Why is Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters Such an Enduring Favourite?

Posted: April 27, 2015 in reading
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Past a certain point, my praise for the stories of the late great Terry Pratchett becomes pleasingly repetitive. Humour, humanism, quirky invention and offbeat observations – it’s there in everything from my best loved Pratchett to more recent works that haven’t grabbed me so much. So of course Wyrd Sisters, the sixth Discworld book, is a fabulous read. I loved it just as much re-reading it after his death as I did on first encountering it as a teenager. If you haven’t read it then you should – it’s as good a starting point for Discworld as any, and a fantastic work of fantasy.

All of which got me thinking – why does Wyrd Sisters stand out in the Pratchett mix?

A Favourite Among Favourites

Wyrd Sisters isn’t in my top three Discworld picks (Guards! Guards!, Pyramids and Small Gods, in case anyone cares). But it’s clearly among other people’s. When the Sword and Laser book club were voting on a Discworld book to read, this one came out on top. When someone put on a Discworld play while I was at university, they chose Wyrd Sisters, as well as choosing me for the role of diverse guards and other extras (for the record, I was a terrible actor, and it’s a mercy that I let that ambition go).

Wyrd Sisters is a great book, but so are most of the Discworld novels, so why does this one keep emerging from the pack?

Hitting His Stride

I think one of the answers is that this is about the point where Pratchett really got into the swing of Discworld. Many put that point a book or two earlier, which places this firmly in the comfort zone. That makes it memorable for those who read his books they were released, or who have read them in publication order.

Then there’s the Shakespeare references, and Pratchett riffing on the power of stories. It’s a theme he returned to from time to time, but here he combines it with spoofing The Bard, that bulwark of the English literary canon. Whether you loath or idolise Shakespeare, that probably creates extra associations.

More than anything though, I think it’s the witches. This wasn’t Granny Weatherwax’s first appearance, but it saw her team up with Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick. In a move that still remains shockingly unusual in fantasy literature, the book is led not just by a woman but by a group of women, all of them lovable and admirable in their own ways, all very distinctive both from each other and from familiar fantasy tropes. These aren’t a bunch of sexy arse-kicking heroines, but they’re still fascinating people and a hell of a lot of fun to read about. They feel like real people, with all their quirks, strengths and failings, albeit people who cast spells and ride flying brooms.

I expect that Pratchett will be loved for years to come, and I expect that Wyrd Sisters will be too. So if you haven’t read it, please do. And if you have, let me know what you think – is this one of the man’s greats, and what about it stands out for you?

  1. skudssister says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with the Shakespeare thing. Pratchett took delight in taking the rise out of different themes in each book but some of them need a certain amount of specialist knowledge – of modern communications, of steam trains, of chess, ancient Egypt, whatever. Shakespeare is so much a part of our culture that most of us get the allusions even if we think we don’t know any Shakespeare. As a second theme – or even a story arc, since it carries on through various other books featuring the witches – we have the whole triple aspect thing of maiden, mother and crone. And this is another one which is so deeply imbedded in our culture that we forget we know about it…

    • I hadn’t thought about the triple aspect, beyond its Macbeth connection, but you’re quite right – it’s such a familiar and resonant concept that it adds to the power of this story and the others with the witches. I think part of what I like about Pratchett’s approach is that he reflects on what those aspects represent as real people, not just mythical archetypes, grounding them and showing their different facets.

  2. Ender's Shadow says:

    As someone interested in politics and economics, ‘Making Money’ is probably my favourite, whilst the whole motif of Vetinari’s subtle use of ultimately despotic power to achieve the best for Ankh-Morpork appeals strongly to me; I would love to have read the stories of Vetinari’s becoming Patrician, and how he dealt with his own departure (Carrot as his successor?). However the concept of wise manipulation is, of course, central to Weird Sisters, so it does indeed appeal!

    • I’m a big fan of Vetinari too, though I feel he’s a character where less is more. In recent books I felt like we were seeing so much of him that he was losing some of his Machiavellian mystique.

  3. Sue Archer says:

    I just started reading Pratchett, and I am still trying to figure out what I think. I’ve read a couple of the books (one older, one newer) and the styles are so different that they don’t even feel like the same author really. The older one made me laugh at the satire, and the newer one just felt slow, like I didn’t get it. I’ll have to take a look at your faves!

    • Ender's Shadow says:

      Interesting comment about the newer books feeling ‘slower’. I wonder if that is because for those of us who’ve read a lot, there are cross references that make it more lively which are lost on a new reader. Or perhaps the topics of the satire in the particular books aren’t so interesting to you; I love ‘Going Postal’ and ‘Making Money’ because they’re about things that amuse me, whilst ‘Unseen Academicals’ football motif doesn’t scratch where I itch so much.

      • Sue Archer says:

        You’ve got a good point there! The newer one I read was ‘Unseen Academicals,’ and I’ve never been a sports fan. So that probably doesn’t help. But it did also feel like nothing was happening for a while – which is maybe where better knowledge of the characters and the world might have made it more interesting. I’ll have to look up ‘Making Money’ since that looks like it’s more up my alley.

        • Ender's Shadow says:

          Read ‘Going Postal’ before ‘Making Money’ – it introduces the main character in both, and he’s extraordinary, and you’ll miss a lot if you don’t meet him from the beginning of his career!

  4. glenatron says:

    Interestingly this isn’t my favourite Discworld novel ( Night Watch by a considerable margin ) nor even my favourite Discworld novel about the witches whilst riffing on Shakespeare, but I do remember it being pretty good. I think it’s a testament to his work that I can remember so many of his books so distinctly when I have read so many of them.

    • There are very few of his books that don’t include at least a few standout details. As you say, it’s a testament to his work, and to the sheer imagination of the man that he came out with so many distinctive variations within the same setting.

      • Ender's Shadow says:

        “t’s a testament to… to the sheer imagination of the man that he came out with so many distinctive variations within the same setting.”

        Not quite valid; most of his books take a feature of our world and satirise it; thus China, Australia, railway building, economics, policing, warfare, football, the film industry etc all get their day in a Pratchett novel. That his mythos gives him space to play with all these is indeed its wonder, but the seed comes from our present experience. This is in contrast with something like Larry Niven’s ‘Ringworld’, where the concept is outside our present experience. Thus Pratchett is in the tradition of Swift’s ‘Gulliver’.

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