Listening to Words that Aren't Said: Terry Pratchett and the Witches

Signs that people are censoring their words

Posted Jul 29, 2011

Discworld, the fantasy realm created by Terry Pratchett, is carried by four great elephants standing on the back of the great turtle, A'Tuin, floating in an infinite multiverse where the gods fight jealously and are always up for a quick prank on the local populace.

In the mountains of Discworld live witches - wise, nosy women who care for the people of their 'steads'.  Witches differ from wizards - all but one of whom are men - not in their magic, but in their work.  The heart and soul of witching - as Granny Weatherwax would say, pounding her fist - is caring for the needs of people.  Cutting the toe nails of people too arthritic to reach them, wiping snotty noses, and doing a thousand thankless, tedious, nasty jobs that a witch can see need doing and no one else takes the time to do.

" . . .  thats what I call magic - seein' all that, dealin' with all that, and still goin' on...... That is the root and heart and soul and centre of witchcraft, that is."   Granny Weatherwax in 'A Hat Full of Sky'

And since Granny Weatherwax is the greatest witch in the mountains, she must be right.

I was reminded of Discworld the other day as I listened for the fourth time to an older man telling me a long, long story of repairing his family's burial plot.  It was a rambling tale, beginning with choices made in the 1960's by people long dead, the qualities of brass and marble in acid rain, copyright laws for college symbols, the final wishes of a long list of relatives, and the number of remains that could be interred in plots depending on how they were prepared. 

The fourth time the story began, a bell went off in my head.  It was a bell from Discworld. 

Tiffany Aching - a young witch you see grow from girl to young woman over a series of books - is also irritated by an old man who meanders on and on about his (long dead) children who are going to be visiting, his complaints about the witch who brings him a hot meal every day, and how everyone bothers him by fussing about and not leaving him in peace.

One of the rituals that most frustrates Tiffany is his insistence that every day she count the coins in the box he keeps guarded under his chair.  Those - he tells her - are for his funeral. The first time he meets Tiffany, he grabs her by the arm:

"I shan't be a burden on anyone," he'd said urgently. "I got money put by for when I go.  My boy, Toby, won't have nothin' to worry about.  I can pay my way!  I want the proper funeral show, right?  With the black horses and the plumes and the mutes and a knife-and-fork tea for everyone afterward.  I've written it all down, fair and square.  Check in my box to make sure, will you?"

She checks that box for him daily.

Words not said

Looking at the marble sample and the description of the arching curve v. straight line of the monument for the fourth time, it struck me.  I wasn't hearing about this because my friend thought it was interesting.  Or because he thought I needed to know about copyright laws or how he wanted to be buried.  Or even because he had spent a lot of time and effort to clean things up and make them just right for people who he cared about deeply that were buried there.

He wanted to tell me something more important: that he cared about the people in his family who would be taking care of him after he died.  He could take care of himself - he didn't want to be trouble to anyone.  He had gone to a lot of time and effort so we wouldn't have to.

He was trying to tell me that he cared about and loved us.

And after I told him that I understood that and how much we appreciated it, I didn't hear the story again. 

He had been heard.

Spill words

One of the things that makes witches in Discworld special is that they can hear 'spill words'.  Spill words are the important words that people feel and want to say, but that they stop before the words come out of their mouths.  Spill words hold the real meaning and emotion behind what we share with each other in acceptable, socially conventional ways.

Spill words are what you mean, not what you say.

You hear spill words by listening for them.

For myself, often I find spill words when I'm just a little annoyed because someone has said something over and over that it's obvious I already know or that aren't particularly important or interesting. 

Or when something someone's saying doesn't match what they're doing or what they seem to believe.

Or when something just doesn't make sense but the other person goes through all sorts of convolutions in logic to make it clear to you that it ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY MUST be done in exactly this way. (Terry Pratchett would call these 'third thoughts' - the part of your mind that watches and asks questions about logical incongruities in the things around you.)

All of these things are triggers for me to stand back and think about - not what the words are saying, but what the spill words are.

What is this core of what this person is trying to tell me? 

Often the incongruity, the annoyance, or that little lack of logic is the tattletale that lets me know I should be listening to more than just their words.

Terry Pratchett is a fine psychological oberver and a very wise man.