To open the final Terry Pratchett novel is an emotional thing. To close it is even harder.
Many wonderful writers, from Neil Gaiman to A.S. Byatt, have expounded on Pratchett’s brilliance, the righteous anger that powered the prolific writer, his unfailing sense of fairness. The man also wrote a beautiful footnote. Over 41 novels, he created a fantasy world rich enough for readers to steep in and wry and wise enough to come back for another dip.
There also have been naysayers who claim the fantasy series doesn’t qualify as Great Literature and object to the outpouring of adulation for Pratchett, who died in March of this year. I have friends, who range from theologians to poets to research chemists, who would disagree in the strongest possible terms.
I will just say that The Shepherd’s Crown marks the first time I misted up at a dedication page. I read the words “For Esmerelda Weatherwax – mind how you go,” smoothed the page a couple of times, and shut the book until I could read it when other grown-ups were not around.
Pratchett is a vital part of my family’s cultural memory. It’s not a scientific poll, but two out of three Zipps usually have a Pratchett novel by their bedside at any given time.
I read my son the first three books in the "Tiffany Aching" series when he was in elementary school, starting with “The Wee Free Men.” After that, he took it from there, devouring “The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents” in two days.
After I lost my mother this year, Pratchett’s Discworld novels were among the only ones I could bear. (P.G. Wodehouse and John Mortimer also helped me stumble through those first, shocked weeks.)
So this is less of a review and more of a thank-you letter. Other folks can debate the relative literary merits of “The Shepherd’s Crown” – I was just grateful there was one more book.
For the uninitiated, Tiffany Aching is a shepherd’s daughter turned witch. In 2003’s “The Wee Free Men,” Tiffany is told that the monsters are returning to the world because there is no one to stop them. Tiffany, then nine, considers this for a long moment.
“There’s me,” she says.
(She’s also willing to use her younger brother as bait – witches are nothing if not hardheaded.)
Her allies are the Nac Mac Feegle, “pictsies,” six-inch tall, blue-tattooed, red-headed men with a taste for cattle rustling and strong drink.
After taking on the queen of the elves, in subsequent books Tiffany comes under the tutelage of the most powerful witch in the Discworld.
For me, Esmerelda Weatherwax is Pratchett’s greatest creation. (I also have heard persuasive arguments for Death, WHO SPEAKS IN ALL CAPITALS, or Carrot Ironfoundersson, adopted dwarf and member of the Night Watch.)
Esme Weatherwax was never one to put herself forward. (“She hadn’t ever needed to. Granny Weatherwax was like the prow of a ship. Seas parted when she turned up,” Pratchett writes in a footnote in “The Shepherd’s Crown.”) Early in the novel, a character asks her why, with all her power, she chose to stay in tiny Lancre in the Ramtops.
“And I never wanted the world – just a part of it, a small part that I could keep safe, that I could keep away from storms,” she says. “Not the ones of the sky, you understand: there are other kinds.”
A master of “headology,” Granny coerces or terrifies people into good behavior and glares at fires until they light out of sheer embarrassment. Magic, she reserves as a last resort. “She had a tendency to dish out advice whether wanted or not, such as the wisdom of not giving little Johnny handmade soldiers until he was old enough to know not to stuff them up his nose.” *
Tiffany (“the big wee hag,” in Nac Mac Feegle parlance), Granny Weatherwax (“the hag o’ hags”), and the Queen of the Elves all figure largely in “The Shepherd’s Crown.” Note to Tolkien fans: Pratchett’s elves are not like the elves you’re used to. They’re glittering, nasty, and cruel. Other reviews have given away the fairly giant spoiler in the second chapter. If you want to know what it is, you know where to find Google.
There’s also a young man who’d like to be a witch, gender norms be hexed, and is accompanied by particularly diabolical goat. Other recurring characters, from the beloved – Death, Nanny Ogg, Queen Magrat – to the not-so-fondly-remembered, Mrs. Earwig (pronounced Ah-widge), also figure in the run-up to the showdown with the elves.
Tiffany, who knows how to “just do the work you find in front of you,” and that the reward for shoveling well is to be handed a larger shovel, finds herself facing a far more difficult task than killing elves. She tries to teach the elven queen a new way of being – one with fewer gratuitous casualties.
“Although they are strangers, I simply think of them as people. All of them,” Tiffany tells the queen. “And you help other people – that’s how we do it.”
Her efforts at reform do not go down so well with some of the more warlike of her allies.
“I say to leave a space for goodness tae get in,” the Nac Mac Feegle bard says.
As his fans know, Pratchett always did.
Yvonne Zipp is the Monitor's fiction critic.
* Words to live by, certainly, but here are a few of my other favorites from earlier novels. On the nature of sin, when a young religionist tried to explain to her that there are so many shades of grey: “There’s no greys, only white that’s got grubby. I’m surprised you don’t know that,” she says. “And sin, young man, is when you treat people as things.” That theological interchange led to another immortal bit of wisdom: “When people say things are a lot more complicated than that, they mean they’re getting worried that they won’t like the truth.”
On being accused of saying something heartless: “Heartless it may be, but headless it ain’t. I’ve never claimed to be nice, just to be sensible.” She applied the same ruthlessness to her own life: “It’s just personal. Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is.” And, “I had to learn. All my life. The hard way. And the hard way’s pretty hard, but not as hard as the easy way.”