In the third part of Witches Abroad, the witches depart for Genua. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
Trigger Warning: For discussion of rape, xenophobia, cissexism.
I feel like half the fun of the witches is in their ridiculous natures. They’re three incredibly well-defined characters, so much so that it feels relatively easy to determine exactly what they’re going to do at any given moment. Granny is a traditionalist and stubborn; Nanny is open-minded and adventurous; and Magrat is one of the most empathetic and kind characters in this entire series. As the three of them prepare to leave the Ramtops, we can see these personality traits on display. It’s entertaining, sure, but I feel like this section more or less serves to set up the story to come rather than stand on its own.
I say that because I feel like the dynamic here between these three women is one that we already saw in Wyrd Sisters. It’s familiar, which made it very easy to read aloud. I got a sense for their voices, and I could hear Nanny Ogg in my head talking to her son. When Granny was chastising Magrat for wearing trousers (“standin’ there bifurcated”), it was easy for me to imagine the tone of her voice. The same goes for Granny’s reaction to Nanny’s red boots, which I LOVED. Especially this exchange:
“I’m sure in foreign parts they goes in for all sorts of outlandish things. But you know what they say about women who wear red boots.”
“Just so long as they also say they’ve got dry feet,” said Nanny cheerfully.
YES. EXCELLENT REACTION.
Before I talk about the whole “foreign parts” thing, I do have to address one of the worst jokes I’ve ever read in any Discworld book. Look, ultimately, we can talk about the politics of humor, or we can talk about my own personal bias here, or we can address this in a million different ways. But at the end of the day, I’m bothered by the reference to rape because it doesn’t work at all. It pulls me so completely out of the story in a way that made it hard for me to pay attention. What purpose does it serve to invoke such a horrifically violent act? Would not the sentence work exactly the same if Pratchett said that Greebo “would attempt to fight absolutely anything, up to and including a four-horse logging wagon”? That communicates to us that Greebo does not really want pity, nor does he deserve it. It allows us to understand Greebo’s motivation while also appreciating the humor of his outward appearance.
It does all of this without invoking rape. What the fuck, y’all? I can’t get over what a distracting and poorly executed joke this is. Why would you think this is funny?
I think that you can find ways to give uncomfortable things a context that makes them funny. I admit that I find some sort of weird coincidence in the fact that I am about to embark on a trip to foreign parts myself. I do understand the fear of the unknown that comes with it. I mean, I’m about to travel to ELEVEN countries, seven of which I’ve never been to before. I don’t speak Norwegian or Swedish or German or anything other than subpar Spanish, and I’m about to be immersed in these cultures, taking trains from one city to the next, sometimes back-to-back. It’s understandably intimidating, so I get the joke that Pratchett is making here when he has these witches hypothesize wildly about what’s going to happen to them in “forn parts.”
At the same time, I’m hoping that the satire includes a criticism of the absurdity of this sort of behavior. Being intimidated by travel is something most people experience. Openly being… well, xenophobic? That’s a different thing. I wouldn’t necessarily say that we see that here, but there’s an aspect to these scenes that feels like the joke isn’t about the witches, but the actual people who are considered foreign. So far, that is! And I’m willing to admit that I don’t have the full picture here, so I know i’s possible that my opinion might change. But Granny gets what she wants by exploiting awkward situations, all while insulting foreigners or making incorrect statements about them. It’s like all the jokes that are made about the gender pronouns of the dwarves. Who’s the butt of that joke? Time and time again, it’s anyone who isn’t cis.
I think that good parody and satire doesn’t follow the same patterns as the status quo. You might hear reference to the phrase “punching down,” and I think this is a good context to talk about that. If most of a society – like my own – makes fun of foreigners and actively spreads mistruths about them, then a satire is not that effective if it does the exact same thing. The same goes for jokes about genders and pronouns. Without that subversion, you’re just using the mask of humor to perpetuate the same thing as everyone else.
I did find the entire sequence with Magrat’s first use of the magic wand to be pretty damn hilarious. It does seem disastrous that no one told Magrat how the wand operates, but when she saves the day by turning a rockslide into A GIANT PILE OF PUMPKINS, I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s funny, y’all! So can the wand do anything else, or is it just pumpkins for the moment? Does it require a wish, or is Nanny correct in stating that “there’s probably more to it than just wishing”? I imagine that this is the case, so now, the mystery revolves around what exactly Magrat is supposed to do with this wand and her own destiny.
Saving dwarfs from cave-ins, apparently.
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