Escapism is good for your health: March Magics

Well, I’m quite sure we could all use some cheering up right now, so it’s the perfect time to celebrate March Magics – thanks to Kristen from We Be Reading who has hosted the event (originally DWJ March) for umpteen years. As we hole up avoiding dangerous germs, and tear our hair about other dire situations, we can at least escape to some magical worlds thanks to the wonderful works of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones.

To me, this is a healthy form of escapism because both authors were keenly aware of the negative side of life, of the injustice, stupidity, hypocrisy and malice that cause such chaos and harm in our world. Their stories are an imaginative response to the question of how we can meet such challenges — with courage, with determination, and above all, with a sense of humor.

So far, I’ve read two books that reminded me how valuable this is. Terry Pratchett’s A Blink of the Screen is his collected shorter fiction, which doesn’t mean all short stories. He says short stories “cost him blood” and he’s only produced about 15 or so. I think they may all be in this volume, starting with the very first story he sold at the age of 13 (he’s embarrassed by its inclusion but it’s surprisingly good), and rounded out by miscellaneous “squibs” that include the Ankh-Morporkh national anthem, a fictional biography of an unknown nobleman in the National Portrait Gallery, and even text for a set of Discworld trading cards.

It’s a buoyantly eclectic collection that fitted my scattered attention span, and could be recommended for those who have yet to try Pratchett and don’t want to commit to a whole novel. The longest story, “The Sea and Little Fishes,” features one of my favorite Discworld characters, the archwitch Granny Weatherwax, and slyly explores the theme of real goodness/badness vs. the appearance thereof. It’s one of Pratchett’s recurring themes, but while in his novels he sometimes belabors the point, this is a snappily paced piece with enough development to be satisfying — so it’s really too bad he didn’t write more short stories in this vein.

I skipped a couple of the pieces (more SF/cyberpunk-oriented) that weren’t my style, but enjoyed some of the shorter pieces that take a “what if” sort of idea and run with it — like a based-on-a-true story speculation about how the chicken crossed the road, and a vignette imagining what it would be like to be trapped in a series of sentimental Christmas cards. I was impressed once more at how Pratchett can write books and stories that are light but not lightweight, intelligent without being dreary, and alive to the magic of language and storytelling. So whether you’re already a fan or not, I think it’s worth picking up and browsing. If you do, be sure to let me know which were your favorites.

Extremely ugly cover on my edition – Don’t let it put you off

I also reread The Homeward Bounders, which I believe is the first book in which Diana Wynne Jones plays with the idea of multiple universes that she so brilliantly explores in other writings. It’s a small book full of big ideas, starting with one that doesn’t seem so fantastic these days: what if the world is a game being played by powerful entities who keep themselves invisible? And how can we free ourselves from this manipulation, and take back reality for ourselves?

The storyteller is Jamie, a boy who chanced on the game-players (known only as Them) and was cursed to “walk the bounds,” moving from world to world without ever entering play. He’s given the hope that he may return home, though, and hope is an anchor … for what, exactly, only comes clear at the end.

Those final pages go by quickly, in the author’s typically headlong ending style, and belie their philosophical depth, leaving readers still with questions to ponder. We don’t get a conventionally reassuring conclusion, but I think it’s all the better for teen (and adult) readers to have to grapple with in our troubled times. It came as something of a shock for me on a first reading; now, seeing how it’s foreshadowed from the first page, I can only feel how inevitable and right it is.

As I read I also remembered my fondness for the characters: Joris the hero-worshipping demon hunter; Adam, the “posh boy” who gets in a bit over his head; and especially bad-tempered Helen, who hides behind her hair, loves creepy critters, and has a “deformity” that could save the world. Then there is Jamie himself, who on his wanderings through the worlds  becomes an stand-in for our own search for home, the elusive place where we belong.

Is it a hopeless quest? That depends on how you look at it. As always, I’m grateful to have my perspective widened, my imagination stretched, and my world expanded by such a venture into the fantastic. It’s the best medicine I can think of right now.

What have you read, or would like to read, for March Magics?

Witch Week: Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?

Please head over to Calmgrove for the annual celebration of Witch Week, cohosted by Lizzie Ross. I’m so glad these blogging friends have taken up this event, which I initiated in my first year of blogging. so the fun can continue!

The theme this year is “Villains,” and it makes me think of the line above (from the MGM movie of The Wizard of Oz). Spoken by Glinda to Dorothy after her house has crushed the Wicked Witch of the East, it confuses the girl — who was carried away by a cyclone and never meant to kill anybody.

But it points to an important fact of modern life: as we come unmoored from societal norms and constraints, as religion and conventional morality have less and less hold over humanity as a whole, we are challenged to look within and decide for ourselves whether we are on the side of good or evil, and what that means. We all carry our own “magic”; we all have the power to heal and bless, or wound and destroy, through our words, our impulses and desires, our very thoughts. We might want to deny that power, to say with Dorothy, “I’m not a witch at all!” — but we then run the risk of unacknowledged forces taking us over and using us without our knowledge.

Dorothy encounters parts of herself she didn’t know were there: her courage to pursue a goal, her compassion for the distress of others, her ability to break through illusions and reveal the truth. Though she never casts a spell, her quest becomes the focus that enables her friends to find their heart’s desire. That is the magic of the “good witch,” who is both fully herself and fully at the service of others.

Witches are also central to Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters, a comic mashup of various Shakespeare plays, whose exuberant silliness is underlaid by a formidable intelligence. (Just unraveling all the literary references could be a job for a graduate student.) Power is the theme again, with the malignant forces of Macbeth replaced by a more benign trio of Discworld witches — the crucial difference being that these “wyrd sisters” know that if they start to go down the road of controlling other human beings, they’re likely to end up…cackling.

It’s tempting to mess around with destiny when people are too foolish to see what’s best for them, though, and so when an evil Duke usurps the throne of Lancre by murdering the King, the witches become more involved than their own wisdom might advise. When missing heirs, ghosts, a troop of traveling players, and a storm to beat all storms converge, with DEATH himself waiting in the wings, there’s drama aplenty — and more laughs than your average Shakespearean bloodbath.

While Pratchett bedecks his witches with various occult trappings that poke fun at both ancient superstitions and modern New Age trends, they are also gloriously human, capable of being as vain, jealous, petty or misguided as any other mortal. But though not averse to inspiring some healthy respect in their countryfolk, they are not wicked. That persuasion is represented by the Duke and his horrible wife, who demonstrate the polarity of evil: emptiness of soul, and being over-full of oneself.

Between these extremes fall most of us regular people, who struggle to know ourselves and to forge healthy relationships with others, walking a tightrope between selfishness and loss of self. The hero of this story is, appropriately enough, the Fool — the overlooked, unknown, and misunderstood element, who must look into his own heart and take up what calls to be manifested there, the good that lies hidden amidst the confusion and deception of the world.

This is the moral aspect that makes Pratchett a serious writer, in spite of his skill at jokes and pratfalls. Without dictating, without prescribing, he wants to teach us something. And teaching through laughter, through the levity we gain by recognizing the wisdom hidden in foolishness, is maybe the best way of all.

The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones gives us a darker shade of comedy, verging on the macabre. Because of its more realistic setting, and its situation founded in the author’s own life, its horrors seem all too possible. There are funny parts, but also the underlying sadness that often goes with comedy (also touched on by Pratchett in his Fool’s tragic upbringing).

“There’s been an accident!” she thought. “Something’s wrong!” With these words, the story begins: an unnamed, disembodied person finds herself wandering the scenes of her former life, and has to try to figure out whether she is really a ghost, what happened to make her like this, and who she is, anyway. Slowly, along with her, we get to know the family of four sisters she’s sure she belongs to, daughters of the couple that runs School House in a big boys’ boarding school (this is the part that is uncannily similar to Jones’s own upbringing).

Among other things, this is a clever narrative device, that sidesteps the problem of exposition by making it a necessary part of the storytelling. Instead of clumsy sections where our hero thinks back on this or that incident in his life, or contemplates and inwardly describes a scene, we see things from the point of view of someone who, like the reader, is also looking for orientation and meaning amidst a jumble of impressions. The ghost’s sometimes erroneous conclusions add to the feeling of disorientation that is the fundamental mood of the novel.

We also get a detailed and thoughtful exploration of what it would be like to be a ghost: aware on levels that humans aren’t, yet frustratingly unable to get through to most of them or to affect the course of events without their help, and sometimes carried away helplessly by forces beyond her control.

Alternately amusing and terrifying, this point of view parallels that of a person who is trying to work through the disorientation caused by an abusive upbringing, especially abuse by a parent. And not very far beneath the comic antics of the four eccentric sisters is the confused rage of the child who has been neglected and hurt by the person who should have cared for her. The ghost’s very dislocation helps her to penetrate through some of her own illusions; as she sees herself from outside and witnesses her own blind, numb submission to a power of evil that the girls had unwittingly invoked, she gains the strength to wrest herself free and possess herself, at last.

Are you a good witch, or a bad witch? Do you seek the knowledge that brings illumination and freedom, the self made whole? Or do you cling to the power that preserves the divided self, in a a state of domination and slavery?

In so many stories, so many situations of our lives, this question lies hidden. As you consider the theme of “villains,” you may find yourself contemplating it, as well.

March Magics: Bad cover art

MarchMagics

For a final March Magics post, I couldn’t resist Kristen’s invitation to share some of my favorite (for lack of a better word) bad cover art from the works of Terry Pratchett and Diana Wynne Jones. One sometimes wonders whether the art department is actively trying to lower sales with their wildly horrific concoctions.

 

WitchsBus

For example, here’s the American cover for Jones’s first published children’s book, Witch’s Business. It’s hardly surprising that she took a while to catch on here, and that this book wasn’t reprinted for over thirty years.

 

ColourMagic

And here’s a psychedelic cover for Pratchett’s first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic. Um….just, what???

 

PowerThree     Warlock   HomewardBounders

From there, things tended to get worse. Creepy, sick-looking covers for one of the funniest and most inventive fantasy authors around. What did she do to deserve this?

 

 

Mort   TruthBad

And for Pratchett, we got either bizarrely overloaded images or boring clip art with eye-crossing color combos.

 

SuddenWild

Here is what I think is the absolute ugliest cover on a book I actually own. You have to be a really dedicated DWJ fan to buy this one. Oh, and this one too:

StoppingSpell

 

Yuck! To take the bad taste away, here are some of the GOOD covers that are out there as well. Thank goodness for these!

GOODMakingMoney

 

GOODCastleAir    WyrdCollectors

 

GOODUnexMagic

GOODWintersmith

 

GOODEnchantedGlass

 

And thank you, Kristen, for all the wonderful events this month. I enjoyed it so very much and will look forward to next year.

My First Terry Pratchett: The Truth

Terry Pratchett, The Truth (2000)

The first book you read by a favorite author has a special quality. Even if there are other books by the same author that you realize are more worthy of recognition, the joy of discovery lends your “first” a lingering glow. Sometimes, the particular circumstances of finding the book are stamped on the memory as well. I’m revisiting some of these “first reads” and giving some second (or fifth or twentieth) impressions.

Terry Pratchett has written a LOT of books. And a lot of people have read them. He’s one of the most popular and prolific fantasy authors of our time, but while “popular” and “prolific” may call up a certain image (one that does not necessarily include literary quality), he is in a category all his own. I don’t know of another author who can both inspire laughter and provoke thought on so many levels, from the lowest of the lowbrow on up. At his best, he is brilliantly satirical without being cynical, which is no mean feat.

I don’t remember exactly why I picked up my first Pratchett. I suppose I had passed by their steadily multiplying ranks in the library often enough that curiosity finally got to me. The one I took home was The Truth, which plunged me right in the middle of the “Discworld” universe. How to explain Discworld? Well, besides being a flat earth on the back of a giant tortoise, on top of four elephants (after which “it’s elephants all the way down…”), it’s a place where Pratchett can play around with all kinds of tropes of genre fiction, inhabited as it is by witches, wizards, dwarfs, vampires, werewolves, policemen, politicians, journalists, and other strange creatures.

Pratchett builds whole sub-worlds around each of these populations (and more), which would take too much time to explain. Suffice it to say that he pulled off the feat of introducing many of them to me in this mid-series book without tedious info-dumping, and without leaving me totally mystified. I’m not sure how exactly he did this, but I do think it’s sufficient to qualify him as a master storyteller.

Part of the conceit of Discworld is that while everything has a vaguely medieval and/or Victorian feel (like much of fantasy literature), things are changing; modern innovations such as racial integration and rapid communication come into play. Of course, since this is Discworld, racial integration means dwarfs co-existing with vampires, and communication is by semaphore tower. In The Truth, the new element is the press, which comes about when the dwarfs find a way to turn lead into gold — by inventing moveable lead type, of course. Before many days have passed, the first city newspaper has been created, the guilds of Engravers and Town Criers are enraged, a rival paper is fanning the flames of sensationalism, and a mystery that strikes at the very heart of society is calling for some brave soul to find and expose that elusive thing, the truth.

On rereading, I did find that some of the repeated jokes became tiresome, such as the gangster who confusedly tries to mainline everything from rat poison to chalk. Pratchett can get too enamored of an idea like this and bring it in over and over, causing an “okay, I get it already” reaction.

But I fell in love again with many of the characters: the oddly endearing vampire photographer Otto, who has taken the pledge to abstain from “the b-word” and sings temperance hymns to stay strong; the aristocrat-turned-journalist William de Worde, who bemusedly learns that putting a story in print makes it true, even if it isn’t; the so-bad-he’s-good despot Vetinari, who when accused of attempted murder, arouses suspicion because it’s so unlike him not to succeed.

I won’t try to analyze what makes Discworld funny, except to say that Pratchett somehow manages to set up totally absurd and impossible situations that nevertheless cause us to recognize some truth about ourselves and our world. Here’s an example in which a Discworld computer (powered by a magical imp, naturally), is pitching its features to a couple of gangsters.

The imp took a deep breath. “May I introduce to you the rest of my wide range of interesting and amusing sounds, Insert Name Here?”

Mr. Pin glanced at Mr. Tulip. “All right.”

“For example, I can go ‘tra-la!’”

“No.”

“An amusing bugle call?”

“No.”

“‘Ding!’?”

“No.”

“Or I can be instructed to make droll and diverting comments when performing various actions.”

“Why?”

“Er…some people like us to say things like ‘I’ll be back when you open the box again,’ or something like that…”

“Why do you do noises?” said Mr. Pin.

“People like noises.”

“We don’t,” said Mr. Pin.

“We —ing hate noises,” said Mr. Tulip.

“Good for you! I can do lots of silence,” the imp volunteered. But suicidal programming forced it to continue: “And would you like a different color scheme?”

“What?”

“What color would you like me to be?” As it spoke, one of the imp’s long ears slowly turned purple and its nose became a vaguely disquieting shade of blue.

“We don’t want any colors,” said Mr. Pin. “We don’t want noises. We don’t want cheerfulness. We just want you to do what you’re told.”

“Perhaps you would like to take a moment to fill in your registration card?” said the imp desperately, holding it up.

A knife thrown at snake speed snapped the card out of its hand and nailed it to the desk.

If you don’t find this funny, you probably won’t like The Truth. But if you chuckled, give it a try. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

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