A Magnificent Send-off
One of the most endearing peculiarities of the Discworld, Terry Pratchett’s bestselling fantasy series satirising the beliefs and behaviours of Earth, is that witches know the precise hour of their death. Some hold their funerals in advance so as not to miss out on a good party; all tidy their homes beforehand, ready for the next occupant.
Pratchett may not have known the hour of his death – which in the event took place in March this year, when he was 66 – but having suffered what he called “the embuggerance” of Alzheimer’s since his diagnosis in 2007, he knew it was coming. But there will be no future mastermind of the Discworld. His daughter, the award-winning writer Rhianna Pratchett, once rumoured to be taking it on, has rightfully said that nothing further should be done. And yet in this, his 41st Discworld novel, now his last, Pratchett gets his house in order beautifully.
This isn’t just a great Discworld book, it’s extraordinary; a proper send-off for Pratchett and this mammoth series. It is shot through with an elegiac tone, you have a sense of it being his own “play’s last scene”. If this wasn’t intentional, it’s a bloody good coincidence.
Earlier themes and characters return for a last hurrah (impressively without once feeling like an episode of This is Your Life) anchored by one of Pratchett’s most popular recent characters, young witch Tiffany Aching. Now at the height of her powers, while still very much eligible for a Young Person’s Railcard, Tiffany is forced to confront her old enemy, the elves. Longstanding Discworld readers first encountered them 25 years ago in Lords and Ladies, a magnificently creepy reinterpretation of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream with much nastier fairies. They have not improved over time.
Their reappearance calls for a convocation of witches, which means a welcome return for one of Pratchett’s earliest creations, Magrat Garlick, now queen of the hilly kingdom of Lancre, and opera singing Agnes Nitt, sadly AWOL since 1998’s Carpe Jugulum. Pratchett’s trademark footnotes are filled with references to past stories, and new readers may struggle to keep up – but after all, this is a finale, not an introduction.
Never one to avoid tackling the elephant in the room, Pratchett confronts mortality early on with the death of one of his most cherished characters. Discworld regularly deals with death, but rarely with cornerstones of that universe. Lord Vetinari, Granny Weatherwax, Samuel Vimes: Pratchett’s creations, like the author, feel eternal. That any should die is unthinkable and I will freely confess to sitting dumbly over my book, crying.
Pratchett has never been a sentimental writer, but there is an expansiveness here that is new and reflective. He introduces a new kind of magic, “calm-weaving”, an extreme form of likeability seen in a boy called Geoffrey who wants to become a witch. Thus the idea of a girl becoming a wizard, first explored in 1987’s Equal Rites, is echoed here with the reverse idea, bolstering Pratchett’s principle that the most impressive magic of all is “headology”, or understanding the human psyche.
Having spent the last 30 years raising an amused eyebrow at the quirks of human nature, Pratchett uses his final novel to examine the power of humanity. Even Pratchett’s most ghastly creation, Letice Earwig (pronounced “ar-wij” ) proves to have something worthwhile underneath her pretensions. There is the potential for decency in all of us, he says.
Touching on 2001’s Thief of Time in which a seemingly inhuman creature develops a soul, an elf has a similar awakening here. Change is happening in Discworld: there is no place for elves and their mindless cruelty. Even trolls and goblins serve a useful purpose, to which I find myself grimly thinking, “if only Pratchett had been in charge of the internet”.
None of this is to say that Pratchett has gone soft. His trademark wisdom and seemingly bottomless knowledge remains sharp: “Alas for us, our dreams came true,” says one character – one wonders what a Discworld X Factor might have been like. As ever with this series, there is a delight to be had in knowing you will spot another intriguing reference when you read it again. I noticed Monty Python, Alice and Wonderland, Neil Armstrong and Thatcher for starters, but who knows what I missed?
It is entirely Pratchettian to give the reader an opportunity to mourn fiction and reality at the same time. His death came too early, that disease unfair. The book ends with a moving afterword from his long-time assistant Rob Wilkins, which generously includes ideas that Pratchett had for future books we will never read. This last is a magnificent sign-off.
Kat Brown in The Daily Telegraph
Pratchett’s characteristic generosity is very much at the fore of this final Tiffany Aching tale, the last Discworld novel from the author, who died in March. Fans will also find plenty of other well-loved elements: exuberant wordplay, vaudevillian humor, the rambunctious blue-skinned Nac Mac Feegle, and—beneath it all—a susurrus of shivery archetype and myth. The death of a powerful witch, an event most solemn and heartfelt, reverberates throughout the world and sets the crackling adventure in motion. Sensing a new weakness in the barrier that separates their realm from the Disc, the cruel elves of Fairyland prepare for an invasion. Meanwhile, Tiffany is stretched thin in her work as witch and all-around healer when her responsibilities expand to include a second community. At the same time, peaceful Geoffrey—a character new to the series—heads toward the town of Lancre with the aim of becoming a witch, though women traditionally hold that position. As Tiffany, Geoffrey, and others gather to combat the elvish incursion, Pratchett allows some longtime characters to reveal surprising new qualities, including the delightfully insufferable Letice Earwig (“pronounced ah-wij,” of course) and Nightshade, Queen of the Elves—Tiffany’s foe from her earliest adventure. Rather than tie everything up with a simple happily-ever-after, the ending leaves Tiffany poised to begin a new phase of adulthood—one with the potential for adventures that are now up to readers to imagine. Pratchett’s final work is a tour de force of compassion, great wit, and gleeful storytelling. He will be missed. Ages 13–up. Reviewed on 09/04/2015 | Details & Permalink
Terry Pratchett’s final novel has an unexpected dedication to one of his own characters: “For Esmerelda Weatherwax – mind how you go.” Granny Weatherwax, who became more and more complex in the long series of Discworld novels in which she appears, was one of Pratchett’s most-loved creations. She is sharp and harsh as well as strong and wise, fearsome as well as resourceful. The beginning of The Shepherd’s Crown is an account of her death, which, being a witch, she is able to foresee accurately and to prepare for. Death, when he comes to fetch her, speaks his admiration. Her fellow witches bury her in a wicker cradle in a forest clearing, and the wizard Ridcully arrives weeping on a broomstick. Everything is changed. And the world of witches rearranges itself, with Tiffany Aching at its centre.
I’ve been thinking of that phrase “Mind how you go”, and the difference between Terry Pratchett’s death and the end of Granny Weatherwax. She will indeed go on. But we have lost him. Like her, he made the world a better and livelier and more complicated place. We shall miss him. Very much.
The story of the novel has two main threads – the problems of Tiffany’s succession as the chief witch, and another battle with the elves, who invade the world through the gaps in its defences left by the loss of Granny. There are new things – a calm and interesting young male witch with a highly intelligent goat, a strange interlude among lumberjacks, a study of a society in which old men have nothing to do and very thick and problematic toenails.
And there are old things. Pratchett’s elves are the opposite of Tolkien’s. Tolkien’s mystic and lordly elves have an ambivalent relationship with humans. Pratchett’s are glamorous and nasty. They destroy things – washing, children – for the pleasure of it. As a child I knew that elves were nasty not nice, but also exciting. Neil Gaiman has famously said of Pratchett that he was not “a jolly old elf” – he was angry. He wrote increasingly about worlds in which real harm happens and increasingly about real efforts to prevent it. In The Shepherd’s Crown, which is part of a group of novels claiming to be for “young adults”, evil and anger still take the form of fairy story and myth. But the reader experiences them sharply.
Something I came to love about Pratchett was his inability to go on disliking either a character or a race. In his early novels vampires are disgusting and nasty. But then he gets interested in them, he lets them cautiously in as Captain Vimes lets them reluctantly into the Ankh-Morpork Watch, he allows them a black ribbon of temperance (eschewing human blood) and we come to love them – or some of them. Goblins in early stories are conveniently unpleasant creatures, but then Pratchett and his characters start to like them, and the hidden music they turn out to have, and they become, despite their persisting stink, part of Ankh-Morpork society.
Vimes himself goes through a series of changes, from a hopeless drunk in a gutter, to a teetotal, brave and decent policeman, the descendant of a regicide who, along with the ruling tyrant of Ankh-Morpork, keeps a kind of order in a naturally fractious, frequently violent, mess of a society. He marries the large Lady Sybil Ramkin, dragon expert, and becomes the Duke of Ankh. Then there is the innocent Carrot, brought up as a dwarf, who comes to join the Guard with a plain sword and an odd birthmark. At first he is simple, but he becomes both politically and humanly more complicated. Nothing in Pratchett stays still and his inventive energy, book after book after book, is astounding. Yet, as I say, the increasing complexity of the characters is accompanied by an increasing likableness as well as interest.
There are two cases of such potential shifts of personality in The Shepherd’s Crown. The first is the Fairy Queen herself, who is defeated, sheared of her wings and her glamour by her opponent Peaseblossom, and thrown out of Fairyland. She is captured by Tiffany, who feels it is her duty to try to teach the elf to understand kindness, help, friendship, as well as alien concepts such as work. The scenes in which the bedraggled queen simply cannot understand the point of any of these things are simple and strong. There is a moment when she is instructed to give a pie to an old woman and perhaps feels something she has never known. Is Tiffany about to change the nasty nature of the elves themselves for the better?
On a quite different scale is the tiresome, affected, irritating witch Letice Earwig, dangling with bracelets and charms, who writes dreadful books about magic and tries to run things she can’t. Every time she appears Pratchett mocks her and we laugh. And then suddenly he can’t go on simply sneering at her and she turns out to be not only stalwart in the battle with the elves, but the only witch who is impervious to their glamour. She would have become someone different if the story had only gone on.
The death of Granny Weatherwax is the end of one whole strand of Pratchett’s tale. The later witches are not the same – more in the world, less epic. Another thing which has changed for ever appears to be the place of iron in the Discworld. At the end Tiffany is saying to the Fairy King that he must go back into his own world. Hers is now full of iron – principally the new railway, which was built in Raising Steam. And elves cannot coexist with iron, hot or cold. I have to say that I was unhappy about the railway, wittily and imaginatively though it was described. It brought the Discworld too close to our own realm.
I started to read Pratchett out of a need for other worlds as well as the one I lived in. I like the alien geography, the octarine colour, the magic that was tough and neither technical nor sentimental. I was happy enough with the clacks, a system of message towers cleverly rhyming with fax when we first knew faxes, a kind of telegraph in mountains and wildernesses. I used to argue with journalists who asked me if the Discworld was not all simply satire of our world and I would say, no, no, it is an imaginary world with its own ways.
The only books I never reread are the one with “music with rocks in” (Soul Music) and the film one (Moving Pictures), which are simply satires of our earthly society. During his long career Pratchett moved further and further from fantasy and more and more into moral and social exploration – which he did with sly wit and some savagery. Those later books were better books than the early fantasies. I wasn’t surprised when he wrote a (good) Dickensian novel about 19th-century society. But also I was losing the escape I had first found. I saw the Discworld long before I read Pratchett – a flat disc balanced on four elephants on top of a giant turtle. It was an illustration in Asgard and the Gods, a book about Norse mythology which my mother had used at cambridge, which I reread every week during my wartime childhood. (I think the image was an illustration of Hindu cosmology.) Somehow – for me – the railway has dragged the Discworld screaming and kicking into the 21st century – where I don’t quite want to be.
So I thought that the coming of the railway, like the death of Granny Weatherwax, was an elegy for a world I had inhabited. The Discworld had come to rest. And then I read the afterword to The Shepherd’s Crown, by Rob Wilkins, who tells us that Pratchett wrote several books simultaneously. We shall now never know, says Wilkins, “how the old folks of Twilight Canyons solve the mystery of a missing treasure and defeat the rise of a Dark Lord despite their failing memories, nor the secret of the crystal cave and the carnivorous plants, nor how Constable Feeney solves a whodunit among the congenitally decent and honest goblins” … and more. There would, there should, have been more.
We shall miss him. His loss is a persisting embuggerance. A.S.Byatt in The Guardian
Fairies, elves, pixies and goblins, exiled from contemporary literature of any quality by the end of the 19th century, have gradually worked their way back into popular adult imagination. Rescued from sentimentality by Kipling and Tolkien, given new life by Philip Pullman and the late Diana Wynne Jones, their most popular advocate over the last 40 years has been the one and only Sir Terry Pratchett. His death in March, aged 66, after writing 70 novels enjoying sales of around 85 million copies, has robbed fantasy literature of its brightest star. But there was still one more novel to come before he succumbed to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, first diagnosed in 2007. And against all the odds, it remains 343 pages of high-octane literary enjoyment.
The Shepherd’s Crown, the 41st addition to his Discworld series, continues the story of young witch Tiffany Aching, first met four novels ago in The Wee Free Men. But this final work contains no bewildering flashbacks or anything else taken for granted in the Discworld cosmology. Sir Terry had a new tale to tell, and launches into it at top speed. The basic situation is familiar to fantasy writing going back at least as far as Malory’s 15th-century Le Morte d’Arthur, in which a junior acolyte is forced to take on heavy adult responsibilities and avert widespread disaster following the death of their trusted mentor. For Tiffany, this happens after the passing of her adored old witch friend Granny Weatherwax. Times are dangerous, because previously excluded elves with “cold narrow faces” are now planning to retake Discworld for good. Believing only in “nastiness for the sake of being nasty,” and with hints of diabolical torture methods thrown in but never described in detail, they are evil personified. Their final elimination in this story through war is complete but unsubtle, reminiscent of the moral oversimplifications also found in the various battle scenes in CS Lewis’s Narnia series.
But while the structures of The Shepherd’s Crown are not new, the treatment is. Tiffany is more district nurse than traditional witch, flying on her broomstick between mostly aged patients, helping out even to the extent of having to cut old, gnarled toenails. Too busy to pursue her romance with nice young man Preston, working as a doctor in a faraway town, she lives in a traditional rural setting among farmers and blacksmiths. There are also pig-borers, who save a lot of squealing by talking to pigs at such length that the poor animals finally die of boredom. This information is conveyed in one of many fun footnotes. Sir Terry also clearly enjoys himself whenever the Feegles come on the page. These six-inch-high redheads share the same physical toughness found in Richard Dadd’s fairy paintings and speak in Scottish dialect as broad as it is long. The same could be said about some of the author’s other introductions of humour. Knicker jokes abound, along with jocular references to privies and “no trousers” areas.
There is no evidence that Sir Terry’s degenerative illness affected the quality of this prose. Some scenes were written two years ago, given that he usually had more than one novel on the go. A few clichés of the “foaming tankard” type get past, but this is still an author delighting in the fertility of his imagination. Granny Weatherwax’s collection of herbs, for example, includes “Doubting Plums, Ginny Come Nether, Twirlabout, Tickle My Fancy, Jump in the Basin, Jack-go-to-bed and-never-get up, Daisy-upsy-Daisy and Old Man Root”. There are also affectionate references to Dad’s Army, and one particular witch, stuck-up Mrs Earwig, is given a line made famous by Mrs Thatcher. But Sir Terry never becomes stuck in the past. While the male Feegles only think about fighting while leaving their wives to get on with household jobs, Tiffany herself is very much a new woman, taking on a male apprentice for the first time in witch history.
The message of this novel is not a complex one. Tiffany epitomises and preaches humanist tolerance, kindness and understanding, and finally manages to convince the once vicious Queen of the Elves about the importance of forming and then preserving friendships. This message is repeated several times, but who would wish to deny the old word wizard a final extended say in what turned out to be his last book (although there were others still at the planning stage)? With each chapter heading accompanied by an illustration from Paul Kidby in the softest of pencil sketches, this story is the ultimate in crossover fiction, extending a continually seductive welcome to readers of almost any age. But what an uninspired cover! Young witches are better imagined than pictured, and Tiffany, along with her cat named You, is made to look more smug head girl than a soon to be super-hag.
But Sir Terry’s prose is so richly visual that readers will soon find themselves substituting their own mental pictures instead, which is probably what he always wanted. The moment when Mister Death, who talks in capital letters, tells Granny Weatherwax that her time is up is also moving, given that Sir Terry knew that his own end was shortly to follow. “YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT,” Death informs her. The same could and should be said of this extraordinarily hard-working author, creator of so many fascinating new worlds peopled by unforgettable characters. Nicholas Tucker, The Independent
With his big Gandalf-style hat and white beard, Sir Terry Pratchett slightly resembled a shorter version of Tolkien’s famous wizard. He himself was certainly a wizard of the page, the most endearing comic novelist since P.G. Wodehouse. But, unlike Wodehouse, he wasn’t just funny; Pratchett was also a moralist. Throughout his tales about the half-medieval, half-Dickensian magic kingdom of Discworld, he skewered bigotry, jingoism, cruelty and every kind of intolerance and zealotry. At the close of The Truth (2000), for instance, he spoke up plainly for political and cultural diversity: “Pulling together is the aim of despotism and tyranny. Free men pull in all kinds of directions.”
Only 66 when he died this past March, Pratchett had been battling posterior cortical atrophy — a kind of early onset Alzheimer’s disease — since 2007. Despite this “embuggerance,” he managed, with help, to keep producing books, publishing a final “adult” Discworld novel, Raising Steam, in 2013 and now The Shepherd’s Crown, the fifth, and sadly last, of the thrilling adventures of the young witch Tiffany Aching.
Tiffany was first introduced in The Wee Free Men (2003), which opens with a powerful witch named Miss Tick detecting “a definite ripple in the walls of the world.” Could another realm or dimension be trying to break through? Fortunately, the occult signs indicate that there is another witch nearby. Yet when Miss Tick scries into a saucer of water, she glimpses only the 9-year-old daughter of a sheepherding family. But Tiffany Aching — as any adult reader of fantasy immediately knows and any child-reader will fondly hope — is no ordinary little girl.
As the story progresses, Tiffany’s life of babysitting and churning butter is overturned. Six-inch-tall blue men with red hair, wearing kilts, float down a nearby river in a little boat. Ravenous fairy-tale monsters lunge up from the roiling water. Sudden silences and blurs pervade the landscape.
When she finally encounters Miss Tick and her toad companion, Tiffany learns that the wee men are the fearsome Nac Mac Feegle, sometimes referred to as “pictsies” (typical Pratchett wordplay — pixies with the drunken, warlike habits of the ancient Picts). But what about the other disturbing stuff going on?
“ ‘Another world is colliding with this one,’ said the toad. . . . ‘All the monsters are coming back.’
“ ‘Why?’ said Tiffany.
“ ‘There’s no one to stop them.’
“There was silence for a moment.
“ ‘There’s me,’ said Tiffany.”
Even now, I feel a thrill just typing those words. At the conclusion of The Wee Free Men, Tiffany learns about the true nature of witchcraft from one of Pratchett’s most beloved characters, the greatest of all witches, Esmerelda Weatherwax. ”We look to . . . the edges,” says Mistress Weatherwax. “There’s a lot of edges, more than people know. Between life and death, this world and the next, night and day, right and wrong . . . an’ they need watchin’. We watch ’em, we guard the sum of things.”
In the subsequent books about Tiffany — A Hat Full of Sky (2004), Wintersmith (2006) and I Shall Wear Midnight (2010) — Pratchett follows the apprentice witch as she learns her craft and gradually reveals her mastery. Yet, like Granny Weatherwax herself, Tiffany spends most of her time just helping others as a midwife, herbalist and comforter to the sick and afflicted. Above all, she remains firmly connected to the soil and traditions of her home territory or “steading,” the Chalk.
When The Shepherd’s Crown begins, Tiffany has grown into a young woman, utterly devoted to her work but also hoping for a life with her friend Preston, currently a medical student in the capital city of Ankh-Morpork.
Pratchett quickly establishes three main storylines. In one, the gentle youngest son of Lord Swivel rebels against the brutal traditions of his father. Geoffrey loves animals, refuses to eat meat, abhors fox hunting — and possesses a strange power to calm and defuse tense situations. Seeking a purpose in life, Geoffrey eventually decides to become a witch. Of course, witches are traditionally women, but need they be? In a way, Pratchett here reprises the theme of Equal Rites (1987), in which a young girl felt it her destiny to become a wizard.
In his second storyline, Pratchett describes the quiet death of Granny Weatherwax and its consequences. The old woman cleans her little house, feeds her cat (whose name is You), and puts on her best witch’s dress. She carefully places two pennies on a small bedside table and leaves a short note. When Death — another of Pratchett’s most notable recurrent characters — comes for her, he asks why she was content to live in this tiny little country when she could have been anything and anybody in the world.
Granny replies sharply: “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. Not the ones of the sky, you understand: there are other kinds.”
To which, Death — who always speaks in capital letters — answers, “A VERY GOOD LIFE INDEED, ESMERELDA.”
Granny’s note, discovered by her friend Nanny Ogg, reads in part, “All of it goes to Tiffany Aching except the cat, You. She’ll go where she wants to.” Despite the clear implication that Tiffany will become the leading witch of her time, the immediate result is that the overworked young woman must now look after both the Chalk and Granny’s steading. Shuttling back and forth by broom between the two, she is soon overextended and exhausted.
Meanwhile, the death of the most senior of the witches results in a weakening of the forces that guard Discworld. The kelda — or queen — of the Nac Mac Feegle warns Tiffany: “We mus’ watch the gateways, and ye mus’ tak’ great care. For them ye don’t wish to know might be seeking ye out.” The attack, we soon learn, will come from Faery, from the amoral, heartless elves whose dazzling glamour alone can leave adversaries feeling demoralized and defeated.
As the situation grows desperate, Tiffany encounters her old enemy, the Queen of the Fairies; the Nac Mac Feegle prepare for war; Geoffrey discovers a secret weapon; and the witches of Discworld cease their usual squabbling and assemble. When the Elvish armies finally pour through the gateway, they find waiting for them the indomitable Tiffany Aching and her friends.
The Shepherd’s Crown is certainly a worthy crown to Terry Pratchett’s phenomenal artistic achievement, though sharp readers will recognize that some elements — Geoffrey’s calming talent, the mysterious cat, You — are never fully developed. Moreover, anyone expecting lots of laughs will need to revisit some of the other books set on Discworld. While the Nac Mac Feegle are consistently amusing, much of this novel concerns itself with death and life’s purpose, while also examining the claims of tradition against the need for change and progress. Above all, though, The Shepherd’s Crown — like all of Pratchett’s fiction — stresses the importance of helping others. Beyond this, I think that Pratchett’s farewell advice would be to follow his witches’ sensible principle: “Just do the work you find in front of you and enjoy yourself.”
Michael Dirda, in Washington Post
And so it ends. The Shepherd’s Crown: The 41st and final Discworld novel, from the soaring imagination of Terry Pratchett, is the last book in a series that has won millions of fans since it began in 1983 with The Colour of Magic.
It is five months since Sir Terry died, aged 66, from what he called his “embuggerance” – the Alzheimer’s he raged against since he was diagnosed in 2007.
It’s impossible to open the book without a sense of melancholia, and it feels like the author embarked upon the writing of it weighted with the same. He knew when he sat down to write it that it would be his last Discworld, his final book.
As such, it’s difficult to see The Shepherd’s Crown as anything other than Sir Terry’s farewell letter to his legion of fans – though of course, this being a Pratchett, it’s pretty fine novel in its own right.
It has a plot, of course – several of them, all twining around young Tiffany Aching, the witch introduced in The Wee Free Men who has grown through a variety of Discworld novels. Much of the excitement revolves around the return of elves from Fairyland to visit all kinds of mischief and trouble on Discworld.
This is essentially Tiffany’s coming of age novel, of a young woman on the cusp of adulthood who has greatness thrust upon her. It’s about endings – the first part of the novel deals with the death of a much-loved character from the early books in the series, and there won’t be a dry eye in the house.
But it’s also about beginnings, and change, and progressiveness, and duty. There’s a boy who wants to be a witch, against all tradition. There’s a fairy queen cast out from her realm, amazed at how the world’s changed while she’s been cloistered away. There’s a tug-and-pull between family and work as Tiffany wrestles with whether the modern senior witch can really have it all.
The Discworld series has outgrown its comic fantasy roots – despite the central conceit of a flat world balanced on four elephants on the back of a giant turtle swimming through space – to become astute observations on the human condition.
According to the afterword by Sir Terry’s assistant, Rob Wilkins, “The Shepherd’s Crown has a beginning, a middle and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died.”
That acknowledged, The Shepherd’s Crown is a sometimes sad, often funny and eminently suitable testament to the life and career of Terry Pratchett.
Perhaps the very final words should go to Pratchett’s Death, his version of the Grim Reaper who speaks in capitals, and opines most suitably in The Shepherd’s Crown: WE ARE ALL FLOATING IN THE WINDS OF TIME … AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT, AND IF YOU ASK ME, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT. David Barnett in Independent on Sunday
Book of the Day. Terry Pratchett’s Farewell to Discworld
All the best-loved authors, it seems, now leave a last book, to be published posthumously – Joan Aiken, Agatha Christie and (supposedly) Stieg Larsson, to mention just a few – and now, with The Shepherd’s Crown, it is the turn of Terry Pratchett, who died in March 2015. Works from beyond the grave give fans one final entertainment but they can also act as a covert last will and testament in which what an author really believes is made more explicit.
Of all his many heroes and heroines in the 40 novels of the Discworld series, the one Pratchett chooses for his envoi is Tiffany Aching, first encountered in The Wee Free Men. That novel, which drew on both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the fairy paintings of the Victorian parricide Richard Dadd, is one of his most interesting: for in fantasy, those with magical powers are more than usually avatars for the author, and the struggles they undergo tend to grapple with the stuff of fiction itself. Pratchett, with his sardonic inventiveness, social satire, play on language, deep feeling for landscape and love of what is best in human nature, had less critical praise than he deserved. His heroes and heroines are not royalty in disguise, but thieves, con-men, shepherds, soldiers and midwives. In his championing of the ordinary, the sensible and the slightly silly he went against the grain – and never more so than in creating Tiffany Aching.
Tiffany, like her author, is patronised for all kinds of absurd reasons. She is young, and the daughter of a working-class family who joke after a hard day’s work that they are “Aching all over”. Other witches believe she can’t be a witch because she comes from the wrong kind of land, the Chalk, supposedly too weak to be magical. She has a sense of humour so dry that it passes most other characters by. As a witch, she becomes a kind of health visitor on a broomstick, helping with births, deaths, arthritis and the cutting of old men’s toenails. Yet she has defended her land and its people from its greatest enemies, and the most terrifying witch in Discworld has chosen her for an heir. When the novel begins, this witch, Granny Weatherwax, is dying. What follows is, in many ways, a valediction against mourning, and in its wit, courage and kindliness it often brings tears to the eyes.
Pratchett discovered he was suffering from “the embuggerance”, Alzheimer’s, in 2007. Before his death at 66 he wrote five last novels and planned many more. He spent much of his career thinking about how people die, Death being one of his best and most regular characters in the Discworld series. A skeleton with glowing blue eyes, capitalised conversation and a courteous, inexorable manner, Death comes for Granny Weatherwax when she has made her last, meticulous preparations. She has had a long, well lived life and it’s an inconvenience to leave it, she tells him, but it come to us all. Like a friend, he takes her so gently she doesn’t even notice.
Naturally, the departure of such a powerful person brings Discworld into danger, for outside the mortal lands are those of Fairyland and its cruel, amoral, greedy elves whose Queen is an old enemy of Tiffany’s. How can our heroine step into the shoes of Granny Weatherwax? Can she follow her own path as a witch, even if it means abjuring romantic happiness with her medical student boyfriend? Older witches, such as the nauseating Mrs Earwig, sneer at her inexperience. It’s when the Queen of the Elves, ousted from Fairyland in a political coup, turns up naked and close to death on Tiffany’s doorstep that the fun really begins.
Of course it is riotously funny, with the gloriously irrepressible Nac Mac Feegles having the best jokes and fights; as bright blue warriors otherwise known as the Wee Free Men they are shrunken but fearsome Scottish Nationalists; the Elves and their quarrels may well recall other politicians south of the border.
The real battle, however, is between selfishness and duty. Pratchett has rarely been so direct. It’s tempting to think that in this, his last book, he felt able to drop his customary teasing through footnotes and explain what empathy is. When Tiffany teaches the former Queen of the Elves about why it’s wrong to be spiteful and selfish, she is quite explicit. Kindness is worth practising because other people matter, because it makes you feel better, and because “what goes around comes around.”
Only in Discworld could the path of virtue be chosen simply by having it pointed out to you. Pratchett has always sent up Tiffany’s copy of The Goode Childe’s Booke of Faerie Tales and its conventional views on witches and fairies, but his stories also invite us to think about what constitutes good and evil, whether a character is inventing the postal service or serving in a battalion with a vampire. When Tiffany, in a rage at finding some elves kidnapping a baby, kills them in a moment of fury, it is not a triumph. She realises that to think of anyone as “just” anything is “the first step on a well-worn path that could lead to, oh, to poisoned apples, spinning wheels and a too-small stove… and to pain, and terror, and horror and the darkness”.
Those who love Pratchett find him, as AS Byatt has said, to be a lifelong source of pleasure and happiness, but this comes at the price of not showing us “the darkness”. There is a bullying father here, and spite and sudden death, but none of it disturbs. Other great fantasy authors from Tolkien to Robin Hobb leave us in no doubt that the torture, rape and murder in their worlds, described in chilling detail, are real and terrible, like the lust for power and sex that inspires them: but the filth of the city of Ankh-Morpork is down to dirt and poor plumbing. We are so used to the way George RR Martin or Joe Abercrombie or even Ursula le Guin show us fantasy worlds riven with cruelty, that perhaps the kindliness of Discworld is more subversive than it seems. It is, in essence, a humanist’s creation in which laughter, as Nabokov said, is the best pesticide, and humour as potent as swords. When, in The Shepherd’s Crown, something that looks quite like the Christian concept of the devil appears, he is the King of Fairyland, living in a barrow which “reeked of masculinity and unwashed clothing, of feet and sweat”. It is a very Pratchettian joke to bribe this bored, lascivious, violent and irresponsible supermale to depart from mortal affairs by offering him – a shed.
At its heart, this is a book about death, courage and humility. The shepherd’s crown of the title begins as a little soft creature which dies but leaves a sharp core in the Chalk that becomes a source of hidden protective magic. Tiffany discovers its power at the moment of crisis – not as a queen, or a witch, but as a true shepherd, guarding and leading the people she puts before herself. It’s only because she is selfless that she can defeat evil: a story that many have heard before, but which bears repeating, albeit in hope rather than expectation.
This is not a perfect example of Pratchett’s genius, but it is a moving one. Pratchett was too generous, I think, to leave his readers without consolation. Only those who read the Feegle Glossary at the back will notice that the very last word in this last novel is “despair”. Amanda Craig in The Guardian
There was certainly an autumnal breeze which seemed to stroke the pages of Terry Pratchett’s forty-first and final Discworld novel, much like the penultimate Long Earth story published earlier last summer. The Shepherd’s Crown whispered of things unsaid, of time running out, of not being able to leave things exactly the way one wanted. In many ways it is an imperfect, unfinished novel.
Ending forms part of the fabric of the story. It begins with the death of Granny Weatherwax, the Discworld’s most terrifying and powerful witch, a recurring character throughout the series, and one of my (and many Pratchett fans’) personal favourites. Granny Weatherwax’s conversation with Death, which is tender, funny and gentle, is one of the most poignant and thought-provoking, not to mention fitting, send-offs to such a beloved character I have ever read. You really get a sense of Pratchett’s own pathos as he bids her goodbye, but he is decidedly unsentimental and does not draw it out unnecessarily. Whether or not you agree with Terry Pratchett’s outspoken views on assisted suicide, it is hard to argue with his logic for living a good life right up until death and dying, as far possible, in your own terms.
Death – one of Pratchett’s most iconic characters, riding a skeletal horse called Binky, and speaking in CAPITAL LETTERS – has been uncharacteristically absent in recent Discworld novels; here, he moves centre stage again.
Granny Weatherwax’s death makes the barrier between Discworld and Fairyland dangerously permeable and a usurping King of the Elves – the preposterously named Peaseblossom – is determined to break through and make all residents – dwarves, humans, goblins (newly enfranchised and working on Discworld’s nascent railroads and ‘clacks’ towers) – their playthings.
All that stands between these crude, hedonistic parasites and domination is a witch-in-training, Tiffany Aching, Granny Weatherwax’s chosen successor; on her young shoulders rests the responsibility to unite the capricious witches and repel the otherworldly invaders.
Everything is set for an epic clash between good and evil. Yet this is no Middle Earth or Narnia; much of the rest of the novel is devoted to Tiffany’s backbreaking day-to-day work. In Pratchett’s world, witches perform the role of a comprehensive health service, free at the point of need (paid for through favours and kindness), fully integrated with social care like something out of Andy Burnham’s wildest dreams. They perform messy, practical, essential services – caring for the sick, ushering babies into the world and escorting people out with as much gentleness as possible, trimming the toenails of lonely old men. Tiffany is spread thin and pulled in disparate directions by her passion for her work; her sense of loyalty to her family; her tentative relationship with medical student Preston. Besides, Terry Pratchett has little time for unadulterated evil in the style of Sauron or the White Witch, though his writing is incandescent with rage against stupidity and cruelty. Even an elf is shown capable of compassion and empathy; the spiteful and arrogant Mrs Earwig (who in a Roald Dahl story would be a tornado of unremitting spite) is courageous in the final battle.
Terry Pratchett tips his (famous) hat to almost every well-known strand of over 40 Discworld novels: the squabbling, magical academicals of Unseen University; the Ankh-Morpork City Watch; the tyrant of Ankh-Morpork of Lord Vetinari’s ongoing struggle with ‘The Times’ crossword… The Church of Om…
Is this actually a good novel?
To some extent, it doesn’t really matter. For a Discworld aficionado, the book’s very existence is a kind of miracle, like an unexpected letter addressed just to you.
This book is full of apparently effortless, memorable and brilliant flourishes of language: Granny Weatherwax’s cottage is made “mainly of creaks”. Terry Pratchett’s love of words shines through, too: I counted three ‘susurrations’, each used in radically different contexts (one of Tiffany Aching’s favourite words, and now one of mine); there are also scientific names of prehistoric sea creatures and a panoply of wittily named characters. There are clever and unexpected allusions to everything from Alice in Wonderland to Schrodinger’s Cat to Margaret Thatcher speeches.
I loved the idea that elves cannot exist in “railway time” – because of the fairy-tale logic that Fair Folk hate iron, but also because the stories we tell ourselves are now about technology – the magic wand we build for ourselves.
However, some ideas feel like ingenious Pratchettesque inventions just waiting for a fulfilling story to latch onto – a counting, toilet-trained goat called Mephistopheles; trees which can see into the near future (surely the source of the wood into which yet-to- be murderers’ names are carved in the sci-fi thriller Minority Report?). Some plot threads are simply left dangling. Why does Granny Weatherwax’s cat, You, suddenly seem to be everywhere Tiffany goes, and once blazing with octarine (the colour of magic) fire? I kept expecting it to turn out that Granny Weatherwax had actually moved her soul into her feline familiar; the issue is simply dropped without comment. New character Peter, who becomes Tiffany’s apprentice – about time after a woman wanted to be a wizard in Discworld Book 4 – is too frustratingly nice; his saccharine flawlessness eventually grated with me.
More broadly, the battle with the elves felt too much like a return of Tiffany’s previous conflict in The Wee Free Men, itself an echo of Granny Weatherwax’s war in Lords and Ladies. Granny Weatherwax’s death seemed to balance the need for any major sacrifice later on, making the elven battle seem too easy.
Yes, I look forward to what I expect from a Terry Pratchett book, but whatever I read I want the author to punch me in the stomach without warning and upset me in unexpected ways (just not too much!). As J.K Rowling put it, “I didn’t want evil to be a cardboard cut-out and nobody gets hurt”.
Even the Nac Mac Feegle, Smurf-sized warriors whose fiery rhetoric, Glaswegian accent and love of battle with injustice and (elven) rulers whom they didn’t elect would make Nicola Sturgeon proud – and whom it would be fair to say Terry Pratchett has had fantastic fun with – weren’t really developed at all. Their humour was somewhat repetitive.
Some of the subversive and subtle satire of the earlier books had been taken out of the oven and was still raw in places: the wizards of Unseen University are too easy an impersonation of today’s scientists, overly reliant on bafflingly complex computer models and trying to bring every sphere of knowledge into their rigorous paradigm; the fondness of old men for sheds was pointed out but Pratchett had no wonderful theory to explain it (or if he did, I would have loved to know).
For all these flaws – how could this not be a flawed novel, an incomplete goodbye – by the poignant end of the novel I really couldn’t care less. All I felt was a profound sadness, that I’d never be whisked over the Ramtops riding shotgun on Nanny Ogg’s broomstick; listen to the torrid gurgle of the river Ankh as it oozes through a city where vampires wear black ribbons to prove their teetotal status; watch over Captain Sam Vimes’ shoulder as he solves another case, as though for the first time.
Secret Scribbler, in The Guardian 5 July 2016
Over the course of more than 40 novels about the Discworld, an absurdist fantasy realm that let England’s one-time bestselling author metaphorically (and often comedically) explore humanity, Pratchett built up a handful of core characters who were his clear favorites. First introduced in 1987’s Equal Rites, the formidable witch Granny Weatherwax was one of his most iconic, a representation of his thoughts on intelligence, duty, psychology and leadership. And when she succumbs to age in the opening pages of The Shepherd’s Crown, she provides a fittingly no-nonsense illustration of Pratchett’s thoughts on death.
Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in 2007, and he subsequently became an outspoken assisted-suicide advocate, famously proclaiming he planned to end his life in his garden, brandy in hand. But his disease took a relatively rare form that affected his sight and coordination rather than his memory; he kept writing almost until his death in March 2015. And with his final book, he gives his fans an idea of how he approached his passing, and how he expects them to deal with it. Granny Weatherwax anticipates her end, and prepares calmly: She makes her own casket, selects her burial spot, cleans house and leaves instructions for her heir. And above all, she meets Death — another longtime Discworld character, drawn as a wryly genial presence — as a respected compatriot.
Given how rushed some of The Shepherd’s Crown feels, the leisurely, melancholy sprawl of this sequence makes it feel like something Pratchett thought through in considerable detail well before he wrote this book. Like all things related to Granny Weatherwax, it’s focused on practicalities, not on emotions like grief or fear. And when her friends find her body, they swallow their feelings and take the necessary steps with the sedate rationality they know she would demand. But for all the book’s peaceful, straightforward treatment of mortality, Granny Weatherwax’s demise still feels momentous and regal, like C.S. Lewis ending the original Narnia in The Last Battle, or Neil Gaiman destroying The Land at the end of Sandman: A Game Of You. The book is unmistakably a personal, meaningful, but no-fuss goodbye to the world.
The book is unmistakably a personal, meaningful, but no-fuss goodbye to the world.
And significantly, it’s largely about how life goes on for everyone else. The Shepherd’s Crown is a tangle of plot threads surrounding Granny Weatherwax’s designated heir, young witch Tiffany Aching, the lead in the young-adult Discworld series Pratchett began with 2003’s The Wee Free Men. Tiffany has to deal with an incursion of malicious elves and what seems to be the Discworld’s first male witch — in a pointed reversal of Equal Rites, which centered on its first female wizard.
Pratchett’s novels frequently built on each other, but Shepherd’s Crown makes an unusual number of direct references to past Discworld installments, as if drawing the series together. In particular, it ruminates over how the rise of the railroads in the previous novel, Raising Steam, has changed the world. Granny Weatherwax’s death is more than a case of metaphorical author self-insertion: It’s the symbolic death of a wild, rough-hewn, medieval-style world that’s making way for a technically adept one. Like Tolkien’s Middle Earth at the end of The Return Of The King, the Discworld is evolving into something modern and familiar, a world like our own.
A note at the end of the book explains that Pratchett did complete it, but didn’t have time for the second passes he usually took to flesh out the story. That omission is obvious throughout The Shepherd’s Crown: The writing is unusually blunt and artless in places, and there’s an unevenness to the storytelling — some colorful side moments play out at rapturous length, while key action whisks by, and characters occasionally get lost in the blur.
But Shepherd’s Crown is still recognizably Pratchett, from the giggle-fit-inducing footnotes to the stern moral message about selflessness, empathy and caring for others. And there’s just as much of a moral stance in the way the book addresses the death of a longtime pillar of the Discworld: People around the Disc sense that something pivotal has happened. They stop to acknowledge the gravity of the moment. They pay their respects. And then they return to their lives. And Tiffany, musing over where Granny Weatherwax has gone, contentedly concludes that she’s “everywhere.” The author’s message couldn’t be clearer, or kinder to his readers. In our reality, Pratchett was determined to define his own life and death on his own terms. Now, in a fittingly fictionalized form, he’s done it one final time.
Tasha Robinson in NPR.org
“Cry ‘Crivens!’ and let loose the clan Mac Feegle!” The tiny, blue-skinned, kilt-and-not-much-else-wearing warriors will be needed, as the barrier between Discworld and Fairyland has grown thin, and the fairy folk are itching to break through again. As ever, young witch Tiffany Aching is ready to square her shoulders and do what needs to be done—she is a witch, after all, and that’s what witches do—but even the young woman who banished the Queen of the Elves, faced down the hiver, survived a dance with the Wintersmith, and vanquished the Cunning Man will need help. In addition to Rob Anybody and his swarm of hard-drinking, brawling relatives, Tiffany has the support of the witches—even Mrs. Earwig and Queen Magrat—and a character new to Pratchett’s universe: Geoffrey, a boy who “weaves calm” and musters an army of old men who stubbornly resist obsolescence. If Pratchett explored the double-edged sword of memory in I Shall Wear Midnight (2010), here he explores the complicated notion of legacy, as Tiffany must assume her full responsibilities as a mature witch and begin to cultivate apprentices of her own. If some subplots are not as fully integrated into the story as one might wish and there are some bumpy transitions, who cares? This is the late Pratchett’s last book; even not-quite-perfect Pratchett is something to treasure and can proudly take its place in one heck of a literary legacy. (Fantasy. 12 & up) Kirkus Reviews
Goodbye to Terry Pratchett, the only writer who ever truly conquered my inner cynic
Finishing The Shepherd’s Crown was a double sad Goodbye to Terry Pratchett, the only writer who ever truly conquered my inner cynic / and goodbye to a younger, less cynical version of myself.
This is the season of goodbyes. At the weekend I visited perhaps the most beautiful museum on earth, the Louisiana art gallery in Denmark, and stood in the sculpture park next to the beach, watching the sailboats bob across the water. It was a perfect day, and its perfection made me unhappy. It was a ready-made memory: the last day of summer, 2015.
Still, I knew it wasn’t just the fading sunshine that was making the day so bitter-sweet. On the train out of Copenhagen, I had started to read The Shepherd’s Crown. It is the final Discworld novel; its author, Terry Pratchett, died of early-onset Alzheimer’s on 12 March, leaving behind dozens of brilliant books, and dozens more left unwritten. (His assistant Rob Wilkins notes in the afterword that “we will now not know how the old folk of Twilight Canyon solve the mystery of a missing treasure and defeat the rise of a Dark Lord despite their failing memories, nor the secret of the crystal cave and the carnivorous plants in The Dark Incontinent . . . and these are just a few of the ideas his office and family know about”.)
Pratchett was diagnosed with the illness that killed him in 2007. He called it “the embuggerance” and set about making every remaining day count. He wrote books even when he could no longer write, dictating them to Wilkins, and became an impassioned advocate for euthanasia. He wanted to die in his garden, he said, drinking a brandy, with Thomas Tallis on his iPod. (“Oh, and since this is England, I had better add, ‘If wet, in the library.’”)
Since March, I have been reading the few remaining Discworld books I never tackled during Pratchett’s lifetime. I had never got round to reading his series about the junior witch Tiffany Aching. Shamefully, I think I saw “young adult” and my inner dowager duchess reached for the smelling salts.
That was my stupid mistake. The Aching books are some of Pratchett’s best, and I fell so instantly in love that I had a passage from one of them at my wedding this summer. So The Shepherd’s Crown was a double sadness: not just goodbye to Terry Pratchett, but goodbye to new adventures for Tiffany Aching, to Nanny Ogg, to Greebo the smelly, one-eyed tomcat and to Magrat, the drippy hippie queen who nevertheless shot an elf in the eye with a crossbow through a keyhole when her friends were in danger.
Most of all, it was goodbye to Esme Weatherwax, who dies right at the start of the novel. Like all witches, she gets some advance warning – in her case, the premonition comes as she’s cleaning the privy. She spends her last day scrubbing her tiny woodland cottage from top to bottom, choosing a spot for her grave and weaving a makeshift coffin from switches of willow. And then she goes to her bedroom and dies.
The quietness of it is what punches you. Like real deaths, there is no spectacle. It’s not freighted with meaning. It doesn’t function as a major plot point. It just is. And everyone else just has to go on.
If you haven’t read any of Pratchett’s books, it is hard to explain what Granny Weatherwax represents. She is probably the closest thing I have to a religion. She believes in hard work – delivering babies and clipping widowers’ toenails is a larger part of being a witch than using magic – without seeking glory or material reward. Like Samuel Vimes, Pratchett’s other great moral hero, she is unyielding (her nickname among the dwarves is Go Around The Other Side Of The Mountain) and immune to bribes or flattery. She is not without ego or pride but is always determined to do what is right, not what is most pleasant or easy. She is stubborn and austere and lives alone, but that is the price of doing what she does.
And I love her. I love her wholeheartedly, and without a wisp of the usual cynicism I would reserve for anything or anyone who is too good to be true. I love Terry Pratchett, too, and have done since the moment I picked up Mort, his fourth Discworld book, on a rainy holiday in Brittany two decades ago. His world-view has always been so humane, patient and forgiving, without ever lapsing into permissive do-gooderism or pessimistic libertarianism. Reading his books made me love the human race.
And that is what I was really saying goodbye to, as I snuffled quietly to myself on the train, surrounded by strapping Danes on a day trip to the countryside. I’m never going to love another author like I loved Terry Pratchett, because that love was born of being 13 and fat and lightly bullied, and because the internet these days is just a giant machine for telling you what’s wrong with the things you like. (There’s a dispiriting Tumblr called Your Fave is Problematic. Spoiler alert: all your faves are problematic.)
Scepticism is healthy, but cynicism is corrosive. And yet the tone of modern life is overwhelming cynical – how could it not be, when enthusiasm feels so uncool and criticism is so easy? Just as a pessimist is never disappointed, a cynic is never humiliated by the crushing of a deeply held belief.
I’m not exempting myself from this criticism. Just before I left for Denmark, I went to a Jeremy Corbyn rally at the Union Chapel in Islington. I felt like the only atheist at an evangelical church meeting. Everyone else seemed . . . happy. Uncomplicatedly, straightforwardly optimistic. Meanwhile, I was sitting at the back drafting snarky put-downs for when I retold the story.
Perhaps those people are doomed to disappointment over the next few months (although knowing all the words to “The Red Flag” suggests a certain resilience). Perhaps all the confident naysaying is right, and Corbyn will be a disaster. But still, his supporters will have experienced something I don’t think I ever will again, by daring to believe in a cause so unreservedly and wholeheartedly. Now that Terry Pratchett and Granny Weatherwax are dead, I worry that I will never again be more than a cynic.
Helen Lewis (deputy editor of the New Statesman). Also in Books, 29 December 2015 , Best of the NS in 2015: Books and Fiction: Our best pieces from the past year. In this selection, our favourite writing about books and some original fiction.
The latest Discworld book, The Shepherd’s Crown, doesn’t just have the task of wrapping up the story of Tiffany Aching, trainee witch. It’s also the very last Discworld book, since author Terry Pratchett sadly passed away earlier this year. The good news is, this is a solid ending to both stories.
We once described Tiffany Aching as “the anti-Harry Potter” (and Laurie Penny’s piece about the last Tiffany Aching book is still well worth reading in its entirety.) She’s not the chosen one, and rather than being destined to save the world from ultimate evil, her calling is more to do with trimming the toenails of elderly people and helping with newborn babies. There’s not much glory in the life of a witch, as Pratchett has imagined it, and the main enemies that Tiffany must battle against include pervasive sexism and idiocy.
So the coming-of-age, hero’s-progress story for Tiffany is as much a matter of accepting one’s lot in life as it is rising to some kind of fantastic world-beating challenge.
That said, The Shepherd’s Crown is surprisingly upbeat, especially as compared to the somewhat darker previous Tiffany Aching book, I Shall Wear Midnight. This is very much the culmination of Tiffany’s journey, and a major theme is that she’s no longer a struggling young girl, but a fully-fledged witch who deserves, and demands, respect.
And Tiffany’s arrival as a proper, important witch in her own right, is balanced with a story about how Discworld has changed, and the nature of progress in general. Tiffany is part of a new generation, who are changing things in Discworld, and meanwhile, Pratchett also picks up on the events of the previous novel, Raising Steam, which introduced railroads to his fantasy realm. The introduction of railroads, cris-crossing the realm with iron, is changing the balance of power of the magical creatures. (Goblins work on the railroad, while elves are not thrilled with all that iron.)
So a lot of Shepherd’s Crown has to do with Tiffany trying to live up to her new status as a proper, important witch, but it’s counterbalanced by a sort of meditation on the nature of death and change. Things are changing, and that includes a very palpable sense of loss, which gives the book a sort of melancholy undertone.
In fact, The Shepherd’s Crown is bittersweet for a number of reasons, including the fact that we’ll never get any more Discworld books from Pratchett’s pen. It’s also very much a book about endings, and the kinds of legacies that people leave behind—and what it means to inherit a legacy.
The theme of legacies also feeds into Tiffany’s final identity crisis, as she tries to figure out exactly whom, and where, she belongs to. Is her first loyalty to her family and the community she comes from, or to the community of witches that shaped her? The titular Shepherd’s Crown isn’t at all what you’d expect it to be, but represents a legacy handed down to Tiffany from her ancestors, which helps shape this last dilemma.
This is a very gentle sort of book, in which there is danger and menace but the most important struggles are small and internal. And as misanthropic as Pratchett’s writing could be on occasion, he seems to come down, this last time, on a fairly rosy view of humanity, affirming our ability to do better and to take care of each other. A major subplot in the book even involves Tiffany trying to give a non-human creature a crash course in human kindness, which she presents as a defining characteristic. And there is a lot of great stuff in here about the power of sheds, too.
As a final Discworld book, meanwhile, Shepherd’s Crown presents a beautifully panoramic view of Discworld as a place in flux. Pratchett does a good job of giving cameos to a number of other great Discworld characters, without being too obtrusive, while also giving kind of an overview of how his world is moving into a new era of industrial progress.
That said, Shepherd’s Crown is not my favorite among the Pratchett books I’ve read. For one thing, he introduces a brand new supporting character, Geoffrey, who is a bit too flawless a human being to be believed, and who quickly becomes everybody’s new favorite person. For another, the book’s ending is a bit on the anti-climactic side, although it’s still plenty entertaining.
All in all, though, this is a beautiful ending to Tiffany Aching’s story, with a blend of sadness and hopefulness that will stick with you long after you’ve closed the pages. As a send-off for Discworld, it makes you just want to go back and re-read the whole thing from the start. Charlie Jane Anders in io9
A Farewell to Discworld: Terry Pratchett’s The Shepherd’s Crown
One of the intractable problems of getting older is that you will inevitably watch your heroes die. For a reader, there comes the day when the pleasure of opening a new book by a beloved author is tempered by the knowledge that this is the last new one you will ever read.
With The Shepherd’s Crown, that time has come for the readers of Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books—and the characters of the Discworld must also bid farewell to one of their most enduring citizens.
The changes wrought in Snuff and Raising Steam continue to shape the Discworld; the railway continues to expand out from Ankh-Morpork into the Chalk and even to Lancre, and the Disc’s goblins enjoy new status as they become adept in the workings of steel and iron. Even goblin names are changing; a goblin once known as Of the Dew the Sunlight is now Of the Lathe the Swarf—the significance of which is particularly striking when you know that “swarf” is the metal bits produced by machining metal on a lathe, and when you remember that the Disc’s elves really, really do not get on with iron.
Meanwhile, Tiffany Aching continues to grow into her role as the respected witch of the Chalk—or “the hag o’ the hills,” as the incorrigible Nac Mac Feegle call her—part healer, part wise woman, part handy-woman. The real work of Pratchett’s witches—most vividly evoked in the Tiffany Aching books—has always been in the rough and dirty parts of life, on the edges where the hard decisions have to be made, and magic is used only sparingly—to take away pain, for instance. And Tiffany has been working very hard: “fill[ing] gaps in the world, doing things that had to be done: carrying logs for an old lady or popping on a pot of stew for a dinner, fetching a basket of ‘spare’ eggs or secondhand clothes for a new baby in a house where money was scarce, and listening, oh yes, always listening to people’s troubles and worries.” And now, her work both mundane and magical is about to get much, much more difficult, because Tiffany’s friend and mentor Granny Weatherwax must take her final walk with Death.
The passing of Granny Weatherwax is the catalyst event of the The Shepherd’s Crown, and it also creates a particular challenge in discussing the book. That the death of such a powerful, beloved character should come in Pratchett’s final Discworld novel is at once fitting and almost unbearably painful. I know I wasn’t the only person who was crying at their desk in the middle of a workday when the news of Pratchett’s death broke in March, and Granny’s beautifully dignified exit from the Discworld—one that makes you envy the ability of the Disc’s wizards and witches to know when their time has come—brings those tears right back. It’s one of the most extraordinary things Pratchett ever wrote. There follows a series of brief, wrenching vignettes as the news of her passing spreads across the Disc—vignettes that are poignantly similar to certain tributes to Pratchett’s own passing, of which thebibliosphere’s “The Long Night”* is one of the best.
What can come after that? Granny Weatherwax’s passing, as it turns out, provides an opportunity for the nasty creatures that are the elves of the Discworld; with Granny gone, they—in particular the exceedingly unpleasant and sadistic Lord Peaseblossom—see an opportunity to take another whack at invading the Disc. And so Tiffany Aching must contend with a supernatural invasion, whilst also trying to manage both her own steading on the Chalk and Granny Weatherwax’s former steading in Lancre.
For better or for worse, circumstances make one hesitant to be too critical of this book. In the afterword, Pratchett’s longtime assistant Rob Wilkins notes that “The Shepherd’s Crown has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and all the bits in between. Terry wrote all of those. But even so, it was, still, not quite as finished as he would have liked when he died.” And those final touches of refinement do seem to be lacking. The climactic battle against the elves rushes too quickly to its conclusion, satisfying though that conclusion is, and some story threads—such as the importance of a work shed of one’s own in the lives of men both mortal and divine alike—are not as smoothly integrated into the narrative as we’re accustomed to them being.
Nevertheless, The Shepherd’s Crown is still as clear-eyed and humane as anything Pratchett ever wrote. It is a story of change, and of finding and maintaining one’s integrity throughout that change—exemplified, perhaps, by the shepherd’s crown, the little fossil from the Chalk that Tiffany carries in her pocket as a talisman and reminder of the flint in her bones. Tiffany must not only assume Granny Weatherwax’s old duties, but cultivate the aid of her fellow witches as well. While Tiffany calls on the aid of the extremely male King of the Elves (last seen helping Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg, and Magrat Garlick banish the previous elven incursion in Lancre), an alternate idea of what it means to be a man comes by way of the gentle Geoffrey, a “calm-weaver” befriended and trained by Tiffany; his talents for what Granny Weatherwax would call “headology” and his rapport with his extremely intelligent goat make him as excellent a witch-in-training as any woman could be. In this new world, a Feegle girl might go to war alongside her many, many brothers. And though the spread of industry is turning the Disc into a world where elves “have no future here now other than in stories“, there must be those who remember the stories as well—and Tiffany Aching is one of those so tasked.
As the wizard Schmendrick says in the film of The Last Unicorn, “there are no happy endings, because nothing ends”. We leave Tiffany in a new shepherd’s hut that she built herself from the remains of her grandmother’s old hut, accompanied by Granny Weatherwax’s preternaturally keen cat, You. There is a sense of the world left in good hands. There may be no more Discworld novels—rightfully so, perhaps—but “the last Discworld novel” doesn’t actually feel all that final. The clacksmen of the Disc say that a man isn’t dead as long as his name is still spoken, and Tiffany knows in her soul that Granny Weatherwax is still there, everywhere. And the strength and heart of Pratchett’s work is such that you feel in your bones that somewhere, the Disc continues its gentle turn on the backs of four elephants, while Great A’Tuin continues its inscrutable journey through space, forever.
Karin Kross in tor.com. She lives and writes in Austin, TX. She may be found elsewhere on Tumblr and Twitter. #GNU Terry Pratchett
*On Terry’ death http://thebibliosphere.tumblr.com/post/113485817651/discworld-tribute-the-long-night
Most people never use their artistic gifts. Some, like the artist Adam Cullen, squander them. Others have them taken cruelly away. Such was the fate of the late Terry Pratchett (1948-2015), prolific and much-loved author of the Discworld series. In 2007, at the peak of his powers, he was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a form of Alzheimer’s disease.
It could have ended his creative life, but Pratchett fought back. He donated a £1 million ($2.17 million) to Alzheimer’s research, an amount his fans matched. He made a documentary on assisted dying, although his cognitive impairment meant he fell outside the guidelines of Dignitas, losing the right to choose. It won a BAFTA award. And he kept writing, if at slightly less than his usual speed. He collaborated with SF author Stephen Baxter; and continued his exploration of his imaginary playground, the Discworld.
The form his disease took affected motor and visual skills, but not his memory or language. He had “lived behind a keyboard”, now he dictated, using voice recognition software. His best-seller status meant he had an office of helpers; vital, since PCA affects the ability to read. He was ferociously intelligent, so that his books initially seemed unaffected. But by Unseen Academicals (2009) the edge was blunted. Last year’s Raising Steam was almost unreadable. The characters lectured each other, when Pratchett had been a master of snappy dialogue.
The Shepherd’s Crown, his final book, belongs to a series aimed at young adults, centred on young witch Tiffany Aching. They were among his best, very English pastorals, with a strong sense of place. Here, Pratchett revisited earlier novels, drawing in characters as if tying up loose threads. He always featured Death as a benevolent being, something that gave much comfort to readers facing their own mortality. Now, with his nearing dissolution undoubtedly in mind, he killed off Granny Weatherwax, perhaps his best-loved character. Moreover, he recaptured all his writerly powers to do it.
In the afterword Pratchett’s assistant, Rob Wilkins, notes that if Pratchett had lived longer “he would have written more of this book”, something implying a ghostwriter. In context, though, it seems Wilkins is referring to Pratchett’s interminable revisions. This book is superb until chapter six, when some of the problems of Raising Steam – the confusion, the hectoring – recur. The battle between Tiffany and the evil faeries becomes an author’s battle with his own failing powers. Pratchett wins, at the end, but is master of a curate’s egg.
Not that it will affect his reputation. A critical book on Pratchett was subtitled: Guilty of Literature. When Pratchett was denounced recently by a The Guardian troll, professors of English responded with withering scorn.
He remains one of the great English comic writers, who happened to find fantasy the perfect vehicle. Pratchett was more inventive than J.K. Rowling and wider in range than Wodehouse, the Discworld an imaginative space allowing him to move from social satire to police procedurals with ease.
He was a grumpy old lefty with a perverse but ultimate belief in human goodness. Pratchett gave joy to millions of readers and his personal millions enriched good causes. The Shepherd’s Crown is an uneven epitaph, but under the circumstances, a fitting one. Lucy Sussex, in Sydney Morning Herald
Will receive a *STARRED REVIEW* in the October issue of School Library Journal! This is the second starred review for The Shepherd’s Crown, which previously received a star from Publishers Weekly. A copy of the review is included below.
Gr 6 Up–Pratchett leaves his fans with one last glorious tale of Discworld, this one starring his youngest heroine, the witch Tiffany Aching. When Death comes for Granny Weatherwax, she leaves behind her cabin and, by default, the job of unofficial leader of the witches to Tiffany. For the teen protagonist, being a witch has always been about doing what must be done, so she shoulders the burden but goes about things in her own way. She has soon taken on the first-ever male witch apprentice, Geoffrey, a man who has a soothing way with people and animals. Work becomes the least of Tiffany’s problems once word of Granny Weatherwax’s death reaches the realm of the elves. A cruel usurper casts out their Queen who is viewed as weak because of her caution after her earlier defeat by Tiffany and her wariness of the human’s new iron horses. Tiffany shelters the diminished Queen while facing the threat of marauding elf hordes, backed by her trusty Nac Mac Feegles and other allies. Though this title was written during Pratchett’s final days, there is nothing rushed here; indeed, this final book stands among the very best of his work. In one poignant scene, Death remarks on Granny Weatherwax’s passing, “And far away, in someplace unthinkable, a white horse was being unsaddled by a figure with a scythe with, it must be said, some sorrow.” And so, too, will readers mourn the loss of such an irreplaceable writing talent. VERDICT Readers young and old will savor this tale that emphasizes the values of hard work and standing firm in the face of evil. An exceptionally crafted finale from one of the greats.–Eric Norton, McMillan Memorial Library, Wisconsin Rapids, WI
Carolyn Cushman reviews Terry Pratchett, Sarah Prineas, David Weber
posted Wednesday 25 November 2015 @ 10:32 am PST
Pratchett’s last Discworld novel is fifth in the Tiffany Aching series, and it comes with a major spoiler that is a little hard to talk around, for the few fans who haven’t already heard, but I’ll try. Tiffany Aching finds herself leading all the witches she can gather as elves – not the nice, pretty sort – break through in the Chalk and up on the mountains near Lancre. The elves come through assuming they’ve got the advantage, not realizing there have been some changes in the human world: railroads have been invented, leaving their deadly iron tracks all over the countryside and making respectable beings out of the goblins who work on them. But the elves have no intention of letting such things stop them, so it takes the combined efforts of the witches and the Nac Mac Feegle to defeat them, while Tiffany does a lot of thinking about where she belongs. Ultimately, it’s a touching tale, and a fine cap to the Discworld series. Locus
I really tried to make this book last. It’s the last Discworld novel, written by Terry Pratchett in the last days of his life, as his death from a tragic, unfair, ghastly early onset Alzheimer’s stole up on him. But I couldn’t help myself. I read it, read it all. I wept. Then I read it again.
The Shepherd’s Crown is the fifth and final book in the Tiffany Aching sequence, a collection of five novels within the greater, 41-volume Discworld series, which Pratchett began in 1983. The Tiffany Aching books were Pratchett’s personal favorites, a fact that had puzzled me, because as good as they were, they seemed slight alongside of the Moist von Lipwig books, whose exploration of the way that modernity and technological change rippled out through society really resonated with me.
But in The Shepherd’s Crown, I’ve come to realize what it is about these books that makes them so special and endeared them so well to Pratchett’s own heart: it’s their compassion.
When we first met Tiffany Aching, she was a shepherd’s daughter whose grandmother, Granny Aching, is the “shepherd’s shepherd,” a worker of magic and a keeper of animals, revered by all the people of the Chalk. Through the subsequent volumes, Tiffany and her companions, the Nac Mac Feegles, have have encountered more and more of the Discworld’s other denizens: Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg and the other Lancre witches, the wicked elves of Faerie, and so on. Along the way, Tiffany has grown to understand duty, and service, and compassion.
In The Shepherd’s Crown, Tiffany’s coming of age arrives at its climax, and Pratchett uses her challenges to bring her into contact with a much wider piece of the Discworld. More importantly, he makes her confront impossible situations — wicked problems where someone must lose. Into this action, Pratchett introduces all kinds of symmetries and touches in on some of the Discworld’s old threads: the old romance between Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Ridcully, the ongoing story of the railroad (see Raising Steam), the social pecking order of witches, and the relationship of gender to witchcraft and wizardry, first explored in 1987’s Equal Rites.
What makes this book so great — what made Pratchett so great — is his commitment to making jokes into something more than gags. The early Pratchett Discworld novels were rather thin by comparison to the later ones (he confesses as much in some of his essays), because Pratchett got better as he went along. Pratchett’s early work was dominated by puns, Douglas-Adams-ish comic footnotes (that often fell short of Adams’s high standard) — cheap yucks.
But Pratchett got better. Lots better. He didn’t get better by giving up on those cheap yucks: he got better by making them into something more than cheap yucks. The Nac Mac Feegle are a silly gag about Scottish, drunken, ultraviolent Smurfs. In the Wee Free Men, Pratchett played with this notion, figured out where and how he could push it around.
Five books later, the Nac Mac Feegle aren’t a gag anymore. They’re full-blown characters, and if there are running gags about them all being called things like No’-as-big-as-Medium-Sized-Jock-but-bigger-than-Wee-Jock Jock, they are garnish, not the main dish, which is a deft way of using these spear-carriers to move the story into complicated places where Tiffany’s wisdom, self-confidence, compassion and sense of duty are all tested.
I keep using the word “compassion” in my descriptions of this book, because if there’s one word that sums up the writer Terry Pratchett had latent in him in those early days, and the writer he came to be, and the literary legacy he left behind, it’s compassion.
I saw a post on Seanan McGuire’s Tumblr last week that stuck with me, about the difference between “sympathy” (“I know how you feel”), “empathy” (“I feel how you feel”) and “compassion” (“is there anything I can do to help?”). Pratchett’s characters are often unsympathetic, they are sometimes not very empathic — there are times when I could smack Sam Vimes — but they are moved by compassion more than anything else. Even the murderers. Even Lord Vetinari.
Terry Pratchett wrote this book knowing that he was dying, and he wove into it all the compassion he could muster. That meant, perforce, bringing in the railway, the goblins, and the themes of modernity versus society. Because engaging with modernity is the fantasy writer’s trick, something science fiction writers struggle with. The rural and agrarian lives that are romanticized in fantasy are also places in which compassion reigns. You may have a wicked feudal lord and a venal priest, you may wallow in filth and starve when the crops fail, but you have a place, centuries old and immobile, and that place means that you belong, you have worth, and there are people who are enmeshed with you in a web of obligations.
Modernity rips that apart, and sometimes it fails to replace with anything comparable. Even today, we worry about the way that technology atomizes us, the way that migration breaks apart our social ties. I feel those worries all the time. Technology has given me myriad ways to connect, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also disconnected me from some things I rather loved.
The Moist von Lipwig books I liked best are all about this, and that’s why I love them so. With The Shepherd’s Crown, Pratchett joins the agrarian and the modern, witchcraft and engineering, fusing the two themes in a way that feels like the artistic climax of a prodigious and brilliant career.
I loved this book. I loved it even when it tore my guts out. If you love Pratchett, I guarantee it will tear your guts out too, and even though I’m not someone who worries much about spoilers, this one is big and I’m going to leave it to you to discover. But you’ve been warned.
An afterword to the book explains that Pratchett died before this book was as polished as his other pieces, and there are little ways in which you can see that, a few plotlines left dangling, a few pieces of exposition that could have been turned into drama. That said, it is so polished in comparison to, say, Equal Rites, the contrast illustrates just how far we travelled with Pratchett down his artistic path.
I can’t believe that this is the last Discworld novel. 41 books sounds like a lot. It is a lot. But there was clearly so much more to come, and it’s such a cheat to have had it all taken away. Pratchett’s death is a great tragedy, a loss to us all. He did us a huge service by devoting his last years to writing so many books after his diagnosis — more than he thought he’d be able to write — and this last book is such a gift to all of us.
I just wish there was more. Cory Doctorow, in BoingBoing
Oh, waily, waily.
The Shepherd’s Crown (2015) – by English author Sir Terry Pratchett, featuring his young witch character, Tiffany Aching – was never going to be an easy read for me. I knew and counted Terry among my friends since 2008, and I watched Alzheimer’s slowly and insidiously strip him of attributes and faculty over that time.
The 41st and final Discworld novel – published five months after its author’s death – wasn’t something I ever wanted to face.
But I am glad I did. It’s a joy to read. Terry knew in 2014 that this was the likely curtain call for his time on the Disc.
He was still incubating ideas for future books. He wasn’t quite finished with Sam Vimes or the wizards of Unseen University – but he was a very clever and, above all, realistic man.
So what can we make of this final book?
The fifth instalment of the Tiffany Aching series sees Tiff assume a greater mantle of responsibility than ever before.
She’s no longer the little girl we first met in the Wee Free Men; nor is she the apprentice, trainee or P-plater of her second and third and fourth outings. She is now the Witch of the Chalk, and events conspire to ensure she yet must become much more.
Shepherd’s Crown wasn’t an easy write for Terry. Rob Wilkins’ afterword to the book hints both at that and that there was still more finishing to be done on this novel, had there only been more time.
We can only wonder what that may have been. It’s little wonder that Death himself – an anthropomorphic character in Discworld – does his duty with sorrow in this book.
Neil Gaiman has hinted at an alternate ending which Terry never had a chance to pen. I know that Terry always wanted to do more, to refine the words again and again.
In this book he tips his famous hat to a swathe of older, much-loved characters as the consequences arising from the death of one of his greatest creations ripples throughout their fictional world.
I once asked Terry why he hadn’t killed off a particular character before. He looked at me askance, and said:
If I did that I wouldn’t be able to write more books about them.
There are no more books to come and Terry takes steps in this final novel that he never contemplated before.
He carries off another ripping yarn with aplomb; the wit and humour we have come to love over 32 years and 41 visits to the Discworld are all there.
He excelled at gallows humour and a simple two-word edit to a very familiar phrase raises a hearty laugh when tears are infinitely more appropriate.
Tiffany faces off against an old, old foe, but it is not just the formidable powers of this young and now leading witch that save the day: the passage of time, the relentless advances of progress and life itself all play a role.
The consequences of the actions of many others, characters new and old, across years of Discworld narrative are all neatly interweaved and seamlessly push the plot of this book forward.
This is not a fantasy novel intended for “younger readers” as it is wont to be pigeonholed. I assert that with confidence, even though contains witches, a man who wants to be a witch, wizards, a woman who was once a wizard, wily cats, counting goats, pictsies, goblins and the most malevolent of fairies.
This is a book for all ages, the tour de force of one of the English language’s greatest authors, who, in the midst of encroaching darkness and facing so many terrors of his own, has contrived to astound us one last time with his craft.
Terry’s razor-sharp insight to the human condition, through an unusually turtle-shaped) lens remains strong.
Pratchett liberally sprinkles his text with instructions to his readers – read books if you want to learn things, make choices when faced with them, stand your ground, don’t tolerate the intolerable from others. Simple, yet sound advice for life.
For those of us who long for more, we will have only the realm of our own imaginations and a rich and deep seam of wonderful words to mine again and again.
Alzheimer’s robbed the world of one of is brightest lights last March. No-one could replace Terry, never in a hundred years, but, as Nanny Ogg, Pratchett’s witch from the Ramtop Mountains, gnomically put it: ‘don’t get your knickers in a twist … it won’t solve anything an’ will just make you walk odd.’
Here’s to Terry Pratchett and lost futures; may we all go round again!
David G. Lloyd, Vice-Chancellor and President at University of South Australia, in The Conversation
Disclosure statement: David G. Lloyd does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.