A witch’s trial

The Uffington White Horse (as it appeared in 1892)

Terry Pratchett: A Hat Full of Sky
Corgi 2012 (2004)

We’re all familiar with Alice going through the looking-glass into a topsy-turvy world, a world where she is able to look at things in a different way. Unexpectedly, Alice makes no attempt to find her own reflection: “The very first thing she did was to look whether there was a fire in the fireplace, and she was quite pleased to find that there was a real one.” For a child who could make the observation “Curiouser and curiouser!” she is singularly incurious about her own reflection; perhaps she is not as prone to self-reflection as we have thought.

This is not the case however with the heroine of this Terry Pratchett novel when she finds that she has no mirror in which to check her appearance, for when she devises a way to observe herself without one she finds she has to indulge in self-reflection of a different kind. A Hat Full of Sky is the second of the Tiffany Aching novels, set on Discworld. We not only get to meet the Nac Mac Feegles, Granny Weatherwax and lesser witch Miss Tick all over again but also to encounter new characters, especially Miss Level and her neighbours. But really the focus is Tiffany herself, how she is growing into her powers and how she’s becoming more mature (although, to be sure, she has already shown herself to the equal of many adults in maturity).


Tiffany we learn is a very self-possessed eleven-year-old witch. Except when she’s possessed by another entity with a preternatural greed for power. This entity, this hiver, waits for Tiffany to, as it were, stand outside herself so that it can take over the body that she has left empty — and then what is she to do, what can she do? Initially she can count on friends to help her to regain some control, but to finally banish this Beelzebub she has to draw on all her courage and not a little compassion. In amongst all the expected humour (the doubly enigmatic Miss Level, Oswald the helpful poltergeist, and of course the Nac Mac Feegles) Pratchett is as is his wont revealing deep human truths to us.

The first is that we should be respectful to people who appear to lack ambition, or gumption, or self-awareness, indeed anything that might suggest they are not worthy of much respect: principally because they are fellow humans, but also because they may yet offer you a pleasant surprise. Tiffany is initially confused that she isn’t learning formal magic but is expected to help minister to her sometimes ungrateful neighbours; she then, under the influence of the parasitic hiver, gives in to rudeness, blunt speaking and showing-off, a path not guaranteed to win people over. Expunging such promptings — uncharitable thoughts, words and deeds — comes with banishing the hiver, a uphill struggle for the youngster but one she has to largely face on her own.

The second lesson she has to learn is how to deal with the negative aspects that arise in her, aspects that many of us have to face up to at stages in our lives. Pratchett deals with this in a typically vivid way: Tiffany is able to observe herself from outside her body with the simple command See me. This is the mechanism by which the hiver infests her body and mind but it’s also the way that Pratchett alludes to philosophical conundrums. Can we stand apart from ourselves? Does that allow us to gain or lose control? Can we really see ourselves as others see us? (Can I really believe that person I can see in the CCTV monitor is truly me?) And how does that affect the process of individuation — does it encourage alienation instead?

Hard lessons for anyone to learn, let alone an eleven-year-old away from home. For Tiffany that means the chalk downs, with their sheep and their shepherds, and the ancient chalk figure of a horse cut into the green turf, echoed in the necklet that young Roland gives her at the beginning of the novel. As with all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read, A Hat Full of Sky is crammed full of ideas, fizzing and popping out of the pages, too many for me to allude to in a short review. Here instead are a few things that I particularly enjoyed.

The hiver is an interesting literary construct: originally a term for a beekeeper, this particular hiver is like a swarm of insects looking for an empty vessel to be contained in. We talk about a ‘hive mentality’ and so it is with this entity, its only concern being to survive; until Tiffany realises it is frightened, and can summon up compassion for it, she will never be free of its fears feeding her own. In a way (as I’ve argued elsewhere) Tiffany’s experience is like that of young wizard Ged in Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea: as a result of a costly mistake — comparable to that of the apprentice in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice story — each protagonist has conjured up a shadow creature that pursues them and threatens to take over them. Until they turn and face the pursuer they are unable to achieve the peace of mind or even the life that they earnestly seek; in this they show themselves to be unlike Victor who fails to properly address both his culpability and his responsibilities in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Another theme that has struck me is how Pratchett incorporates the concept of witch trials. In reality these were in the High Middle Ages horrific persecutions of innocent victims for the crime of appearing different; in A Hat Full of Sky it is a relief to find that these horrors are appropriately transmuted into the equivalent of sheepdog trials and given a more rustic character like that of a village fair or folk festival. Fortunately for Tiffany she is able to ‘prove’ herself against the accusations laid against her by her contemporaries.

“What exactly happened just then?” Tiffany asks Granny Weatherwax near the end of the novel. “What do you think happened?” is the answer, although that is no real answer. There is of course no simple reply, we realise, in a tale that encourages us to contemplate deep philosophical issues. If at times A Hat Full of Sky seems too full of unanswered questions then that paradoxically seems to be to its advantage, for without wonder where would we be? We can console ourselves with the thought that Pratchett’s enigmatic titles reflect the wonder that feeds our imagination (a later novel I Shall Wear Midnight is actually anticipated in a offhand statement in these pages) — for what exactly is a hat full of sky?

Tenniel’s illustration for Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book someone else recommended (several people but principally Dale of Earth Balm Creative https://earthbalmmusic.wordpress.com/)

3 thoughts on “A witch’s trial

  1. earthbalm

    Great post Chris and thanks for the name check. I love Pratchett’s “Tiffany Aching” series. I find something beautiful and restrained in them (much like the way I read Ursula K LeGuin). Here for once, in the TA series of narratives, all of the plot threads, are brought to a satisfying end (in “The Shepherd’s Crown” and despite the fact that the book is sketchier than usual due to Pratchett’s health issues at the time of its writing). I interpret the main theme in these novels as reconciliation. There are some interesting elements the books share with UKLG’s “Earthsea” – the Hiver that you have included in the review, the idea of a mentor that appears to be teaching almost nothing (a narrative cliche I know, Mr. Miyagi et al) and the idea that taking on another form / personality may result in a permanent change. I’m sure many more will become obvious to me as this day develops. This is my very favourite Calmgrove review ever. It touches upon so many things that hold value for me. Thanks for posting and be sure I shall be reposting ever place I am able because I feel it is my duty to do so. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Dale, I agree with all that you say even though I’ve yet to get to the end of this series, and chuffed this is your favourite of my posts so far!

      Reconciliation, yes, that of course, perhaps concomitant with the compassion I mentioned. “Beautiful and restrained” I particularly like, the beauty in the person of Tiffany, the restraint in the muted but no less sharp pointed humour and satire. So pleased this review hit the right spots for you, especially as one who knows the series better than I do!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A witch’s trial — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

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