Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Lo, I Am With You Always, To The End Of The Age

The late Terry Pratchett's final Discworld novel was published last year, and I read it last month.  I must say, with regret, that I'm glad I didn't buy it.  If you haven't read it and intend to, be forewarned of Spoilers to come.

In an Afterword to the novel, one of his assistants explains that Pratchett wrote -- or rather dictated -- The Shepherd's Crown while his health was failing rapidly and he knew it.  I admire his determination to go on writing to the end, but the struggle shows.  I didn't read the Afterword until I'd finished the novel, but I could tell as I went along that The Shepherd's Crown was not merely one of his lesser efforts, but noticeably inferior to everything else I've read by Pratchett.  I'm not blaming him, mind you, just saying that it often doesn't even feel like Pratchett's writing.  (According to the Afterword and various online sources, the series will not be outsourced posthumously, not even to his daughter, who's also a writer; so I don't suspect that anyone else is responsible for the inadequacies of The Shepherd's Crown.)

So: Tiffany Aching, the young witch who's been the protagonist of several Young-Adult Discworld books, some of which I enjoyed well enough, is back.  She's still learning her job (as healer / midwife / etc.) as a witch, and when the great witch Granny Weatherwax dies, she names Tiffany as her successor, leaving her house and territory to her.  This complicates Tiffany's life considerably as she tries to cover both her own Ramtops territory and Granny's in Lancre; she begins by commuting between the two regions, but that stretches her too thin.  To provide the requisite narrative complication, the Elves (defeated by Granny in Lords and Ladies) are starting to invade Discworld again.  Of course Good triumphs and Evil is defeated; that is what fiction means.  I don't object to the outcome, but to the path which takes the reader to the outcome.

I've noticed before that each Pratchett book contains a brief passage I feel compelled to copy out and ponder.  In The Shepherd's Crown I found several, though less because they were ponderable than because they were annoying.  Tiffany's countrymen, Pratchett editorialized on page 107,
had a dialect that creaked, and they knew the names of all the songbirds throughout the valleys, and every snake and every fox and where it could be found, and all the places where the Baron's men generally didn't go.  In short, they knew a large number of things unknown to scholars in universities.  Usually, when one of them spoke, it was done after some cogitation and very slowly, and in this interlude they would put the world to rights until a boy was sent to tell the men their dinners were going cold if they didn't hurry.
That final sentence undercuts the anti-intellectualism of the one I emboldened, and maybe I should read that sentence as Pratchett's report of the countrymen's view of themselves, rather than his own view.  I think it's a combination of the two.  Pratchett's Unseen University, the wizards' academy, has always served to mock the ivory-tower cluelessness of academics, and it continues to play that role in The Shepherd's Crown.  Pratchett's often mocked the foibles of his farmer folk, but there's less of that balance here.  I've often criticized academics, but I never forget that they also know a large number of things unknown to the people of the land, the common clay of the Ramtops.  And what they know is not always irrelevant to the lives of most people.

Would that this passage were as annoying as it gets.  An important thread in the book is its "repulsive whiny sexism," as I put it in my notes, basically a version of Men's Rights Activism with elements of the Mythopoetic Men's Movement of the 1990s.  Pratchett had Nanny Ogg mock this tendency gently in Lords and Ladies: "I always reckon a man's got to be a man, even if it is sissy."  In The Shepherd's Crown it's all about men -- mostly older men -- suffering the petticoat tyranny of their wives as they prepare to fight the elves.
They had spent most of the evening carousing and telling stories of the days when they were all young and handsome and healthy and didn't have to pass water far too often.  They had managed to make their wives give them a ticket of leave, and said wives had been given to believe that their husbands were just in the barn for a few drinks and reminiscences.  The wives, as wives do, had festooned their menfolk with big scarves, mittens on strings, and woolly hats with, alas, pompoms on the top [243].
Oh, the humanity!  True, Pratchett mocks them gently, but of course it is unthinkable that men could take care of themselves, let alone that they might grow up instead of insisting that their wives play the role of surrogate mother.  (I remembered Tasha Robinson's justified grumble, in her review of one of the Long Earth books by Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, about their "expressed belief that women run society and most men haven’t figured it out yet.") 

It gets worse.  After one geezer echoes Winston Churchill ("We shall fight them on the mountains", etc.), we get the big Lancre battle scene, fought by the old men and the witches against the elves.  In its glorification of war and bloodshed, it doesn't sound like Pratchett at all.  I'm not the first to notice that a benefit of fantasy fiction is that you can have bad guys who really do deserve to be killed without compunction.  Pratchett's elves are evil personified and therefore fair game; they were driven back in Lords and Ladies too.  But this part of the book goes beyond that into an old-fashioned pulp glamorization of war itself, the sort of thing I associate with someone like Rudyard Kipling.  "On this day of days, the old boys were younger than they felt" (247).  And even the most obnoxious of the witches redeems herself.
"This lady is not for turning!" Mrs. Earwig boomed.  She rose among them like a whirlwind, and as they were floored, Long Tall Short Fat Sally became very fat and heavy and sat on them, bouncing up and down...

When it came to it, the battle for Lancre was over quite swiftly.  Queen Magrat had all the surviving elves brought before her.  "Even the goblins are smarter than you -- they work with us these days," she told them, standing tall and strong in her spiked armor, the wings on her helmet silvered in the moonlight.  "We have had enough of this.  You could have had it all.  Now, go away to your forlorn spaces.  Come back as good neighbors -- or not at all." ...

Nanny Ogg said seriously, "It seems to me, girls, that it goes like this. We fight the elves at every turn, and they is always comin' back. Perhaps it might be a good thing? To keep us on our toes, to stop us from gettin' lazy. To put us on the anvil, so that we remember how to fight. And at the end of time, living is about fightin' against everything" [247-9].
The old men come "marching down the lane.  And they had a new song now, one that began, 'Ar-sol, ar-sol, a soldier's life for me!'  And with each verse, with each step, they were standing straighter and stronger."  Not for the first time I notice the curious erotic obsession many straight boys have with buttholes.  "And those who had wives, kissed them -- the wives hadn't seen their husbands so frisky in years -- and then they set off down to the pub to tell their mates all about it" (260).

I'll spare you the battle Tiffany fights for the Ramtops.  In the end, she resolves her problems and realizes that Granny Weatherwax, though dead, "was, in fact, and always would be, everywhere" (269).  So Granny becomes a Christ figure, with her disciples until the end of the age.  Odd for a Village-Atheist type like Pratchett.  I've pointed out before that in his disdain for the Christian Bible, he overlooks its power as story -- odd in a writer so obsessed with Story himself.  But it seems that as he lay in his deathbed, the Christian myth crept up behind him and imposed itself on his tale.  Which doesn't reassure me.  Granny Weatherwax is one of my favorite characters in literature, one of Pratchett's most powerful creations, but I'm not interested in seeing her deified.  Once again Pratchett had forgotten one of my favorite exchanges between Granny and Nanny Ogg, from Lords and Ladies:
"I don't hold with paddlin' with the occult," said Granny firmly. "Once you start paddlin' with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you're believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble."

"But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.

"That's no call to go believing in them. It only encourages 'em."
I don't hold Pratchett fully responsible for this book.  He was dying, his powers were failing, and as his assistant writes in the Afterword, he wasn't able to finish revising it as he'd have liked to do.  I wonder, though, how different the book would have been if he'd had more time and strength; he'd become progressively preachier in his later years.  Luckily for me, Pratchett's best work will always be there; having unburdened myself this time, I don't have to concern myself with his worst.