Discworld Profile: The Witches and Tiffany Aching

Another major set of recurring characters throughout the Discworld novels are the witches. Though there are quite a few witches mentioned in the books, there are really just a few who become true characters, the most notable of which are Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg. They are based in the mountain kingdom of Lancre. As characters from some of the earliest of Pratchett’s books, they were originally intended as vehicles for parody, which set them up with some amusing traditional boundaries that the characters have more or less demolished as they, and the system of witchcraft as practiced on the Disc, developed more fully. (It is for this reason that the first witches book, Equal Rites, doesn’t seem to fit with the details mentioned in later books, as Pratchett changed his conception of their characters afterward. For the better, I might add.)

Granny Weatherwax is one of the best recognized Discworld characters in the series, both amongst readers and denizens of the Disc. Grumpy, stern, and completely no-nonsense, most of the people of Lancre fear her, but definitely know to go to her if they’ve got a real problem. She often fixes their problems by giving them what they actually need, though, as opposed to what they think they want, which does not serve to make her popular. She is quite powerful, but rarely bothers to use “real” magic when simply using headology (not to be confused with psychology) will work just as well, if not better. When the situation calls for it, though, she has been known to stop a sword with her bare hands and reverse the bite of a vampire by making him take on her attributes rather than the other way around. The vampire ended up with a fierce craving for a decent cup of tea. One of her main witching talents is Borrowing, in which she lays her mind over that of an animal to go out and have a look around. She is seen as filling the role of The Crone in the Three Goddesses coven model, though no one would ever say so to her face.

Nanny Ogg is Granny Weatherwax’s best friend, or at least most constant companion. She could be seen as a foil for Granny Weatherwax, except her own character is so well developed. Where Granny Weatherwax is tall, thin, and snappish, Nanny Ogg is short, round, ribald, and (to those who don’t know her well) kindly. She is very popular with the people of Lancre, and is perhaps related to more than half of them, given her prodigious numbers of husbands, children, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. She is an extremely accomplished midwife, to such an extent that she is called on for her services when the female personification of Time is giving birth. She is seen as the Mother figure of the coven, for obvious reasons.

The Lancre coven has had stand-ins for the Maiden role as well. In the earlier books focused on the witches, the role was filled by Magrat Garlick, who is a clear parody of New Age Wiccans. She is the one who calls coven meetings, encourages dancing in the moonlight, believes in the healing power of herbs, and wears jewelry and crystals. The first book she appears in, Wyrd Sisters, is a parody of Macbeth. (This can also be considered the first book in the true overall witches arc.) The witches must intervene to restore the throne of Lancre to the rightful heir, and in the process, Magrat and the heir fall in love. Their ensuing romance becomes a sideplot in the following book, Witches Abroad, (the coven must confront Granny Weatherwax’s sister, the “good” witch,) and then Lords and Ladies, in which the two get married (and the coven has to defeat the invading court of the elves, who are not nice little fairies at all.) Magrat feels that she must renounce her role as a witch once she becomes queen.

In the next witches book, Maskerade, Magrat’s successor Agnes Nitt takes center stage, but runs to the city of Ankh-Morpork to follow her dream of becoming an opera singer rather than a witch. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are in the city as well, on the pretext of getting Nanny’s book royalties from the publisher of her cookbook, and end up either meddling or helping, depending on your point of view, with the end result that Agnes returns to Lancre to take up magic instead of music. (Granny notes that the two are quite closely related skills, as attested by their similar spelling, and cannot be practiced at the same time.) She has an alter ego named Perdita X, whose presence renders her more or less immune to mental manipulation, as when one personality is being manipulated, the other will take over. She continues as the junior witch in the coven in the book Carpe Jugulum, when she, Granny Weatherwax, and Nanny Ogg must prevent a family of vampires from taking over the kingdom of Lancre after they are invited in for the naming ceremony of Magrat and the king’s daughter.

Pratchett has started another series of books for young adults, starring a young witch in training, Tiffany Aching. In her first book, The Wee Free Men, Tiffany is only nine, but shows a remarkable aptitude for clear witchy thinking when she smashes a river monster in the face with a frying pan when it tries to kidnap her baby brother. When the Queen of Elves (as previously seen in Lords and Ladies, where it is clearly established that she is not nice) later succeeds in taking him, Tiffany does what needs to be done, fighting her way into and out of the realm of faerie to rescue both her brother and the baron’s son, while she was at it. She attracts the notice of Miss Tick, a witch finder, and at the end of the book is introduced to Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg.

These two play much larger roles in the next two books, A Hat Full of Sky and Wintersmith, which tell of Tiffany’s training as a witch in the mountains. (Agnes Nitt is not mentioned.) In A Hat Full of Sky, 11-year-old Tiffany is sent to be apprenticed to Miss Level, the first in a series of very eccentric witches she meets. She begins her studies, but is not enamored of the daily life of being a witch, as it appears to be largely dedicated to performing thankless tasks for people who take witches for granted. Her life becomes far more interesting, though, when her body gets taken over by a disembodied being known as a Hiver. She, Miss Level, and Granny Weatherwax must find a way to trap it and lead it to Death. After this, the regular duties of a witch don’t seem so bad.

In Wintersmith, 13-year-old Tiffany seems much more comfortable with her studies. She is now apprenticed to Miss Treason, who has a fearsome reputation that turns out to be built on rumors that she started herself and props, thus revealing that another important aspect of being a witch is understanding the use of Boffo. Tiffany has perhaps become overconfident in her own common sense, though, because when Miss Treason takes her to witness the winter Dark Morris dance, she allows herself to be drawn in, and finds herself face to face with the personification of Winter, aka the Wintersmith. He mistakes her for Lady Summer, and begins stalking her, bringing unseasonable winter wherever he goes. He tries to turn himself into a human being when he realizes that Tiffany is not really Summer, to disastrous results, and again, Tiffany has to set things back to rights. Granny Weatherwax does a great deal of mentoring, and it is becoming clear that Tiffany will be a witch to reckon with.

I really like the Tiffany Aching books, (I see some similarities between her and Susan Death, my other favorite character,) and I am very pleased to see that one of the books Pratchett indicates he definitely has planned is a fourth installment in the series. The witches, as they might prefer it, make quite excellent supporting “background” characters that somehow end up in the foreground, essentially making the parts of the books that aren’t carried by Tiffany alone. Any YA readers who start with the Tiffany books can be interested later to find out that those old witches had all sorts of adventures before Tiffany came along, and the older readers who knew the witches before will be delighted to see them again in these books, from a slightly different perspective.

-posted by Dana


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