“You can’t go around building a better world for people”

“You can’t go around building a better world for people” July 28, 2010

For an explanation of what Weatherwax Wednesdays are all about, read the introduction post

This week’s Discworld quote comes from Witches Abroad, which is, among many other thing, a retelling of the Cinderella fairy tale. In the story, Granny Weatherwax and her companions are pitted against a more conventional fairy godmother, who is intent on scripting a happy ending for the characters.

‘We’re the other kind [of godmother],’ said Granny. ‘We’re the kind that gives people what they know they really need, not what we think they ought to want.’


‘You can’t go around building a better world for people. Only people can build a better world for people. Otherwise it’s just a cage.’

At first glance, this seems like an argument for an entirely hands-off approach to character development [the virtues kind, not the authorial kind].  Resist people imposing roles on you, constraint is intrinsically stifling, be who you want to be, etc, etc.

But Granny clearly doesn’t trust our wants.  The roles we would choose are not the roles we ought to play.  The roles that Granny Weatherwax rejects are the ones that fit too comfortably.

It is Lily, the conventional, storybook godmother who offers to preserve us as we are. The happy endings she promises are perfectly tailored to us and fit like swaddling blankets.  To be treated as complete in ourselves is infantilizing and eliminates the possibility of growth.

Granny can’t build us a better world without building better people to populate it; flawed people cannot and ought not be at peace.  An endless, numbing stasis is the best paradise we could hope for, lulled to sleep by the endless whisper of “you’re perfect just the way you are.”

Instead of a utopia, we require a crucible. 

Granny-as-godmother reminds me of an episode from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (you can read the passage here, but you ought to buy the book, which is excellent).  A man is tormented by a demon but is so used to its presence that he cannot imagine how his self would survive its destruction.  He balks when an angel  offers to throttle it.

Lily the good fairy sees our flaws and offers us roles that will allow us to coexist with them in bearable compromise.  Hard-hearted Granny, in contrast, threatens us with a terrifying freedom.  Like Lewis’s angel, she sees the worst in us, looks us in the eye and asks “May I kill it?”

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  • Madelaine

    Are you advocating Granny's opinion simply in terms of an afterlife? In which case, don't most religions advocate something much closer to hard work and sacrifice than coddled laziness anyway?And isn't that a blatantly false and deeply harmful dichotomy in the real world? Existence is and always will be enough of a crucible for pretty much everyone, and too much of one for a whole lot of people, without folks who are in a position to help standing back and waiting for "better people" to populate the better (not perfect – better) world that they are perfectly capable of building for their fellow humans. It sounds like the bootstrap argument. Maybe I just don't buy that we're flawed because I don't believe in the perfection we aren't reaching, so I can only read things like this as statements about "failings" more practical than moral. If the women are gods, eh, fine, and most gods I've heard about resemble Granny anyway (although kudos to her: it's not /our/ wants she necessarily mistrusts, it's /her/ opinion of them). But if we're meant to emulate "hard-hearted" Granny too, then we have major problems and the world would immediately become a better (not perfect) place if everyone sincerely tried to negotiate roles that allow us to coexist in (actually) bearable compromise instead. Getting there will be plenty uncomfortable.tl;dr: false dichotomy and the perfect is the enemy of the good, religious or not.

  • The comment that one person can't build a better world for another person (he has to do it for himself) sounds like a type of theodicy. The trouble is, one person certainly can build a better world for other people. For example, I didn't invent antibiotics, and it has certainly made the world a better place for me. About the need for making "better people," … okay. There are some ways to do that. Children raised in certain types of home environments are more likely to be good people than children raised in other home environments, and it's possible for some of those factors to be controlled externally. "flawed people cannot and ought not be at peace" Who says? So I meet some flawed person (i.e., any person), and I have a way to help him be at peace. I shouldn't do that? Why not? On some theory that he should be perfect before he can be at peace?