous elements that develop over several scenes, that get funnier with each appearance of a character, or that take the whole course of the book to come to fruition.

Some of the short bits are also by way of droll commentary:

“The duke often mused on his good luck in marrying her. If it wasn’t for the engine of her ambition he’d be just another local lord, with nothing much to do but hunt, drink and exercise his droit de seigneur*
[footnote at the bottom of the page] *Whatever that was. He’d never found anyone prepared to explain it to him. But it was definitely something a feudal lord ought to have and, he was pretty sure, it needed regular exercise. He imagined it was some kind of large hairy dog. He was definitely going to get one, and damn well exercise it.”

And wry observation:

“Oh, obvious,” said Granny. “I’ll grant you it’s obvious. Trouble is, just because things are obvious doesn’t mean they’re true.”

Or perhaps a bit more:

Granny had never had much time for words. They were so insubstantial. Now she wished that she had found the time. Words were indeed insubstantial. They were as soft as water, but they were also as powerful as water and now they were rushing over the audience, eroding the levees or veracity, and carrying away the past.

And:

There was something here, [Death] thought, that nearly belonged to the gods. Humans had built a world inside the world, which reflected it in pretty much the same way as a drop of water reflects the landscape. And yet … and yet …
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. He was fascinated.

Despite the murder and the witches, it’s a comedy. You can tell by the ending.

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