APF Chapter 3: Discworld Annotations [Prev Page] [Index] [Next Page]

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Wyrd Sisters

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- [title] Wyrd Sisters

In Macbeth, the three witches are sometimes called the weird sisters, e.g. act 2, scene 1: (Banquo) "I dreamt last night of the three weird sisters [...]"; or act 4, scene 1: (Macbeth) "Saw you the weird sisters?" (Lennox) "No, my lord."

But there's a bit more to it than just the Macbeth reference. 'Wyrd' is the Norse concept of destiny or fate, as embodied by the Norns (who probably inspired the Witches in Macbeth). Since 'weird' to a modern reader just means 'strange', it's easy to miss the overtones of the title and just assume that it's an Old spelling of 'weird'.

- [p. 5] "'When shall we three meet again?'"

Macbeth, act 1, scene 1, first line. The entire opening scene of Wyrd Sisters is of course a direct parody of Macbeth's opening scene..

- [p. 5] "Gods prefer simple, vicious games, where you Do Not Achieve Transcendence but Go Straight To Oblivion; [...]"

Probably the most famous Chance (or Community Chest) card in Monopoly: "GO TO JAIL -- Go directly to Jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.". (or 200 pounds, or 200 guilders, or 200 of whatever currency you care to name).

- [p. 7] "The junior witch, whose name was Magrat Garlick, relaxed considerably."

Terry says: "Magrat is pronounced Magg-rat. Doesn't matter what I think is right -- everyone I've heard pronounce it has pronounced it Maggrat."

"In Margaret Murray's book The Witch Cult in Western Europe you will find a number of Magrats and Magrets, and a suggestion that they were not misspellings but an earlier form of Margaret; also in the lists of those arraigned for witchcraft are the surnames Garlick, Device and Nutter. No Oggs or Weatherwaxes, though."

- [p. 8] "Meanwhile King Verence, monarch of Lancre, was making a discovery."

There exists a book entitled Servants of Satan, which is about the history of witch hunts. It contains the following paragraph:

"This brings us back to Pierre de Lancre. He became convinced that Basque women where an immoral and unfaithful lot when observing their social arrangements during his witch-hunting expedition. De Lancre was especially horrified at the leadership roles in religious services taken by Basque women, the very women among whom witchcraft was rife..."

Terry comments: "I'm astonished. I've never heard of the guy, and I'm reasonably well-read in that area. But it is a lovely coincidence."

It may also not be entirely a coincidence that 'Lancre' is a common way of referring to Lancashire, the county where the famous 17th century witch trials were held (see the annotation for p. 57 of Lords and Ladies ).


Refers to the famous "Beware the ides of March" warning in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, act 1, scene 2.

- [p. 14] "'Can you tell by the pricking of your thumbs?' said Magrat earnestly."

Macbeth, act 4, scene 1: (2 Witch) "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes [...]".

Keep an eye on Macbeth, act 4, scene 1. It's one of Terry's favourites in Wyrd Sisters.

- [p. 19] "Duke Felmet stared out gloomily at the dripping forest."

Felmet's dislike of the forest resonates with the prophecy foretelling Macbeth had nothing to fear until Birnam wood itself would march against him.

- [p. 20] "There had been something about him being half a man, and... infirm on purpose?"

Infirm of purpose, is what Lady Macbeth calls her husband in Macbeth, act 2, scene 2.

- [p. 20] "[...] with nothing much to do but hunt, drink and exercise his droit de seigneur."

'Droit de seigneur' or 'jus primæ noctis' ('right of first night'): a custom alleged to have existed in medieval Europe giving the lord of the land the right to sleep the first night with the bride of any one of his vassals. The evidence for this custom deals with redemption dues which were paid to avoid its enforcement. It probably existed as a recognised custom in parts of France and possibly Italy and Germany, but not elsewhere.

- [p. 22] "[...] an architect who had heard about Gormenghast but hadn't got the budget."

Gormenghast is the ancient, decaying castle from Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. See also the annotation for p. 17 of Pyramids .

- [p. 22] "'There is a knocking without,' he said."

In act 2 of Macbeth, scenes 2 and 3 have a lot of [Knocking within] in the stage directions.

- [p. 25] "'How many times have you thrown a magic ring into the deepest depths of the ocean and then, when you get home and have a nice bit of turbot for your tea, there it is?'"

Nanny's ring story is a well-known folk tale that goes back as least as far as Herodotus, but has also been used by e.g. Tolkien and Jack Vance.

More interesting is that at least one non-Brit over on alt.fan.pratchett had some trouble making sense of the implied connection between the concepts of 'turbot' and 'tea'. What he did not realise was that 'tea' is the term the British tend to use for any meal taken between 4.30 and 7 pm, which may therefore perfectly well include a nice, juicy turbot.

- [p. 26] "'You'd have to be a born fool to be a king,' said Granny."

I must have read Wyrd Sisters close to twenty times by now, and except for the last time this nice bit of foreshadowing completely passed me by.

- [p. 30] "'All the women are played by men.'"

For those who do not know: in Shakespeare's time this was indeed the case; no women were allowed on stage.

- [p. 35] "He'd tried to wash the blood off his hand."

Obvious, because very well known, but since I'm annotating all the other Shakespeare references, I might as well point out here that Felmet's attempts to wash the blood from his hands echo Lady Macbeth's actions in Macbeth after the killing of Duncan in act 5, scene 1: "Out, damned spot!", etc.

- [p. 36] The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All

Terry invented this title; he has not written any words to it (apart from the fragments that appear in the novels); but many fans (including a folk singer called Heather Wood) have; and there did turn out to exist an old Oxford drinking song that also uses the key phrase of the hedgehog song. See the Song... section in Chapter 5 for one documented version of that song. Terry pleads parallel evolution, and observes that: "There is a certain, how shall I put it, natural cadence to the words."

Readers of alt.fan.pratchett have also engaged in a collective songwriting effort, the results of which can be found on the L-space Web (see Chapter 6 for details), in the file /pub/pratchett/misc/hedgehog-song. See also Chapter 5 for a sample.

- [p. 50] "Nanny Ogg also kept a cat, a huge one-eyed grey tom called Greebo [...]"

'Greebo' is a word that was widely used in the early seventies to describe the sort of man who wanders around in oil-covered denim and leather (with similar long hair) and who settles disagreements with a motorcycle chain -- the sort who would like to be a Hell's Angel but doesn't have enough style.

- [p. 50] "'Well met by moonlight,' said Magrat politely. 'Merry meet. A star shines on --'"

Magrat's first greeting comes from A Midsummer Night's Dream: "Ill met by moonlight, proud Titania". See also the annotation for p. 252 of Lords and Ladies .

From Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings comes the Elvish greeting: "A star shines on the hour of our meeting".

- [p. 53] "'Every inch a king,' said Granny."

A quote from King Lear, act 4, scene 6.

- [p. 58] "'A Wizard of Sorts,' Vitoller read. 'Or, Please Yourself.'"

Not quite a Shakespeare title, but Please Yourself refers to both As You Like It and the subtitle of Twelfth Night: "Or What You Will".

- [p. 60] "It was the cats and the roller skates that were currently giving him trouble..."

Refers to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals Cats and Starlight Express.

- [p. 61] "However, in Bad Ass a cockerel laid an egg and had to put up with some very embarrassing personal questions."

Legend has it that from an egg laid by a cockerel and hatched by a serpent, a cockatrice (also known as a basilisk) will spawn. Since the cockatrice is a monster with the wings of a fowl, the tail of a dragon, and the head of a cock, whose very look causes instant death, it should be clear that such an egg would be a very bad omen indeed.

- [p. 65] "'Is this a dagger I see before me?' he mumbled."

From what is probably the most famous soliloquy in Macbeth: act 2, scene 1. See also the annotation for p. 184.

+ [p. 68] "The stone was about the same height as a tall man, [...]"

This is a reference to the King Stone, a tall monolith considered to be part of the Rollright Stones complex near Long Compton in the UK. According to legend, the Rollright stones can not be accurately counted, and a different tally will result each time an attempt is made.

- [p. 75] "A faint glow beyond the frosted panes suggested that, against all reason, a new day would soon dawn."

The first scene of the first act of Shakespeare's Hamlet starts at midnight, and describes a scene lasting about fifteen minutes -- yet the act ends at dawn. Likewise, the summoning of WxrtHltl-jwlpklz the demon takes place at night, but ends with the quote given above.

- [p. 82] "[...] the Twins, toddling hand in hand along the midnight corridors, [...]"

The same image can also be found in Stanley Kubrick's classic horror movie The Shining, where the ghosts of two small girl twins (who were horribly murdered in a 'dark deed') walk hand in hand through the corridors of the Overlook Hotel.

- [p. 84] "[...] its eyes two yellow slits of easy-going malevolence [...]"

In earlier editions of the APF this was flagged as one of Terry's major inconsistencies. After all, Greebo is supposed to have only one eye.

But since then, Terry has explained on a.f.p: "Greebo is loosely modelled on a real cat I knew when I was a kid -- he had two eyes, but one was sort of pearly coloured. He's blind in one eye."

- [p. 88] "Magrat was picking flowers and talking to them."

What follows is a satire of the mad Ophelia in Hamlet: "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies, that's for thoughts." (act 4, scene 5).

- [p. 95] "It's all very well calling for eye of newt, but do you mean Common, Spotted or Great Crested?"

Eye of Newt is one of the ingredients used by the witches in Macbeth, act 4, scene 1.

This scene also resonates very faintly with the famous running gag in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Bridgekeeper: "What... is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?"
Arthur: "What do you mean? An African or European swallow?"
Bridgekeeper: "Huh? I -- I don't know that! Auuuuuuuugh!"

- [p. 103] "[...] (a dandelion clock at about 2 pm)."

For an explanation of the dandelion clock see the annotation for p. 10 of The Light Fantastic .

- [p. 108] "'Infirm of purpose!'"

Lady Macbeth says this in Macbeth, act 2, scene 2.

- [p. 108] "'[...] and you said, "If it's to be done, it's better if it's done quickly", or something [...]'"

Macbeth, act 1, scene 7: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."

- [p. 109] "Granny glanced around the dungeon."

This is another misprint: it should be Nanny, not Granny. Terry says the error is not present in his own version of the text, but both the UK and USA paperbacks have it.

- [p. 127] "'[...] the land and the king are one.'"

A concept straight out of the Arthurian legends.

- [p. 128] "[...] rose from the ditch like Venus Anadyomene, only older and with more duckweed."

Venus Anadyomene is the classical image of Venus rising from the sea (from which she was born), accompanied by dolphins. The name is given to the famous lost painting by Apelles, as well as to the one by Botticelli in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

- [p. 133] "'I have no recollection of it at this time,' he murmured."

Duke Felmet is echoing the words of White House officials under questioning by Senate Committees during the Watergate affair in the 1970s and the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.

- [p. 134] "[...] whirl a farmhouse to any available emerald city of its choice."

A Wizard of Oz reference.

- [p. 139] "'I mean, Black Aliss was one of the best.'"

My sources tell me that Black Annis is the name of a fearsome witch from Celtic/Saxon mythology.

- [p. 142] "Greebo's grin gradually faded, until there was nothing left but the cat. This was nearly as spooky as the other way round."

Refers to the Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, a beast famous for slowly vanishing until only its grin remains.

- [p. 145] "[...] Herne the Hunted, the terrified and apprehensive deity of all small furry creatures [...]"

Herne the Hunter is a spectral hunter of medieval legend, said to originally have been a keeper in Windsor Forest. Herne appears in many stories, varying from Shakespeare (who else) to the fairly recent ITV television series "Robin of Sherwood" (starring Jason "son of" Connery).

When alt.fan.pratchett readers mistakenly assumed that the reference originated from this series, Terry cautioned: "Be careful when reference spotting... Herne the Hunter certainly did turn up in the Robin of Sherwood series and on an album by "Let's breathe romantically to music" group Clannad, but any passing pagan will tell you he goes back a lot, lot further than that."

Herne the Hunter also appears himself in Lords and Ladies. Here is some relevant information condensed from the book The Western Way by John and Caitlin Matthews:

"Herne the Hunter / Cernunnos is God of green and growing things; huntsman, spirit of earth, birth and masculinity. Often pictured seated cross-legged with antlers on his brow, he is [...] tutelary deity of many modern witch covens."

- [p. 156] "[...] trying to find a laboratory opposite a dress shop that will keep the same dummy in the window for sixty years, [...]"

This refers to the 1960 movie version of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, where the director uses the effect described to indicate the rapid passing of time.

- [p. 158] "He'd sorted out the falling chandelier, and found a place for a villain who wore a mask to conceal his disfigurement, [...]"

Describes The Phantom of the Opera, another musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. See also the annotations for Maskerade.

- [p. 159] "[...] the hero had been born in a handbag."

The protagonist in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest was found, as a baby, in a handbag.

- [p. 159] "It was the clowns who were giving him trouble again."

The clowns are the Marx Brothers. The third clown is Harpo, who never speaks, only honks ("business with bladder on a stick"). The short speech that follows, "This iss My Little Study..." is typical Groucho, and the "Atsa right, Boss" is Chico.

- [p. 159] "Thys ys amain Dainty Messe youe have got me into, Stanleigh"

Laurel & Hardy. Laurel's first name was Stan. See also the annotation for p. 73 of The Colour of Magic .

- [p. 160] The Dysk.

The famous Globe Theatre (which was octagonal in form!) was built by Cuthbert Barbage on the Bankside in Southwark (London) in 1599. Shakespeare had a share in the theatre and acted there.

The Globe was destroyed by fire, rebuilt, and eventually completely demolished in 1644. In 1997, a new reconstruction called 'Shakespeare's Globe Theatre' opened on Bankside, a few hundred yards from its original site.

- [p. 162] "All the disk is but an Theater, he wrote, Ane alle men and wymmen are but Players. [...] Sometimes they walke on. Sometimes they walke off."

As You Like It, act 2, scene 7: "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; [...]"

- [p. 163] "I had this dream about a little bandy-legged man walking down a road."

I have resisted annotating this for 7 editions of the APF, but oh, what the heck: Hwel is dreaming of Charlie Chaplin.

- [p. 165] "'I said, where's your pointy hat, dopey?'"

Dopey is one of the seven dwarfs in Walt Disney's animated Snow White. Terry likes toying with Disney's dwarf names. See for instance the annotation for p. 324 of Moving Pictures .

- [p. 167] "'Brothers! And yet may I call all men brother, for on this night --'"

This is (in spirit) the St Crispin's Day speech from King Henry V. See the annotation for p. 239.

- [p. 182] "Double hubble, stubble trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bub---"

The witches in Macbeth, act 4, scene 1: "Double, double toil and trouble; Fire, burn; and, cauldron, bubble."

- [p. 169] "[...] go around with axes in their belts, and call themselves names like Timkin Rumbleguts."

This is a sarcastic comment on the behaviour of most generic fantasy dwarfs, but of course the main image it invokes is of classic Tolkien characters like Thorin Oakenshield, etc.

- [p. 173] "'We've got a special on GBH this season.'"

The abbreviation GBH stands for Grievous Bodily Harm.

- [p. 178] "The pay's the thing."

Puns on a well-known Shakespeare quote from Hamlet (act 2, scene 2):

The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king

- [p. 179] "'I've got this idea about this ship wrecked on an island, where there's this--'"

This can of course refer to a thousand different movies or plays. In view of the general influences for this book, however, I'd bet my money on Shakespeare's The Tempest.

- [p. 181] "Round about the cauldron go, [...]"

What follows is a parody on Macbeth, act 4, scene 1, in which three witches boil up some pretty disgusting things in their cauldron. Try reading both versions side by side.

- [p. 182] "He punched the rock-hard pillow, and sank into a fitful sleep. Perchance to dream."

Taken from the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Hamlet.

- [p. 183] "KING: Now if I could just find my horsey..."

Hwel's script is Richard III done as a Punch-and-Judy show.

- [p. 184] "Is this a duck I see before me, its beak pointing at me?"

Macbeth, act 2, scene 1 again. See the annotation for p. 65.

- [p. 186] "Leonard of Quirm. He's a painter, really."

Refers to Leonardo da Vinci, who also worked on (but didn't succeed in building) a flying machine.

- [p. 186] "We grow old, Master Hwel. [...] We have heard the gongs at midnight."

Shakespeare again: King Henry IV, part 2, act 3, scene 2:

"FALSTAFF: Old, old, Master Shallow. [...] We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow."

- [p. 189] "'There's many a slip twixt dress and drawers.'"

A Nanny Ogg variant on the saying "There's many a slip 'tween the cup and the lip" ('slip' here meaning 'petticoat').

- [p. 189] "'A week is a long time in magic,' said Nanny."

Sir Harold Wilson: "A week is a long time in politics".

- [p. 193] "1ST WITCHE: He's late. (Pause)" [Etc.]

Parodies Samuel Beckett's classic play Waiting for Godot, where similar dialogue occurs.

- [p. 199] "'Did you know that an adult male carries up to five pounds of undigested red meat in his intestines at all times?"

Stereotypical (but basically true) propaganda that radical vegetarians like to quote in order to gross people out and get them to stop eating meat (of course, the average vegetarian has about five pounds of undigested vegetable matter in his intestines). The cliché is used fairly often, amongst other places in the movie Beverly Hills Cop.

Terry had this to say on the subject: "Yep. That one I got from some way out vegetarian stuff I read years ago, and went round feeling ill about for days. And two years ago I saw Beverly Hills Cop on TV and rejoiced when I heard the line. God, I wish I'd seen the film before I'd written Guards! Guards!... I'd have had someone out on stake-duty on horseback, and someone creep up behind them with a banana..."

Note that in Men at Arms, the second City Watch book, Terry indeed manages to work in a Beverly Hills Cop joke. See the annotation for p. 251/190 of Men At Arms .

- [p. 207] "'All hail wossname,' she said under her breath, 'who shall be king here, after.'"

Macbeth, act 1, scene 2: "All hail, Macbeth; that shalt be king hereafter!"

- [p. 208] "'Is anyone sitting here?' he said."

Macbeth, act 3, scene 4:

Macbeth: 'The table's full.'
Lennox: 'Here is a place reserv'd, sir.'
Macbeth: 'Where?'

Visible only to Macbeth the ghost of Banquo is sitting in his chair.

- [p. 211] "'We're scheming evil secret black and midnight hags!'"

Macbeth, act 4, scene 1: "How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!" See also the annotation for p. 186 of Mort .

- [p. 212] "'I never shipwrecked anybody!' she said."

Neither did the three witches from Macbeth, if you read carefully, but I nevertheless think there is a reference here: act 1, scene 3.

- [p. 213] "I'd like to know if I could compare you to a summer's day. Because -- well, June 12th was quite nice, and ..."

One of Shakespeare's more famous sonnets (Sonnet XVIII, to be precise) starts out:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate

- [p. 213] "'But I never walked like that! Why's he got a hump on his back? What's happened to his leg?'"

A reference to Richard the Third. A rather appropriate reference: in Shakespeare's Richard III, he is presented as an evil, lame, hunchbacked king, whom Henry must kill to save England. This is not historically correct -- rather it is how Henry would have liked people to remember it. Had Shakespeare strayed from the 'official' version he would have found himself in deep trouble with Henry's heirs -- royalty was taken seriously in those days.

- [p. 213] "'It's art,' said Nanny. 'It wossname, holds a mirror up to life.'"

Hamlet, act 3, scene 2: "To hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

- [p. 214] "'Ditch-delivered by a drabe', they said."

One of the ingredients in Macbeth, act 4, scene 1 is a "finger of birth-strangled babe, ditch-delivered by a drab" -- a drab being a "nasty, sluttish whore", according to the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.


Death is quoting from 'There's No Business Like Show Business', the song from the Irvin Berlin musical Annie Get Your Gun, also performed by Ethel Merman in the 1954 movie There's No Business Like Show Business.

- [p. 227] "'[...] who would have thought he had so much blood in him?'"

Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, act 5, scene 1: "Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him".

- [p. 235] "Like Bognor."

Bognor Regis is a town on the south coast of England, between Brighton and Portsmouth. A sleepy seaside resort, it is best-known for King George V's attributed last words, supposedly said after his physician told him he would soon be brought to Bognor to convalesce: "Bugger Bognor!".

- [p. 236] "'Can you remember what he said after all those tomorrows?'"

Macbeth, act 5, scene 5, from a another famous soliloquy:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow; a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

- [p. 239] "They were far more the type of kings who got people to charge into battle at five o'clock in the morning..."

Shakespeare's Henry V was just such a king, and Terry is referring here to the 'St Crispin's Day' speech in King Henry V, act 4, scene 3:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

See also the annotation for p. 167.

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