“Just when things are going well, there’s always bloody destiny.”
Wyrd Sisters is the sixth book of the Discworld saga and it was published in 1988. It can be considered as the first of the witches saga, even if its main character Granny Weatherwax had already appeared in the third book Equal Rites.
I consider this book one of the most memorable of the entire Discworld saga, and possibly one of the main reasons that led me to adore the witches’ books perhaps above all the others. There are so many things I love of Wyrd Sisters! The plot is extremely well developed and it can be enjoyed on multiple levels, plus the main characters are all splendid, and it’s no coincidence that they would reappear in many other Discworld adventures.
In two words, the plot can be summarized as follows (and I will avoid big spoilers for those who haven’t read the book). In the small kingdom of Lancre, King Verence I is assassinated by his cousin Felmet. Unfortunately for him, the crown and the king’s son are entrusted to three witches: Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. Initially, they decide to entrust little Tomjon to a travelling theater company, claiming that things will follow their course and that the child will fulfill his destiny to become king one day. But when Felmet is doing too much damage to the kingdom, they decide to intervene more actively…
First of all, the story of the rightful king who has to fight to get what he deserves is a classic fantasy theme (actually, it can be found even beyond fantasy literature). It’s revisited here with more than an unexpected twist, and it’s also something that Pratchett himself revisited several times, think of Carrot in Guards! Guards!. Naturally, the overarching theme of the book is destiny (wyrd), as Tomjon is destined to become king.1
Then, Wyrd Sisters owes a lot to Shakespeare, as it was inevitable given its themes. I’m thinking of the three witches of Macbeth who are presented as three weird sisters (where weird sounds exactly like wyrd of Pratchett’s title), as well as the illegitimate king and the theatrical company used to unmask him as in Hamlet, but there are also elements from King Lear and Richard III here and there. The references are so clear that there’s even a character named Hwell,who writes plays and wants to open a Dysk Theatre (many of Shakespeare’s plays were performed for the first time in the Globe Theatre at the beginning of the XVII century)!
But it wouldn’t be a Pratchett book if in addition to these high references there weren’t a thousand others including some to the comedy of the Marx Brothers or to Stephen King’s The Shining. As usual, though, it’s not necessary to get all the references scattered here and there to appreciate the book!
One of the elements that make this book incredibly good are the three protagonists: the three witches of the title couldn’t be more different from each other and perhaps for this reason their chemistry is exceptional. There’s Granny Weatherwax, the most powerful witch in the entire Discworld, but I love how Nanny Ogg is possibly equally powerful, although she doesn’t brag about it. Granny is an old spinster, Nanny is responsible for one of Lancre’s largest families, and their dialogues are all brilliant! Even Magrat manages to get noticed, despite being the youngest and least experienced, and how can we forget Greebo the cat? It’s an adorable sweetie (according to the sole Nanny)!
Granny Weatherwax is THE Pratchettian character of this book: resolutive, wise, outspoken… And there’s one sentence in particular that makes me think that, more than any other, this is the character to whom Terry attributed many of his personal characteristics:2 “Granny Weatherwax was often angry. She considered it one of her strong points di lei. Genuine anger was one of the world’s greatest creative forces. But you had to learn how to control it. That didn’t mean you let it trickle away. It meant you dammed it, carefully, let it develop a working head, let it drown whole valleys of the mind and then, just when the whole structure was about to collapse, opened a tiny pipeline at the base and let the iron-hard stream of wrath power the turbines of revenge.” Neil Gaiman, who knew Pratchett well, used to say that Terry wasn’t jolly, he was angry.
In any case, on closer inspection, there’s a bit of Pratchett all over the book. For example, an attentive reader won’t miss his love for cats…3
In short: a wonderful story, unforgettable characters, an inimitable sense of humor,4 and the very beginning of the witches’ saga make Wyrd Sisters an essential book, at least in the humble opinion of the writer. Ciao!
1. Another sentence that defines well the theme of the book is the following: “Destiny is important, see, but people go wrong when they think it controls them. It’s the other way around.“
2. I like to think that the following characteristic of Granny was also something that Pratchett thought of having himself: “Granny Weatherwax was not lost. She wasn’t the kind of person who ever became lost. It was just that, at the moment, while she knew exactly where SHE was, she didn’t know the position of anywhere else”
3. ““I hate cats.” Death’s face became a little stiffer, if that were possible. The blue glow in his eye sockets flickered red for an instant. “I SEE,” he said. The tone suggested that death was too good for cat haters.”
4. Here’s another great quote: “Things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things.”