A while back I wrote about how Ursula K LeGuin asked the question “what was the young great wizard like?” But as far as I know, up until Terry Pratchett no one had asked “what was the young great witch like?” There are young women who become great witches, but that tends to happen after the book is over (as in Diana Wynne Jones’ The Spellcoats, and in adult novels like The Mists of Avalon childhood is merely a prelude).
Terry Pratchett’s witch novels are held together by the glue that is Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Og. They are two old ladies you know already, who in the world of Discworld are witches. We know what Nanny Og was like when she was young (she had an unknown number of husbands starting quite quick), but what was Granny Weatherwax like?
She was like Tiffany Aching. Tiffany Aching has “first sight and second thoughts,” a clever way of saying that she actually pays attention to what she sees, then acts instead of just reacting. Sometimes. Other times, she just does what seems natural and gets in enormous trouble for it.
When I say that Terry Pratchett asked the complementary question “what was the young great witch like,” he didn’t just put a great wizard in a dress or something ridiculous. Tiffany’s journey is very different than a young man’s journey would be. She is, for example, far more connected to people than the transient young man who becomes a wizard–to her past, to her family, to her land. But she too is sometimes blinded with arrogance, certain she can do anything (and forced to pay the price). She too must leave home and come back changed.
Yet, Tiffany’s greatness is of a different sort. In “The Shepherd’s Crown,” someone (I won’t say who) asked Granny Weatherwax why, when she could have done anything, when she could have ruled kingdoms and uprooted mountains, she had instead lived in a tiny village, in a cottage. Granny Weatherwax never even learned to spell. She answered that she didn’t want to do any of that. She just wanted her cottage, her place to rule and keep together.
That’s what ultimately set the witches of Terry Pratchett’s world apart from the great wizards of fantasy. Wizards seek to shake the world itself, to be the men who wrought change across time itself. Witches see the world inside every person, and they shift and shake those thousands of worlds instead of the big one. And both are needed, in the world of fiction and in our own world.