Thursday, August 29, 2019

Pratchett

Last night after dinner, my husband and I were talking, brainstorming some world-building and scenarios related to my current writing project, and it wasn't long before we were both laughing out loud. A really good laugh, or even better, a conversation filled with laughter, always leaves me feeling lighter. I love a good laugh.

That said, I'm not the kind of person who generally laughs out loud while reading a book (or watching a film or series). I can read (or see) something that I think is absolutely hilarious, and at most I'll probably crack a smile or give a soft chuckle. But one of the writers who can make me, even me, laugh out loud is Terry Pratchett.

I first encountered his work when I was still living in the US. I love how Pratchett can take an idea, a trope, a stereotype or a myth and turn it inside out and sideways, then stand it on its head and write about it. Hilariously. Pure entertainment with a backbone of satire and social commentary. A line from the bartender in a scene with the Death of Rats in a bar in Pratchett's Hogfather is just one of many in his books that have made me actually LOL.

When I read Pratchett's books, I could only imagine the landscape of the chalk downs. But then we moved to England and my best friend and her husband came for a visit. Eager to do as much as possible during their stay, they booked us on a guided tour to Stonehenge, the standing stones at Avebury, Old Sarum, and the Salisbury cathedral, which meant that I was actually driving (or more accurately, being driven) through the Salisbury plain, one of several areas of chalk downs in England. In other words, it was Mac Nac Feegle country. Land of the Wee Free Men.

As we rode across the plain, I was struck by how well Pratchett had conveyed the sense of that countryside to me, a reader half a world away, who had no notion what a chalk down looked like. A master of character development, and humor, Pratchett was also a master at world-building and immersing the reader in those worlds. A couple of years ago I was on my way to a conference in Winchester, eyeing the stark white figures carved into the chalk downs, and I felt once again that sense of delight at being in Pratchett country.

As with any prolific author, I like some of Pratchett's books more than others, but one of my absolute favorites is the final installment in his Tiffany Aching series called I Shall Wear Midnight. In the book (ostensibly for young readers, but I would argue it's for anyone who loves Pratchett's Discworld) the protagonist, Tiffany, is figuring out what it means to be a witch.
"She was the witch. For all the villages along the Chalk, she was the witch. Not just her own village any more, but for all the other ones as far away as Ham-on-Rye, which was a pretty good day's walk from here."
There are things she likes about being a witch, but she's also learning that it it sets her apart from everyone else.
"You were among people, but not the same as them. There was always a kind of distance or separation. You didn't have to work at it, it happened anyway. ... This wasn't just because of respect, but because of a kind of fear as well."
And the symbol of her mixed feelings about her new role as the Chalk witch is her feelings about wearing black. We know from a previous book, A Hat Full of Sky, how Tiffany feels about wearing black:
"When I'm old I shall wear midnight, she'd decided. But for now she'd had enough of darkness."
But by the end of I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany has grown into the role she previously felt unready for:
"And just for a moment...Tiffany stood outside herself and watched herself twirl the beautiful dress as black as a cat full of sixpences, and she thought: I shall wear midnight, and I will be good at it . . ."
There's a bit of Tiffany in all of us, at some point in our lives.

Here's to wearing midnight, and being good at it.

Old Sarum, England
Old Sarum, on the Salisbury Plain, England
photo copyright E Norton / 2019


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