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.
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
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.