Thursday, March 9, 2017

ENGL 3053: Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum

Terry Pratchett, Carpe Jugulum (1998)

Terry Pratchett, now sadly dead before his time, is famous for his Discworld novels, of which this is one.

Discworld is an alternate world, where the laws of physics are very much other. For one thing, Discworld is flat – a disc, like it says on the tin. 

It is a giant disc being carried through space on the back of four mighty elephants, who stand on the back of an immense turtle swimming through space. Also, magic is real on Discworld.

The interlinked narratives of Discworld follow several different sets of characters. Carpe Jugulum is from the set of novels about Granny Weatherwax and the other witches who live in and about Lancre, a country of Discworld, high in the Ramtop Mountains.

Pratchett’s novels are comic novels, in the traditional sense of comedy – not a sit-com comedy, but as in a comedy v. a tragedy.

A tragedy, as you know, will be about high-born or noble characters who have generally good characters but, through some fatal error which arises from some aspect of that character, suffer a terrible downfall. The key parts of the tragedy are 

  • that the main character is good 
  • that they are of noble blood 
  • that they take action
  • that this action leads to their downfall, which is horrible, and fills us (the audience) with a cathartic grief 

MacBeth is a classic example of a tragedy.

Comedy, on the other hand, is traditionally a story about common people – rather than one about kings and heroes – in which the main characters succeed in their endeavor. In comedy, we usually see a lot of jokes, and many of them will be sex jokes (the comedy originally centered on fertility rituals). A king or a hero may show up in a comic work; but he is not the hero. In fact, he is usually mocked.

The comic hero usually comes from some “other” class – think Lysistrata, who is a second-class citizen by reason of her sex; or Huck Finn, who is second class due to both his orphaned parentage and his education level.

Here in Carpe Jugulum, we have a King, and a Queen, but unlike in MacBeth, the story focuses on the Witches. In fact, the Queen, far from being of noble birth, is actually one of the witches, who married into the royal family. And no one in Lancre thinks much of the King anyway, as we find.

Instead, it is the witches everyone respects – and is a little fearful of, as we will come to see. The king they are fond of and indulge; the witches rule and take care of Lancre.

Comic works can be of various types: Pratchett’s are generally satirical. Many of his Discworld novels are satirical takes on high fantasy – he started the series, among other things, to mock writers who were imitating Tolkien – and we can see some of that still occurring here, as in the exchange between the highwayman and the vampires early in the book; or the exchange between Granny Weatherwax and the falconer late in the book, when they are discussing what “everyone” knows about the Phoenix.

Carpe Jugulum also contains some satire of religion, in the sections on Mightily Oats and his ruminations about the religion of Om, and of systems of government, mainly when Nanny Ogg is ruminating on King Verence’s rule and on democracy and other ways to run a country. There is also the section of the book in which Agnes and the vampires visit Escrow, the town owned by the Magpyr family, and the vampires explain how benevolent their system of government is.

And, obviously, Pratchett is writing a satire about vampire novels. We see plenty of jokes as we move through the text, from vampires mocking conventional settings for cinematic vampires, in deserted castles filled with items that can be twisted into religious shapes, to the witches and Mightily Oates ruminating over all the myriad ways that exist to kill vampires (most of which involve cutting off the vampires head, something that, as Pratchett had Nanny Ogg note, works with humans as well).

Also, Pratchett amuses himself with little allusions here and there, from a trip through the visual cinematic history of vampires, to a reference to Jonathan and Mina Harker.

Comedies are funny, but that doesn’t mean they’re not looking at series issues. Right from the start, Pratchett signals he’ll be dealing with serious ethical issues in this text.

For instance, in the early pages, we watch as Granny Weatherwax deals with childbirth gone wrong. She must decide whether to save a mother, or save a child – if she doesn’t make that decision, then both the mother and child will die. The attending midwife, who has called for Granny Weatherwax’s help, thinks they should ask the father to make the decision, but Granny Weatherwax understands how cruel it would be to push this decision off on the father.

This is one of the main themes of Carpe Jugulum: that as human beings we have a duty to make decisions, and to act on those decisions. 

It’s ironic, obviously, that both Agnes and Mightily Oats are impervious to the vampires precisely because of their inability to make decisions – they are both, in different ways, of “two minds” about everything; but nevertheless this is one of the points the book is making.

Thus, the fatal flaw, or hamartia, that King Verence suffers from is his inability to discriminate: to make decisions about which sort of people are good and which are bad. It is not, in fact, true that if we are tolerant people we must tolerate everyone. There are, in fact, some people we should keep out of our houses, and our towns, and our countries. Being a rational adult means knowing which are actually the dangerous people are and which are not. 

King Verence invites everyone in – that is obviously wrong. But if he had refused to allow anyone in who might be dangerous, he would have kept out Mightily Oats, and also the witches. These would also have been terrible errors.

Throughout the text, we see Granny Weatherwax, Mightily Oats, and Agnes step up and make decisions.  Mightily Oats, for instance, realizes that his holy book – the object itself – is only a book.  He realizes that putting the symbols and rituals of religion above the actions of religion is a kind of blaspheme. We see this when he using his book of Om as kindling to build a fire to keep the witch Granny Weatherwax alive. He burns his bible to save a witch – the same bible that told priests of Om to burn witches, remember.

When Granny wakes and realizes what he’s done, she promises to get him another bible. He says he doesn’t need one, because the book was only words on paper. If it wasn’t more than that, he says, it wasn’t anything.

Agnes sees herself at the start of the book as useless and inept. When she is left as almost the only one who can resist the vampires, she realizes she must take action – no one else is able to do so. She’s reluctant to do so (believing herself useless and inept), but does act (prodded on by her inner skinny girl, Perdita); and as the book progresses, becomes more and more adept at doing so.

Granny Weatherwax, of course, has been taking action all along. Acting is what Granny Weatherwax does. But when we’re in Granny’s head, we see the dark doubts she has about the choices she is making. Granny had her own Granny, and she knows that everyone believe Granny Alison went bad – was evil, in other words. Granny Weatherwax knows that some of the choices she makes are right on the edge. She worries that standing so close to evil will turn her evil as well.

But she also knows that not choosing is the same as being cattle.  Not choosing is what the people of Escrow did – they did not choose to fight the vampires, or to run, or resist. They let themselves be made into cattle.

It is, essentially, what King Verence did. He did not choose who to let into Lancre. He invited everyone.

Choose, and you may choose badly. But you may also choose well. Act, and you may act well (or badly!). Don’t choose, and don’t act, and you are cattle. Someone else will act for you, and your fate is in their hands. If they’re a good king (instead of an inept one like King Verence) this may end well. If they’re an evil king (like Lord Magpyr) not so much.

Last Points: Note that like all of our other vampire texts, this one centers around a young women. Agnes / Perdita is like the women in the other vampire narratives in that she is young, pure and innocent; and she is important to her culture. (Witches run the culture of Lancre.)

But she is unlike women in most vampire narratives in that she is dumpy, and she is intelligent, and she is in charge of her own narrative. (These last two fit Shori as well, of course.) Also, once she “turns,” once she has been bitten by Vlad, she does not become sexually insatiable. She doesn’t go from “pure” and virginal to a sexy vampire, in other words.

Also, there is no sense in this narrative that she has to be destroyed to save the culture. Notice also that there is no sense that any of the vampires have to be destroyed to save the culture. That may be because this is a comedy and not a tragedy; but for whatever reason, these vampires just get a time out. They aren’t destroyed forever. 

Oh look! A Quiz! (Just for fun.) Feel free to post your scores in the comments.

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