“Stories don’t care who takes part in them.”
Here’s how it happened: I was thinking about Cinderella retellings for my Children’s Lit extended essay (which I know I keep wittering about, but it’s a great excuse to read loads and loads of fantasy and fairytales and other lovely things) when I remembered three things: a) Witches Abroad is, strictly speaking, a Cinderella retelling; b) I read somewhere someone saying that children do read Discworld although it’s not marketed to them; and c) I didn’t yet own a copy of Witches Abroad, which meant that I could legitimately buy one of these lovely new hardback editions of the Discworld books. And so the Slightly Spurious Pratchett Re-reading was born.
Needless to say, I do now own a copy of Witches Abroad.
The plot is fairly straightforward: Magrat, the youngest witch of the Ramtops coven, inherits the wand of a fairy godmother, and is tasked with visiting Genua, a far-off city in the middle of a swamp, where the old godmother’s goddaughter – and therefore now Magrat’s goddaughter – lives. Accompanied, much against her will, by the other witches of the Ramtops, angry, ascetic Granny Weatherwax and drunkenly easy-going Nanny Ogg (complete with evil cat Greebo), she crosses many Foreign Parts, defeats many monsters, and finally must ensure that Ella, the goddaughter in question, does not marry the prince.
With me still? Good.
To be honest, it’s a bit of a romp. A highly enjoyable romp, to be sure, with vampire-eating cats and black roosters and even, at one point, Gollum, but a romp nevertheless. The main fairytale element, though interesting (I loved the idea of the mirror-magic, even if its actual workings were a bit vague), is actually quite truncated, since a good half of the book at least is essentially a travelogue whereby the witches either annoy or save a number of small villages, and even when we do eventually reach it it feels hurriedly dealt with. I don’t feel like the two halves of the book really sit well together.
I’m also vaguely uncomfortable with this passage, from the first page:
the trouble was that ignorance became more interesting [than knowledge], especially big fascinating ignorance about huge and important things like matter and creation, and people stopped patiently building their little houses of rational sticks in the chaos of the universe and started getting interested in the chaos itself
Is this meant to be satire? If it is, it’s not particularly clear, and besides that it seems to me to veer quite close to the overtly anti-religious polemic of more recent Discworld books like Judgement Day or Raising Steam, which also made me very uncomfortable. Quite possibly it’s all the literature criticism I’ve been reading lately, but I’m slowly and unwillingly beginning to come around to the fact that Pratchett has always been a polemicist. There’s always been that tendency towards telling rather than showing, towards wearing morals and messages overtly on one’s sleeve. It’s more marked here in Witches Abroad than it is in many of his other novels, but it’s always there.
Witches Abroad is still Pratchett, and it’s still what I like to call “classic” Pratchett – pre-Snuff Pratchett – so it is, still, a good book in my mind, a book to be savoured and returned to and reread endlessly; subversive and funny and original. But now I’m not sure whether that’s at least partly nostalgia, whether I’d still feel like that if I was coming to it fresh. It’s certainly one of the weaker Discworld novels, and needs either trimming or bulking out. There’s potential, but it’s not fully exploited; there are worrying elements, too, a tendency to polemic being only one of them. I like it, but not unreservedly.