Witches Abroad is a comic satire of epic proportions, in which author Terry Pratchett has managed to firmly convince at least one reader–and possibly thousands of readers–that he is a brilliantly witty, but wordy, wordsmith who knows witches better perhaps than anyone else, but his motives are unclear. Pratchett is no Aesop.
The story has no moral, even though it includes some valuable lessons and innovative thoughts. Pratchett’s creative genius shines as he develops a range of mostly witchy but loving characters to varying degrees, as appropriate to the work in which they appear. Magically. The setting for the story is fictitious Discworld, which is perched on the back of four elephants that ride on the back of a cosmically enormous turtle. Pratchett tells us some about Discworld: “Discworld exists right on the edge of reality. The least little things can break through to the other side.So, on the Discworld, people take things seriously.Like stories.Because stories are important.People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper. This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been. This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.” (page 7)Witches shatters or reframes countless numbers of preconceived notions about witches, allowing us to see them as fallible, vulnerable, emotional, and full of surprises.
We begin with Desiderata Hollow, a sweet old witch who is conscientious and caring about the world. She is a fairy godmother, and she does not take that responsibility lightly. She endlessly tries to do what is right, but gets lost by “trying too hard” in her efforts to do so. At one point she said, “It’s a big responsibility, fairy godmothering. Knowing when to stop, I mean. People whose wishes get granted often don’t turn out to be very nice people. So should you give them what they want—or what they need?”As Pratchett described, “Desiderata was a kindly soul. Fairy godmothers develop a very deep understanding about human nature, which makes the good ones kind and the bad ones powerful.
She was not someone to use extreme language, but it was possible to be sure that when she deployed a mild term like “a bee in her bonnet” she was using it to define someone whom she believed to be several miles over the madness horizon and accelerating.” Ms. Hollow is neat and responsible, but not very good at planning. She has not chosen a successor to take up the torch when her time comes. With one foot practically in the grave, she finally decides to hand her wand to a younger witch, named Magrat Garlick, who may or may not be properly suited to fill her shoes. Before she dies, she packages her wand up and arranges for it to be delivered to Magrat, along with a note. Then Desiderata calmly and peacefully engages in an interesting conversation with Death, who TALKS IN CAPITAL LETTERS and finally takes Desiderata to her maybe eternal resting place: a trench grave that is under a tree just outside her house. The personification of death is a motif or recurring theme in the narrative.
After her death, Ms. Hollow is buried by Albert Hurker, whose innermost thoughts the omniscient narrator reveals: “She’d definitely been one of the better witches, he thought, as he wandered back to the cottage in the pre-dawn gloom. Some of the other ones—while of course being wonderful human beings, he added to himself hurriedly, as fine a bunch of women as you could ever hope to avoid—were just a bit overpowering. Mistress Hollow had been a listening kind of person.” “As fine a bunch of women as you could ever hope to avoid.” Cute.
Hurker is given the task of delivering a secret package to Magrat. Along with the bequeathed wand, Magrat receives a note which sends her on a quest to prevent a marriage to a prince in the far away city of Genua. Against her desires, several of the old grandmotherly witches decide to go with her on her journey to this place where Lilith, a great witch who is a sort of queen of mirrors, has come to live in a fairytale world surrounded by innumerable mirrors that allow her to see into the lives of her enemies and victims.
The plot twists and turns through Magrat’s travels, where her group discusses many things and encounters dwarves, trolls, at least one wizard, a great king, and some less-notable characters. Pratchett deftly uses sentence fragments as complete thoughts, ending phrases with a period to get his point across. Although the points themselves are sometimes pointless, the ideas glow with originality and bring comic relief as the author effectively uses fragments, metaphors, and allusions to propel both narrative and dialogue. Somewhere in all this, the story begins to drag, but glimmers of hope appear along with Jason, the strong handsome son of one of the older witches. He is a blacksmith, and he really knows how to shoe a horse, no matter how spirited it may be. We may dare to hope that he will kindle a romance with our protagonista, but alas, this may be left for another story. No such thing happens in Witches Abroad. Reading this book was like eating too much dessert.
Each passage brought some emotional satisfaction, but at the end, it seemed like the entrée was still missing. There are a few good quotes from the book, however, that must be shared. For example, the “tuppence” allusion to Mary Poppins. Do you remember the song? With that allusion, Pratchett reveals a dialogue gone awry: “You can’t tell me that’s worth tuppence,” said Old Mother Dismass, from whatever moment of time she was currently occupying.No one was ever quite sure which it was.
It was an occupational hazard for those gifted with second sight. The human mind isn’t really designed to be sent rocketing backward and forward along the great freeway of time and can become, as it were, detached from its anchorage, seeing randomly into the past and the future and only occasionally into the present. Old Mother Dismass was temporally unfocused. This meant that if you spoke to her in August she was probably listening to you in March. It was best just to say something now and hope she’d pick it up next time her mind was passing through.
Granny waved her hands experimentally in front of Old Mother Dismass’s unseeing eyes.“She’s gone again,” she said. At one point in the story, the travelling band of witches encounters an overgrown castle that has clearly been put under a grotesque sleeping spell. People all over the place were covered in spider webs, and cooks in the kitchen stood sleeping by pots on the stove that were filled with moldy food. Even the mice in the pantry were asleep. “Hmm,” said Nanny, “There’ll be a spinning wheel at the bottom of this, you mark my words.” This allusion to Cinderella also gives opportunity to develop another unseen character in the story—Black Aliss, “Even Magrat knew about Black Aliss. She was said to have been the greatest witch who ever lived—not exactly bad, but so powerful it was sometimes hard to tell the difference.
When it came to sending palaces to sleep for a hundred years or getting princesses to spin straw into Glod, no one did it better than Black Aliss.” The small company tosses the spinning wheel out the window, it crashes to the ground and shatters, breaking the spell. The pretty girl wakes up. All the people awaken, grumpy, and chase the witches off as they fly away to safety. The happy endings in the story are somewhat pointless, because we never get to hear why the castle was put under the spell, or what ever happened to the pretty girl after she woke up, or anything to bring closure to the story within the story.