Friday, November 10, 2006

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

A mere three books into a fantasy series which by now spans more than thirty, Terry Pratchett laid out the fundamental rule guiding the use of magic in his invented world, the Discworld: don't do it. Magic, in Pratchett's universe, is a toxic substance whose effects are highly reminiscent of radioactive waste (it is probably no coincidence that, at the time that he was writing the early Discworld books, Pratchett was employed as a publicity officer for a board overseeing three nuclear plants), with the added complication that, in concentrated amounts, it can rip through the fabric of the universe.

As the Discworld series progressed, this internal story reason for not using magic gave way to a moral-philosophical argument, a transition which coincided with a shift of focus from one kind of magical practitioner--the wizards of Unseen University--to another--the witches of Lancre and the Ramtops mountains, led, however unofficially, by Granny Weatherwax. According to Granny (who makes her first appearance in the aforementioned third Discworld book, Equal Rites), magic is to be avoided because it rarely solves problems and often creates them. Yes, magic could be used to do away with minor inconveniences and drudgery, but the psychological costs of being able to get whatever one wants at the flick of a wand would be disastrous, and all the while the real problems of the human condition--pettiness, misery, greed, cruelty--can only be magicked away by making people something other than human.

As opposed to the flashy, fireballs-and-dragons brand of magic employed by wizards, witches' magic is practical, often to the point of being entirely mundane and even unmagical--herb-lore, medicine, and plain common sense*. Witches serve as their community's social workers--they tend to the sick, attend births and deaths, sit up with the dead, settle disputes, and generally keep the peace. It's probably no coincidence that the Granny Weatherwax sub-series is second in its endurance only to the Watch novels, whose protagonists are also hard-working, under-appreciated guardians of society. And just as the watchmen must watch themselves for the urge to take justice into their own hands, to declare themselves above the law and become vigilantes, so the witches must guard against the temptation to believe themselves their community's leaders instead of its servants. Pratchett calls this state 'cackling'--the belief that one knows better than anyone how people should live their lives. The central dilemma of the witch novels is the search for a way of using power responsibly--the duty of an intelligent person to respect the right of others to be stupid.

The Tiffany Aching series, which began with 2003's The Wee Free Men, continued in 2004 with A Hat Full of Sky, and to which Wintersmith is the most recent addition (according to Pratchett fan-site L-Space, a fourth book in the series, tentatively titled When I Am Old I Shall Wear Midnight, is in the works, and Pratchett is planning to wrap up the series after four or five volumes. This, however, is the same man who for ten years kept saying the next novel was going to be the last entry in the Discworld series, and finally stopped because no one was taking him seriously anymore, so it might be wise to take these claims with a grain of salt), offers a fresh perspective on this quest for balance and the witchy mentality. First, by broadening the story's scope. Whereas the Granny Weatherwax novels revolved around the same three or four witch characters, the Tiffany novels describe a large, vibrant community, with cliques, rivalries, political squabbles, and a broad spectrum of attitudes and skill sets, from a young witch skilled in the handling of pigs to Miss Tick, the witch finder, who first identifies Tiffany's aptitude. More importantly, the Tiffany novels chart the process by which one becomes a witch, at the heart of which lies the acceptance of a grave responsibility and a lifetime of service. Perhaps not surprisingly, the series finds Tiffany recoiling from her destiny as often as she embraces it, as she gains a greater understanding of what being a witch is and of the sacrifices that the life entails.
[The necklace] lay in Tiffany's hand, on the strange white scar. It was the first thing she had ever been given that wasn't useful, that wasn't supposed to do something.

I don't need this, she thought. My power comes from the Chalk. But is that what life's going to be like? Nothing that you don't need?
The Tiffany novels are ostensibly geared towards young adults**, and Pratchett therefore maps this process of repeated and increasing commitment to a lifetime of service to the landmarks of the journey towards adulthood. In The Wee Free Men, Tiffany's adversary is the queen of fairies, who kidnaps children and keeps them in a state of perpetual childhood. Tiffany rejects this stasis (whose results, as demonstrated by the queen's longtime prisoner Roland, are nothing short of monstrous), and simultaneously recognizes within herself the ability to become a witch. In A Hat Full of Sky, Tiffany is possessed by a hiver, a being of pure selfishness which causes her to behave with typical teenage self-absorption (where did you go? Tiffany is asked after succumbing to the hiver's possession. Nowhere, she replies. What did you do? Nothing). In Wintersmith, Tiffany is confronted with the possibility of romance--with a monster of her own creation.

Acting on impulse, Tiffany interrupts a ritual honoring the change of seasons, and dances with the title character, the spirit of winter. In so doing, she takes the place of summer, and leaves the dance altered and having altered others. A bit of humanity infects the Wintersmith, and he falls in love with Tiffany. Being an elemental spirit, something a little less person-like than a god, even, he lacks the full humanity that would allow him to comprehend and properly express his feelings, and so he courts her with livestock-killing blizzards and icebergs shaped like his beloved. Pratchett very deliberately draws a comparison between the Wintersmith and an adolescent boy trying to impress his first crush--flexing his muscles, pulling stupid pranks in order to get her attention, making grand gestures that never turn out as planned.

Unfortunately, whereas in The Wee Free Men Pratchett's choice of fantastical adversary dovetailed perfectly with his theme of rejecting childhood and embracing responsibility, the later novels in the series evince the same artificiality which had begun to infect the adult witch novels. At some point, all of Granny Weatherwax's antagonists became metaphors for dehumanizing forces robbing people of agency and will--stories that bent reality and altered lives to suit a predetermined path, fairies whose glamour places all who see them in their thrall, vampires whose bite turns their victim into livestock. The witch novels became repetitions of the same idea. A similar thing is happening to the Tiffany novels, which repeat their theme without complicating it. The novels' plots are sublimated to this theme, internal story logic giving way to Pratchett's moral-philosophical agenda.

In order to stop the Wintersmith, the real summer must be brought back to take Tiffany's place so that she and winter can resume a relationship that is anthropomorphized, but not human. Pratchett therefore has Granny announce, only a few chapters before the book's end, that summer is being held prisoner in the underworld, and that a hero must be despatched to retrieve her. This task is given to Roland, the fairy queen's prisoner from The Wee Free Men and Tiffany's human love interest, who is by far the most interesting character in Wintersmith, even if Pratchett has to engage in some industrial strength retconning to get him there.

Roland immediately recognizes the role assigned to him as that of a hero in a Discworld myth which commingles the story of Persephone with that of Orpheus's descent into the underworld. "It's supposed to be a love story but it's really a metaphor for the annual return of summer," Roland offers by way of an explanation, and his (and Granny's) reasoning does have a sort of storybook logic. What it lacks, however, is story logic. Tiffany might as well have been told to travel to the scum-pits of Ur, retrieve the scythe of Naftir, and with it shatter the mirror of Epthelimon for all that the story's resolution has any organic connection to its setup, or for that matter to the Discworld's established cosmology***.

The problem, as far as I can tell, is that Pratchett seems to lack the courage to take his theme to its logical conclusion. It's become a commonplace of cop and doctor shows to juxtapose the brief moments of excitement with the long stretches of tedium and drudgery that make up the bulk of public service. Pratchett claims to be conveying the realities of this life, but ultimately he centers his stories around the excitement, around those moments in which a witch does need to use magic. To a certain extent, this is an understandable choice--Pratchett is writing a fantasy, not a naturalistic novel (and anyway, when he tries to juxtapose mundane, everyday witchery with the more exciting kind, as he does in both A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, the result tends to be bitty and episodic)--but as I've said, his choice of antagonists, and recently of the method of defeating them, is predicated on the desire to express the mundane aspects of a witch's life, not the exciting ones. Pratchett ends up using the exciting as a metaphor for the mundane, in which the coherence of the moral is given precedence over that of the fable expressing it. The result is a storyline at war with itself, trying to be two things at the same time and succeeding at neither.

All of which is not to say that Wintersmith isn't worth a Pratchett fan's time. However problematic the whole, the parts are still of a uniform excellence. Tiffany remains engaging and, for all her prickliness, lovable, and Roland emerges as a worthy counterpart to her. Pratchett deals with the boy's difficult family situation with a refreshing lack of sentimentality ("I'd better go see my father ... If I don't see him every day he forgets who I am," Roland at one point explains matter-of-factly). The Tiffany books are remarkable among Discworld novels for a refreshing degree of emotional honesty--Tiffany's recollections of her grandmother in The Wee Free Men were, by far, the closest the series has come to being stirring--and Pratchett does seem to have developed a lighter touch when it comes to romance, which it had previously been his custom to turn away from demurely. There is yet another expansion of our understanding of the witch community, this time encompassing Tiffany's latest mentor, the profoundly creepy Miss Treason, and the younger generation of up-and-coming witches.

Perhaps most importantly, Wintersmith is very, very funny, which is largely the doing of the Nac Mag Feegle, the tiny, foul-mouthed blue pixies who have adopted Tiffany into their clan, and will do anything to protect her, whether she likes it or not. To be perfectly honest, the Feegle don't have a role in the novel's plot, and haven't since The Wee Free Men (in which they acted as Tiffany's access to, and source of information about, fairyland). They exist primarily as comic relief, and perform that task with great success (the same can't be said of Horace the cheese, another one of Pratchett's idioms-made-flesh. This wheel of Lancre blue cheese is so lively it has to be kept in a cage, and at some point becomes an honorary Feegle. The result is not so much funny as Dadaesque). Between the Feegles and Pratchett's trademark sarcasm, there's plenty to laugh at in Wintersmith.

It's probably unfair to complain that a twenty year old fantasy franchise spanning some thirty novels has lost some of its freshness, and the fact is that even second- and third-rate Discworld is never as bad as other series that have gone off the boil. Still, it's hard, especially in light of the exuberance and, yes, the freshness that made The Wee Free Men one of my favorite reads in 2004, not to be disappointed when Pratchett produces another piece that almost makes it to greatness and then doesn't. Wintersmith is worth reading for the strength of its parts, but here's hoping that Pratchett still has it in him to surprise us another strong whole.

* It's tempting to read this juxtaposition as a commentary about gender roles, especially given that Equal Rites, which first articulates the difference between wizards' and witches' magic, revolves around the first female wizard. To my mind, however, the distinction has a great deal more to do with issues of class. Granny Weatherwax, her fellow witches, and the communities they serve are peasants--farmers, blacksmiths, innkeepers--whereas the Unseen University wizards resemble nothing so much as Oxbridge dons. When Pratchett introduces the concept of witches trying to incorporate wizard magic into their repertoire, they are invariably presented as social climbers, disdainful of their rural surroundings and its inhabitants.

** Which, in practice, means only that the font is bigger, there are chapters and illustrations, and the protagonist is juvenile. After all, most bright thirteen year olds can tackle Pratchett's so-called adult novels.

*** There is, obviously, a connection to our mythology, which is why I say that the resolution has storybook logic. I do wonder, however, whether juvenile readers can truly be counted on to make that connection, or whether Pratchett's ending will seem as arbitrary to them as my scum-pits of Ur, etc. scenario. It's possible that I'm not giving kids enough credit, and equally possible that Wintersmith is one of those YA books actually meant for adults.


Siddharth said...

That's a very nice review.

Anonymous said...

You are not very bright.

Anonymous said...

> Which, in practice, means only that the font is bigger, there are chapters and illustrations, and the protagonist is juvenile. After all, most bright thirteen year olds can tackle Pratchett's so-called adult novels.

Note also the distinct lack of subtext relating to political and/or social issues of the day. These concessions make the story accessible to bright seven year olds, who really haven't a chance with the adult books.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

True, but the overt political or social focus of the Discworld books is a relatively recent thing - over the last dozen books, maybe. I wouldn't call Mort, Wyrd Sister, or Guards! Guards! particularly political, though obviously there's been a strong thread of social commentary, on the level of simply observing human behavior, in Pratchett's writing from day one, which is also present in the Tiffany Aching books.

ibmiller said...

Interestingly, I disagreed with this review as it applied to Wintersmith, but think it fits I Shall Wear Midnight quite well.

Anonymous said...

I don't usually leave negative comments, but perhaps you should stick to your day job. Please don't bother reviewing I Shall Wear Midnight. It is brilliant and might be too difficult for you to follow.

Anonymous said...

It is an interesting review, however, unless you realise a lot of your comments need a little recalibration as it were, you should try being a little less scathing, as Terry Pratchett has managed to create a funny and intelligent branching series that can quite easily be applied to the real world (its funny that a lot of witty political observations manage to 'Sneak'in)

phelanm said...

thanks, desperate for any mention of horace the cheese

Binky the Horse said...

Maybe... could it be... that everyone's full o shite about Terry Pratchett turning shite?

Things change. (And his work was never perfect as he'd be the first to point out.) Some things improve; some things deteriorate; this is normal for any author and I wish people wouldn't compete to be the first to see the evidence of his particular form of Alzheimer's. Perhaps you're doing that, and perhaps you're not, but certain blatant bullshitters, who I spent a recent evening with, were openly saying "Yeah yeah... you can definitely tell..." and I'm afraid this article reminds me of that evening, in uncomfortable ways!

(There are thousands of types of Alzeimer's. He's likely to know a lot more about his type than we do, regardless of whether we know a fancier name for it. He's not expecting to 'lose it' -- at least not thanks to his condition -- any time soon. I'm not expecting him to either.)

To any and all who find imperfection in his writing more and more visible, could be not because HE got older, but because you did?

I gave up trying to stay current with the Discworld when it became obvious to me that to do so, I would have to read practically nobody BUT Pratchett. I'm sure he would be the last person to want that of me. So I dip back in occasionally, perhaps with a recent novel, or maybe an audio version of one I already read. Or maybe I'll pull an owned book off my shelf to remind myself of something, and end up turning pages for an hour longer than I meant to, having been sucked back in. But however I return to the Discworld, I always find that I've missed it, and forgotten how good it is, and in how many different ways.

Take a break. Read more of other things. If anyone is this discontented, and this motivated to write such a lengthy and scholarly article about what he's doing wrong, return to the Discworld after a lengthy break as I did; see how you feel then.

All of that said, you may, for all I know, be entirely correct in every criticism in this article! And... I care not one jot sir :)

What's he done right, and have we?

Anonymous said...

Binky the Horse:

As someone who does in fact think that Pratchett is getting worse - to the point where I haven't read anything he's written after Snuff, and don't intend to - but who thought Wintersmith was him at his best, let me say... meh, bit of both.

Seriously, I was never a fawning Pratchett fanboy. This is not the first time he's been not that great in my view. I consider him to have had a major slump in between Hogfather and, say, The Last Hero. He seemed to snap out of that one by making his writing less cartoonish and more realistic, and my complaint with his current writing is that the realistic style is starting to feel half-hearted in the same way that the wackiness was starting to feel half-hearted back around Discworld book # 20 or so. He was never infallible, no matter what people claim.

But yes, I do feel that his last few books have kind of sucked. They've been meandering and all over the place and just lacking in loving care. I don't know if that's Alzheimers at work, though, because it seems equally likely that he's just gotten old and tired and lost his inspiration a second time. Either way, I would in fact claim that it's not me, it's him - I would like his recent books just fine if they seemed to have the same kind of focus that the earlier books that I liked had. And, I admit, if they weren't quite so full of cane-shaking gripes about Those No-Good Worthless Kids Today Who Don't Know How Good They Have It, In My Day We Weren't Afraid Of Honest Work. :P

But again, I consider Wintersmith to be a thing of perfection, in complete disagreement with the OP here. So who knows. :)

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