Book Review: Discworld #3 – Equal Rites

Title: Equal Rites
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1987
Series: Discworld; Witches
#: 3; 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.99
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 5

Spoilers for a whole bunch of Discworld books.

Equal_Rites.jpg

Plot Description: Drum Billet, a wizard who is about to die,  follows the wisdom of his staff, attempting to find his successor. Wizards are generally the eighth sons of an eighth son, and in the village of Bad Ass, up in the Ramtop mountains, an eighth child is being born to an eighth son. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, Drum Billet’s staff is of a particularly progressive bend of mind, and the child he leads Billet to is a daughter, not a son. It is thus that Eskarina Smith becomes destined to be a wizard.

“You’ve given the world its first female wizard,” said the midwife. “Whosa itsywitsy, den?”
“What?”
“I was talking to the baby.”

Terry P. started his Discworld series off in an extraordinarily ambitious fashion. After investigating the philosophy and mechanics of magic, creation, astral planes and Rincewind in The Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, he now moves on to gender roles as they might pertain to magic.

The midwife’s name was Granny Weatherwax. She was a witch. That was quite acceptable in the Ramtops, and no one had a bad word to say about witches. At least, not if he wanted to wake up in the morning the same shape as he went to bed.

Witches and wizards, being as powerful as they are, generally do not have leaders. As far as the wizards are concerned, the Archchancellor of Unseen University is regarded as “first among equals.” And among the witches, Granny Weatherwax is the most highly regarded of the leaders they didn’t have. And in Equal Rites, both Granny Weatherwax and Archchancellor Cutangle agree on one thing: Women are witches, and men are wizards. It cannot be any other way.

“Female wizards aren’t right either! It’s the wrong kind of magic for women, is wizard magic, it’s all books and stars and jommetry. She’d never grasp it. Whoever heard of a female wizard?”

“There’s witches,” said the smith uncertainly. “And enchantresses too, I’ve heard.”

“Witches is a different thing altogether,” snapped Granny Weatherwax. “It’s magic out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men never could get the hang of it. As for enchantresses,” she added. “They’re no better than they should be. You take it from me, just burn the staff, bury the body and don’t let on it ever happened.”

Contemporary gender studies would probably discuss this in terms of gender roles and socialization. Boys are encouraged to grow up with a particular mindset, girls with another. Boys who may show inclinations classified as feminine are pushed – or punished – away from them. Likewise with girls who show masculine inclinations. Granny Weatherwax’s reference to “jommetry” echoes something my mother believes – that men have brains better suited to logic and mathematics, and that female brains are better suited to emotional or empathetic fields. Wizards’ magic is “out of the sky” – a parallel can be drawn here to physics; while witch magic is out of the ground. It’s no coincidence that more women gravitate towards biology. No coincidence that in my home state, more women are successful in becoming doctors, and more men in becoming engineers. [Those are the only two acceptable career options in my home state.]

This state of affairs puts Eskarina Smith in the position of having to challenge two sets of gender roles. Ultimately, it makes her better at both witch magic as well as wizard magic. Her unique position enables her to see both kinds of magic without the blind spots that inflict older witches and wizards, which is how her abilities eventually trump theirs.

That being said, Terry P. has no pretensions as to which side he’s on. There’s no “I’m a humanist” nonsense in Equal Rites, and he’s the first to claim that, yes, all men. “Sure,” he concedes, “maybe not all men are thundering idiots, but, yes, all men are idiots. Maybe not all men are toweringly worthless, but really, the universe and women are just tolerating them.”

She stood up. “Let’s find this Great Hall, then. No time to waste.”
“Um, women aren’t allowed in,” said Esk.
Granny stopped in the doorway. Her shoulders rose. She turned around very slowly.
“What did you say?” she said. “Did these old ears deceive me, and don’t say they did because they didn’t.”
“Sorry,” said Esk. “Force of habit.”
“I can see you’ve been getting ideas below your station,” said Granny coldly.

This may seem like a stretch or an exaggeration, but the comparisons of wizard and witch magic show that while wizards are capable of very flashy magic that can interfere with the very workings of the universe, their primary objective – and this is something that has been repeatedly emphasized throughout the Discworld series – is to refrain from using their magic. The magic of men, if allowed to progress in an unrestricted fashion, will result in complete destruction of the universe. They are therefore not allowed to use their magic except in cases of absolute necessity (like when another wizard or set of wizards have already set about destroying the universe, and need to be stopped.) The wisdom and greatness of wizardry lies in doing nothing, which is why the greatest, strongest wizards do nothing but eat a lot and nap a lot.

The magic of witches on the other hand is perpetually in use. For the most part, witch magic is nothing but knowledge of herbal medicine, gossipping around a pot of tea, and what Granny Weatherwax refers to as “headology.” The witches are perpetual servants of society – they are midwives and healers, dispensers of justice, veterinarians. They tend to the elderly, the ones who have no one else to look after them. They take up the jobs no one else want, precisely because they can be so much more, and their power requires constant reminders of why it’s important to stay grounded.

And yet, social work is only one aspect of their skillset. They understand that magic is not to be used except in necessity, but when that necessity arises, there is no magic seemingly beyond them. The witches in Discworld achieve more – far more – than the wizards ever do. Equal Rites introduces only Esmeralda Weatherwax, but the women from the rest of the Witches series are no less notable than she. Midwifing for Time herself (Nanny Ogg), dragging souls out of the clutches of Death (Granny and Tiffany Aching), ensuring the stability of a monarchy (Granny, Nanny and Magrat Garlick) – and actually ruling it (Magrat), defeating a clutch of evil vampires by possessing one’s own blood before they drank it (Granny), defeating the Queen of the Faeries by Borrowing the mind of an entire bee Hive (Granny again), defeating the Queen of the Faeries for good (Tiffany), complete mastery of time travel (Eskarina Smith)… Perhaps the greatest of all these achievements, however, is the endless coming of age stories – Magrat, Tiffany, Agnes Nitt, and more. These witches see countless young women through the confusion of adolescence, guiding them so they turn out to be strong, confident and independent – young women who are as wise and powerful as their mentors.

It is perhaps very telling that the books about the wizards are collectively titled under the name Rincewind. There could perhaps be no “wizzard” less incompetent than is Rincewind, and yet he is, without doubt, the greatest hero the wizards can have. The number of times he has used magic can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He is cowardly, comical, ridiculous. Yet he saves the day, literally every time.

In addition, it is seen that the wizards are incapable of doing anything close to witch magic – they are selfish, lazy and indulgent. This is not out of any innate or biological factor, but more due to the fact that women are, in general, willing to take on both the physical and emotional burdens of life. The witches shoulder the emotional burden of entire villages, while the wizards are completely incapable of even feeding their own selves. But the reverse does not hold true. The witches prefer to stick to non-magical methods…

A couple of wizards with a rather greater presence of mind had nipped smartly out of the door behind them, and now several college porters were advancing threateningly up the hall, to the cheers and catcalls of the students. Esk had never much liked the porters, who lived a private life in their lodge, but now she felt a pang of sympathy for them.
Two of them reached out hairy hands and grabbed Granny’s shoulders. Her arm disappeared behind her back and there was a brief flurry of movement that ended with the men hopping away, clutching bits of themselves and swearing.
“Hatpin,” said Granny.

…but if necessary, witches can do wizard magic, and do it exceptionally well, as is exemplified in Granny Weatherwax’s magical duel with the Archchancellor.

Cutangle stood with legs planted wide apart, arms akimbo and stomach giving an impression of a beginners’ ski slope, the whole of him therefore adopting a pose usually associated with Henry VIII but with an option on Henry IX and X as well.

“Well?” he said, “What is the meaning of this outrage?”

“Is he important?” said Granny to Esk.

“I, madam, am the Archchancellor! And I happen to run this University! And you, madam, are trespassing in very dangerous territory indeed! I warn you that – stop looking at me like that!”

Cutangle staggered backwards, his hands raised to ward off Granny’s gaze.

Granny’s eyes had changed.

Esk had never seen them like this before. They were perfectly silver, like little round mirrors, reflecting all they saw. Cutangle was a vanishingly small dot in their depths, his mouth open, his tiny matchstick arms waving in desperation.

The Archchancellor backed into a pillar, and the shock made him recover. He shook his head irritably, cupped a hand and sent a stream of white fire streaking towards the witch.

Without dropping her iridescent stare Granny raised a hand and deflected the flames towards the roof. There was an explosion and a shower of tile fragments.

Her eyes widened.

Cutangle vanished. Where he had been standing a huge snake coiled, poised to strike.

Granny vanished. Where she had been standing was a large wicker basket.

The snake became a giant reptile from the mists of time.

The basket became the snow wind of the Ice Giants, coating the struggling monster with ice.

The reptile became a sabre-toothed tiger, crouched to spring.

The gale became a bubbling tar pit.

The tiger managed to become an eagle, stooping.

The tar pits became a tufted hood.

Then the images began to flicker as shape replaced shape. Stroboscope shadows danced around the hall. A magical wind sprang up, thick and greasy, striking octarine sparks from beards and fingers. In the middle of it all, Esk, peering through streaming eyes, could just make out the two figures of Granny and Cutangle, glossy statues in the midst of the hurtling images.

Their duel is cut short by the fact that Esk and Simon, a young boy also newly admitted to Unseen University, are in danger. No victor could possibly announced under such circumstances. And yet…

One of the students had earned several awards for bravery by daring to tug at Cutangle’s cloak ….

And now they were crowded into the narrow room, looking at the two bodies.

Cutangle summoned doctors of the body and doctors of the mind, and the room buzzed with magic as they got to work.

Granny tapped him on the shoulder.

“A word in your ear, young man,” she said.

“Hardly young, madam,” sighed Cutangle, “hardly young.” He felt drained. It had been decades since he’d duelled in magic, although it was common enough among students. He had a nasty feeling that Granny would have won eventually. Fighting her was like swatting a fly on your own nose. He couldn’t think what had come over him to try it.

Simon, the other main character, is a brilliant boy with a terrible stutter and an inability to do anything right.

Simon did everything inexpertly. He was really good at it. He was one of those tall lads apparently made out of knees, thumbs and elbows. Watching him walk was a strain, you kept waiting for the strings to snap, and when he talked the spasm of agony on his face if he spotted an S or W looming ahead in the sentence made people instinctively say them for him. It was worth it for the grateful look which spread across his acned face like sunrise on the moon.

As an expert on theoretical magic, however, he far outstrips every fully qualified wizard at Unseen University. Esk and Simon share a mutual attraction that motivates her to save Simon’s life, also saving the entire universe in the process. Together they stare down the creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions and return.

Eskarina Smith never appears in the Discworld series again… until I Shall Wear Midnight, the fourth book in the Tiffany Aching series. [I seriously cannot wait to start talking about Tiffany Aching.] It is then explained that Simon’s brain was too much for his body to handle, that he became an invalid, his physical illness directly proportional to the brilliance of his theory. Esk’s training as a witch stands out in her decisions to take care of him until his death…

The young Eskarina had met at the University a young man called Simon who…had been cursed by the Gods with almost every possible ailment that mankind was prone to. But because the Gods have a sense of humour, even though it’s a rather strange one, they had granted him the power to understand – well – everything. He could barely walk without assistance, but was so brilliant that he managed to keep the whole universe in his head. Wizards…would flock to hear him talk about space and time and magic as if they were all part of the same thing. And young Eskarina had fed him and cleaned him and helped him get about and learned from him – well – everything.” – I Shall Wear Midnight, Terry Pratchett.

Simon is apparently presumed dead in the Discworld universe, perhaps killed in a battle that takes place two books after Equal Rites. And by the time we meet Esk again, she has mastered the ability to travel through time, a secret she passes on to Tiffany Aching. After Eskarina, Tiffany is the only student witch to have equalled Granny’s level of skill in magic, and indeed to, have surpassed it, so perhaps it is very fitting that these two women should share a bond.

Next Review: The Man in Lower Ten by Mary Roberts Rineheart

Next in this Series: Discworld #4 – Mort (Death #1)

Next in this Sub-series: Discworld #6 – Wyrd Sisters (Witches #2)

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