The Shepherd’s Crown
by Terry Pratchett,
illustrated by Paul Kidby,
afterword by Rob Wilkins.
In The Shepherd’s Crown Tiffany Aching may be said to come into her own, but in truth she has been coming into her own since she was nine, in the first of the Discworld novels featuring her life on the Chalk. Every couple of years she has come up against a testing adversary — the Fairy Queen, the Hiver, the Wintersmith, and the Cunning Man — and now, aged around seventeen, it seems as if she will have to prove herself yet again.
There is the added poignancy that this is also the last Discworld novel Terry Pratchett took a hand in completing (with the aid of Rob Wilkins and others) and, though not as adroitly finished as the previous titles were, Pratchett at his less than best is still an awesome beast.
At the core of this novel there is, as in all the Discworld novels I’ve so far read but especially in the Aching series, a big beating passionate heart, an organ symbolised by its very title.
A shepherd’s crown is a fossil sea urchin or echinoid, also known as a thunderstone or fairy loaf, and its like are found in many chalk areas of England. Its presence in the story brings multiple layers of meaning — great age, tradition, talisman, apotropaism, a token of status in a community — and may remind us of its discovery in prehistoric graves and its placement on sacred buildings. In particular, the five-armed star pattern created by the urchin’s ambulacra (where its many feet were positioned) echoes not only the Renaissance symbol of Vitruvian Man but also the fact that The Shepherd’s Crown is indeed the fifth of the Tiffany stories.
Tiffany is the Chalk’s magical equivalent of a district nurse, but her work is made harder when circumstances force her to also take charge of another district, one attached to Lancre. When they see her stretched by the demands of her dual role the elves of Fairyland take advantage of her distractions to erupt into the Disc and cause mayhem and more under the command of Lord Peaseblossom, who has just usurped the role of Nightshade, the Fairy Queen. Tiffany’s authority is therefore questioned, and it will take all her wiles, determination and sense of self to bring people together to combat the menace. In the words of the tale’s recurring phrase, there will be a reckoning.
There is humour and there is death, along with footnotes and folklore, Shakespearean quotes and clever goats, puns and Paul Kidby’s delicate line drawings. There is also a sense of endings in this tale: we meet old friends such as the Nac Mac Feegles, the witches Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Queen Magrat, a possible future love of Tiffany’s life in Preston, even her first adversary the Queen of the Fairies, seeing them in a new light perhaps or for the very last time. Tiffany has to draw on her depleting stores of compassion while coming to terms with righteous anger, much as her creator had to do; and she also has to ally herself with and derive strength from the land, the Tir-far-thóinn or Land Under the Wave, in a way which matched Pratchett’s own love of the ancient chalk downs of Wessex.
The Shepherd’s Crown isn’t, by a long chalk, perfect, and we may believe that at another time he would have gone beyond Second Thoughts and even Third Thoughts and revised the passages which come over as longueurs. But we are lucky to have even this, a shadow of Pratchett at full vigour — much as we are lucky to have Joan Aiken’s The Witch of Clatteringshaws in its truncated state, completed rapidly in her final year of life, to tie up her saga of Tiffany’s literary predecessor Dido Twite.
Like Aiken’s heroine Mistress Aching lives on in our hearts and imagination, even if we have to make up their future lives for ourselves; and like Granny Aching’s fossil heirloom for Tiffany, The Shepherd’s Crown must be our final memento of Terry.
A read for Kristen of WeBeReading‘s March Magics