Thursday 5th March 2020
The Discworld novels of the late Sir Terry Pratchett may not seem like an obvious choice for this series. He is hilariously scathing about religion – for example, writing that the Great God Om “was handily silent, thereby enabling his priests to interpret his wishes how they chose”. Amazingly, Om’s wishes rarely translated into instructions like “Feed the poor” … but more along the lines of “You need a splendid residence”. His critique takes aim at the religious mindset which excuses inaction in the face of suffering, or worse, as a rationalisation of violent prejudice (“they were engaged in religion. You could tell by the knives”).
Meanwhile, the heroes of his works instinctively rally to the cause of the outcast and oppressed. Curmudgeonly Sam Vimes overcomes his own prejudice to allow despised species to join the ranks of his City Watch. We see Vimes’ feelings for goblins, for example, move over time from revulsion to friendship and trust.
“Magic” deserves a word. It acts as an elemental force in the Discworld, controllable like electricity, with two forms of practitioner owning the tools to wield it. First, the wizards of the Unseen University. At their fingertips – literally – lies phenomenal power, sufficient to reshape the world, through force if need be. But for the most part their use of it is either selfish, designed to win control, or is studied as academic abstraction, without connection to society.
It is clearly the witches that Pratchett wants us to emulate. Although capable of powerful magic, they are nervous of using it. Selfish use of magic, we find, quickly leads to trouble. Witches regularly visit each other, less from friendship, and more for mutual accountability, to protect against “cackling”. The main job of a witch, it seems, it more about clipping the toenails of housebound old men, delivering babies, tending to the dying, like a kind of vet, district nurse, and village social worker rolled into one. Staying grounded like this, they develop clear sight of right and wrong, and a sure-footed familiarity with the borderlands of life and death. Indeed, the person of Death, to Pratchett fans, has become an almost friendly face – arriving inconveniently, but not to be feared.
Tiffany Aching, the heroine of the Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett’s last ever book, exemplifies this vocation of service. Victory in her struggle (against a kingdom of malicious fairies) will require her to hold with all her being to goodness and justice. It is this, rather than magic, that reshapes the world around her. And then, Sir Terry writes, as the book reaches its climax, “Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself…”