Pratchett’s Women: Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening.September 12th, 2011 at 11:20
For me, the best possible thing that fantasy as a genre can do is to say something important about our world and history, ideally while also commenting in some way on the traditions of the genre itself, and being a damn good read. Add to that a whole bunch of female characters who happen to be the central drivers of the plot and…
Oh, yes. Lords and Ladies is that good.
In some ways, this book is the last third of an unofficial trilogy (with Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad) featuring the original trio of Pratchett’s witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In other ways, it’s the beginning of an unofficial trilogy (with Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum) about the mortality and power of Granny Weatherwax, with bonus Nanny Ogg at every turn (she doesn’t just steal scenes, she gets them drunk and makes them blush with dirty jokes) and the growing pains of Agnes “Perdita” Nitt.
But this is also, like so many of Pratchett’s best books, a book about stories. In this case, having taken on Shakespeare and fairy tales, he looks at the role of women in English folk songs and folklore. This is a story about cold iron and fairy glamour; of midsummer rituals and blood in the snow and dodgy jokes about morris dancers and maypoles. It’s a story about how practicality trumps romance every time, if you’re lucky.
Most of all, while it has much to say about witches and wives and mothers, this is a story about queens.
[MANY MANY MANY SPOILERS]
I love the progression of Magrat in this story, from finding herself in the unexpected position of being engaged to a king, to awkwardly tiptoeing around and through the question of what, exactly a queen is supposed to do all day. There are pointed comments about the double standard, how Verence can basically trot around with his arse out of his trousers, acting only slightly more regally than in his life before, and he automatically gets respect – but when it comes to queens, there are fashion requirements, and an odd juxtaposition between high status, and official uselessness.
Scenes where Magrat and her hapless ladies maid try to figure out the ridiculous clothes, her attitude to embroidery, and so on, are both funny and poignant. The worst of it, of course, is Magrat feeling that she has to leave all of her old life as a witch and healer behind, ridding herself of all the magical paraphenalia she had surrounded her with before. She literally steps out of one identity and into another, and understandably, it does her head in. Pratchett is excellent at pointing out how so many story tropes are actually ridiculous if you try to fit realistically ordinary people into them, and there is so much commentary here not only on the traditional portrayal of queens in mythology, history and literature, but also on the shifting nature of women’s identity when they marry.
The climax of Magrat’s personal journey is her discovery of Queen Ynci, the kind of queen no one had told her about, a warrior queen with spiky armour – and also her encounter with the royal beekeeper, who tells her the most fascinating details about the queens of that species. When the chips are down and her royal husband is in danger, Magrat emulates both Queen Ynci and the queens of beekind, becoming a true Slash! Stab! kickarse heroine. But the Pratchett ‘realism’ is still there, pointing out in the quiet mutters of other characters that acting like a character out of a folk song is a good way to get yourself killed, and holding a sword doesn’t mean you can use it. Luckily, Magrat isn’t just inspired, she’s also clever.
Part of the reason this story is so uplifting is because there’s also a very frustrating narrative line whereby Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are trying to deal with the actual hazard – the elves returning to the Discworld – and are deliberately trying to keep Magrat ignorant of what’s going on because of their perception of her as a silly romantic airhead who is going to automatically think elves are sweet and romantic. And sure, that is her first reaction, and yes it does almost get her killed, because they don’t tell her any different. While this is deeply frustrating, it’s also a culmination of an ongoing character arc for the witches over the last few books. They’ve never taken Magrat seriously, and Granny being wrong in this instance is vital to the plot. Because this is also the book in which Granny Weatherwax dies.
She doesn’t, of course, and indeed this is the book that made the “I Aten’t Dead” sign so legendary, but this is one of several books in which the narrative leads Granny into her final battle – and, true to form, she survives it. But there’s a gorgeous ongoing storyline here about the other Granny in her head, the one who married instead of becoming a witch, and where that different path led to. Pratchett deals with what he likes to call ‘the Trousers of Time’ quite regularly, but this is the most compelling of his stories about alternate universes, and how a little knowledge of them can go a long way. It’s important that Granny is wrong about Magrat, because she’s human, and it shows her vulnerability, which suggests that maybe she might actually die. For many, many books, we’ve been told that witches and wizards know when they’re going to die – it’s one of the essential facts of the Discworld, and Pratchett is preparing a major fake-out with that information that, crucially, is not a cheat. It’s fascinating to see how he puts all the little pieces of this plot together, and how everyone’s story always comes back to the same themes, the same repeated icons, all tied up into a beautiful bow.
Granny’s impending (not) death is also prefigured by the introduction of bitchy teenage Diamanda, the girl who wants to be a witch but thinks it’s all about black nailpolish and looking glamorous, so of course she manages to loose elves across the world… Pratchett conveys a teen girl clique startlingly well, with the other girls dancing around Diamanda and desperate to copy her (much like bees around a queen, oh yes, THEME I SEE YOU) and we get our first introduction to Perdita/Agnes Nitt, who only appears in a few scenes, but shows herself to be the most pragmatic of the girls. And, of course, in a book that’s all about how practicality pwns romance, that means she is automatically awesome.
It’s also, of course, important that Granny is wrong about Magrat, but Magrat wins anyway, despite being kept in the dark, despite Granny not being there to catch the falling ball in time, because she is awesome and because she is actually far more practical than the older witches usually give her credit for. She’s romantic too, but she learns to harness that appropriately and not let it get in her way. I love the way that Pratchett celebrates the differences between the three witches, how each of them has a completely different method of doing things which is not necessarily wrong or right. And that most of the time, if one of them is caught out or embarrassed, it’s because they have realised that one of the others has figured out a quicker, simpler or easier way around a problem they thought was terribly difficult. This novel is very much about the relationships between women, the pecking order, the cliques, the rivalries, the loyalties, the generational divides, and how the memory of the girl she was can very much affect the choices of the old woman.
My favourite moment of this book (and it has much, much competition) is when Granny takes the unconscious Diamanda to Magrat.
“It’s all very well a potion calling for Love-in-idleness, but which of the thirty-seven common plants called by that name in various parts of the continent was actually meant? The reason that Granny Weatherwax was a better witch than Magrat was that she knew that in witchcraft it didn’t matter a damn which one it was, or even if it was a piece of grass. The reason that Magrat was a better doctor than Granny was that she thought it did.”
Even though Granny has grossly underestimated Magrat’s ability to be sensible in the face of elves, she still trusts her medical abilities over her own, which is a hell of a thing for a woman her age to admit.
And of course there’s that lovely undercutting reveal towards the end that Queen Ynci, whose armour Magrat dons to fight the elf queen, is almost certainly not real – and the armour definitely is not. A final iron nail in the coffin of folklore. But it doesn’t matter whether it’s real or not – the use of folklore to warn and educate as well as to entertain is all through this book, from the surreal Midsummer Nights Dream parody to the deadly morris dancers, the songs and stories, and the vicious nature of the elves themselves.
There’s also romance in the book – a romantic storyline for each of the witches – and yet it’s not the kind of romance that you tend to get in stories about fairies. We have the pragmatic, raunchy Nanny Ogg being courted by the younger and much shorter Casanunda the dwarf, who thinks he’s worldly and experienced until he gets a load of what’s going on in her brain. We get Ridcully the wizard, being soppy and sentimental about what could have been between him and Esmeralda Weatherwax in another lifetime, and almost getting them killed through his nostalgia, while she is hard-edged and practical, far more concerned with saving the world than getting all silly about a boy she once kissed. (oddly, that reminds me of the conversation Alisa and I had about Katniss and her blokes in The Hunger Games) Then there’s Magrat and Verence – again, practicality overwhelming romance. Their awkwardness and inability to have actual conversations with each other is balanced out by them slowly figuring out how to be a married couple, and what ‘king and queen’ rules are going to have to be chucked out. There’s a cute subplot based on the fact that neither of them are entirely sure how sex works and that he’s sent off for a book about it, but basically it’s a romance based on two people being terribly sensibly in love with each other, and I adore them.
There should be more stories that show how some of the best romance can be practical, rather than all dramatic and eyes-across-a-crowded-room. Plus, when it comes down to it, Magrat saves her man. So there’s a bit of epic folksong love story in there too. It’s just not the best bit.
Have I mentioned how much I love this book? It’s funny, clever, feminist and has so much to say about the power of story itself. The plot is perfect, down to the last detail. The relationship between beliefs and real magic is expressed powerfully, without suggesting that either of those things are more important than the other. And the romantic bits, such as they are, entirely serve the story of three extraordinary women.
“Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.”
Other posts in this series:
Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, The Bad and the Broomsticks
Pratchett’s Women III – Werewolf Glamour and the Sexing of Dwarves in Guards, Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay
Pratchett’s Women IV – His Henpecked Voice (Jingo & The Fifth Elephant)
Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption in Night Watch
Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man in Thud and Snuff
Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair – Agnes Nitt Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum
Pratchett’s Women VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School – Susan Sto Helit in Soul Music, Hogfather & Thief of Time
Pratchett’s Women: The Unauthorized Essays, by Tansy Rayner Roberts – now available as an ebook from Fablecroft, Amazon and many other great e-retailers. The e-book contains all nine essays from this blog plus an essay exclusive to the collection: “Socks, Lies and the Monstrous Regiment.”
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