In the fourteenth chapter of I Shall Wear Midnight, Tiffany runs into the fire. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld.
I loved this chapter so very, very much.
Trigger Warning: For talk of abuse and trauma
On a craft perspective, this was some of Pratchett’s strongest writing. On a line level? Gorgeous. Angry. So very Tiffany. In a larger sense, Pratchett ties up so many threads and plots in a single chapter, particularly in how he shows us why the stories with Mr. Petty, Amber, Roland, Roland’s father, and the Duchess were so important. As a whole, this is a book about mercy, justice, and redemption, and here, in the fire, Tiffany lays out why the Cunning Man had to be defeated.
Because the Cunning Man deserves no mercy and no redemption.
But Pratchett builds to that point, and when he does so, he doesn’t discount the evil done in the world without the Cunning Man. Which brings me back to Tiffany, the witch of the Chalk and the very human heart of all of this. I know that Tiffany often struggles with feeling like she’s a human, but this chapter is all the evidence anyone might need to show that she is. I’m thinking first of the passage about pride and how she planned to use it as a weapon. There’s a value, too, in the fact that Tiffany, a young woman, is allowed to be openly prideful about what she is good at, especially since we live in a world that whittles women down and tells them to be quiet about their accomplishments and skills. Tiffany approaches the evil of the Cunning Man with pride, fear, and trust in her heart, and what an incredible message about how to defeat evil. To be prideful of the good things you put out into the world; to properly fear the capacity of evil; to trust… in yourself. In others. In the world.
And thus, we are given the final, climactic battle between Tiffany and the Cunning Man, and it did not disappoint at all, friends. Let me start with the fact that TIFFANY HELPED HERSELF. I get it, now! It’s not that no one could be a part of this. Preston played an integral part, as did the Feegles (that mental image, oh my GOD), and this literally could not have happened without Roland and Letitia. But Tiffany did this for herself, and she did it defiantly, proudly, full of fear, and SHE TRUSTED HERSELF AND PRESTON IN THE END. I also love that I actually understood (most) of the cultural references present in the burning of the King! As I said on video, I lived in an area where there were always controlled burns to limit the chance of wildfires spreading. It’s not the same as burning the stubble, but I still got it. And the jumping over the fire as a marriage rite!!! Oh, y’all, it’s such a beautifully powerful message, too. Roland was turned against Tiffany by Letitia, and then further pushed along the Cunning Man. But look at the way in which Tiffany and Letitia came to understand one another. Two witches refused to fall into the trap of an unnecessary competition, and Tiffany let go of her feelings for Roland, assuring Letitia that she had nothing to worry about. They are becoming actual friends.
What’s more repulsive to the Cunning Man? On top of it all, you have a Baron falling in love with and marrying a witch; symbolically, I couldn’t imagine a better weapon. I’d argue that all of these characters are the hare running into the flames. Yes, this chapter reveals how literal that motif is (BLESS YOU, PRATCHETT), since the Cunning Man is burned to death once they all run into the flames of the burning stubble. But marriage is running into the flames of the unknown; Tiffany marrying the two is running into the flames, as is her decision to directly face down the Cunning Man. This whole book has featured characters doing immensely difficult things to try and make it to the other side, whether that other side is forgiveness or healing or self-worth.
I also don’t want to ignore how viscerally terrifying this fight is. Like, the imagery of a murderer, possessed by the Cunning Man, who cannot feel his host body’s pain, being forced to run after these three young people? And knowing that he probably can’t run because the Cunning Man pushed Macintosh’s body so hard that there are certainly broken bones and torn muscles and ligaments and so, Macintosh’s body just kind of lurches towards the others? HI WHAT THE FUCK. This is pure horror, y’all, and I only hope to be able to write something this disturbing, okay???
But above all else, I want to praise the way Pratchett wrote Tiffany’s inner monologue. Y’all, this was so incendiary, so ferocious, and it’s a gorgeously angry summary of Tiffany’s journey throughout this book.
There will be no mercy for a song now silenced. No redemption for killing hope in the darkness. I know you.
You are what whispered in Petty’s ear before he beat up his daughter.
You are the first blast of rough music.
You look over the shoulder at the man as he picks up the first stone, and although I think you are part of us all and we will never be rid of you, we can certainly make your life hell.
No mercy. No redemption.
I spoke about this before, particularly when addressing the story of the Petty family, but much of this book is deeply complicated. The reader is not given easy answers in nearly any of the scenes. Pratchett’s depiction of Amber in particular resonated so much with me because it addressed the complex ways in which a person can deal with trauma, ways that often may not make sense to an outsider. The fact that Amber wanted to understand her parents? Not only is that Amber’s choice as a survivor, but I think there’s one key thing that Mr. Petty possessed that the Cunning Man does not:
I’d argue that this was the reason for the nettles he placed around the child, and when we see Mr. Petty later on, he seems to be full of shame. Does that mean everything is fine? No, not at all, and the work he’ll need to do will last the rest of his life. But the Cunning Man never pursues redemption; he never pursues mercy; he never feels regret or remorse or anything. He pursues his hatred without end, without love, without understanding.
So Tiffany defeats him using the exact same refusal of mercy and redemption that he offers his victims. She, Roland, and Letitia float through the fire, while the soon-to-be-wedded are wedded in the process, united after defeating misunderstanding and insecurity and fear, and the Cunning Man burns. And burns. And burns.
Let me also acknowledge how badass it is that a piece of flint turns liquid in Tiffany’s hand as her internal voice insults and curses the Cunning Man. It’s such a gorgeous display of anger and certainty:
And if you come back, Cunning Man, there will be another witch like me. There will always be another witch like me, because there are always going to be things like you, because we make space for them. But right now, on this bleeding piece of earth, I am the witch and you are nothing. By the blinking of my eyes, something wicked this way dies.
A hiss in her mind faded away and left her alone among her thoughts.
“No mercy,” she said aloud, “no redemption. You forced a man to kill his harmless songbird, and somehow I think that was the greatest crime of them all.”
The Cunning Man has been defeated. For now, of course, but in the aftermath? Tiffany has reconnected with Roland. She has made a new friend in Letitia, a witch who is learning what it is she might have to do for her steading. The world has changed, in between a funeral and a wedding, because that is what the world does.
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