Close Reading 8 of 12 (Narrative Voice in Pratchett’s Maskerade)

Maskerade, a novel by Terry Pratchett, is a humorous who-done-it in the fantasy world of Discworld. The novel follows Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax as they travel to Ankh-Morpork to simultaneously obtain some royalties owed Nanny and recruit Agnes Nitt as a third witch in their dwindling coven. Along the way, they solve a series of mysterious murders at the city’s opera house. Pratchett tells the story from all three witches’ perspectives, and even though he does not use chapter demarcations, the narrative voice is so distinct between the witches that it becomes obvious quickly which witch is the perspective character for each scene. Each witch has her own dialect, her own patterns of thought, and her own insecurities (or lack thereof) to guide the reader easily through the story.

When Nanny Ogg is telling the story, it appears almost as if she’s trying to tip toe around the bluntness to which her personality naturally gravitates. It is as if she would phrase quite a bit of what she has to say differently if the reader weren’t in her head with her. The tone is both oddly hesitant and yet very straightforward.

            The point was… well, the point was that Nanny Ogg was worried. Very Worried. She wasn’t at all sure that her friend wasn’t… well… going… well, sort of… in a manner of speaking… well… black…

She knew it happened with the really powerful ones. And Granny Weatherwax was pretty damn powerful. She was probably an even more accomplished witch now than the infamous Black Aliss, and everyone knew what happened to her at the finish. Pushed into her own stove by a couple of kids, and everyone said it was a damn good thing, even if it took a whole week to clean the oven.

Pratchett, Maskerade, page 1.

At first, Nanny is hesitant to really voice her concerns, but once she moves past that, she opens up thoroughly in the exposition of her concerns. With Nanny Ogg, the tone of her words, more than their construction, indicate the speaker. The words are straightforward but mingled with light curses and a meandering sense that Nanny Ogg would sit and chat all day. Her narrative voice is friendly and gossipy and generally personable.

Granny Weatherwax, on the other hand, thinks in short, terse sentences. When Pratchett writes in her perspective, the language is terse and much more caustic. In the following passage, Granny ruminates on the same topic of Black Aliss, but the stark contracts to the attitude and means of communication make it clear that this is not Nanny Ogg.

            She’d faced wizards, monsters and elves… and now she was feeling pleased with herself because she’d fooled Jarge Weaver, a man who’d twice failed to become Village Idiot through being overqualified.

It was the slippery slope. Next thing it’d be cackling and gibbering and luring children into the oven. And it wasn’t as if she even liked children.

Pratchett, Maskerade, page 17.

Pratchett gives the reader a lot of information about Granny’s personality in each paragraph he writes from her perspective. She’s sarcastic, self-aware, blunt, and generally intended to seem off-putting. What saves Granny Weatherwax is the humor with which Pratchett infuses her. Her point of view is often mean-spirited but filled with amusing jibes and un-pretentious language and dialect.

Agnes Nitt, the third witch in the trifecta, is a young witch with many insecurities, all of which stem from her girth. These insecurities manifest themselves in her thoughts, as the passage below indicates.

            Well, this was it. At last, she could go in, or she could go away. It was what they called a life choice. She’d never had one of those before.

Finally, after standing still for long enough for a pigeon to consider the perching possibilities of her huge and rather sad black floppy hat, she climbed the steps.

A man was theoretically sweeping them. What he was in fact doing was moving dirt around with the broom, to give a change of scenery and a chance to make new friends.

Pratchett, Maskerade, page 8.

Notwithstanding the amusement of Agnes making her first life choice in the first line, Agnes describes her surroundings in relation to her size, her sadness, or her aloneness. She’s sure of those abilities that she knows she possesses, but she’s insecure about everything else. Pratchett again manages to imbue Agnes with character beyond these insecurities, and her intelligent personality shines through in the colorful descriptions and observations that she makes regarding those around her. Agnes spends much of the book being ignored by the other characters (who are not Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax), and this gives her an opportunity to be an observer of human nature, and her observations are incisive, revealing telling information about the observed.

When Nanny and Granny are speaking to each other, Pratchett will often stay with Nanny Ogg and let Granny Weatherwax’s ascorbic tongue explain her thoughts to the reader.

            “It’s only money.”

“Yes, but it’s only my money, not only your money,” Nanny pointed out.

“We witches have always held everything in common, you know that,” said Granny.

“Well, yes,” said Nanny, and once again cutting to the heart of the sociopolitical debate. “It’s easy to hold everything in common when no one’s got anything.”

“Why, Gytha Ogg,” said Granny, “I thought you despised riches!”

“Right, so I’d like to get the chance to despise them up close.”

“But I knows you, Gytha Ogg. Money’d spoil you.”

Pratchett, Maskerade, page 194.

Pratchett adds some differentiation between the witches not only in their tones but in their dialects as well. Granny tends to adopt a grammatically loose form of speech contracting in odd places and using plurals where singular words are appropriate. Nanny tends to insert extra words into her dialog, repeating what other say and then appending her opinion onto the end of the statement. These variances, established over the course of not just this novel but others as well, keep the dialog quick and require very few attributions as benchmarks for the reader.

During the course of Maskerade, Terry Pratchett manages to imbue each witch with her own uniquely funny voice, both internal and in dialogue. The narrative voice of each character not only moves the story forward but provides a colorful and often deep look into the personality and inner life of characters that could easily otherwise be empty caricatures.

Photograph: Dead tree near petroglyphs in Kona Village, Kona, Hawaii, 2008.

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