In the thirteenth part of Wyrd Sisters, YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING ME. Actually, this is Terry Pratchett, so it’s full of kidding. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of cissexism.
WHAT THE HELL.
I must admit that there are parts of this that went over my head. I know it. I haven’t read Macbeth or Hamlet in a while, I suspect there are so many layers of Shakespeare references that you could write a thesis about it, and there are also some very, very strange passages where I simply can’t figure out what’s going on or why it’s important that I know what Pratchett is communicating to me. So! Let’s break this down.
It’s honestly a feat to wrap your mind around legal crime because the very notion seems so absurd, but here it is. As one of the footnotes for this section details, this was the Patrician’s method of curbing crime. He more or less turned all of the criminals into police officers, replicating the quota system except that it mandates how much crime must be committed. Legally. This leads to a number of hilarious moments, like Boggis’s business card (“LET US QUOTE YOU FOR OUR FAMILY RATE” OH MY GOD Y’ALL) or Hwel’s continued terror at the very existence of this system. Or Boggis being horrified that he stole too much. HE STOLE TOO MUCH. And while this just tickled me, I also noticed that, once again, Tomjon was very… well, kingly. Wasn’t he??? He was able to use his brilliant communication skills to get the thieves to pay him PURELY OUT OF INSPIRATION. It’s like two sides of the same coin: he can stop a bar brawl or he can make a profit. And wouldn’t both of those things work well for a government?
Forgive my DayQuil-filled brain for my confusion over the Fool in the video for this section. If you haven’t watched it, I was so puzzled by the Fool finding Tomjon first. Except… Mark. MARK. He literally told Magrat he was going to go find Tomjon out of duty to Duke Felmet. IT WAS A HUGE PART OF THE LAST SECTION. So, sorry about that! I am paying attention, but I’m even less prepared due to the state of my health.
But let’s talk about what the Fool does here because I FINALLY GET IT. Y’all, the power of words. It definitely took the actual play itself for me to understand what had transpired here, and holy shit, I have no idea how the witches are going to counter this if Hwel succeeds in writing the Disc’s version of Macbeth. I should back up a bit, though, because there’s a lot here that happens before the Fool reveals his purpose to Tomjon. I admit to being a bit uncomfortable that the Fool’s drunken dwarf racism is then totally ignored and excused because of Tomjon, but then I also kinda loved that one of the dwarfs owns a cosmetic plant and is absolutely killer at his job. Of course, there’s some weird gender stuff at work here that I don’t think is given much of a critical lens at all, particularly since it seems like Pratchett isn’t doing much at all to explain why it’s bullshit that these characters stick so rigidly to gender norms.
For example, I feel like the cosmetic joke itself is based somewhat on the embarrassment Thundergust (DWARF NAMES ARE SO AMAZING) feels for being involved in something that’s seen traditionally as feminine. If I squint really hard, I think there’s a subtext here that might suggest that holding notions like this is silly, but I’d have to project pretty hard into the text. The same goes for the whole bit where the dwarfs realize that Tomjon was Gretalina, the very character each dwarf fell in love with and then was emotionally destroyed by. I get that this is a joke based on the tradition of having a male cast play every single character, but there’s a few lines that are just… well, big piles of nope.
“Hang on,” he said, as realization dawned. “He’s a man. I bloody fell in love with that girl on stage.” He nudged Hwel. “He’s not a bit of an elf, is he?”
There’s nothing here that’s enough of an explicit condemnation of this reaction or behavior. It’s says that falling in love with a man is weird, and no one steps in to contradict him. Even worse:
“Yes, but dressing up as women, it’s a bit –” said Thundergust doubtfully.
And then, again, no one suggests that there’s nothing wrong with this, and I worry that the joke is entirely at the expense of trans women or genderqueer folks or anyone who isn’t a straight cis man. Look, I don’t expect books to be retroactively perfect and in line with my politics, so I’m not saying that Pratchett should be all up-to-date on shit that was not exactly in the public consciousness in 1988. He’s not a time traveler, and it would be ridiculous to expect things from the past to be up to modern standards in this specific context. I wasn’t even five years old when this book came out, and I was certainly not born with a nuanced view of the world, either. We grow! We have to learn! But at the same time, I am reading this book in 2014, and I’m writing about it now, and my reaction and criticism to it is based on the world I’m in. The Discworld is incredibly straight, so it’s harder to ignore stuff like this because there isn’t a preponderance of queerness or non-hetero representation around that I can rely on.
But let’s put even that aside. I’m conscious of the year when this was written, and I’m aware that there’s almost a futility in pointing out weird shit in books that are almost thirty years old. I’m positive that in just five years, we can all read my own reviews and pick them apart for awful politics or terrible ideas because the world can change. At the heart of this, though, I’m left wondering why the fantasy genre or science fiction so often replicates these systems of prejudice. You’ve got a chance to re-imagine the entire universe to your liking, to create things from scratch, and you stick to a binary gender and concepts of identity that are exactly like the current world we live in. On top of that, much of the Discworld series absolutely relies on the world as we understand it to bring us humor. Parody works that way, so while Pratchett is creating all these new ideas and concepts, he’s also responding to our universe, too. So where’s the parody in poking fun at homosexuality or transgender people or any man who wants to wear a dress? That’s not to suggest that this was Pratchett’s intent, but these jokes still are rooted in criticizing non-conformity of gender and sexuality.
If anything, my goal here is not to “fix” a book or anything like that. Wyrd Sisters is what it is, so I’m not sitting here, fuming and wishing that Pratchett would respond to my writing. My goal is to engage with you, as the reader, to hopefully point out tropes that may harm more than they entertain. I know I’m not going to change minds all the time, and I also risk another set of fans flouncing from this blog because I’m being unfair or too political. (I do read those emails, y’all, and trust me, I long ago had to stop caring about people swearing off my writing because they think I’m just another “social justice warrior.” So you’re not doing anything to help me or sway my position on this; don’t waste your time.) I’m not angry or unwilling to read this book, and at least for me, this isn’t ruining the book. That’s not how that generally works with me or, for that matter, anyone. I am not keeping a running log of every bigoted subtextual statement made in the world and checking it off a list or anything. I’m reacting, I’m explaining my reasoning, and then I’m moving on.
So, allow me to do so, because I need to talk more about the play. I was definitely very confused by Pratchett switching directly from the Fool admitting that he was looking for Tomjon, to the scene where Hwel, Tomjon, and Vitoller discuss the Fool’s offer. I get that it was supposed to be jarring, and I’m also willing to blame a whole lot of my disorientation on DayQuil. THAT IS A FAIR ASSESSMENT. But I did figure out that the Fool had offered up a significant sum of money to get Hwel to write a play that would portray the witches negatively. And now, I totally understand the various arguments that these three men shuffled through as they tried to figure out if they should take up the Fool’s offer. Obviously, the money was… significant. To say the least! And while Hwel thought they did just fine when their sets were simplistic and minimalistic, there are other matters. They’re growing as a theater troupe, first of all. And they could get bigger. They could make a life of it! And there’s the matter of debt, too. Which… y’all, let us appreciate the terrible beauty of this pun:
Vitoller shifted uneasily. “I already owe Chrystophrase the Troll more than I should.”
The other two stared.
“He’s the one that has people’s limbs torn off!” said Tomjon.
“How much do you owe him?” said Hwel.
“It’s all right,” said Vitoller hurriedly, “I’m keeping up the interest payments. More or less.”
“Yes, but how much does he want?”
“An arm and a leg.”
I WILL SHAKE MY FIST AT THE SKY FOR ALL ETERNITY BECAUSE OF THIS GODDAMN PUN. FUCK.
Oh, how I love the meta here. While my own writing is not nearly as destructive or violent or loud as Hwel’s, I understand what happens here. I enjoyed that we got to peak into the process itself, to see how Hwel approached various themes or settings or tones. Granted, they’re all terrible, but that’s the point of writing various drafts. You work through the shit to find what works for you or the audience you’re writing for. I mean, look at what Hwel attempts here. In one version of the play, he wrote the audience’s reactions into the script. In another, we get to see how he struggles with both diction and plot, his crossed-out words still on the page. In another, I’m pretty sure Pratchett is just making fun of Shakespeare and the whole “alarums and excursions” stage direction.
But then we get to see what will probably be the final version of the play, and it includes this crucial information:
Characters: Felmet, a Good King.
Verence, A Bad King.
Wethewacs, Ane Evil Witch
Hogg, Ane Likewise Evil Witch
Magerat, Ane Sirene…
How is the Fool going to feel about doing this to Magrat? Does he actually believe she’s a bit like a siren? Is his loyalty to the king worth hurting Magrat forever?
The Three Witches
Amidst this all, Tomjon has a number of “dreams” that are all glimpses into the witches’ cauldron. First and foremost: THEIR BICKERING IS SO PERFECTLY ENTERTAINING. I love that Granny has to constantly question and comment on literally everything, delaying the casting of the spell to bring Tomjon to them. IS SHE MY MOTHER? But I am worried about what this is going to do to Tomjon. He has not a single positive association with these three women, and by all appearances, they’re actually going to get him to come to the Ramtops. But how is he going to see these witches as anything else but terrors from his nightmare? He’s already biased against them. HOW IS THIS GOING TO WORK?
Beats me, y’all. Oh god, that means there’s going to be so much rot13. Whatever, I’ve accepted this as a reality of my life. PLEASE CONTINUE TO DISCUSS HOW UNPREPARED I AM FOR THIS BOOK.
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