Lit Knit 1: Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

January 19, 2011

So, here’s the first post in our Lit Knit series… In order to give some coherence to the entries in this series, they will follow a fixed pattern: First, there will be some basic information about the author, especially about her/his background. This may seem tedious, but if we want to examine how knitting is represented in a certain book, we also need to consider whether it was written by a 60-year-old white man from Copenhagen, Denmark, by an 18-year-old literary prodigy from Tokio, Japan, or by a 30-year-old African American woman from Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA. Second, there will be a short introduction to the book itself, explicating stuff like the main characters, the plot and/or the major issues dealt with in the story. On that basis, there will be an examination of the passage(s) where knitting is actually mentioned – this will be the third and final part. Unless, of course, we decide to un-fix the established pattern and do something else entirely. We might…

Witches Abroad (cover illustration by Josh Kirby). Image © Corgi Books

The author: Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 in Buckinghamshire, England, where he also spent most of his childhood and youth. After leaving school in 1965, he worked as a journalist for the next two decades, writing and publishing his first books of fantasy and science fiction along the way. In 1983 he published The Colour of Magic, the first of his tremendously successful Discworld novels. To say it with Wikipedia, the (so far 38) books of this series are

“set on the Discworld, a flat world balanced on the backs of four elephants which, in turn, stand on the back of a giant turtle, Great A’Tuin. The books frequently parody, or at least take inspiration from, J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft and William Shakespeare, as well as mythology, folklore and fairy tales, often using them for satirical parallels with current cultural, political and scientific issues.”

The book(s): While the books in the Discworld series are independent of one another and do not tell a continuing story, there are some main protagonists who appear in more than one of the stories.  Our favourites among them are the Lancre witches who feature prominently in six of the novels, i.e. Equal Rites (1987), Wyrd Sisters (1988), Witches Abroad (1991), Lords and Ladies (1992), Maskerade (1995) and Carpe Jugulum (1998).* Lancre is a rough and rustic backwoods kingdom, high up in the forbidding Ramtop mountains where winter’s are long and hard, and villages have names like Bad Ass.** The Lancre witches are just as rough and rustic as their home country, especially their leader, Granny Weatherwax. She’s basically the Dr. House of witches, i.e. a crabby, cantankerous old crone but also the best in her field and always ending up with helping people and saving the day. Her antipole and best (if not only) friend is Nanny Ogg, a jovial old witch who’s been married three times and is the head of a vast clan of children and grandchildren. Even at her advanced age she still has a predilection for alcohol and tobacco, good food and that other pleasure of the flesh… Occasionally she can be seen (and heard) playing a banjo and singing folksongs like “A wizard’s staff has a knob on the end” or “The hedgehog can never be buggered at all”. There’s also a number of other witches, but they’re of little consequence here, so I won’t go into detail on them…

The knitting: Over Christmas and New Year I read all six of the books named above. Four of them I read for the third time. The other two for the fourth time. Only now, however, did I become aware that in some of them both the witches and other characters occasionally engage in knitting. In my defense I have to emphasize that those passages are quite easy to miss because mostly they merely consist in passing references. But once you notice them, they do add some subtle yet interesting nuances to the characters…

In general, knitting in the Discworld novels seems to be associated with amiable elderly ladies. For instance, in Maskerade there’s Mrs. Plinge who works as a janitor/housemaid in an opera house. On p. 168 we are casually informed that her housemaid’s cupboard contains, among other things, a stool and her knitting. Apparently that’s how she passes her work breaks in the opera house, but no further explanation is given. One can only assume, therefore, that the knitting is simply supposed to underline Mrs. Plinge’s good-natured, homely character. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that good old affable Nanny Ogg is represented as a knitter, too. In Carpe Jugulum, on p. 184, we learn that she knit a little hood for a fellow witch’s newborn baby daughter – needless to say, it’s a pointy hood, referring to the pointy hats usually worn by witches.

What is slightly more surprising, though, is the fact that even Granny Weatherwax knows how to turn a ball of yarn into a pair of stockings. Without using any magic, that is. Towards the end of Lords and Ladies, on p. 373, Granny needs something to tie up a wild beast and, having no string at hand, asks Nanny Ogg to take off and hand over her stockings. As it turns out, though, Nanny being who she is doesn’t wear any stockings. To which Granny replies reproachfully: “What about the lovely red and white pair I gave you on Hogswatchnight? I knitted ’em myself. You know how I hates knitting.” And, a little later, she adds: “I had the devil of a time with the heels.” Again, the brief knitting reference emphasizes the figure’s character: Granny Weatherwax may be an old woman but she’s definitely not an amiable person, so it’s really fitting that even though she knows how to knit she actually hates doing it. Or, to put it more extensively: As Pratchett himself once stated, the kingdom of Lancre is loosely based on the rural Britain he grew up in during the 1950ies. Consequently, Lancre society is portrayed as being very traditional (in a western European kind of way) where knitting and other textile crafts are considered to be inherently female and where the female is generally associated with domesticity. Granny Weatherwax, however, is always described by Pratchett as an independent, headstrong person who won’t submit herself to the role society has carved out for old women, or indeed women of any age. So the detail that she detests knitting fits in perfectly with her refusal of being homely and subservient as society would expect any woman to be.*** As the Ravellers among you know, it is of course perfectly possible to be an independent, self-determined person and still be a knitter at the same time, but that’s a notion which hasn’t yet reached the Discworld ;-)

And, to add an afterthought, it also says a lot about Granny’s character that even though she hates knitting she knit a pair of stockings as a gift for her best friend, anyway…

Ok, this post is already way longer than I ever intended it to be, but there’s one more section from Carpe Jugulum that I simply can’t withhold from you. It features, ta-da, a knitting man! Unfortunately, on a closer look, it’s not that exciting from, say, a gender point of view at all. Anyway, on p. 184 the witches are about to walk across a wild, thorny moor, when Nanny Ogg holds them back and produces a batch of hand knit socks “so thick that they could have stood up by themselves.” She suggests to put them on for protection from the thorns and brambles and explains: “Lancre wool. (…) Our Jason knits ’em of an evenin’ and you know what strong fingers he’s got.” Jason is Nanny Ogg’s oldest son and also the village blacksmith. As mentioned above, everything in Lancre is rather rough and ragged, so the point of this episode is not that a man busies himself with a supposedly female occupation, but that even Lancre wool is so hard and rigid that it takes a blacksmith to knit with it.

* They also appear as supporting characters in four more recent novels that have junior witch Tiffany Aching as their main protagonist and are aimed at a children’s/young adult audience.

** That’s Bad Ass as in Disobedient Donkey, of course…

*** Mind you, Granny Weatherwax is definitely not a feminist, though. As becomes quite clear in Equal Rites, she firmly believes that men and women are fundamentally different and have their distinct places in society, and that this division of lifestyles and labour should not be altered. It’s just that Granny doesn’t believe those rules should apply to herself.


A final note on the page numbers given in the post: By now, there’s a number of different editions of Pratchett’s books – the numbers I gave all refer to the “old” Corgi paperback edition with the original cover illustrations by Josh Kirby.

8 Responses to “Lit Knit 1: Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett”

  1. Felix said

    I enjoyed this post immensely, as I am an avid Discworld appreciator, and a massive fan of the Lancre Witches.

    Thank you for pointing out all the knitting in the books, though! I hadn’t noticed it so much but now you mention it there are many passing references.

    I had always thought of Weatherwax as a third-wave feminist myself and I loved Equal Rites for all its explorations of equality and gender.

    The Tiffany Aching series is my favourite from a knitting point of view, as there is much to do with shepherding and sheep in this series, and it really is the series most closely connected with Southern England and the chalky downlands where – I believe – Pratchett grew up.

    • [c] said

      I must admit I haven’t read the Tiffany Aching series in a while, but now you mention it I do remember that there’s a lot of sheep-related stuff in it. Something about a Shepherdess and Jolly Sailor tobacco, if I’m not mistaken, though I can’t seem to recall the details.
      But I’m planning to re-read the whole series anyway once I Shall Wear Midnight comes out in paperback. Or perhaps I’ll just re-listen to the first three books of the series – I got them as audio-books as well, and narrator Tony Robinson’s impression of the Nac Mac Feegle is mind-blowingly hilarious!

  2. Thanks so much for this post. I’m a diehard Pratchett fan and knitter and am about to start re-‘reading’ all the Lancre witch books in audiobook form while I knit. Lots of fun!

    The Tiffany Aching books are amongst my favourites too, but Death is my best-loved character. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he knits too.

    p.s. Did you know there’s a Pratchett group on Ravelry?

    • [c] said

      Oh yes, unlike death in the real world, Discworld Death is a great character as well – and I wouldn’t be surprised either if he turned out to be a knitter. Isn’t there even a kitten at his house?

      P.S. I’m in the Folklore & Fairytale group on Ravelry where Pratchett gets mentioned fairly frequently, but no, I wasn’t aware there’s a group dedicated entirely to him and his work. Thanks for the hint!

  3. Hi again, I’m sitting here knitting a Goodale cardigan and listening to Carpe Jugulum and the passage about Jason Ogg knitting socks from Lancre wool just came up! Made me think about your post again (-:

    • [c] said

      Ah, knitting AND listening to Terry Pratchett – sounds like you’re having a good time :-)

      Incidentally, I’ve been reading some more of Pratchett’s books recently and discovered knitting references in another two of them. I shall be blogging about them sometime soon, so, erm, “stay tuned” (or whatever the blogging equivalent for that expression is)…

  4. =Tamar said

    In the Watch novels, Sybil occasionally knits. Not well, alas.

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