Discworld Witches and Agency
Terry Pratchett. Knight Bachelor of the United Kingdom, Arsonist of Fantasy Tropes, Knight of the Starmetal Blade, Tyrant of Footnotes. This past March marks four years since his death. Yet for a dead man, his career is looking pretty bright! His collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, will be adapted at last, to the delight of its longtime fans, and distributed by Amazon Prime at the end of May. His City Watch books are looking to be adapted into a serial by the BBC. Not so bad.
Still, we miss Pratchett, this great satirist, magician, and humanist. The world is poorer without him. Other humorists and fantasists rise into prominence, as is right and proper, but we’d love to hear his thoughts, all the same, on what’s going on in Roundworld.
All this is to say, Pratchett casts a large shadow. Many authors, such as myself, hope to tread in the paths he blazed. But he messed up sometimes. I don’t mean he made a left when I would have made a right, I mean he seriously bungled up some character arcs.
I honor his memory. My collection of Discworld novels grows on my shelf, now double-stacked. Collectible hardcovers, trade paperbacks, books snagged on trips abroad and impulse-bought at libraries; I’m pleased to have his books near, and glad that I can reread them whenever I like. His words are eminently quotable for almost any purpose-- except for wedding services, I’m still working on that.
That said, though, at the end of my twenties, I can see the imperfections in his books more sharply. For instance, with every new-to-me Discworld novel, I have to remind myself that the plot will make no sense the first go-round. It will barely make sense on the second go-round. So it goes, y’know? Plots are hard. Pratchett excelled in character work. That and footnotes. Character is what really makes a novel sing, right?
A more polished essay would demand that I cite The Art of Discworld, which was a collaboration he made with illustrations and commentary by Paul Kidby. However, I don’t have a copy of that book to hand, so I will paraphrase from memory: on an illustration of Susan Sto Helit and her family, Pratchett commented that he thought his female characters all kind of ring the same… eventually, they all turn out to be tougher than they seem.
That’s excellent self-awareness on Pratchett’s part, far more than many male writers bestow as regards their female characters. And if all his female characters must all ring the same, then defaulting to toughness, rather than timidity, is definitely the better way to go.
The fact is, I love lots of his female characters--Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, that indefatigable double-act! Sybil Ramkin, who is such a perfect counterpart and partner to Sam Vimes! Tiffany Aching, who is always observing and feeling on the edge of things. Competent Cheery Littlebottom, navigating two worlds, and Angua von Uberwald. Even the one-off ladies-- Mrs. Gogol and Renata Flitworth, Polly Perks… An excellent cast of women, and they’re all tough enough to keep up in Discworld, which is a tough world, and best of all, they’re all tough enough to work to improve the world.
But there are other women, and I’m sad to say that in earlier books, when it came to writing young women in the Witches series, Pratchett sometimes denied them the best thing anyone can give a female character: agency.
So he had the three original witches of Lancre-- and three is such a good number for witches. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, about the same age, with different areas of expertise but both very canny, very sharp-- and for humor, they’re like flint and steel, whamming sparks off each other. And then there’s Magrat. Not exactly the straight man, but she doesn’t demand as much stage room as they do. She’s young, she’s learning. Her humor comes in her incompetence and earnestness. Her very name is a joke--although I pronounce her name more like “Margaret” with a very strong Boston accent, which is rather kinder than “Mag Rat.” I like Magrat, I relate to her a lot, and I can see her so clearly in my mind’s eye--complete with big Coke-bottle glasses that were never mentioned in the books, but I know they’re there.
The thing is, Magrat is like the little flute, poised opposite the trumpet of Granny and the tuba of Nanny. They drown her out because that’s their characters, but that’s just Wyrd Sisters, that’s just the first book. Fine.
Now I step away from Wyrd Sisters, because an essay is like a novel is like the world, everything is connected, and to explain one thing I need to explain everything else in the language and orbit. Bear with me, because this statement may sound silly: one of my important early feminist awakenings had to do with Disney’s The Little Mermaid, in defense of the ditzy, drawling, doodle-bebop Princess Ariel.
So when I was entering my tweens and teens, the Internet as we know it was building up and gathering steam as a major cultural engine. And that’s where I remember first encountering the narrative, the meme, if you will, that Ariel is the dumbest of Disney Princesses. Ariel gives up her voice, turns her life upside down, for a man! How dumb is that? She gives up her voice for legs and a vag, what a slut! She’s sixteen and she thinks she can make her own decisions? What a dummy! What a bad role model! But what do you expect, she’s a teenage girl. She’s going to regret this decision, this happily-ever-after is anything but. She doesn’t know what’s best for her,
And I sort of combatted this idea, I didn’t give up my affection for the redheaded mermaid, but I recognized that everyone else was right: Ariel is a dummy and she’s a ditz and she’s really just setting the Disney stage before Belle and Mulan step on.
Nevermind that if Ariel turns her whole life upside down for a man, she’s only being open about the undercurrent in our society, the undercurrent which says constantly, at varying volumes, that a woman’s life is only complete when she finds her True Love, and when she does, everything else must take second place. Nevermind that maybe The Little Mermaid is meant to be a coming of age story, where leaving your parents and finding your own path is the natural order of things. Nevermind that maybe as regards a fictional character, age is nothing but a number--
But I digress.
A few years later, I was studying debates about abortion (Catholic school, ethics/morality questions). The pro-choice and anti-choice arguments drummed around in my head, and at some point, something clicked. When I looked at the anti-choice arguments focused on the woman’s side of things, they all began to sound weirdly familiar.
If a woman gets an abortion, she’s bound to regret it. She doesn’t know best, you can’t trust her to make her own decisions. The woman-seeking-abortion, in the evangelical imagination, is a young, slutty partygoer with no children and no steady relationship, she’s too young and too silly and too sheltered and she must be protected from her own hormonal feminine brain.
And what clicked was, this is the same stuff that Internet critics say about Ariel.
That’s when I began to understand the notion of agency. The freedom to make your own decisions, with the knowledge you have to hand. And if you face bad consequences, well, they’re your consequences. If you say “I’m protecting you from this bad choice,” you’re saying, “I’m taking your choices, you don’t deserve to have them.”
And this applies to a lot of feminist issues, understand-- it’s just that Ariel gave me the lens with which to see it. Now to bring this back to Pratchett. If Terry Pratchett fell victim to this ugly trope, so can anyone. And if you can glimpse it in Witches Abroad, in Lords and Ladies and Maskerade it is staring you in the face.
In Witches Abroad, we follow older witches-- Mrs. Gogol, Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and mais bien sur Mistress Lilith de Tempscire, the Fairy Godmother to all of Genua—as they bend their will and magic to arrange the lives of girls. Emberella is a pawn in a bigger game, and though she’s miserable under the heel of her stepmother and stepsisters, we doubt that she will be very happy as a Queen. And as for Magrat, try as she desperately might to master Fairy Godmother magic, she can only conjure up pumpkins. Granny Weatherwax picks up the magic of the wand with ease, and it’s a pep talk from her that turns wittering, wilting Magrat into a glittering debutante with nerves of steel… for about an hour.
And we can excuse this, after all, this book is really focused on Granny, about her battle with her sister, Lilith, and Pratchett’s got so many notes to hit with his twisted fairy tales, and, well, it’s only his second outing with Nanny and Magrat. Pratchett pivots us way back in time with Small Gods (which I always found a particularly brutal book), and with the next he’s back in Lancre with Lords and Ladies, facing a threat that is damn near existential: an invasion of the Fair Folk. Also, Magrat is getting married—
Yeah, Magrat gets a few badass moments in this book, what with the armor of Warrior-Queen Ynci and the use of iron and all that, and she punches the Queen of the Elves in the face, because Magrat’s had plenty of training fighting off her own self-loathing (cheers for low-key representation of depressed heroes in fantasy!)—
BUT Magrat is getting married. And it’s not her idea. Granny Weatherwax has set the wheels in motion, she’s arranging everything, and she didn’t ask Magrat for consent, she didn’t even inform her. The prevailing idea is that if it had been left to Magrat, she would have bungled it up, like she bungles everything up. She would have played coy, acted all girly and hard-to-get, and Verence-her-sweetheart would have moved on, so Granny saved Magrat from making a mistake. You can’t trust Magrat to know what’s best for herself, after all.
And the book admits that Granny has stepped too far on this matter--but it doesn’t condemn her as totally wrong. Magrat gets married at the end, anyway. Happily ever after, or reasonably so. And very miffed.
But it’s not going to get better in Maskerade, where Agnes Nitt tries to take the stage of Ankh-Morpork’s opera house, and in her life. She’s an overweight girl who doesn’t like the prospects of her future in a little village where everyone already knows her and she can feel herself turning into a “wonderful personality,” everybody’s auntie and nobody’s girlfriend. Nobody that anyone takes seriously. So she goes to Ankh-Morpork and tries to seek her fortune, right around the same time that Granny and Nanny figure that their coven dyad needs a third witch, and Agnes is just the right candidate.
No, Agnes has never dreamed of being a witch. Agnes dreams of making music. Pratchett rewards her courage by stocking her Opera House life with disappointment. Agnes’ singing voice is incredible, and brings even hardened Ankh-Morporkians to tears. But because she’s fat, she’s relegated to “ghosting” the star soprano roles, singing the notes while the lovely Christine actually treads the boards and soaks in the applause. Even the phantom Ghost that’s haunting the place (of course) doesn’t care about Agnes’ talent, only that he can make Christine maybe sing half so well.
Pratchett sketches in the idea that Agnes, investigating the spooks of the opera house, is tapping into her own potential as a witch, and that this suits her much better than the temperamental world of opera. But the climax of the book and denouement don't follow this lead-- instead Agnes is humiliated publicly, told her dreams are worthless, and the entire cast leaves her behind. Eventually, she agrees to train as a witch with Granny, but this feels more like a surrender. She is becoming a witch because there's nothing else left, rather than because it's something she chooses for herself. To say it leaves a sour taste in my mouth is an understatement.
Thank goodness that Carpe Jugulum shows Pratchett doing better by both of these characters. Agnes develops a unique ability to resist the mind-control powers of the de Magpyr clan, the worst gentrifying neighbors ever (they also happen to be vampires). She takes the lead in resisting them, and actively learns by observing her senior witches. And Magrat, a new mother and part-time Queen, now has more confidence and courage. She even pulls the rug out from under dirty-old-woman-extraordinaire Nanny Ogg by revealing that she gets all of Nanny’s innuendos and jokes now… well, almost all. It’s an enormous improvement.
After Carpe Jugulum, Pratchett started writing the Tiffany Aching books, about an extremely practical girl who wants to be a witch, and the attendant education she receives. They are nominally middle-grade fiction, but they grow up with the readers, rather like Tamora Pierce’s quartets. And I’m very fond of Tiffany (A Hat Full of Sky was my first foray ever into Discworld), but Pratchett showed growing pains here, too.
In the first Tiffany book, The Wee Free Men, nine-year-old Tiffany develops almost instant, mutual animosity with the other “young” women around her. I say “young” loosely; Miss Tick is an adult and a fully qualified witch, but she’s junior compared to Granny and Nanny (who show up at the end). Point is, early on Tiffany meets Miss Tick, and they dislike each other at once, even though on paper they have plenty of reasons to get along, and recognize a kindred spirit in one another. Later, Tiffany meets a young pictsie (sic) girl named Fion—and again, hate at first sight. Fion’s mother, Tiffany treats with respect and a little awe. It makes a sense of competition; a sense that Pratchett just thought all young girls naturally fight with each other, they compete and undercut each other as if by instinct, and rarely out in the open.
All of this vanishes in A Hat Full of Sky and never comes back. Pratchett learned a lot in a hurry. Again, three cheers for Pratchett! But I had to get it off my chest—everytime I revisit the first Tiffany book, it’s weird. But from Hat onward, Tiffany’s relationships with other girls her own age starts to feel better-written—rounded, varied, combative sometimes, but like actual friendships between characters.
Agnes and Magrat only make brief appearances in the final Discworld novel—which is also a Tiffany Aching novel, The Shepherd’s Crown. We don’t learn a lot, just enough to realize that Agnes somehow found a way to study magic and music after all. It’s a good note (pardon the pun) on which to say goodbye.
Even the best writers have to learn to see past their privileges, what they’ve absorbed all their lives. It’s a fragment of a story, a trope if you will—girls are silly and emotional. Girls can’t think things through well. Girls are always competing with each other. Even a writer as cognizant as Pratchett fell victim to these—they seemed to fit in with what else he knew, what else he was told. But he looked again, and thought some more, and went wait a minute. And he turned things upside down and tried again, rewriting and reanalyzing and expanding his horizons and compassion. The best writers learn and develop, and correct past mistakes, and their work is always richer for it. May we all learn as constantly and richly as Sir Terry Pratchett.