Just this morning I read another obituary for my favorite author, Terry Pratchett. I have been reading Wintersmith, the third Tiffany Aching story. Tiffany is a witch-in-training, living with 113-year-old Miss Treason. In Discworld, magical people like witches and wizards always know when they’re going to die. Miss Treason has time to plan a “Going Away Party” where she can give away her things and the witches decide who will take over her cottage. The witches act like unofficial magistrates and country doctors. They get their authority by being clever, odd, and even scary. Tiffany learns that Miss Treason has made up most of the rumors about herself, e.g. that she has a demon living in her basement, that her heart died years ago and she replaced it with a clock that she wears around her belt, that she eats spiders.
This is where Terry Pratchett brilliantly illustrates those illusive things called human relationships. The villagers are afraid of Miss Treason, but they’re also proud of her. She keeps skulls on her mantle, but Tiffany discovered that they’re fake, from “Boffo Novelty and Joke Shop.”
Miss Treason sighed. ‘Oh, my silly people. Anything they don’t understand is magic. They think I can see into their hearts, but no witch can do that. Not without surgery, at least. No magic is needed to read their little minds, though. I’ve known them since they were babies. I remember when their grandparents were babes! They think they’re so grown up! But they’re still no better than babies in the sandpit, squabbling over mud pies. I see their lies and excuses and fears. They never grow up, not really. They never look up and open their eyes. They stay children their whole lives.’
It’s a witch’s job to care for the silly people, and also be smarter than them. Witches can only be honest with other witches. But witches have to keep an eye on each other, to keep them from going batty:
You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap. But you didn’t because, as Miss Tick had once explained: a) it would only make the world a better place for a very short time; b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and c) you’re not supposed to be as stupid as they are.
Tiffany stays up with Miss Treason the night before she is supposed to die. Miss Treason teaches her how to play cards. Then they get up and discover the whole town is waiting out front to say good-bye to their witch. Miss Treason has had a grave dug already, and Tiffany is horrified when she realizes that Miss Treason is going to march into her own grave.
Miss Treason had stopped to organize the crowd. “The custom is to give that one to the owner of the dog. You should have kept the bitch in, after all, and minded your fences. And your question, Mister Blinkhorn?”
Tiffany stood up straight. They were bothering her! Even this morning! But she … wanted to be bothered. Being bothered was her life.
So despite all the pettiness and annoyance, a witch needs her people, like a shepherd needs his sheep. Even in the last moments before death, you can imagine even a witch as old as Miss Treason is scared of what happens next, but she spends those minutes caring for her people, taking full advantage of their small-mindedness.
I thought writing this blog post would help me articulate what I find so fascinating about the Discworld witches. I don’t know what it is, but I feel this moral is vitally important. I certainly have my interactions foolish, lazy, and untruthful people– we all do. So why is it vitally important that we don’t simply slap them? It has something to do with love and need and community.
Pratchett touches on this concept again in my favorite Discworld novel: Night Watch:
People on the side of The People always ended up disapointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.
Perhaps it’s a simple as, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”