Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith

Tonight is Halloween, a time which is often misunderstood and misinterpreted by the media, and hence by the populace -- but more of that shortly. Halloween is also, in some cultures, the beginning of winter. For those reasons, today seems a suitable day to discuss a book about both witches and winter.

Terry Pratchett's Wintersmith is one of his Discworld series of fantasy novels. Unlike most of the others, this one is technically classified as a Young Adult book. My guess is that the target audience is 13-year-old girls, but I read it happily enough.

You can tell that this book is aimed at a younger audience by the layout of the text, if nothing else. The text is set in 12.5 on 16 pt Meridien, which suits my old eyes just as well as it does the young uns'.

Wintersmith is the third in a series of books dealing with the life and adventures of Tiffany Aching, who is training to be a witch. In the first book Tiffany was 9, then she was 11, and now she's 13; well, almost.

In this book the problem is the Wintersmith. He is an elemental, or one of the many gods of the Discworld, and his job, naturally enough, is to bring winter: frost, snow, and all associated hardship. At one point Tiffany made the mistake of dancing with him, and he kind of fell for her, and now he wants to turn himself into a human so that he can, well, you know, do some kissing and that.

And we go from there. The problem that develops is that, unless Tiffany can somehow solve the Wintersmith problem, winter will descend upon the Discworld for ever, and there will be never be another springtime.

In addition to Tiffany, the novel features a number of characters who have often appeared previously. There's Granny Weatherwax, for example; and Nanny Ogg. Witches both, naturally. Several other witches join in too, such as Miss Treason, who is 113 and is both deaf and blind, but who can use other creatures to act as her ears and eyes.

I was pleased to come across Nanny Ogg's cat Greebo again. Though he turns out to be a terrible cowardy custard; I expected more of Greebo. And I was disappointed that Nanny Ogg didn't sing the Hedgehog Song; though given that this is a book for children/young adults, I suppose that's understandable. (A small prize is offered, by the way, to anyone able to supply the full lyrics of the Hedgehog Song.)

Heavily featured too, as in the first two Tiffany books, are the Nac Mac Feegles, a clan of very small blue men (fairies, actually, but don't try calling them that) who hail from somewhere very similar to Scotland. At any rate they speak in a form of Scots, as if they had been taught English by the cast of Trainspotting. The Nac Mac Feegles are aka the Wee Free Men, which was the title of the first Tiffany Aching book, and as such they are, I regret to say, a huge joke at the expense of various desperately earnest religious groups in Scotland.

Another old Discworld stalwart, who reappears here, is Death; he, of course, is the original hoodie, and the only character in fiction (so far as I am aware) who SPEAKS IN SMALL CAPS. Which Blogger doesn't do very well, but we'll let that pass.

Readers who have read all the Discworld novels won't need to know much more about Wintersmith. And if you haven't read all those Pratchett books yet, it's high time you did. True, they don't appeal to everyone. But if you start with this one I don't think you will go far wrong, and you will probably be inspired to go on from there.

Some further consideration of the book and its contents may, however, be useful to those who are not quite so familiar with the Discworld in general and Tiffany Aching in particular. Let us start with the cover of Wintersmith.

Personally I was put off reading some of the very first Discworld books, because I didn't like the covers, and the Wintersmith UK cover may, I feel, have the same effect. The Americans, I see, have sensibly gone for a different one. My advice: ignore the cover and concentrate on the contents.

There is a patch, somewhere around about pages 300 to 350, where Wintersmith goes a bit woolly, but on the whole this is the work of a master craftsman, and a pleasure to read. Apart from his wonderful imagination, one of Pratchett's great virtues is that he is funny. He is, or began as, a satirist, though he declares on his web site that he doesn't now know what he is. In any event, there is a very good theological joke about Limbo, on page 361, and many others besides. Some of them, I fear, will be well above the heads of teenage readers. But never mind.

There are some wonderfully well written passages, such as the death of Miss Treason. And I particularly enjoyed the description of the Nac Mac Feegles going into the Underworld.

Speaking of which, I suppose it is worth making the fairly obvious point here that this is a totally pagan novel. The Discworld is a parallel universe in which Jesus Christ was never born. And if this book is not banned in Boise, Idaho, and a dozen other similar places, then it can only be because the good citizens of those burghs are not paying attention.

The Discworld is not monotheistic. Far from it. There are many gods, big and small. In this book, for example, we get to meet Anoia, the goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers. The next time you can't get a drawer open, don't just stand there heaving and cursing. Have a quiet word, under your breath, with the goddess Anoia, and politely ask for her help. And then the drawer will open like... well, like magic.

Specifically, this book is about witches. And in the Discworld the witches are precisely what the witches of the past were in the real world. That is to say, they are the midwives and healers, the wise women of the village, the layers-out of the dead, and the arbitrators in disputes. They are the guardians of the accumulated knowledge of the community.

In the real world it was, of course, Christianity which gave the witches a bad name. The priests just couldn't take the competition -- and from women, too! Intolerable. So they accused them of every sort and kind of wickedness and vice, and blamed them for everything that ever went wrong. From time to time, they burnt them at the stake, or drowned them in ponds. They blackened their name in fairy tales.

And so the witches stepped back into the shadows. They never died out, of course. They just adopted a low profile.

Fifty years ago, my mother was going through a period of great personal difficulty, and she was taken to see a witch by a friend. The witch wasn't called that, mind you. She wasn't called anything. She was just an old woman who was known to help people in trouble. But she looked into your palm, and looked into your face, and told you things that you probably knew already, really, but you just hadn't quite been able to face up to them. And she didn't tell you what to do, but she helped you to work out what you needed to decide. And then you left her a small gift, perhaps, and you went away feeling so much better.

In recent years the real-world witches have begun to feel more comfortable about making themselves known, and now they are around in considerable numbers if you care to take the trouble to look for them. A few years ago I did a great deal of research in this area so that I could write a book about a witch myself (under the pen-name Anne Moore). It's still in print, and I will say more about it in a minute. And at one time I even had the telephone number of my local coven, because someone had kindly written it in the back of a library book.

But, for the moment, back to Wintersmith.

All in all, Wintersmith is a marvellous feelgood book for which I am deeply grateful. And somewhere out there, you know, there is a small Discworld god whose job it is to take care of Mr Pratchett, and to protect him from harm. I don't know exactly where this small god has his shrine -- somewhere, I would guess, at the downtown end of Grub Street -- but if you should come across it, do, I entreat you, put a euro or two in his tin, or a flower in his vase, or make whatever tribute seems appropriate. We have to keep this small god happy, otherwise next year will come around, and there will be no new Pratchett book to look forward to. And then where shall we be?

Finally, a few more words about Halloween and my own novel which dealt with pagan matters.

Halloween is also known, in some neopagan circles, as Samhain. It is traditionally the time for remembering the dead, a time when the veil between this world and the other world is thin.

When I came to write Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, the novel referred to above, I had Mr Scrooge marry a white witch called Charlotte, a woman who observed all the pagan ceremonies of the year. And on Halloween this is what I described them as doing:

Charlotte regarded Halloween as the festival of the dead, and in Scrooge’s nineteenth year at Tanway she reminded him of this.

‘I want you to remember, Ebenezer,’ she said, ‘that Halloween is the time when the veil between the worlds of life and death stands open, and the dead can return, if they wish, to meet with their family.’

‘But my dear,’ said Scrooge gently, ‘you know that I don’t believe that the dead are anywhere. They are gone from us for ever, dissolved back into the ashes and dust from whence they came.’

‘And yet,’ said Charlotte, ‘on this very night, each year, you always have an extra place laid at dinner. For young Billy.’

Scrooge glanced at the empty chair, and the unused knives and forks. For a moment, the silver seemed to blur in his vision.

‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘But that is just a little conceit of mine. A sop to my sentimental nature.’

Charlotte smiled. ‘Which rather proves my point. If they are nowhere else, Ebenezer, the dead are inside your head. They live on in your memory.’

She rose from the table and prepared to leave. Later the witches' circle would be meeting, and she had things to do. She came round and kissed Scrooge on his cheek.

‘I want you to remember tonight that it will not be long now before you and I join all those who have gone before. And you will live longer, and easier in your mind, if you have made your peace with the past. Let go all ancient hurts and wrongs, real or imaginary. Let them shrivel and crumble like the leaves in the fire.’

When Charlotte had gone out, Scrooge went up to his study. From here he could look out over the avenue of beeches. Tonight, of course, the night was dark, but if he stood close to the window he could just see the outlines of the trees, running away into the distance.

He sat down at his desk and thought about what Charlotte had said. He thought about his father and mother, and his sister; he thought about Marley, and Billy; and many others.

Then he picked up his pen and began to write a letter to his father. He set out all the wrongs which he felt his father had done him, and he listed all those slights and insults and thoughtless troubles which he had given to his father. He weighed them up and balanced them out, and decided that the score was about even. It was, he suggested, time to regard all those matters as closed; finished and done with – best forgotten and cast out into the darkness.

When he had finished the letter, Scrooge read it through.

Yes, he thought, that will do.

Then he placed the letter in an envelope, and took it over to the fire. He placed it on top of a crackling log and held it in place with a poker.

He watched as the paper blackened and twisted. It burnt with a yellow flame, consuming itself, and with it went all Scrooge’s anger about the past.

A little later, he went down into the cellars and prepared a dozen lanterns. Then he loaded them into a wheelbarrow and set off into the darkness.

He pushed the barrow up the avenue of beeches, and beside each tree, left and right, he placed a lantern. There was one for his father, one for his mother, one for his sister, one for Marley, and one for Billy. There were others.

The lanterns in place, he went back inside to his study. There, with a screen in front of the fire to hide its light, he placed a chair before the window.

Now, when he looked out on to the avenue, he could see a remembrance of all those he had known and loved.

Scrooge poured himself a large brandy and sat by the window for a long time. Sometimes the lights below became blurred with his tears, and sometimes they flickered in the wind and struggled to stay alight.

Eventually, they all went out.


Kitty said...

Your book, Scrooge and the Widow of Pewsey, is available through the US Amazon. They're pricey, though.

Anonymous said...

How delightful to read a very different—and touching—endorsement from His Grumpiness. One of the nice windfalls of the computer age is that one can now order a book from a pool of libraries spread over a wide area. Still, in ordering “Wintersmith,” I was more delighted than disappointed to see that I’m fourth in line. Somehow the world seems even momentarily better. I shall look forward to this one, indeed.

Scrooge would no doubt take heart in the words of Stephen Ambrose: “The past is a source of knowledge, and the future is a source of hope. Love of the past implies faith in the future.”

Anonymous said...

Nice piece--until your jibe about Boise, Idaho. Never been there myself, but I've no reason to believe that the typical citizen there (or in any other smaller American city) is a religious fanatic who can't understand satire.

Think before you stereotype, please.

Elberry said...

a lovely post!
i've been reading a lot of Pratchett recently, and have great respect for his John le Carre-like humaneness, Englishness, and craft.

by the way (re: Boise) please feel free to stereotype as much as you like, i believe irony is ok these days.

Suzy said...

Our family (ages 10-47) is somewhat fanatical about Terry Pratchett's books. It's fun to run across another fan. We spend a lot of time trying to convince people how good his books are, to little avail. For example, we must have given away a half dozen copies of The Wee Free Men and not one of the recipients has read it! Well, it's their bad luck.

I would recommend that interested readers start with the first and second Tiffany Aching books before going on to The Wintersmith.

Then they should read ALL the Granny Weatherwax/Nanny Ogg books and then proceed through the Sam Vimes books in order. They're wonderful.

Suzy said...

One more thing about Wintersmith. I had never before made the connection between Nanny Ogg and the fairy land Tir Na n'og. Very clever of Mr. Pratchett.

Jon Allen said...

Hi Dad.
You can find the lyrics to the hedgehog song here:

( not for family reading perhaps!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting the lyrical link to the Hedgehog Song.

Anonymous said...

Did someone say stereotype all you want??

This very British is also so very GAY!

Even the gays in Boise say...GAY!

Even the Mexican in Boise say...HOTO!

I didn't even use the n-word yet!

Anonymous said...

Does anyone understand the guy above? Pratchett has done it again a gret read for all ages.

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