Friday, October 7, 2011


The wind howled. Lightning stabbed at the earth erratically, like an inefficient assassin. Thunder rolled back and forth across the dark, rain-lashed hills.

The night was as black as the inside of a cat. It was the kind of night, you could believe, on which gods moved men as though they were pawns on the chessboard of fate. In the middle of this elemental storm a fire gleamed among the dripping furze bushes like the madness in a weasel's eye. It illuminated three hunched figures. As the cauldron bubbled an eldritch voice shrieked: "When shall we three meet again?"

There was a pause.

Finally another voice said, in far more ordinary tones: "Well, I can do next Tuesday."

Through the fathomless deeps of space swims the star turtle Great A'Tuin, bearing on its back the four giant elephants who carry on their shoulders the mass of the Discworld. A tiny sun and moon spin around them, on a complicated orbit to induce seasons, so probably nowhere else in the multiverse is it sometimes necessary for an elephant to cock a leg to allow the sun to go past.

Exactly why this should be may never be known. Possibly the Creator of the universe got bored with all the usual business of axial inclination, albedos and rotational velocities, and decided to have a bit of fun for once.

It would be a pretty good bet that the gods of a world like this probably do not play chess and indeed this is the case. In fact no gods anywhere play chess. They haven't got the imagination. Gods prefer simple, vicious games, where you Do Not Achieve Transcendence but Go Straight To Oblivion; a key to the understanding of all religion is that a god's idea of amusement is Snakes and Ladders with greased rungs.

...The storm was really giving it everything it had. This was its big chance. It had spent years hanging around the provinces, putting in some useful work as a squall, building up experience, making contacts, occasionally leaping out on unsuspecting shepherds or blasting quite small oak trees. Now an opening in the weather had given it an opportunity to strut its hour, and it was building up its role in the hope of being spotted by one of the big climates.

It was a good storm. There was quite effective projection and passion there, and critics agreed that if it would only learn to control its thunder it would be, in years to come, a storm to watch.
The woods roared their applause and were full of mists and flying leaves.

On nights such as these the gods, as has already been pointed out, play games other than chess with the fates of mortals and the thrones of kings. It is important to remember that they always cheat, right up to the end ..."

That's excerpted from the opening to Terry Pratchett's marvelously comic novel, Wyrd Sisters, which is also a crime novel and in part a parody of Shakespeare's MacBeth.  The twists and turns were surprising and satisfying, with only a minor loose end left here and there for the reader to decide for himself.

That bit about the gods not playing chess is an allusion to Einstein's much quoted, "God does not play dice."  Pratchett also alludes to this game playing in another book, Good Omens.

A couple of pages later in Wyrd Sisters, Pratchett talks about how seldom people live in the moment and he refers to the denial of death:

"Like most people--most people, at any rate, below the age of sixty or so--Verence hadn't exercised his mind much about what happened to you when you died.  Like most people since the dawn of time, he assumed it somehow worked out all right in the end.  And like most people since the dawn of time, he was now dead."

"...Most their lives as a sort of temporal blur around where their body actually is--anticipating the future or holding onto the past.  They're usually so busy thinking about what happens next that the only time they ever find out what is happening now is when they come to look back on it.  Most people are like this."

Also in this novel, Pratchett quips about the meaning of words and how they shape the past and the future, and he casts light on self-fulfilling prophecies, synchronicity, and human volition.  There is humor on every page, but I especially enjoy it for its parody of MacBeth.

As in the early versions of Shakespeare's play, the three witches here are the Fates.  Scholars examining the early folios of the play have determined that these were not the weird sisters, as they have later become known, but the weyard sisters, the Norns, the ancient northern version of the Fates in Greek and Roman mythology.

Witches fell into the duality of good and evil when they began to dabble in politics, both sides aligning with self-righteous organized religion.  "Foul is fair, and fair is foul," they chant, sort of like George Orwell's "Freedom is Slavery, and Slavery is Freedom."

Pretty much the same as now.  The very rich (Orwell's inner party) think government must protect their freedom to control media and elections, form monopolies  and trusts to crowd out small businesses, and bust unions, while the proles (to use Orwell's term for the working classes) think government should regulate corporations to help protect the free market and the middle class.  Each side hires politicans and lawyers to argue on their behalf, armed with the usual projections, corruptions, and rationalizations, but the rich have the money and money rules.

The politics in Shakespeare's day were connected to the Gunpowder Plot.  Every October I try to take in a performance of MacBeth (if only on video) and it seems like every year there is a new book connected to either the history behind the play or the play itself.  Two of our favorites are Garry Wills' Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare's MacBeth, and Antonia Frasor's The Gunpowder Plot, and we recommend them both.   

1 comment:

  1. Someone once recommended Pratchett's Discworld series to me because she knew it would appeal to my sardonic and absurd sense of humor. Now I have further proof that these are books for me. Thanks for that lengthy excerpt. It has settled me on seeking out the whole series. Most definitely WYRD SISTERS will be the first I'll tackle.