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Alternate History and Terry Pratchett. Part 4: Lords and Ladies.

By Tom Anderson.



They are not our friends.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



In the next part of my look at Terry Pratchett’s use of Alternate History (AH) tropes and concepts in non-AH works. I’ll be looking at the fourteenth Discworld novel, Lords and Ladies, published in 1992. This is the fourth book to feature Esmerelda ‘Granny’ Weatherwax the witch, one of the series’ favourite characters, who evolved considerably from a more modest conception back in the third novel, Equal Rites. Unfortunately, Lords and Ladies is arguably the turning point, after which the fans’ love of the character bled into the author and led to her taking on some Mary Sue tendencies in later books (the same is true of Sam Vimes), but that is a topic for another day. Like the earlier witches-themed novel Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies is set in the tiny mountain kingdom of Lancre, and even includes a brief recap at the beginning. Verence, the former Fool to a usurper whom the witches installed as King, is now going to marry Magrat, the third of Granny’s coven, and is inviting dignitaries from across the world to the wedding. But the witches have been away in the appropriately-named novel Witches Abroad, and a new group of headstrong witches have tried to set up in their absence. As before in these articles, I am not going to delve more deeply into the plot than necessary to provide context; the focus will be on how AH is used in the writing.


Surprisingly, given the lack of any self-evident connection, Lords and Ladies has what may be the most detailed descriptions of AH and that “many worlds” quantum hypothesis of any of Pratchett’s writings. In order to explain how this fits into the plot, I must first discuss the story’s antagonists. Early on, we see a flashback with a girl (soon identified as the young Esme Weatherwax) crossing fields and thwarting the ambitions of a young man in order to visit ‘The Dancers’, a circle of standing stones made of magnetic ‘thunderbolt iron’ from meteorites. Between the Dancers she sees the figure of a dark-haired woman in a red dress, who tempts her with power to become the greatest witch as she dreams, if only she crosses the stones into her realm (which is only possible because it is ‘circle time’). But Esme defies the temptation because she sees gaining knowledge as the real path to greatness, whereas the woman is contemptuous of her interest in the dwarfs and trolls (for example) – a theme which will be revisited at the book’s climax.



These are the Callanish Standing Stones; there are countless myths surrounding standing stones in general. These, apparently, can - under the right circumstances - dance in the moonlight and ensnare the unwary traveller. Come the morning, there is an additional stone. Or one stone becomes human while the traveller takes its place in the ring.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Back in the present day (whenever that is), among the VIPs King Verence has invited to his wedding are the Faculty of Unseen University. Since the novel Moving Pictures, Pratchett had reimagined the wizards of UU, moving away from the amoral, backstabbing Vancians of earlier novels (in the early Discworld books, each one has a different Archchancellor in office) in favour of a stable cast of magical academics. The justification of this in-universe is that the wizards appointed an outside Archchancellor, Mustrum Ridcully the Brown, as he was from a rural area and they thought he would be easy to manipulate. In reality, Ridcully (who began as a parody of Radagast the Brown from Lord of the Rings) is the sort of country wizard who prefers shooting nature to communing with it, and proved too robust for the city wizards to assassinate, resulting in UU settling down into more of a cosy Oxbridge parody. As I have said elsewhere, once I learned from experience – if by parody you mean: “There’s magic, but otherwise there is no exaggeration whatsoever when compared to the real Oxbridge.” Another member of Faculty is Ponder Stibbons (also introduced in Moving Pictures, as a student) who is now Reader in Invisible Writings and represents the youthful modernising tendency in research academia. Much humour is derived from his arguments with the conservative Ridcully who, as the narrative notes, is not stupid – but his intellect is powerful in the way that a locomotive is powerful, and it’s hard to get it to switch tracks.


I mention this because Ridcully and Stibbons’ conversations provide a neat way to exposit some of the concepts behind the book. In particular, the vague reference in the flashback to ‘circle time’ is explained: at certain times, other universes try to break into this one, and this is visible by the formation of circles in fields of crops. In fact, this is Terry Pratchett rather brilliantly interweaving the contemporary 1990s hoo-ha over crop circles (which were, of course, just a stupid hoax aimed at the credulous) with much older folklore ideas. Stibbons explains the magical science of it, much to Ridcully’s annoyance: “If there is a sufficiently high flux level, the inter-continuum pressure can probably overcome quite a high base reality quotient.” In Lancre, the witches also notice the bees are reacting with alarm. The problem is not merely that other universes are touching this one, but what – or who – might come through?


Some exposition also comes from Gytha ‘Nanny’ Ogg, another member of the coven, as she tries to explain things to her blacksmith son Jason in a less jargon-filled way than Stibbons: “There’s some places that’re ‘thinner’ than others, where the old doorways used to be... the Dancers... are a kind of fence... there’s things like tides, only not with water, it’s when worlds get closer together’n you can nearly step between ‘em... anyway, if people’ve been hangin’ around the stones, playin’ around... then They’ll be back, if we’re not careful.” This comes after Nanny has heard that the leader of the young witches who’ve sprung up in their absence, Lucy ‘Diamanda’ Tockley has been leading dances around the stones; Nanny receives this news, with a delightful Pratchett scientific reference, with the same manner as “a nuclear physicist who’d just been told that someone was banging two bits of sub-critical uranium together to keep warm.”


We then get our first who the antagonist, “They”, are; Nanny has to explain that they are not the same as the Lovecraftian Things from the Dungeon Dimensions from earlier Discworld books, which live outside reality altogether, but being from another reality, “over there”. She tries to explain who They are, but knows Jason, like most people, will misunderstand: “The Lords and Ladies... the Fair Folk. The Gentry. The Shining Ones. The Star People. You know.” When he still doesn’t get it, she puts her hand on the iron anvil in his smithy and says the word, which the reader doesn’t get to see. Jason said: “Them? But aren’t they nice and -?” Nanny replied: “See? I told you you’d get it wrong!”


We as the readers don’t get the mystery of who They are solved (unless one knows the origins of those euphemisms Nanny gave, which are derived from real folklore) until page 135.


One advantage to the idiosyncratic way Discworld is written is that Pratchett also has access to the omniscient narrator for brief asides, a technique which was used to great effect in books such as Guards! Guards! and Moving Pictures. Here, it backs up the character discussions with more explanation for complex topics. In this case, it is also peppered with references to older works, especially older fantasy. “There used to be such simple directions, back in the days before they invented parallel universes – Up and Down, Right and Left, Backward and Forward, Past and Future... But normal directions don’t work in the multiverse, which has far too many dimensions for anyone to find their way. So new ones have to be invented so that the way can be found. Like: East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” (A Norwegian fairy tale collected by Andrew Lang in the Blue Fairy Book, also referenced by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings). “Or: Behind the North Wind.” (At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, originally a translation of Hyperborea). “Or: At the Back of Beyond. Or: There and Back Again.” (The subtitle of Tolkien’s The Hobbit). “Or: Beyond the Fields We Know”. (From the novel The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany, one of Tolkien’s major inspirations). “And sometimes there’s a short cut. A door or a gate. Some standing stones, a tree cleft by lightning, a filing cabinet.” (A wry reference to the wardrobe from CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).


A conversation between Ridcully and Stibbons precedes another digression of this type. Ridcully is reminiscing that he nearly married a girl from Lancre in his youth, allowing the reader to guess that he was the young man Esme was evading in the flashback. This is actually a recycled idea, as there’s a similar backstory with Esme and Archchancellor Cutangle in the earlier novel Equal Rites. Stibbons sees this as an opportunity to try to explain the idea of points of divergence and parallel universes to him, but it’s an uphill battle. Ridcully notes a traveller they’ve picked up “doesn’t go on about parasite universes all the time.” Stibbons corrects him irately to “parallel” and says that there’s no such thing as ‘parasite’ universes, but a footnote informs us that he is wrong in this statement. He goes on to try to use Ridcully’s life as an example of a point of divergence leading to a parallel universe: “In a way, you did marry her... but not in this universe.”


“You suggesting I nipped into some other universe to get married?” Ridcully asks in confusion, asking why he doesn’t remember it.


“Because the you in the other universe is different from the you here. It was a different you that got married. He’s probably settled down somewhere. He’s probably a great-grandad by now.”


Ridcully misses the point, complains that he never writes and never invited him to the wedding. “You’d think I’d think of me, wouldn’t you? What a bastard!”


This then goes into the omniscient narrative aside to explain the footnote: “There are indeed such things as parallel universes, although parallel is hardly the right word – universes swoop and spiral around one another like some mad weaving machine or a squadron of Yossarians with middle-ear trouble.” (A reference to Joseph Heller’s Catch 22). “And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies.” (Reference to Ray Bradbury’s short story A Sound of Thunder). “Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.” (An allusion to Christ’s words in Matthew 10:29 in the Bible). You may have gathered by this point that Terry Pratchett likes his references. The older reader will appreciate them, the younger reader will be inspired to seek them out.


The aside is an interesting take on the ‘butterfly effect’ in the conception of points of divergence and alternate timelines. The ‘hard’ approach to the butterfly effect, derived from chaos theory, suggests that any change, anywhere in the universe, no matter how small, will immediately start changing things everywhere – essentially, it will reset all the random dice throws of probability. This is unlike the old Cartesian conception of a deterministic universe, in which the same events would play out twice if the spring was rewound back to the beginning of the world. Pratchett here hits a happy medium by explaining how, in his conception, the universe can usually absorb changes to itself – as we already saw back in Mort with the interface rejecting a change to history.


Here, the paragraph I just described is followed by possibly the most succinct description of such a concept in fiction. “Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of social pus from which dictators emerge; shoot one, and there’ll be another along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland?” (This, along with the video game Command & Conquer: Red Alert, was my first introduction to the idea that going back in time to kill Hitler might have unforeseen consequences). “In fifty years’, thirty years’, ten years’ time, the world will be very nearly back on its old course. History always has a great weight of inertia.” Again, I really want to highlight how this casual aside is a better description and critique of AH ideas than one finds in many books actually dedicated to AH.


The narrator adds that, conversely, meaningful choices can be made at circle time, when the walls between “this” and “that” are thinner. “Then the universe can be sent careening down a different leg of the well-known Trousers of Time.” The name “trousers of time” (to describe a spacetime diagram showing two universes diverging from a decision point) is probably a reference to the radio series I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, but I think Pratchett got the idea from a rather trousers-looking spacetime diagram in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.


A final part of the aside: “But there are also stagnant pools, universes cut off from past and future. They have to steal pasts and futures from other universes; their only hope is to batten on the dynamic universes as they pass through the fragile period, as remora fish hang on to a passing shark. These are the parasite universes and, when the crop circles burst like raindrops, they have their chance.” So that’s why Stibbons was wrong. Again; not to gush, but consider Pratchett’s talent in creating this fascinating concept just as background to one book, when many writers would spin a whole series out of that. This idea that the parasite universes lack the passage of time ties in neatly with the antagonists being immortal and ageless, but also portrayed as being unable to change and therefore unable to learn – hence why young Esme rejected their easy path to power.



The innocent-sounding Elf Hill. Legend has it that if you spend the night of Midsummer on the hill, you will be transported to the land of the elves; after the night, you return to the hill, to find that a hundred years have passed while you have been gone for just one night.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



However, ‘Diamanda’ did not, and she ill-advisedly blunders through the Dancers into the parasite universe, requiring Granny to follow and rescue her.


Meanwhile, Nanny lets herself think about the enemy’s name within the confines of her own mind. “You said: the Shining Ones. You said: the Fair Folk. And you spat, and touched iron. But generations later, you forgot about the spitting and the iron, and you forgot why you used those names for them, and you remembered only that they were beautiful... we only remembers that the elves sang... We forgets what it was they were singing about.” Later, there is another great aside (which inspired me to write an upcoming article about how the meaning of words change). “Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder. Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels. Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies. Elves are glamorous. They project glamour. Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment. Elves are terrific. They beget terror. The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes, look for them behind words that have changed their meaning. No-one ever said elves are ‘nice’. Elves are ‘bad’.”


That’s the meaning of the title of the book. Pratchett is playing on the fact that ‘elves’ in modern fiction are more often associated with Tolkien’s conception, in contrast to the very negative and antagonistic ideas about elves in Celtic mythology (the Fay, the Irish Sidhe or the Scottish Sith – yes, Star Wars nicked it from them) as cruel, inhuman beings who see humans as playthings. Tolkien, of course, was well aware of this; he conceived his Elves as being a counter to how Victorian fairy tales had reduced them to comic figures (along with dwarfs) and in his Book of Lost Tales he envisages a history of Britain in which the Celts conquered the island from its original elvish inhabitants, looking down on them with fear and resentment, while early Anglo-Saxon visitors had a more sympathetic insight into the elves’ own culture. But that’s neither here nor there. Back to the story.


Diamanda’s activities mean that the Queen of the Elves (the figure who tempted Esme years earlier) is able to extend her power into Lancre by influencing a troupe of amateur actors who are to put on a play for the King’s wedding. They are inspired to put on a play which resembles Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and on Discworld, where reality is bent by people’s belief, the audience’s belief in elves is enough to let them break through the Dancers and into Lancre. Incidentally, the actors consist of locals who more usually comprise the Lancre Morris Men, and are able to use the elves’ fascination with music to escape (and inflict bodily harm in the process). I mention this because Pratchett’s US publishers, HarperPrism, somehow managed to hallucinate a football team in this scene due to a lack of understanding of Morris dancing, starting a running joke where football was the one subject Pratchett would never write a Discworld book about – until, decades later, Unseen Academicals.



This is Morris Dancing.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


This is football. It's easy to tell the difference.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Meanwhile, Ridcully has met Granny again and is trying to pick up where they left off a few decades earlier, much to her annoyance. He asks her if she’s ever wondered what life would have been like if she’d said yes, but she retorts that he doesn’t know that in that world, a fire might have swept through their house just after they were married and killed them both. There’s no point thinking about the past. Ridcully, moodily, illustrates that he was paying attention to Stibbons after all by explaining the Trousers of Time. “One of you goes down one leg, one of you goes down the other. And there’s all these continuinuinuums all over the place. When I was a lad there was just one decent universe and this was it... now it turns out there’s millions of the damn things. And there’s this damn cat they’ve discovered that you can put in a box and it’s dead and alive at the same time. Or something. (A reference, of course, to Schrodinger’s Cat, which gets an even more amusing allusion later in the book). “He says that we did get married, see. He says all the things that might have been have to be. So there’s thousands of me out there who never became a wizard, just like there’s thousands of you who, oh, answered letters. Hah! To them we’re something that might have been.”


In an interesting pay-off, we then learn the point of all this speculation about parallel universes: Granny was worrying that she was going mad and losing her memory (and her death was approaching), but in fact she has attuned thousands of her own parallel selves, as the fabric of reality is weak from circle time, and Ridcully’s explanation helps her understand it. She even has memories of the versions of her who did marry him, but decides not to tell him as it would break his heart. “Thousands of universes, twisting together like a rope being plaited from threads... there’s bound to be leakages, a sort of mental equivalent of the channel breakthrough on a cheap hi-fi that gets you the news in Swedish during the quiet bits in the music... Picking up the thoughts of another human being is very hard, because no two minds are on the same, er, wavelength. But somewhere out there, at the point where the parallel universes tangle, are a million minds just like yours. For a very obvious reason.” Granny is able to use the strength of all her other selves in the upcoming fight with the Queen of the Elves.


Magrat, meanwhile, who is leading a fight against the elves, sees their parasite universe trying to break through from where the Dancers were (now toppled).


“The hill itself glowed. Something was wrong with the landscape. It curved where it shouldn’t curve. Distances weren’t right. Magrat remembered a woodcut shoved in as a place marker in one of her old books. It showed the face of an old crone but, if you stared at it, you saw it was also the head of a young woman; a nose became a neck; an eyebrow became a necklace.” (A reference to a classic example of ambiguous figures in optical illusions). “The landscape was doing pretty much the same thing. What was a hill was also, at the same time, a vast snowbound panorama. Lancre and the land of the elves were trying to occupy the same space. The intrusive country wasn’t having it all its own way. Lancre was fighting back.”


The elves can influence minds and create illusions, but they ‘see’ through magnetism (they always know exactly where they are, which is partly responsible for their self-centred psychology) and fear iron, especially magnetic iron, more than anything. While Granny grapples mentally with the Queen and Magrat attacks when she tries to gain control over Lancre by trying to marry Verence in her place, Nanny finds another doorway to an elvish realm, under an ancient barrow, and recruits the King of the Elves to counter the Queen – through clever means which I won’t go into here. After the elves are defeated and ejected from Lancre, the Queen tries one last petty trick, going after Granny by controlling a unicorn from her realm – but Granny is able to cow and shoe it.


“Circle time was ending... she knew now why her mind had felt so unravelled... she couldn’t hear the ghostly thoughts of all the other Esme Weatherwaxes any more. Perhaps some lived in a world ruled by elves. Or had died long ago. Or were living what they thought were happy lives... some were going to die. She’d sensed their future deaths...” (explaining segments earlier in the book where she thought she was going to die herself).


At the end of the book, she says farewell to Ridcully, who asks: “Do you think that... somewhere... it all went right?”


Granny retorts, with her usual practical attitude: “Yes. Here!” However, she relents and adds: “There, too... somewhere Mustrum Ridcully married Esmerelda Weatherwax and they lived happily ever after... I’ve been picking up bits of her memories. She seemed happy enough. And I ain’t easily pleased.”


So that is Lords and Ladies – a wonderful use of AH ideas and quantum many-worlds science interwoven with a plot involving deep references to folklore and fantasy history, leavened with Pratchett’s ever-present comedy. Do not forget that what-ifs need not involve empires and battles; many of them are personal.


Next time, we’ll be looking at how Pratchett returns to the “Trousers of Time” concept in Jingo.




Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

among others.



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