Granny Weatherwax hears a noise outside her witch’s cottage:
There was something in the garden.
It wasn’t much of a garden. There were the Herbs, and the soft fruit bushes, a bit of lawn, and, of course, the beehives. And it was open to the woods. The local wildlife knew better than to invade a witch’s garden.
Granny opened the door carefully.
The moon was setting. Pale silver light turned the world into monochrome.
There was a unicorn on the lawn. The stink of it hit her.
Terry Pratchett’s 1992 novel Lords and Ladies is about fairies, sprites and elves — but it’s not that kind of book.
This is not a book about cute fairies, sprites and elves. There is nothing sweet nor sentimental nor charming nor adorable about these fairies, sprites and elves.
Consider the ones in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, so you’re likely to remember them as playful and a bit naughty but basically harmless.
Think about it, though. They operate completely without morals. They use humans for their entertainment (including one human baby who’s the pet of Oberon, the King of the Fairies), and they even turn one into an ass. (Well, he was pretty much of an ass before, but a human one.) And they have great powers.
Shakespeare keeps them under his control so that the playgoer doesn’t consider such data. Instead, they come across as magical in a very entertaining way.
By contrast, Pratchett let’s ‘em loose. And they’re magical in a ghastly — and very inhuman — way.
Lords and Ladies is the story of what happens when the powers that keep these fairies, sprites and elves in their place weaken to such an extent that they can get out into our world and roam free.
The result is widespread wreckage and mayhem, and humans enslaved, tortured and killed.
They stink — and so does their unicorn.
But they’re so perfectly beautiful.
When signs begin to come that the fairies, sprites and elves are about to break into Discworld, Nanny Ogg, Granny’s partner in whatever you call what they do, can sleep for thoughts of what could happen:
“Take dwarfs and trolls, for e.g. People said: Oh, you can’t trust ‘em, trolls are OK if you’ve got ‘em in front of you, and some of ‘em are decent enough in their way, but they’re cowardly and stupid, and as for dwarfs, well, they’re greedy and devious devils, all right, fair enough, sometimes you meet one of the clever little sods that’s not too bad, but overall they’re no better’n trolls, in fact —
“— they’re just like us!
“They ain’t any prettier to look at and they’ve got no style. And we’re stupid, and the memory plays tricks, and we remember the elves for their beauty and the way they move, and forget what they were. We’re like mice saying, ‘Say what you like, cats have got real style.’”
Later, when Granny is trying to explain this to the King of Lancre, she gropes for the word that means “seein’ the other person’s point of view,” and the King prompts, “Empathy?”
“Right. None at all. Even a hunter, a good hunter, can feel for the quarry. That’s what makes ‘em a good hunter. Elves aren’t like that. They’re cruel for fun, and they can’t understand things like mercy. They can’t understand that anything apart from themselves might have feelings. They laugh a lot, especially if they’ve caught a lonely human or a dwarf or a troll. Trolls might be made out of rock, your majesty, but I’m telling you a troll is your brother compared to elves. In the head, I mean.”
Lords and Ladies is really a scary novel. I think this whole idea of fairies, sprites and elves unsettled Pratchett.
It’s not that he feared an invasion of our world by such creatures.
My suspicion is that, on some level, he saw such creatures among the humans of this world — humans who, somehow, had lost the ability to empathize.
How else to explain the layoffs of hundreds of workers to boost a tiny bit the value of a company’s stock — and boost a large bit the value of the president’s pay? The splashy advertising for unnecessary, overly expensive and even unhealthy stuff? The worship of the bottom line?
It’s also a very funny novel. Not only does Pratchett have Granny meet a long-ago love, but he has Nanny embrace a completely new one, and he has the third witch of the trio, Margrat Garlick, tromping around in heavy iron armor and swinging a heavy iron sword, ala Boudica or one of the Valkyries.
There are also Pratchett’s delightfully groan-worthy puns, such as his description of Lancre’s armory:
“There was armor for men. They was armor for horses. There was armor for fighting dogs. There was even armor for ravens, although King Grunt the Stupid’s plan for an aerial attack force had never really gotten off the ground.”
And his description of a cat who is trying to sneak away from the fairies, sprites and elves by scuttling into a suit of armor:
“The cat turned and tried to find a place of safety in the suit’s breastplate. He was beginning to doubt he’d make it through the knight.”
And when he has Nanny tell her amorous suitor that he should be fine joining her for a flight on her broomstick:
“Anyway, you should be right at home on one of these. Magrat says a broomstick is one of them sexual metaphor things.”*
When the reader goes to the bottom of the page to see the footnote that * indicates, the reader finds:
“* Although this is a phallusy.”
Patrick T. Reardon