Teresa Nielsen Hayden has observed that while plot is a literary convention, story is a force of nature. In Witches Abroad, Terry Pratchett explores some of the things that can happen when these forces of nature latch on to people in his most unnatural of settings.
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories, great flapping ribbons of shaped space-time, have been blowing and uncoiling around the universe since the beginning of time. And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling … stories, twisting and blowing through the darkness.
And their very existence overlays a faint but insistent pattern on the chaos that is history. Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper. …
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods. A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed. A million unknowing actors have moved, unknowing, through the pathways of story.
Once upon a time, a witch knew that her time was coming to an end. The witches of Discworld, like the wizards, know precisely how long they will live. Desiderata Hollow had lived a long and full life, but she had never been much of a planner, and now she had to pass along one of her most important responsibilities — fairy godmothering — to a successor with no time for explanations, only a wand and an envelope sent to a young witch.
Magrat Garlick is the young counterpart to Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, two witches of more advanced age who are more settled in their ways, many of which are contrary. So that when the two of them learn that Desiderata had written to say that on no account should they accompany the new fairy godmother to faraway Genua to ensure that god-daughter Ella does not marry the Prince, they insist on coming along. Desiderata had known them both, and had written her note to make sure they went on the journey. “Fairy godmothers develop a very deep understanding about human nature, which makes the good ones kind and the bad ones powerful.” It even works on other witches.
And so the three of them set off to Genua, the city at the end of a road that may or may not be made of bricks that are yellow, at least once one gets close enough to the city. The picaresque part of the book provides many short stories that had me laughing along, satire of a certain sort of English person going abroad, “where they speak foreign,” and just a few hints of the real story driving the book. Pratchett never lets his protagonists get too big for their pointy hats, either. Magrat’s knowledge of witchery tends towards the theoretical, from various books that she has read.
Granny [Weatherwax] sniffed the opened bottle.
“Smells like aniseed,” she said.
“It says ‘Absinthe’ on the bottle,” said Nanny [Ogg].
“Oh, that’s just a name for wormwood,” said Magrat, who was good at herbs. “My herbal says it’s good for stomach diforders and prevents sicknefs after meals.”
Nanny Ogg is prone to enthusiasm and exuberance; on a riverboat right out of Mark Twain, she gambles away almost all of the trio’s money plus her own broom. Granny Weatherwax is not about to take that sitting down.
The phrase “card sharp” had never reached her side of the Ramtops, where people were friendly and direct and, should they encounter a professional cheat, tended to nail his hand to the table in an easy and outgoing manner without asking him what he called himself. But human nature was the same everywhere …
All witches are very conscious of stories. They can feel stories, in the same way that a bather in a little pool can feel the unexpected trout.
Knowing how stories work is almost all the battle.
For example, when an obvious innocent sits down with three experienced card sharpers and says “How do you play this game, then?” someone is about to be shaken down until their teeth fall out.
The shaking is a delightful piece of comic business, with Magrat and Nanny Ogg observing from just off-stage, Nanny Ogg providing commentary on the headology that Granny Weatherwax is using on the card sharps.
Magrat peered through the window again.
“What’s happening?” said Nanny.
“They all look very angry.”
Nanny took off her hat and removed her pipe. She lit it and tossed the match overboard. “Ah. She’ll be humming, you mark my words. She’s got a very annoying hum, has Esme [Weatherwax].” Nanny looked satisfied. “Has she started cleaning out her ear yet?”
“Don’t think so.”
“No-one cleans out her ear like Esme.”
Nanny Ogg also sends postcards back to her numerous progeny, each a small story, or perhaps several.
Dear Jason and everyone,
What you get more of in foreign parts is smells, I am getting good at them. Esme is shouting at everyone, I think she thinks they’re bein forein just to Spite her, don’t know when I last saw her enjoi herselfe so much. Mind you they need a good Shakin up if you ask me, for lunch we stopped somewhere and they did Steak Tartare and they acted VERY snooty just becos I wanted myne well done. All the best, MUM
As the witches get closer to Genua, they find themselves drawn into more and more recognizable stories. At one point a house lands on Nanny Ogg; at another, they rescue a grandmother from a wolf that wanted to eat her and take her clothes. It takes them longer to discover what is pulling all of these stories together, and by then, events have a momentum of their own.
Witches understand stories, but it turns out that Magrat, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax aren’t the only kind of witches on the Disc, and some of the others have their own ideas about where the story should go.