The Discworld Reread: Book 14
It’s Midsummer Night and, in the mountainous kingdom of Lancre, the new king and queen are about to be married. The great and the good have been invited; a gang of rustic mechanicals (or mechanical rustics?) are putting on a humorous play… and the boundaries between this world and that of the elves are drawing thin. Girls who should have known better have been dancing around up at the standing stones, and attracting the attention of powers-who-shouldn’t-be-attracted. Everyone says elves are lovely and merry and beautiful, which is exactly what the buggers want you to think. And Granny Weatherwax is absolutely bloody furious about it. She’s spent her whole life holding the barrier, and now it threatens to fall. To make matters worse, the betrothed king and queen are Verence and Magrat, who don’t have a single clue between them; Granny’s past is about to revisit her in a surprising way; and Nanny Ogg… well, is trying to help. It’s too much to hope for a Dream, but all Granny has to do is avert a Nightmare…
It all starts because girls think they’re being daring. Granny deplores these silly young things who think it’s edgy to dress in black, change their names and frolic around in the damp night wearing less than functional clothing. Partly that’s because it’s just daft and anyone who knows anything about being a witch knows that funny names and dancing in the nude have nothing to do with it (unless we’re talking about Nanny Ogg in her younger days, but that wasn’t really to do with witchcraft). But Granny is also concerned because the powers that lurk within the stone circle of the Dancers have a taste for magic. Although the elves were trapped behind the border generations ago, they haven’t forgotten the thrill of the hunt and the taste for blood. Granny feels a responsibility for her people – because, although Verence might be the king, she’s the head witch around here, and everyone knows what that means. Besides, not so many decades ago, she was the silly young girl loitering by the Dancers, dreaming of great power. She’s been there – but she stepped back. But what if the new generation won’t do the same?
And we don’t only have witches, but wizards too! The faculty of Unseen University are shocked when Archchancellor Ridcully decides to attend the wedding of a minor Ramtop royal, heading off with a questionable escort of nervous young Ponder Stibbons, the frantic Bursar and the Librarian (who, in case you needed reminding, is an orangutan). But they might be even more shocked if they could see into Ridcully’s mind. For going back to Lancre is a way to revisit his youth, and face the results of decisions he made as a young man – decisions he’s always secretly wondered about. Obviously, just in case this is sounding a bit serious, there’s also Morris dancing, full choruses of those Discworld classics The Hedgehog Song and A Wizard’s Staff has a Knob on the End, and unmediated Nanny Ogg. So it’s all jolly good stuff.
But – forgive me for being serious again for a moment – the story does have a deeper theme, not the cheerful demolition of Shakespeare’s plot, but something more thought-provoking. The book asks many of its characters to decide who they want to be, or to reflect on the decision they made many years ago. Magrat must wrestle with her conscience and decide what it means to be a queen and whether she can reconcile herself to such a change of lifestyle. Granny and Ridcully must look back on the choices they both made, to pursue their study of magic over the possibility of a more normal life. Even the silly girls with their fledgling ‘coven’ must decide whether to pursue their rebellious teenage dreams of witchcraft or fit into the conventional world around them (I raise a toast to an early cameo by Agnes Nitt). To a small degree, even Nanny Ogg’s burly son Jason the blacksmith must reflect on the consequences of the deal he accepted: in order to have the talent to shoe anything, one must shoe anything. We make these deals with the world around us, never knowing at the time what is right or not, but having to trust only that we’re making the right choice.
Pratchett is very much back on full form with this Shakespearean-inspired romp: if the presiding spirit of Wyrd Sisters was Macbeth, Lords and Ladies wears its Midsummer Night’s Dream credentials cheerfully on its sleeve. I always enjoy the Lancre books, mainly for the relationship between Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, but also for the characterisation of this isolated little realm (‘so small you couldn’t lie down without a passport‘), of which I’ve always been fond. Indeed, I even own The Lancre Mapp, which I bought in the full flush of geeky teenage enthusiasm. For me, Lords and Ladies is even better than Wyrd Sisters, although (we’re splitting hairs here), perhaps not quite as good as Witches Abroad. I see I’ve ended up giving all three the same rating anyway. Well worth a read – although it’s best to have read Wyrd Sisters and Witches Abroad first.
I’m so excited about the next book in the reread. Soul Music is quite possibly my favourite Discworld book and offers our first encounter with one of my favourite characters: Susan Sto Helit. Bring it on!
Here is Paul Kidby’s magnificent illustration of Magrat in full battle mode, along with two other studies of her showing her evolution from witch to queen.