1. This novel is Terry Pratchett’s William Shakespearean tale—meaning that it heavily references Shakespeare, as well as themes, plots, and characters from his works. The themes of destiny, fate, tragedy, power, family, love, death, and supernatural occurrences come up throughout the book. Present are plots about succession, usurpation, a play-within-a-play, romance, and tragedy. The three witches from MacBeth are the eponymous main characters, while the fool from King Lear gets major billing as well. In some ways, most of the characters play on Shakespearean types.
—But this is more Pratchett’s Rosencrantz and Gildenstern are Dead than his version of an Elizabethan play. In this way, a main theme of the novel is pointing out the differences between the mindset and life of people in Elizabethan times and in the present day. Pratchett pulls this off with his usual hilarity:
“She never sent the castle to sleep”, said Granny, “that’s just an old wife’s tale. She just stirred up time a little. It’s not as hard as people think, everyone does it all the time. It’s like rubber, is time, you can stretch it to suit yourself.”That’s a wonderful post-modern statement followed by a brilliant joke about it, set in Shakespearean times—this is fertile ground that others have gone over for many years. Yet, Pratchett finds points of agreement between the Elizabethans and us that help to understand their mindset, though the book is still firmly rooted in Pratchett’s contemporary philosophical emphases—for all of its fantasy window dressing. In other words, some of the themes of Shakespeare show up, but they’re all discussed by a variety of characters on the intellectual timeline from Elizabethan to today. Rather than feeling like a history of these themes, this book discusses this variety of viewpoints fairly and even-handedly. And the discussion is fascinating.
Magrat was about to say: That’s not right, time is time, every second lasts a second, that’s its job. The she recalled weeks that had flown past and afternoons that had lasted forever. Some minutes had lasted hours, some hours had gone past so quickly she hadn’t been aware they’d gone past at all.
“But that’s just people’s perception, isn’t it?”
“Oh yes”, said Granny, “of course it is, it all is, what difference does that make?”
—But the main theme is witches. In his 1985 speech, “Why Gandalf Never Married”, Pratchett talks about how witches are perceived:
I'm talking here about the general tendency. There certainly isn't such a thing as a female wizard. Sorceress? Just a better class of witch. Enchantress? Just a witch with good legs. The fantasy world. in fact, is overdue for a visit from the Equal Opportunities people because, in the fantasy world, magic done by women is usually of poor quality, third-rate, negative stuff, while the wizards are usually cerebral, clever, powerful, and wise. Strangely enough, that's also the case in this world. You don't have to believe in magic to notice that. Wizards get to do a better class of magic, while witches give you warts.And there it is, spelled out for his fans, the main theme of Equal Rites, and also the main theme here—though in a different way. Yes, he’s advocating for equal rights, but not as centrally or hamfistedly as in Equal Rites. He rebuilds fantasy in order to rebuild reality’s conception of it: he attempts to make a new reality about witches—he advocates for a new perception of witches as useful, boots-on-the-ground magic. And while witches do admit capabilities for sparkly lights magic, they treat it more along the lines of what Simon talks about in Equal Rites: magic that doesn’t need to be used because easier ways to do things exist. Headology, as Granny Weatherwax calls psychological warfare, is much less effort and more widely applicable than magic. As evidence, we see both: the mundane placebo effects of positive thinking, right action, and doing good despite traditions to the contrary; as well as powerful magic necessary to travel across time fifteen years into the future. But the focus intentionally stays on the day-to-day because of his wider project here. Instead of what he did in Equal Rites, by doing this recasting more fairly to a wide variety of viewpoints, Pratchett firmly roots this novel in rebuilding fantasy—and hopefully reality as well. He still gets his point across, but not in as preachy a way.
[...]Of course I hardly need mention the true fairytale witches, as malevolent a bunch of crones as you could imagine. It was probably living in those gingerbread cottages. No wonder witches were always portrayed as toothless — it was living in a 90,000 calorie house that did it. You'd hear a noise in the night and it'd be the local kids, eating the doorknob. According to my eight-year-old daughter's book on Wizards, a nicely-illustrated little paperback available at any good bookshop, "wizards undid the harm caused by evil witches". There it is again, the recurrent message: female magic is cheap and nasty. But why is all this? Is there anything in the real world that is reflected in fantasy?
The curious thing is that the Western world at least has no very great magical tradition. You can look in vain for any genuine wizards, or for witches for that matter. I know a large number of people who think of themselves as witches, pagans or magicians, and the more realistic of them will admit that while they like to think that they are following a tradition laid down in the well-known Dawn of Time they really picked it all up from books and, yes, fantasy stories. I have come to believe that fantasy fiction in all its forms has no basis in anything in the real world. I believe that witches and wizards get their ideas from their reading matter or, before that, from folklore. Fiction invents reality.
She walked quickly through the darkness with the frank stride of someone who was at least certain that the forest, on this damp and windy night, contained strange and terrible things and she was it.
2. The characters are starting to fall in line too. Instead of Granny’s overbearing nature driving portions of the novel, like it did in Equal Rites, here she serves the story as a character. She does some amazing things that influence the plot heavily, but she still serves the plot here. For instance, in moving people fifteen years into the future, she advances the plot, but not in a way that only allows Pratchett to make more jokes with Granny. The time-leap is mostly for the plot itself. Yet this doesn’t make Granny any less interesting. Rather, it allows Pratchett to not mine his characters for as much content as he has in the past—I’m still interested in Granny at the end, rather than being slightly relieved that Rincewind goes away at the end of Sourcery. This is important to remember: well developed and explored characters help a story be understandable and memorable by readers, but when they are placed in service to the plot, it may be easier to retain interest in those characters, which let’s the reader still have some wonder left at the end of a book. This is the growth of Pratchett as a storyteller over his first books in the Discworld series.
This book was written using 100% recycled words.
3. The flipside of having the plot drive the novel is that the themes may jump around and end up shallow, the characters may be lost in service to the story. It’s a balancing act between plot and depth that needs to fit the novel as a whole. The question is whether Pratchett’s balance is more appropriate here or in his first couple of books, where the jokes run everything, or where the characters control it all, or where the themes take over—excluding Mort, of course. And I think this balance here shows storytelling strength, as I’ve hinted at above. He balances plot, characters, themes, and jokes evenly. Sure, in a delightful scene he’ll draw it out a bit to keep the jokes flowing, or he’ll skip through quick scenes to get the plot moving—but there are enough of both of these types of moments throughout the novel to make it seem balanced well. He doesn’t give preference to one over the others, in the whole.
Humans had built a world inside the world, which reflected it in pretty much the same way as a drop of water reflected the landscape. And yet ... and yet ...
Inside this little world they had taken pains to put all the things you might think they would want to escape from—hatred, fear, tyranny, and so forth. Death was intrigued. They thought they wanted to be taken out of themselves, and every art humans dreamt up took them further in. He was fascinated.
4. A temptation would be to adopt more of the poetry and cadence of Shakespeare, but Pratchett hasn’t here. He continues to write in his own way. It’s not all iambs, pentameters, and groundbreaking spelling. He doesn’t lose himself in his project, in other words. He is still Pratchett writing for us today. And that helps him communicate with his readers on one level, instead of narrowing his audience to Shakespeare nerds only.
I reckon responsible behavior is something to get when you grow older. Like varicose veins.
5. And that’s Wyrd Sisters, a fantastic book that balances a lot of aspects of storytelling skillfully. It’s difficult to not look at the progression of Pratchett across his first novels. He seems to be trying a few different tactics and balances in storytelling in the first few books: the opening pair focus on the jokes and satire, the third tries to tell a character-driven story, the fourth balances things pretty well, the fifth puts the story too much in the front, while this sixth novel goes back to the balance Mort established and does it again. I hope he continues writing like this. And, because I like Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard quite a bit, I was delighted to read this for the first time. (Sorry about the lengthy quotes from Pratchett himself, but he said what he was interested in so well that I wanted to share his words too.)
Destiny is important, see, but people go wrong when they think it controls them. It's the other way around.