“The Sea and Little Fishes” by Terry Pratchett was published in 1998. By then, Pratchett’s writing had matured from his early explorations, but it was still before the spectre of Alzheimer’s reared its ugly head and sucked away some of his effortless genius.
Terry Pratchett didn’t write many short stories. Some authors just don’t seem to take to the form. They have to have room to stretch their narrative legs, play out a plot a little at a time, and see where it takes them.
But if you love Discworld and you love short stories, Pratchett did occasionally give us shorter fiction from that universe and one of the best examples of that is “The Sea and Little Fishes.”
Let’s start by talking about the title. It’s based on the phrase: “The big sea does not care which way the little fishes swim.” That sounds like something you might have heard before, except you haven’t. Pratchett made it up. Pratchett would do this kind of thing all the time. He was so immersed in language and legend that he could spin a new mythology that felt as if had been told for thousands of years; he could coin a new phrase and make you believe it was an ancient saying.
The story tells the tale of a witch named Granny Weatherwax, and the events surrounding the Lancre Witch Trials. As readers familiar with the Discworld books will know, the name Granny Weatherwax belongs to a crusty old witch who lives on a mountain, who just so happens to be one of the most powerful magic users in the world.
Magic in Discworld isn’t much like magic in other fantasy books you might have read, because on the whole it doesn’t really make things better. Not by itself at any rate. The magic of Discworld is always wielded best by the person who works the hardest. There are no midichlorians here, and very little in-born talent. It’s all grit and gristle and persistence. Magic doesn’t open the door to a better world, it just lets you see exactly how ugly this world is.
Which is why Granny Weatherwax is the best. She’s as tough as an old boot, and just about as pleasant most of the time, but she is also fierce and hard working and loyal to a fault.
And she always wins. Every. Single. Time.
Which is why some of the other witches in the area take it upon themselves to ask her to step down from participating in the annual Lancre Witch Trials, a sort of cobbled together magical Olympics. They take exception to Granny wiping the ground with the less powerful witches every year. It isn’t fun. It isn’t fair. Why should she win every year? What is the point? And by the way, why can’t she be just a little bit nicer to people. Yes, of course her work is appreciated, but maybe she could smile a little more often?
What follows is a fascinating character study, wrapped in an almost Randian narrative about winners and losers. Granny wins because she is the best, and even if she does decide to stop winning, it doesn’t mean she has stopped being the best. But unlike Rand, Pratchett doesn’t leave things looking quite so black and white. Because it turns out that it is very lonely at the top of the mountain. And when everyone looks up to you, it is very hard not to look down on everyone else.
Of course it isn’t as dry as all that. This is Discworld after all, and Terry Pratchett weaves his special brand of humor into the whole affair. But even so, this might be one of Discworld’s most contemplative moments. There is no evil to be defeated, no monster to be slain. Instead there is quiet introspection. The sea may not care which way the little fishes swim, but the little fishes will never understand the sea as they understand each other.