Headology

Ludlow Castle, how I imagine Lancre Castle might look

Terry Pratchett: Wyrd Sisters
Corgi Books 1989 (1988)

‘You know, Hwel, I reckon responsible behaviour is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.’
— Tomjon in ‘Wyrd Sisters’

The fourth in Pratchett’s Discworld series is full of witches behaving badly, meddling yet not meddling in the affairs of men. Preceded by Equal Rites it focuses on the kingdom of Lancre with its usurping ruler Duke Felmet and his wife, a castle full of ghosts, a troupe of travelling players and the aforementioned witch trio of Esme Weatherwax, Gytha Ogg and Magrat Garlick.

It’s not the assassination itself that sets things awry — Lancre has seen dastardly deeds done to royalty before and survived — but the misrule following it, and Granny Weatherwax senses the land is unhappy. For this reason and others (such as her being a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian) she determines, along with her coven of three, to nudge things along a bit.

And that includes a bit of messing around with time, accomplished in a manner similar to the ending of Superman the Movie, except with a black-caped Granny flying her broomstick round the kingdom.

This is yet another delightful Discworld instalment. There is the expected and eminently quotable humour on every page, of course, sometimes determinedly slapstick but frequently lurking quietly until the punchline is delivered:

Hwel looked at the baking purple moorland around them, which stretched up to the towering spires of the Ramtops themselves. Even in the height of Summer there were pennants of snow flying from the highest peaks. It was a landscape of describable beauty.

The following pages, with the witches helping the action along, pretending to be humble old wood gatherers and muttering ‘Lawks’, is comic gold. But with Pterry it isn’t merely about pratfuls, for here also are the Shakespearean riffs — most obviously on Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Henry V (with a sonnet or two thrown in) — in which he both caricatures conventions and subverts outcomes.

When he’s not tickling funnybones he’s making us care about individuals, because despite their faults and foibles Lancre’s inhabitants mostly want to rub along with each other. We care about Granny and Nanny and Magrat, whether meeting on blasted heaths or residing in the comfort of their own cottages; we want favourable outcomes for the lovesick Fool, the dwarf bard Hwel and the talented actor Tomjon; and we want well-deserved downfalls (in one case, quite literally) for the dastardly Duke and Duchess.

Because this is, as I’ve long asserted, Pratchett’s chief skill: to let us in under the skin of his characters, to believe in their various dispositions and motivations — what Granny calls ‘headology’ — and to revel in their range, whether young or old, short or tall, alive or dead.

It’s not all based in Lancre (the name referencing both an historic French witchfinder and Lancashire, famous for the witches of Pendle) because we also journey to the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork and back again: here the Fool finds himself replicating The Proclaimers song (“But I would walk 500 miles | And I would walk 500 more | Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles | To fall down at your door”) before he can return to his destined lady love.

Which is fine, except that Granny Weatherwax doesn’t hold with destiny:

Destiny is important, see, but people go wrong when they think it controls them. It’s the other way round.

Wise words from a witch. Which is how it should be.


A contribution towards this year’s March Magics event, hosted by Kristen at We Be Reading to celebrate both Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

It was nice to meet Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg again after Equal Rites, this novel’s immediate predecessor in the Witces series. And she reappears in the Tiffany Aching series, of which I’ve read the first three titles: The Wee Free Men, A Hat full of Sky and Wintersmith.

25 thoughts on “Headology

  1. Wonderful–Wyrd Sisters, If I remember right was the first Pratchett I read with a book group, and it got me hooked. I should have my Pratchett review up later in the day–Feet of Clay!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re way ahead of me in Discworld reading, I’m sure, Mallika, but once tried I too was hooked! One of the thimgs I particularly relish is thag he takes tropes only to tweak them so they don’t know whether they’re coming or going — and that’s certainly the case here. 🙂

      Not tried Feet of Clay though. Luckily I’ve got a half dozen Pratchetts waiting without having to go out and acquire them!

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I’m completely out of order, having started with Mort and then wandering over, via his non-fiction, to the Tiffany Aching books (the last of which is one of his final titles). Still, I find his point of view absolutely chimes in with mine — it may be something to do with the fact that he was born the same year as me (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-slip).

          Liked by 2 people

            1. earthbalm

              mrbooks15, You really must meet TA as soon as you can. My favourite of all YA book characters (though Dido Twite isn’t far behind). 🙂

              Liked by 2 people

    1. At this rate of one or three every year I may yet postpone Death’s visitation till after I’ve read them all — maybe even some rereads! Self-isolating for a few more weeks may be helping… 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really need to read more Terry Pratchett. I’ve only read one I’m ashamed to say. So many people whose views I value are huge fans. This review tips me that little bit closer. On top of that I quite fancy visiting Ludlow Castle when the country opens up again.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Pratchett is great to read to read in these tumultuous days. Uplifting, funny but also full of focused anger, they chime in with what and how I feel a lot of the time.

      And I’d love to revisit Ludlow too when things are easier. Lovely little gem of a circular Romanesque chapel with the walls.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I completely agree with you that Pratchett’s chief skill is really getting us to care about the characters, no matter how ridiculous (read: human) they may be… I think it’s the major draw of his books, and the reason that, apart from the humour, I find them such comforting reads, even when they deal with frightening or difficult topics (religion, death, etc.).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’ve tried a couple of other comic fantasy writers eg Tom Holt but somehow find them missing the essential humanity, with characters that — as you rightly say — we care about, warts and all.

      Now, is there a Discworld title that deals with contagion of some sort which will prove to have comforting words as well as a merciless stab at incompetent authorities?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wyrd Sisters is one of my absolute favourites. I think Pratchett had me with “Black as the inside of a cat” on the first page and then he sealed it with “As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked:  ‘When shall we three meet again?’ There was a pause.

    Finally another voice said in far more ordinary tones:  ‘Well I can do next Tuesday.’“

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hah! It’s brilliant. On Twitter there was a thread entitled ‘The first lines of novels written for social distancing’ and this was my response, which you might recognise:

      @terryandrob Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters.

      ‘The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. An eldritch voice shrieked: “When shall we three meet again?” There was a pause.

      “It’ll have to be by bloody Skype, I suppose.”

      #SocialDistancing

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Pingback: Headology — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  6. I love Wyrd Sisters! I would put it up against any number of way more pretentious “literary” books. Pratchett really knew his Shakespeare, and he was spot-on about human nature too. A good book to turn to in these “interesting times.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The title gives away the Shakespearean thread but, as I said in the review, I love the way he subverts expectations and misdirects the reader. The more of his stuff I read the more I’m enchanted: I totally get why you love this instalment, Lory.

      Increasingly Pratchett to me feels more and more like a rich, layered cake: a base of the main theme, a bitter layer of anger or concern, sweet fillings of additional tropes, added chunks of colourful characters, and a thick overall smothering of humour with the attraction of silver dragées or chocolate beans.

      I’m ready for another slice!

      Liked by 1 person

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