Book Review: A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are just some things that make me laugh. Penguins, for one. Alec Baldwin, for another. You have them too, I imagine, things or people or characters which just make you crack up, no matter what they do. Chief among my list is Terry Pratchett’s Nac Mac Feegle, the Wee Free Men. Of all the madcap characters in Discworld, these blue-skinned, red-haired riffs on Mel Gibson’s Braveheart make me giggle indecorously. I mean, how can you not love a whole species of six-inch pseudo-Scots, who’s guiding principle in life is this: “A Feegle liked to face enormous odds all by himself, because it meant you didn’t have to look where you were hitting” (p. 77).
Even though it is geared for younger readers, this books is still classic Pratchett. He uses precise prose to weave together high fantasy with a contemporary sense of humor, making the two disparate elements seem as natural as breathing. This is the second adventure of Tiffany Aching and the Wee Free Men. Whereas the first book was more concerned with Tiffany’s inward strength, this story sends the very clear message that those who can help others have an obligation to get on with it, regardless of how the helper is treated. Much to my surprise, the novel was tuned to one of the deepest notes of my faith.
This belief about the nature of service is the essential lesson that eleven-year-old Tiffany must learn in her training as a witch. She thinks she’s off to discover secret spells and potions, magic in the traditional sense. Instead, she is almost immediately immersed in taking care of village simpletons and their mundane problems. She cleans houses, sits and listens to old people ramble on, and helps feed babies, all for very little reward. Miss Level, Tiffany’s first teacher puts it like this: “You can’t not help people just because they’re stupid or forgetful or unpleasant. Everyone’s poor around here. If I don’t help them, who will?” (p. 81).
That last line is essentially Miss Level’s modus operandi, and it earns high praise from the greatest witch in Discworld, Granny Weatherwax: “[Miss Level] cares about [people]. Even the stupid, mean, drooling ones, the mothers with the runny babies and no sense, the feckless and the silly and the fools who treat her like some kind of servant. Now that’s what I call magic–seein’ all that, dealin’ with all that, and still goin’ on” (p. 196). In the pantheon of Discworld characters, Granny Weatherwax is a heavy hitter. She’s been around nearly since the series started, and her presence in a story moves things. She doesn’t do cameos (she would see it as a waste of time), thus her words always carry weight, both in the created world and on a broader philosophical level. So, for her to call unselfish service “the soul and center” of witchcraft is a big deal. Essentially, Pratchett, through Granny, is placing an ideological flag in the ground and saying pay attention; this is important.
I find this so darn interesting because, so far as I know, Terry Pratchett is not a Christian. In his public life, he has advocated for things which I find objectionable, assisted suicide among them. And yet, in this book, he is drawing a firm line under one of the cornerstones of the Way. In one of the most poignant scenes in the New Testament, Jesus washes his disciple’s feet (John 13). Afterwards, he says “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). When He called them, he said “follow me.” Now, just before he leaves them, he says “like this.” Jesus is acting out the point he made in Mark 10: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.” Granny Weatherwax’s “soul and center” speech I quoted part of above echoes this so much it might as well have used the same tuning fork. You want to be a great witch in Discworld? You serve. You want to be a great Christian? You serve. In both the created world and the real world there is a class of people set apart from the rest of the world. And what defines them? The symbols, the trappings associated with them? No. It’s service. Unselfish, unheralded service.
This book is great fun to read. The writing is exemplary; the characters are memorable and entertaining; there is plenty of action and comedy. What elevates it to a different place, however, what makes me want to put it in the hands of kids, is a belief you just don’t run across much anymore:
“You couldn’t say: It’s not my fault. You couldn’t say: It’s not my responsibility.
You could say: I will deal with this.
You didn’t have to want to. But you had to do it.
Tiffany took a deep breath and stepped into the dark cottage.” (p. 204).
This isn’t the scene where Tiffany faces down the immortal creature which has been trying to possess and destroy her. That comes later. Here, she is going to see an old, lonely man so she can own up to a mistake. In many ways, it is the most important scene in the book.