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Manuscript vs Myth: Lords and Ladies

Updated: Jan 1, 2024

Something is stirring in the heart of Lancre. Circle time is upon us and the walls between the worlds grow thin. Waiting on the other-side, eager to break through an old enemy waits. The elves are coming back. In the words of the witch, Granny Weatherwax – I can’t be having with that!

Elves face off against witches in Terry Pratchett’s 14th Discworld Novel ‘Lords and Ladies’. On the side of the elves, we have the Queen of Fairies, with seemingly unbeatable levels of magical power, and a murderous unicorn. On the side of the Witches we have some of Pratchett’s most beloved characters; experienced witch Granny Weatherwax, Magrat Garlick (former witch and soon-to-be-queen), Nanny Ogg (well established rascal) and of course, the good people of Lancre, a people to whom the word ‘defeat’ does not come easy (if only because most of them can’t spell it.) The two sides battle each other for control of the country of Lancre. It belonged to the elves once, and they are eager to return. But the humans are there now, and they’re not giving up without a fight.

In his novel Pratchett creates a colourful and vibrant world, drawn from clear historical and mythological influences, including a tongue-in-cheek parody of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and clear influences from European and British folklore.

Terry Pratchett draws inspiration for his depiction of elves from old European legends. Back before people knew the scientific explanations behind events, they would often turn to the supernatural for an explanation. Elves, therefore, could be thanked or blamed for any number of good or bad occurrences. If someone disappeared, or if they were suddenly struck down by illness, it might be said that they had been taken by or offended, the fairies. It was believed that people could protect themselves by leaving milk out for the fairies, or by hanging iron (usually in the shape of a horseshoe) over their doorways to prevent elves from entering or cursing a property. In ‘Lords and Ladies’, these are both measures that the people of Lancre take to protect themselves when the elves begin to come through.

However, Pratchett’s elves are not overly concerned by the humans – their focus is on claiming the land for their own. It is appropriate therefore that many of the folkloric elements that Pratchett draws from in this story come not from the characters, but instead from the landscape. In particular, Pratchett draws from the myths and legends that surround different archaeological sites around Britain.

One of the most important sites in the novel is The Dancers, a stone circle that indicates the place where the world is thin enough to let the fairies through. While the knowledge of what this circle indicates has been lost to time, the people of Lancre hold an unconscious unease towards the circle, most of them tending to avoid it. The Dancers are inspired by real life stone circles found in Britain, the most famous of these of course, Stonehenge, but there are over 1000 such circles found across the United Kingdom.

As with the fictional Dancers, the reason that these circles were first erected has been lost. Stonehenge was built approximately 5,000 years ago, and while some speculate that it was a religious site, used as a burial ground, or measured astrological events, we will never know for sure. As the knowledge of why these sites were created was lost, folklore stepped in to fill the gaps. Many of the standing stones and stone circles around Britain have been said to have magical origins, either being put there by giants, lives in by elves or, as in ‘Lords and Ladies’ serving as a gateway to the fairy realm. One example of this is with Oxfordshire’s Rollright stones, over seventy stones arranged in a circle first put in place in 2,500 BC. It is said that people have seen fairies dancing around the stone circle, disappearing beneath the stones when they realised that they were being watched.

Appropriately for a story that follows Granny Weatherwax and her fellow witches, witches are also frequently associated with standing stones – though a lot less favourably than fairies are. Where fairies and elves may appear as ambiguously either good or bad, witches more frequently appear in folklore as the villains. The Rollright stones, for example, also contain myths of witches. The stones are also known as the King’s Men, as legend states that the stones were one human, a king and his knights, transformed into rock by a wicked witch.

Terry Pratchett is well known for challenging standard narrative tropes and fairytale characters, and the same is true in ‘Lords and Ladies.’ Here, the witches are the good guys, using the power of the standing stones to attempt to hold back the invading elves.

When the standing stones fail, one of the witches, Nanny Ogg, turns to another mythicised archaeological site for help – a burial mound. Outside of Lancre lies The Long Man – a suggestively shaped collection of three earthworks, two round, and one oblong. Nanny Ogg descends into the burial mounds, encountering the human king who was once buried there, and travelling through to the land of fairies, to meet their king. While the King of Fairies is no more friendly to humans than his queen, Nanny Ogg (correctly) assumes that he will be persuaded to help them, if only to put one over on his wife.

As with standing stones, burial mounds are places built by humans that became mythicised as their history was lost. Also known as barrows, burial mounds were said to be the homes of fairies, and should be avoided lest some hapless human offend the fairies that live there.

A perhaps less impressive, but still interesting, archaeological discovery that has inspired both folklore and lore of ‘Lords and Ladies’ is the elf-shot. One of Pratchett’s characters – a young girl with dreams of being a witch who is enticed to follow the fairies – named Diamanda Tockley is shot by an elven arrow and described as having been ‘elf-shot’ – an affliction which initially places her in a deep sleep, and later allows the elves to control her. Elf-shot is a name used for flint arrow heads that have been found across Britain, but the term is also used to describe unexplainable pains in humans and livestock, once believed to be caused by elves shooting them with their arrows. The physical arrow heads were believed to be proof of these elven archers. Humans who had succumbed to elf-shot were said to always die from their invisible wounds, though Pratchett is far kinder, with Magrat Garlick knowing a cure for the affliction.

Overall, it is incredibly fitting for a book whose main conflict revolves around ownership of the land, to draw so much of its inspiration from the folklore of the land. While, as ever, Pratchett creates a rich and vibrant world with interesting and engaging characters, anyone with a deep interest in Britain’s oldest monuments will be just as fascinated by the setting as they are the story.


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