Thursday, June 5, 2014

Looking Along the Beam

So one of our recommended readings (also discussed in class) contained a quote from Terry Pratchett and I am therefore contractually obligated as a rabid Discworld fan to discuss it, as I think it has resonance not only within the context of Tolkien and his works, but how we as readers can best interact with them.
            Lilith (spoiler alert) Weatherwax is the villain of Witches Abroad, the book quoted in discussion and readings: she sees herself as the architect of the stories, orchestrating them without stepping into them herself. She constructs a fairytale kingdom with her citizens under threat of imprisonment (and, in one notable case for her Cinderella-analogue’s erstwhile coachmen, death by transformation into beetle and crushing) if they do not act in accordance with the image: a toymaker who can’t “whistle and sing all the day long” (Witches Abroad, 86) is thrown into the dungeons. In doing this, she sets herself apart from the great unfurling ribbon of Story (capital letter intended), not acknowledging that by attempting to master the course of these tales, she is isolating herself from them, a subcreator outside of her own creation. As said in class, Lilith is almost Sauron-like, forcing the people around her to her will regardless of their wishes for the sake of a greater order. She is also, as we mentioned in class, soundly defeated, imprisoned in a hall of infinite, possibly unreal mirrors, unable to leave until she finds the one that’s real.
            And so “Lily Weatherwax [runs] on through the endless reflections” (340).
            Her sister, on the other hand, has a different fate, one that we did not mention in class but that needs to be addressed. Granny Weatherwax (who has spent most of the tale dismantling the stories her sister has wrought) is imprisoned as well, having taken her sister with her in their final battle. She escapes where her sister fails to and it is the method of her escape that I find to be the most telling thing:
            “Esme turned, and a billion figures turned with her.
            “When can I get out?”
            “Is this a trick question?”
            Granny looked down at herself.
            “This one,” she said.
For Lilith, the ‘one that’s real’ is something outside of herself, a story or a reality that she can somehow reach and step into. But Granny, mistress of headology  that she is, knows differently. She, like Sam, knows that she is in a story. Sam only ever wonders what kind of story he is in, instantly accepting that he is treading one of Pratchett’s “grooves deep enough to follow” (Witches Abroad, 3). She acknowledges herself as part of the story without hesitation and, because of this, is allowed to escape. But, if this is true, we cannot call it a true escape, for she is not leaving behind the story, only the shell of perfection and rigidity that Lilith made for herself and which now acts as her tomb. One sister, having walled herself off from the story, is now cut off from it forever while the other, having accepted it into herself and she into it, is permitted to travel where she will.
And so should we, I think. We cannot, as readers, be Lilith. We cannot set a wall between ourselves and the story, observing it from outside and only looking at it rather than along it, to use C.S. Lewis’ language from Meditation in a Toolshed.
Perhaps ‘should’ is not the best word. I do not mean to say that there is one right way to examine a work. But I think that the most joy can be derived from looking along a story rather than at it. We have a lot to learn from Granny Weatherwax in her calm acceptance that she is inherently within the story and it within her. But the story will not force itself upon us if we are unwilling; the beam of light will not follow you around the toolshed until it finds you. There has to be willingness to step into it, willingness that Lilith does not possess.
            One of the greatest pleasures for me in this class is that there has been, across the board, exceeding willingness on the part of each individual to cast ourselves headlong into the story. We have, as a unit, thrown ourselves straight into the path of the beam of light and looked at it without hesitation.
            Going into this class, I was genuinely afraid. Afraid that something would be taken from me, that a text I had loved so dearly and that had given me so much would die under the microscope. I lost Jane Eyre to an English class in high school, a book that I had held near and dear to me now drained of all its joy. I nearly lost the Iliad in GTL last year (keeping the joy of it only by basically chaining it to my heart) and I entered into this course desperate to cling to my love for Tolkien.
            But I didn’t have to worry.  
            This class has not taken the world I love so much away from me, shoving me out of the path of the beam of light. Rather, it has opened the hole in the toolshed, widening it and making the beam all the strong and all the larger for it. I can see the Shire more clearly and it looks more green and lovely than I thought it could. I can hear horse hooves thundering, horns blowing, words in many tongues, more vividly and with greater clarity than I could before because now I understand why they are there. I know the love, the care that went into this world, the years of thought and the vastness of the vision that bore them.
            And it’s beautiful.
            I thank you for it.

Note: My typeface for Death is off, forgive me. Also, please let this reflection stand as a hearty and only semi-fanatical recommendation that anybody who loves stories needs to check out Terry Pratchett. Seriously. Go. Right now. I’ll wait.

-Emma Pauly

Pratchett, Terry. Witches Abroad. New York: HarperTorch, 2002. Print.


  1. I think your observations here are spot on, very perceptive. They immediately called to mind Sam, the one character who is most aware that he is participating in a story - one which began long before him and will continue long after - and the "hero" of the book. I wonder what Tolkien might think lies at the end of that beam into which we are casting ourselves.

    I'm very glad you enjoyed the class so much!

  2. As a fellow Discworld fan I guess I am also obligated to comment on this post. One of the interesting questions that Witches Abroad brings up is where exactly do these stories come from. The parasitic creature line notwithstanding, why do certain narratives resonate with humanity more than others? Sam's description of stories that really matter offers one approach, but there are plenty of stories that don't meet that description and yet still are embedded in our culture. I have no answers here, only questions and idle thoughts, but it is an interesting thing to ponder.

    -Will Adkisson