This thane walks into a bar…

I wanted to say something about Terry Pratchett, but somehow it seems as though the best way is to talk about Richard Armour.  I read Armour’s Twisted Tales from Shakespeare as a kid, and was delighted to see it in the Blind Guy Library catalog.  It’s a parody study guide; here are some bits from the chapter on Macbeth, to give you an idea of the flavor:

“Stay, you imperfect speakers–tell me more!” he commands.  Perhaps not liking the way he refers to their elocution, they vanish into thin air, making it slightly thicker. 

“…a couple of the King’s henchmen, straight from a busy day of henching, ride up…”

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” Macbeth rattles off to his wife, hoping to confuse her.

Macbeth calls in a couple of professional and fully licensed murderers.  Any more murders on his own, he fears, will lose him his amateur standing.

As he walks up, Macbeth hails them cheerily, “How now, you secret black and midnight hags!”  He wants to ingratiate himself so they will answer his questions.

And there are Questions for Discussion too:

Discuss the following quotation: “Aroint thee, witch! the rump-fed runion cries.”  Discuss the advantages of rump-fed over spoon-fed and intravenous.

Not everyone, I think, shares my admiration for this kind of wit, but several of these lines remained in my mind for 30 years, while most of the literature I’ve read has vanished almost without a trace.  If I were asked to offer a justification for my esteem (though it is perverse to ask for justification of something that gives delight), I would say that these jokes reanimate dead language (“into thin air,” “henchmen”) and make us think about cliches that are otherwise transparent.  Some of them also point out aspects of Shakespeare that we all experience but which are considered beneath the dignity of proper literary discussion.  Why is Macbeth’s famous soliloquy such a confusing mess?

Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters shares a great deal of Armour’s sensibility, and maybe even a few of the same jokes; it is certainly full of goofy Shakespeare references, especially to Macbeth (“There’s a knocking without.” “Without what?”).  It is one of Pratchett’s many Discworld novels, set in a universe of kings and dragons, witches and dwarves.   I can best characterize them by asking you to imagine that JRR Tolkien had written up a plot sketch for Lord of the Rings and the publisher had then hired PG Wodehouse to write it up.

One of the amusing aspects of Wyrd Sisters is the generational conflict between the witches.  The older ones are rather set in a traditional witchy mode, riding broomsticks and offering classic village-witch services such as folk remedies, midwifery, and the occasional love potion, and they don’t hold with young Magrit’s newfangled New Agey style (crystals, runes, dancing naked at the full of the moon).  It makes for some cute banter.

And in its own way, Discworld is more verisimilar in its genuine weirdness than some fantasy worlds.  I’ve been reading (and enjoying) George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, which, despite its many virtues, sometimes shows a pedestrian lack of imagination that makes its world seem fake.  For example, kids in the Seven Kingdoms play Monsters & Maidens or Come into My Castle; that’s fine, but foreign cultures are usually less obvious than that.  The most popular card game in Discworld is Cripple Mr. Onion–which one sounds more interesting to you?

I also very much liked Pratchett’s Guards! Guards! (with dragons and lots of detective-fiction byplay), though I found Lords and Ladies disappointing due to its anti-fairy attitude and ethical stupidity.

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5 Responses to This thane walks into a bar…

  1. Mary White says:

    I love Richard Armour – my favorite quote is “Until Eve arrived, this was a man’s world. ”
    He’s sort of Monty Python in a book, don’t you think?

  2. Megan Kasten says:

    Roy, if you love that sort of ‘re-animation of dead language’, you definitely should read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It outs closeted cliches in much the same way. Douglas Adams is one of the few readers I’ve gone back to and reread, simply because I love the way he assembles words. He veers into absurdity on almost every page, but then again it’s the absurdity of arbitrary institutions that floats a lot of his observational humor. Now I’ll have to try some Richard Armour, when I’m finished with my busy day of henching, of course.

    • Roy says:

      Hmm, I think I was put off by the TV series, which seemed cutesy…but I probably can’t hold out forever.

      Give Pratchett a try too.

      • Megan Kasten says:

        I would offer as a caveat that Adams can indeed veer off into cutesiness at times as well, but I found the stories and his use of the language to be worth the occasional taste of saccharin.
        And yes, I’ll add Pratchett to my catching up list. I wish i could interest my book club in some SF, but alas, there are a couple of holdouts who seem unwilling to budge.

  3. Pingback: Best of 2011, Bookwise-speaking | lippenheimer

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