July 13, 2006


A Hat Full of Sky. By Terry Pratchett. HarperCollins. $16.99.

     There is so much wonder in this world – and that world, and the other one, and the one over there – that no single book can possibly contain it all.  And there is so much to write about that no single author can possibly produce all the necessary words – never mind the unnecessary ones that, when added to the necessaries, give us what we call “an author’s style.”

     And yet there is Terry Pratchett, and there is Discworld.  Pratchett’s Discworld tales currently run to 30-something volumes, and as far as we know, there is only one of him (intelligence on this subject being mixed, as intelligence usually is).  What is unalloyed is the pleasure of reading anything Pratchett writes – even when, as in his two books about the Wee Free Men (of which this is the second), he is writing for children…which means he is far more serious than when writing for adults.

     Pratchett’s books are not so much wonderful as they are wonderfull, which is to say, full of wonders.  He could have called this book A Hatful of Sky, but the actual title is far more Pratchettian.  It implies a hat filled to the brim, and possibly overflowing, with sky, and if that seems impossible, it is only the first of a myriad of impossibilities that Pratchett makes you wish were possible even though it is probably just as well that they aren’t.

     Pratchett is a master of creating layers within layers.  Consider the Wee Free Men, who are a focus of this book (and its predecessor, which is simply called The Wee Free Men).  Known as Pictsies, they are drunken, nasty former fairies who were apparently thrown out of the kingdom for being drunken and nasty and fighting all the time.  As a result, they think Discworld is a sort of Valhalla, and they must have died (from fighting) and gone to it.  If they die on Discworld, they assume they return, unhappily, to the land of the living, wherever that is.  Oh: and they paint and tattoo themselves blue.

     Now, all this is amusing enough, but it is even more so if you peel away the layers – as with an onion, except that Pratchett’s tend only to produce tears of laughter.  “Pictsies” is not only a pun on “pixies,” which is more or less what these wee folk are, but is also a pun on Picts, the highly warlike ancient British people who used – yes – blue dye as war paint and for decoration.

     Or consider the 11-year-old witch, who is already using her powers but does not understand them and has to leave home to learn how to use them.  Her name is Tiffany Aching – one of Pratchett’s wonderful combinatorial names (other examples here include Abiding Swindell and Dimity Hubbub).  “Tiffany Aching” offers a hint of something elegant merged with a hint of strong desire.  Perhaps that desire is for understanding her powers, or perhaps it is for something else, as Pratchett suggests in his inimitable style after Roland, a 13-year-old nobleman rescued by Tiffany and her frying pan in the earlier book (read it!), says good-bye to her and gives her a wrapped gift: “Admittedly—and it took some admitting—he was a lot less of a twit than he had been.  On the other hand, there had been such a lot of twit to begin with.”

     A Hat Full of Sky is a coming-of-age tale – a time-honored type of story never honored quite the way Pratchett honors (or dishonors) it.  There are, as always, more plot twists and turns than there are twists and turns in the roads Tiffany follows on the way to her eventual destination – which is back home, in case you wondered.  J.R.R. Tolkien had Bilbo Baggins write a memoir called There and Back Again about his adventures away from the Shire.  Think of A Hat Full of Sky as Tiffany’s version of that memoir and you won’t be far wrong.  But you’ll be far enough wrong to miss the point completely.  The wonders of Tolkien’s world have occasional parallels in Pratchett’s, but the worlds are ultimately different not only in character but also in kind.  And yet they are, Middle-Earth and Discworld both, simply (or not so simply) our very own everyday world…which will seem much less our own, and much less everyday, after you are finished being thoroughly delighted by A Hat Full of Sky.

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