Re-Reading ‘Wyrd Sisters’ – Discworld #6 by Terry Pratchett

‘Wyrd Sisters’ is a clever and amusing book but not quite clever enough or amusing enough to justify its length. What could have been an excellent 280-page novel, became an occasionally tedious 328-page novel.

This was a re-read for me and this time around, I was much more aware of and amused by the way in which Pratchett borrowed from and riffed on Shakespeare. I think my favourite amended line was when the playwright sums up the importance of theatre with tremendous honesty by saying ‘The pay’s the thing.’ I also enjoyed the interplay between the three witches, each with their own take on what being a witch means. The Duke and Duchess were good value. I especially enjoyed how unimpressed the, totally psychopathic, Duchess was by Granny Weatherwax’s headology.

‘Wyrd Sisters’ starts well but loses pace in the middle. It seemed to me that the whole messing with time thing took too long (which is counter-intuitive when I think about it). There are some wonderful highlights – the opening scene between the witches and the guards, the confrontation in the dungeons, Granny Weatherwax’s first encounter with theatre. Sadly, between these highlights, the plot meandered at a leisurely pace that left no joke, no matter how feeble behind. To stick with the river metaphor, this was a book where I had fun shooting a few rapids but where the white water gave way to long stretches of river that I just drifted through. My frustration at the lack of focus/editing by the frequent but almost always unnecessary footnotes. I know these are meant to be witty additions but I felt sorry for Bill Nye whose considerable talents are wasted on reading out scraps of humour that weren’t strong enough to make the cut and be in the main narrative.

Indira Varma’s narration was as close to perfect as I’m likely to hear. She has an excellent range of appropriate voices for the characters and she makes the prose sing, with just the right tone and pace.

After I wrote my review of Wyrd Sisters I listened to Joanne Harris’ afterword, recorded for the most recent audiobook version. She’s an author who always makes me think and she did it again with her afterword.

She started by sharing an anecdote about meeting Terry Pratchett for the first time at her first book signing. He was also there to sign his books. The bookshop was woefully unprepared for either of them. Terry Pratchett took charge and fixed things. It struck me, as I’m sure it was meant to, that he did this by channelling his inner Granny Weatherwax.

So now, having brought Terry Pratchett, circa 1988, to life in my imagination, Joanne Harris reminded me of all the things Terry Pratchett achieved in Wyrd Sisters:

  • his reframing of ‘Destiny’ or ‘Wyrd’ as something that we control rather than something that controls us;
  • his subversion of the authority, but not the power, of history, showing it as a story that we choose to believe rather than a record of what we know to be true;
  • his presentation of well-crafted words as a source of democratic, accessible-to-all, magic;
  • his use of references, snippets and paraphrasing from Shakespeare, like cloth squares to make a quilt with its own unique design.

Listening to and agreeing with these points, I wondered why my experience of re-reading Wyrd Sisters became tedious at times and realised that I’ve internalised so much of Pratchett’s world-view over the past decades that, while I still accept it, the glamour has worn off. This is not a bad thing. It just means that I now know Terry Pratchett better than I did when I first read Wyrd Sisters. I’ve also seen him rework the same themes with greater focus in later books.

So, my afterthoughts bring me to this simple conclusion: re-reading can never be the same as reading. In this re-read, I saw some things that I missed the first time but I was partly blind to some of the things that made the first read sparkle, partly because they were no longer new and partly because they were displayed in the shadow of all the Discworld books that came after this one.

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