Thursday, October 15, 2009
Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett
When you think of elves, what do you think of? The tall, fair-skinned beings of Tolkien's Middle Earth? The ebony warriors from Dungeons & Dragons? Delicious cookies?
Not on Discworld. On Discworld, the Elves are folk of legend, and dark legend at that. People there remember the elves, although not very well. They remember through old wives' tales, about leaving milk for the fairies and not going near the standing stones. Ask someone in the kingdom of Lancre, and they'll think of elves as you and I think of elves - pretty, wonderful, magical...
Ask Granny Weatherwax and she'll tell you the truth - that the Elves are not of this world, and don't belong here either. She'll tell you that when the barriers of the worlds grow thin, when the crop circles start to show up, the elves will be waiting, readying themselves to come back. For theirs is a parasite universe, a land of ice, and they desire ours for their... entertainment.
Such is the setup for Lords and Ladies, another one of Pratchett's darker Discworld books. There is still his customary humor, of course, which would be sorely missed were it absent. But it's also got a philosophical edge to it, as many of his books of this period do. It's about faith in stories, and knowing the difference between what is true and what you wish were true.
It's circle time again, where crop circles are appearing everywhere, and the parallel and parasite universes are coming into closer contact, and Granny Weatherwax knows that she is going to die.
Or is she? She can't be sure....
Esme Weatherwax is the consummate witch. Tall, thin and bony, she's the kind of woman who can wear the pointy black hat of a witch and dare you to think she's anything else. She's strong of mind, never afraid to speak the truth, the best witch in Lancre and not slow in admitting it. But many years ago, she was a headstrong young girl who was offered power by a mysterious woman in red who stood in the center of a stone circle. The woman promised power and freedom, but could not leave the circle. Rather than take the easy way to witchcraft, Granny worked, learned, and grew old. Which is always for the best.
As is the case with many Pratchett books, there are multiple plots that all center around the Elves and their newest attempt to gain the Discworld as their own world. Magrat Garlick, the third witch (because there must always be three) is going to marry Verence, the king of Lancre and a former Fool. Mustrum Ridcully, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, is attending the wedding and at the same time remembering his days in Lancre chasing after the headstrong young girl who grew up to become Esme Weatherwax. And Granny herself is remembering things that happened to all possible Esme Weatherwaxes, and for someone as sure of herself as she is, is having a serious identity problem.
Something needs to be said here about the three witches of Lancre, recurring characters as they are in all of the Witches books of the series. Normally this would be done chronologically, upon reviewing the first book in which they appeared, but I want to do it now. Besides, I haven't read Equal Rites in a long time, but it's on my list.
Granny is as I have said - the unofficial chief witch of the region, who has attained the status of being almost mythical in the village of Bad Ass. She is feared and revered, but only because she is always who she is.
Nanny (Gytha) Ogg is Esme's polar opposite. She has a face like an apple left in the sun too long, her youth is filled with enough tawdry encounters to make a fraternity lose its breath, and her fondness for bawdy tunes (such as the ever-immortal Hedgehog song) has made her a figure of legend. But like any witch, Gytha is not to be underestimated. She can think faster than most anyone, and do so around corners. She's the grounding influence for Esme when Esme gets too high on herself, and while being fearsome in her own right, she is one of the more approachable witches Lancre has to offer.
And then there is Magrat Garlick, the third witch. She is the soppy one, the romantic one, the one with the collection of occult jewelry and a library in her cottage. She's the youngest, the least experienced, but not without potential. And while the other two witches may treat her like an ignorant stripling, they only do so because that's how you become a witch - by learning things, not by being told things.
But now Magrat is going to be Queen, and there are only the two witches. And the elves are coming....
This is, as I have said, a darker book. We get an interesting look into Granny Weatherwax's psyche - who she is, what she fears - and it's a little chilling. The reader is used to the utterly unflappable Granny Weatherwax, so to see her, well, flapped is kind of disturbing. At the same time, though, it makes her more human than before, which she needs to be if she is to defeat the elves.
This book also offers a good look into the human need for fantasy. The elves anchor themselves to the Discworld by belief - if enough people want the elves to come, then they will. But the longer they stay away, the more time we get without them, the more they become what we think they are. Stories. Myths. Cute magical critters who are to be watched, but not necessarily feared.
We need our stories to get us through the "iron times." Yes, we need elves, to help us escape from our lives from time to time, just as we need witches and wizards and gods. But we don't need them here. Here, in the real world, we have only ourselves to count on, and we need to be strong enough to do that. Stories are good, in their place. But never mistake a story for the real thing.
'But all them things exist,' said Nanny Ogg.
'That's no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages 'em.'
- from Lords and Ladies
Lords and Ladies at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett at Wikipedia
Terry Pratchett's page at HarperCollins
Lords and Ladies at Amazon.com
Discworld at Wikipedia
Lords and Ladies annotations
Lords and Ladies at Wikiquote