May 01 2018

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Of the later Discworld books, I like the ones about Tiffany Aching best because their stories arise from the characters and the natural interactions that flow from their natures as Pratchett has described them. Naturally there is the overarching theme of Tiffany growing up — and in Wintersmith her precociousness is easier for me to accept in an almost thirteen-year-old than it was in the much younger Tiffany of The Wee Free Men — and there is also a plot device to get the story rolling, but mostly Wintersmith is about he characters being who they are and becoming who they ought to be. Even the antagonist means well.

Tiffany has gone from her home area, the Chalk, up to the Lancre mountains to learn from the region’s witches by living with them and observing what they do, how they perform the role, how they relate to one another. A younger witch stays with an older one for a period, learning what she can, before moving on. Eventually, an older witch will pass away, opening up a cottage for one of the younger ones to take on and settle down more or less permanently. The witches perform medical and magical services for the people they live among, dispensing assistance and sometimes justice. The communities respect the witches and provide for them; the witches also visit one another quite a bit.

In those times when people hated witches, they were often accused of talking to their cats. Of course they talked to their cats. After three weeks without an intelligent conversation that wasn’t about cows, you’d talk to the wall. And that was an early sign of cackling.
“Cackling,” to a witch, didn’t just mean nasty laughter. It meant your mind drifting away from its anchor. It meant you losing your grip. It meant loneliness and hard work and responsibility and other people’s problems driving you crazy a little bit at a time until you thought it was normal to stop washing and wear a kettle on your head. It meant you thinking that the fact you knew more than anyone else in your village made you better than them. It meant thinking that right and wrong were negotiable. And, in the end, it meant you “going to the dark,” as the witches said. That was a bad road. At the end of that road were poisoned spinning-wheels and gingerbread cottages. (p. 20)

To keep each other from cackling, witches visit, catch up on news, and see to it that the magic and responsibility and isolation haven’t unmoored them from what passes for reality. Tiffany starts Wintersmith staying with Miss Treason, who is 113 years old and who has been a local witch for generations. She’s also blind and nearly deaf, and makes up for both by seeing and listening through whatever creatures are handy at her cottage. Her village is proud of Miss Treason’s pronounced witchiness. Many young witches find her unnerving and leave at the first opportunity, but Tiffany has held out for several months. They get along well enough for having a century’s difference in age. One autumn evening, Miss Treason tells Tiffany that they are going up into the mountains to witness a dance. This turns out to be a dance to usher in winter, to help the seasons turn in their annual cycle. And things do not go as planned:

Now there was only the dance itself.
It twisted in the air like a living thing. But there was a space in it, moving around. It was where she should be, she knew it. Miss Treason had said no, but that had been a long time ago and how could Miss Treason understand? What could she know? When did she last dance? The dance was in Tiffany’s bones now, calling to her. Six dancers were not enough!
She ran forward and jumped into the dance.
The eyes of the dancing men glared at her as she skipped and danced between them, always being where they weren’t. The drums had her feet, and they went where the beat sent them.
And then …
… there was someone else there.
It was like the feeling of someone behind her — but it was also the feeling of someone in front of her, and beside her, and above her, and below her, all at once.
The dancers froze, but the world spun. The men were just black shadows, darker outlines in the darkness. The drumbeats stopped and there was one long moment as Tiffany turned gently and silently, arms out, feet not touching the ground, her face turned towards stars that were as cold as ice and sharp as needles. It felt … wonderful.
A voice said: “Who are you?” It had an echo, or perhaps two people had said it at almost the same time.
The beat came back, suddenly, and six men crashed into her. (pp. 41–42)

Tiffany has danced with the wintersmith, and he has fallen for her. He who has previously only known how to make weather, to touch summer briefly in their eternal dance, replacing her and being replaced by her in turn now knows another way of being entirely. Dancing with Tiffany, he knows what it is like to be one rather than many, to be particular rather than general. He knows an individual, and just as surely, he knows love. He shapes every snowflake in her image, he makes icebergs in her likeness, he offers her ice roses so delicate the first rays of dawn cause them to melt. He wants nothing more than to share the wondrousness of winter with her. Forever.

The rest of the book is about Tiffany trying to get out of the situation that her feet got her — and the rest of Lancre and the Chalk and everywhere else — into.

“She’s danced her way into the oldest story there is,” [said Granny Weatherwax,] and the only way out is through the other end. The only way, Miss Tick”
Miss Tick sighed. Stories, she thought. Granny Weatherwax believes the world is all about stories. Oh well, we all have our funny little ways. Except me, obviously. (p. 97)

Pratchett develops other themes along the way, and the Mac Nac Feegle are around mostly to offer comic relief, but the title of the book tells the main point of the tale. The wintersmith not only wants to share winter with Tiffany, he wants it badly enough to try to become human. It’s a touching aspect to a story that could have easily made his desire simply monstrous. Instead, Pratchett shows a desire to understand and a marvelous effort to overcome a difference that was, until the moment of the dance, unimaginable for him.

In several of the Discworld books, Pratchett has said that there is no justice; there’s just us. He hits that note again, as the consequences of Tiffany’s dance become clearer when winter deepens. “It was lonely on the hill, and cold. And all you could do was keep going. You could scream, cry and stamp your feet, but apart from making you feel warmer it wouldn’t do any good. You could say it was unfair, and that was true, but the universe didn’t care because it didn’t know what ‘fair’ meant. That was the big problem with being a witch. It was up to you. It was always up to you.” (p. 260)

One more bit of unfairness is particularly poignant now. Pratchett wrote Wintersmith about a year before he was diagnosed with the early-onset form of Alzheimer’s that eventually killed him in 2015. In this quote, Roland — the Baron’s son from previous Tiffany Aching stories — is telling the Mac Nac Feegle about his time in the Dreamlands: “She had pets that feed you dreams until you die of hunger. I hate things that try to take away what you are. I want to kill those things, Mr Anybody. I want to kill all of them. When you take away memories, you take away the person. Everything they are.” (p. 342)

At least Tiffany Aching got through to the end of her story and out on the other side.

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