Finding the story

Snow scene in the Preseli Hills

Terry Pratchett: Wintersmith
Corgi 2017 (2006)

Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them . . . you could use them, you could change them . . .

We’ve met Tiffany Aching before, in The Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky, and know that she is a young witch on the Discworld’s Chalk, the uplands where the principal occupation is shepherding. In Wintersmith she is on the cusp of her teens but has already ratcheted up an impressive CV, having defeated the Fairy Queen and overcome a crisis of identity in the form of the Hiver.

Here, however, she has a rather more challenging antagonist in the form of the embodiment (if that’s the right word for a disembodied being) of the coldest season of the year. To stop the Wintersmith’s personal interest in her and the prospect of the land permanently locked in snow and ice she has to understand the power of story.

And for us to fully appreciate Wintersmith I too believe, like Granny Weatherwax, that we have to find and study story shapes to comprehend how Pratchett uses them to control, in ever so satisfyingly a fashion, his narrative.

The University of Southampton’s Red Stags Morris men in the late 60s. The reviewer is the dancer on the left closest to the camera.

How did Tiffany get into the situation where the Wintersmith was made aware of her, a human child? The answer comes with Pratchett’s concept of the Dark Morris, the winter equivalent of the Morris traditionally danced around May Day to usher in the summer. (The Dark Morris is not, by the way, to be confused with the Mummer’s Play, which often takes place around midwinter.) Brought by her mentor, Miss Treason—Mystery’s On?—to witness the Dark Morris, Tiffany finds she is unable to help herself and joins in the dance, usurping the place of Summer. As a result the Wintersmith becomes aware of her; and as a result of becoming aware of her ‘he’ pursues her, tries to woo her—with snowflakes in her image, bringing huge drifts of snow and intense cold to the Chalk and threatening a season of snow and ice all year round.

How Tiffany learns to manage this dire situation is through changing the story shapes she finds herself in. For that she needs help in the form of her idiosyncratic mentors Granny Weatherwax, Miss Treason, Nanny Ogg and Miss Tick, with rather more dubious aid from the Nac Mac Feagles and the brave support of her friend Roland. Along the way she continues to expand her powers as a witch, which includes learning herself how to mentor a rather inadequate witch.

Now, the stories. What is it, to be human? This is at the core of Wintersmith, indeed at the core of all of Pratchett’s stories. The Wintersmith tries hard to be human, to make himself into a simulacrum of one, using elements to fashion himself a body. But it isn’t materials alone that maketh man, it’s abstract qualities: love enough to break a heart for example. Mythology is full of examples of human simulacra which lack those specifically human qualities; in Welsh myth, for example, Blodeuwedd is just such a creature: made from flowers she is eventually turned into an owl after betraying her husband. The unending dance of Winter and Summer is also the theme of much mythology: Persephone’s abduction is the best known example of the seasons going awry. Orpheus going into the Underworld to rescue Euridice is another story that is faintly recognisable here, when young Roland ventures forth to awaken Summer.

And Roland’s name is no fluke either, suggesting yet another story that Pratchett refashions. Unlike Robert Browning and Shakespeare’s fairytale figure—‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came’—Pratchett’s Roland escapes from his tower (where he is besieged by his wicked aunts) to rescue the Sleeping Beauty that is Summer from her enforced hibernation.

It’s all about balance, but unlike Hamlet (“The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, | that ever I was born to set it right”) Tiffany knows, despite her youth, that she has the responsibility to undo her literal faux pas and return seasonal order to the world. Along the way she learns a few more of life’s lessons—the poignancy of death, for example, and the pain of responsibility—which, one hopes, will add to her resilience and resolution to do the right thing.

So many stories, but I can only hint at a few. Still, stories get their power from appealing protagonists and Tiffany is just such a one. And the source of her power? It’s heart. As Pratchett well knew.

Strength enough to build a home
Time enough to hold a child
Love enough to break a heart

Botticelli’s Primavera (1482), Uffizi, Florence

March Magics is an annual event hosted by Kristen Meston at We Be Reading to highlight the work of the late great Diana Wynne Jones and Terry Pratchett: Pterry died four years ago today.

35 thoughts on “Finding the story

    1. I think you would too, Annabel, and this grown-up certainly enjoys the Tiffany stories as much as any one of those younger readers!

      Yes, there are seemingly whimsical features, here as in other Discworld novels I’ve read, but Tiffany’s world is a microcosm, distilling the best of Pratchett’s universe, and Tiffany is the heart and soul of the Chalk.

      As I’ve earlier suggested, the Chalk appears to be a stand-in for the Wiltshire downs, and I fancy that Tiffany is an aspect of Pratchett’s own daughter Rhianna, now the representative of his literary estate. His last completed work is a Tiffany novel, and that in itself I think speaks volumes.

    1. That’s what I’ve gathered from half a dozen or so of his books I’ve read so far, Jean, and why I shall continue to explore his back catalogue! 🙂

      1. I’m not sure if you’ve read the other Discworld books. I do think the TA books are the best of everything he did, and in the early Discworld it was more obviously parody –but it was still all about the humanity, down deep.

        1. Equal Rites, Mort, Reaper Man, along with off-Discworld Good Omens and Johnny and the Dead (yes, DEATH puts in an appearance here) are the other TP’s I’ve read. I’m told The Colour of Magic as the earliest is also the weakest, but I thought I’d go for that next, to see where it all started…

  1. earthbalm

    Annabel, I feel that anybody who likes a good story would like the TA novels. Jean, I agree that all of Pratchett’s books are about what it is to be human. And Chris, you could probably write my next comment for me, the Tiffany Aching novels for me, as you say, distill the best of the Pratchett multiverse. Indeed, Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series is almost certainly my favourite YAs’ books. If TA is Rhianna, is Granny Weatherwax TP himself? It seemed so to me when GW passes away in ‘The Shepherd’s Crown’ – mirroring TP’s own subsequent passing. Thanks very, very much for posting.
    Dale

    1. Thanks, Dale, it seemed appropriate to post this review today, of all days. And while winter still seems to be raging in the UK, matching the Brexit turmoil going on.

  2. Pingback: Finding the story — Calmgrove (Essential reading) – Earth Balm Creative

  3. Coincidentially, I am nearing the end of “A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-Fiction”, on the 4th anniversary of his re-joining the land of the living (per the Feegle), and am finding his non-fiction no less hilarious & insightful as his fiction. And there are good stories about Neil Gaiman.

      1. I started with “Guards!, Guards!” way back in high school. Stumbled upon it while shelving the f/sf books as a library page. Then wandered away for a year or two before voraciously devouring his Discworld corpus.

        “A Blink of the Screen” is also a good introduction to him, short fiction. Finally got to that one recently.

        1. Looking at the contents of “Blink” and not recognising the titles I’m now doubting if I actually read it despite convincing myself that I had. Ah well, any excuse to (re)read.

  4. Thank you for reminding me how much I’ve missed Granny Weatherwax, and indeed, several other Pratchett’s characters, over the last few years. How soon we forget a writer. And in this case, as you demonstrate, there’s so much to admire and learn.

    I knew he drew from a range of historical events, but I hadn’t realised there was such a literary treasure-hunt to follow. I really must take your advice and explore some of the titles I missed.

    1. My delight comes from knowing there’s still masses more Pratchett novels to discover and enjoy. And more still—more characters, more allusions, more stories.

  5. Love your review, Chris! I did enjoy Tiffany’s novels a lot, though I definitely found Granny much more relatable than Tiffany – and it had nothing to do with age! 😀

    1. I too relate to Granny Weatherwax, Ola, but I like to think I’m still sufficiently young at heart to empathise with Tiffany. I’ve also got four granddaughters, two of them around Tiffany’s age, and hope that they all have her sterling qualities!

      1. I definitely need a re-read of Tiffany’s books. To me she seemed a too-perfect teenager – not impulsive enough, too rational by far, listening to her elders too much ;). Granny’s vices were something obvious, always, and it made her much more relatable to me – her pride and abrasiveness, her know-it-all everyday attitude tampered by unexpected humility and the fact that she usually really knew it all! 😉
        On a different note, how cool is that you’ve actually danced Morris!

        1. I was a founder member of that Morris team, but haven’t danced since those two years at uni. My feet still twitch though whenever I hear a Morris tune!

          I know what you mean about being too-perfect, but I’d rather think of her as being strong-willed (even though she makes a horrendous mistakes, as here with joining in the Dark Morris) but with a strong sense of social justice and a commendable slice of compassion.

          1. I’d love to see the Morris dance. I bet you could still do it, Chris! 🙂

            Ah, see – I believe Granny is even stronger-willed, but Pratchett is a bit more ruthless in portraying her. I guess Dale may be right, that Tiffany’s character was inspired by his own daughter, and we tend to see our beloved in a more favorable light 😉

            1. I might be able to do it, Ola—if my knees were up to it! But unfortunately I no longer have my bells… 😁

              I’ll reserve judgement on whether Tiffany is too good to be true until I finish the last page of the pentad, but I agree that we are likely to be biased in favour of our own.

  6. earthbalm

    Chris, the last book I read was “The Shepherd’ Crown” from the TA series and, thanks to your post and the anniversary of TP’s passing, I treated myself to another re-read starting last night.

    1. I too in my turn will be revisiting Tiffany in years to come thanks to your initial recommendation, Dale—can’t tell you how grateful I am! 🙂

  7. piotrek

    One of the great Weatherwax quotes you have here at the beginning, one I use when I need to prove Pratchett really understood the modern world and can (and should 😉 ) be applied to just about any discussion… if only the ability to shape stories was restricted to benevolent dictators of the Granny Weatherwax type 😉

    1. That thing about not letting the stories shape you is just so wise. So many of us allow basic plots like Rags to Riches or the arc of Tragedy to determine how their lives are lived or pan out. And, as we’re seeing now, the trope of some Great Dictator promising a return to some mythical Golden Age seems so fixed in some impressionable minds, regardless of any contradictory signs or words.

      1. piotrek

        I was also thinking about some not so great minds creating the Brexit fairy tale and completely losing control of it 😉 Being evil requires skill, not just bad intentions.

        Obviously, we have similar stories in Poland.

  8. Kristen M.

    Thank you for sharing that picture of you as a Morris dancer! That is so fantastic!
    I just listened to this last week and the part that moved me the most was when Tiffany recruited the other young women to help Annagramma even though they all knew she wouldn’t admit she needed the help and most likely wouldn’t thank any of them. (I don’t think she did ever, did she?) It might have been the best element of Tiffany’s character so far. She truly brought out the best in each of them and that is a trait that is rare these days.

    I’ll be starting to listen to I Shall Wear Midnight tonight or tomorrow and I can’t wait. These books really do reveal different things to me each time I read them!

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