March Magics: Two with witches

Terry Pratchett, Wyrd Sisters (1988)
Diana Wynne Jones, Witch’s Business (1974)

WyrdSistersThis month, I’ve been happy to join in the fun of March Magics, reading and rereading several books by two of my favorite fantasy authors. Both of them excel at playing with tropes from tradition and folklore, in very different but equally inventive and thought-provoking ways. Here, for example, are two books featuring witches and witchcraft that put some spin on those old-fashioned pointy hats and broomsticks.

In Wyrd Sisters Granny Weatherwax, the formidable elder witch we first met in Equal Rites, is joined by the boisterously fecund matriarch Nanny Ogg and young witch-in-training Magrat Garlick. Maiden, mother and crone form a tiny coven in the kingdom of Lancre — the kind of coven where the question “When shall we three meet again?” is answered by “Well, I’m babysitting on Tuesday, but I could manage Friday,” and Magrat is in charge of bringing the snacks (bat-shaped scones with currant eyes). It soon becomes clear that this trio, while humorously riffing on Halloween-costume stereotypes with their messy hair, black clothing, and cauldrons, are “wise women” rather than evil practitioners of the dark arts. Though they like to keep their moral options flexible — “We’re bound to be truthful,” says Granny, “But there’s no call to be honest” — and are not averse to keeping the general populace wary of their powers, they’re on the side of good, of helping rather than hurting. That’s unless there’s someone who truly deserves to be hurt, of course.

The real evil in Lancre, it soon becomes evident, lies in the hearts of the usurping Duke and Duchess, who loudly insist that they had nothing to do with the former king falling downstairs and landing on his own knife. The witches happen to be on the scene when the heir to the throne is being spirited away, and do some spiriting of their own. The wicked nobles become suspicious of the weird sisters and try to frame them through the medium of some traveling players…while the Duke slowly goes mad…and a storm is brewing in the mountains…

If this sounds like a fractured version of several Shakespeare plays, it is, and there’s some clever use of both pseudo- and real Shakespearean dialogue that will amuse anyone with some degree of familiarity therefrom. (Prithee.) There are also multitudinous puns and wordplay, slapstick comedy, twisted twin-based plots, and a Fool who is not as foolish as he seems. In short, it’s a worthy homage to the Bard, but with a sublime silliness of its own. If you haven’t yet experienced Pratchett’s Discworld, this is not a bad place to start; even though it’s not the first one chronologically, I think it provides a fine introduction to many elements of the Disc, and is one of my personal favorites of the series so far.

WitchsBusWitch’s Business, meanwhile, starts in our own world rather than an alternate reality, and at first seems to have nothing to do with magic at all. The opening situation is a familiar one: two children short of pocket money attempt to start a “business” to earn some change. But their field of choice (OWN BACK LTD) soon brings them into conflict with Biddy Iremonger, who turns out to be something more than the slightly mad old lady they’ve always considered her.

Indeed, Biddy is not outwardly-sinister-yet-inwardly-benign like Pratchett’s witches. She injects a rather chilling touch of evil into the otherwise mundane plot of children making new friends, hunting for treasure, and getting into trouble. In this, her first published children’s novel, Jones is already a master at mixing fantastical and realistic elements, making it believable that malevolent forces can lurk just on the other side of what we’re willing to perceive. But what I really appreciate about her is that she also makes it clear without the least bit of preachiness that these forces are not just an outer threat, but live within each one of us. The battle to overcome them is one that we all must fight, and stories are the primary way we’ve always been instructed in how to do that. Both Pratchett and Jones give us new stories that address age-old human concerns and conflicts, in such a light and entertaining way that we may never realize we’re learning something. That’s why their books are so marvelous for any age.

Compared to some of Jones’s later books, this is a comparatively slight, uncomplicated story, but there is much going on beneath the surface. I’ll point you to Chris’s fascinating review to learn about some of the nuances, and appreciate just how brilliant Diana Wynne Jones really is. Thanks again to Kristen for this month of celebration; it’s always a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for these authors with others.



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6 thoughts on “March Magics: Two with witches

  1. Thanks for the pingback on my review of Witch’s Business! I agree that Biddy embodies a ‘chilling touch of evil,’ indeed I found her one of the most frightening, seemingly all-powerful and all-pervasive figures ever — I like it that Diana manages to confront that fear we have (especially when young and powerless) in the face of malign adults by giving readers a chance to feel there is a way out of the impasse they find themselves in. In just such a way anxiety about Hitler was managed by making fun of him, through songs, cartoons, posters and even film parodies (as with Chaplin’s The Great Dictator) :

    I have Pratchett’s collected short stories A Blink of the Screen to read for this month, which I’ve already dipped into (the first story is by the precocious 13-year-old) — I suppose I’d better get a move on if I’m to get it done before the end of the month!


    1. Diana Wynne Jones is especially good at villains that disguise their evil by appearing ordinary, harmless, or even benign….Biddy being the first in a long line of those. There’s also often a contrast between the adult world that has given in to such deceptions, and the child’s perspective who, though powerless on many levels, yet still has the capacity to see through to reality, and, as you say, find the “way out.” It’s a path we sorely need to find today, and another reason to cherish her books.


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