Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, and young(ish) Magrat head off to Genua to stop a story.
Witches Abroad is the next Discworld book after Reaper Man, and is the most focused in the series so far: the witches are onstage for the entire run of the book, and there’s no ‘B plot’ to distract (the bit with the Wizards in the mall is the only blemish on Reaper Man). Here Pratchett stretches his wings a bit, culturally speaking — there’s a voodoo lady conjuring a loa, and while it’s all a bit broad-brush linguistically speaking, Pratchett imbues her (and her dead friend the god, Mr Saturday) with a powerful ambivalence that lifts the material. The villain of the piece is a Pratchett Villain, trying to control the mere human beings who surround her. The magic is magical. The plot shenanigans at the end stretch on a touch too long. It is, in short, a Discworld novel. After a bit of slow going in the first couple dozen pages, I loved every word of it.
Nanny, Granny, and Magrat (whose poorly educated mother had been aiming for ‘Margaret’ on the birth certificate) amount to an extraordinary achievement: three distinct, fully realized personalities, each with a rich dramatic arc within the book and from volume to volume, each with an understandable mix of motives, each sympathetic and maddeningly mortal. Granny Weatherwax’s climactic monologue about the evil of turning people into characters may as well be a mission statement for the entire series; from any other author it would seem gestural, pretentious, but Pratchett lives and dies by those words, granting his characters an imaginative autonomy that goes far beyond ‘sympathy’ to a kind of soul-projection. Their conversations remind me of The Golden Girls, but without that (great) show’s enjoyment of its own shock value — lived-in, familiar, yet constantly surprising. The greatest triumph of Pratchett’s Witches novels might be the matter-of-factness with which they cast aside the ‘Bechdel Test’; it seems trivial, childish, even to notice that this clear-eyed celebration of old women’s lasting friendships was written by Bestselling White Male Author.
The secret to Pratchett’s masterful rendering of the lives of ordinary human beings seems to’ve been this: he saw people clearly, met them on their own terms, and told the truth about them.
That’s why the villainess of Witches Abroad, the twisted fairy godmother, keeps insisting that she’s ‘the good one.’ That’s why reading Nanny Ogg’s semiliterate postcards feels like celebrating her humanity rather than laughing at her. It’s why Pratchett never draws our attention to the quiet wisdom that Magrat has won from her studies, and why her criticisms of the older witches’ anti-intellectualism are answered with experience but never quite rebutted — she’s right about them, after all. But no one’s right about everything.
The subtle gradations between Nanny, Granny, and Reaper Man‘s Renata Flitworth (and Mrs Cake!) are testament to Pratchett’s humanity. And to theirs. They’re people. I keep saying this, I can’t believe it, but he wrote people. They’re as real as I am. What a gift he had. I’m so grateful that he chose to share it.
Witches Abroad is in some senses better than Reaper Man. I know this. It doesn’t matter. I can only hope you read them both. All of them. The Disc — a great big flat earth on the backs of four elephants on the back of a giant turtle — is as real as the room I’m in. You must go. You’ve got to see it for yourself.
A second thought:
Baron Saturday (Samedi), the wronged king whose horrible vengeance turns out to be not such a happy ending after all, is as impressive a creation in his way as Granny herself — not because of his humanity, but because he embodies a surprisingly complex set of ideas about rulership and justice and family and cultural identity and Right and Wrong and of course Death, plus also voodoo necromancy. Pratchett’s ongoing struggle with the big and small ways that power corrupts (‘I never wore a crown!‘ … ‘You never wanted to rule’) finds its richest expression yet in the figures of Mrs Gogol and Saturday. If there’s an ideological throughline to the Discworld novels, it’s there, in Pratchett’s harsh treatment of would-be social engineers and his determination to see both the value and the cost of men like Saturday and Vetinari.