Tuesday, March 9, 2021

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett


Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from my brother.


Time for another Terry Pratchett audiobook. Wyrd Sisters is the sixth Discworld novel, second in the “witches” series within the Discworld universe, and is really the first to feature the witches themselves. (The first book, Equal Rites, is mostly about the first female wizard, and Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and company are only secondary characters.) 

 Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax, and Magrat Garlic - the Wyrd Sisters

As with all of the Discworld books, this one is a parody, a satire, a social commentary. And a lot of fun. In this case, the book is a parody of Shakespeare - particularly Hamlet and the Scottish Play, although there are so many references to various things Shakespeare, that it helps to have a wide knowledge of the plays. (The kids and I have seen a lot of them live, so they got the jokes just fine…) There are also Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy references throughout. 


The setting is the tiny and decrepit kingdom of Lancre, in the Ramtops - the central mountain range of the disc. The coven of witches there - Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and junior witch Magrat Garlic - find themselves caught up in political intrigue. King Verence is assassinated by his cousin, Duke Felmet, at the instigation of his ambitious wife. An escaping servant grabs the crown - and the infant heir to the kingdom - and leaves them in the care of the witches as he expires. 


Although witches technically are not supposed to meddle in politics, the three feel they have no choice, as anything they do at that point would affect the kingdom. So, they give the baby to the leaders of an acting troupe, and hide the crown among the props. Lack of coordination leads to the boy being named Tomjon, and he brings joy to the childless couple. 


The next problem is that Felmet is determined to use the time he has to prepare a defense against the return of the prince - and he may well succeed. Thus, the witches scheme to delay time within the kingdom, so that the now-adult Tomjon can return in what seems like just a few months. 


Further compounding things are the fact that the Duchess wants to turn the people against the witches, who have served faithfully as healers and midwives for decades. Oh, and the Fool and Magrat fall in love. And paternity isn’t as clear as one might wish. And Tomjon turns into a generational acting talent, and prefers the stage to the throne. Felmet decides that his legacy depends on people believing his version of what happened, and hires a gifted playwright to make a propaganda play. The witches interfere. And...well, lots of stuff happens. 


This book is the first to actually bring out the characters of the witches. The three are based on the idea of the “triple goddess,” a trinity embodying the stages of a woman’s life: The maiden, the mother, and the crone. Granny Weatherwax, who is rather aggressively celibate, is the crone. Nanny Ogg, with her many marriages and...not marriages...that resulted in over a dozen surviving children, and so many descendants she forgets their names. She is a mother in another sense, though. Granny is intimidating, and people go to her when they have no choice. But everyone wants to see Nanny Ogg. Her emotional intelligence and empathy make her friends wherever she goes. In many ways, she is actually wiser than Granny, even though Granny is more powerful in the traditional magical sense. Magrat is the maiden, of course. And she is a great character. Lacking much of a figure (“board” is used generously in describing her), she truly believes in all the trappings of witchcraft - the outward, visible stuff. And she has a long way to go to become actually competent at the real work of witchery. She also has an active conscience, which leads her in the right direction even when she can’t figure things out. The romance between Magrat and the perpetually flustered Fool is hilarious - the mating habits of nerds, pretty much. 


As usual, a lot of great lines. My very favorite was about the assassination. Felmet claims Verence died of “natural causes.” 


“Well, being assassinated is natural causes for a king,” said Granny. “I don't see why he's so sheepish about it.


Just a glance at history or legend proves this to be all too true. 


Felmet goes made, kind of like Lear, kind of like King Mark, kind of like Lady Macbeth. As Pratchett describes it:


The duke had a mind that ticked like a clock and, like a clock, it regularly went cuckoo.


And of course, this gem about the late king Verence:


Like most people – most people, at any rate, below the age of sixty or so – Verence hadn’t exercised his mind much about what happened to you when you died.  Like most people since the dawn of time, he assumed it all somehow worked out all right in the end.

And like most people since the dawn of time, he was now dead.


There are too many ones about the witches to quote, but this one is probably the best:


‘...what about this rule about not meddling?’ said Magrat.

‘Ah,’ said Nanny.  She took the girl’s arm.  ‘The thing is,’ she explained, ‘as you progress in the Craft, you’ll learn there is another rule. Esme’s obeyed it all her life.’

‘And what’s that?’

‘When you break rules, break ‘em good and hard…’ 


Oh, and on the important question of truth and destiny:


‘We’re bound to be truthful,’ she said.  ‘But there’s no call to be honest.’ 


Anyone who loves Shakespeare will find this book fascinating. As will Discworld fans, of course. We definitely laughed a lot. But as usual with Pratchett, the ethical questions, the social and historical satire, and the thoughtfulness are underrated. These books are deeper than just the humor. 




Note on the audiobook: Like Equal Rites, this one is narrated by Celia Imrie. In general, her work is excellent, with voices matched well to the characters. My one quibble is one that a few of the older Pratchett audiobooks seem to share, which is insufficient compression. The loud and soft portions are a bit too far apart to be easily listened to while driving. I had to fiddle with the volume more than I would like. Again, not Imrie’s fault – good dynamic range is good in a narrator. But a bit of technical work would have smoothed things out a bit.




The Terry Pratchett list:



The Colour of Magic

The Light Fantastic


Faust Eric

Unseen Academicals


Tiffany Aching:

The Wee Free Men

A Hat Full of Sky


I Shall Wear Midnight



Equal Rites



Guards! Guards! (Stupid abridged edition, which is an abomination.)


Other Discworld:

Small Gods



The Carpet People


Dragons at Crumbling Castle

Good Omens (with Neil Gaiman)


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