This one I remember. The tale of how the eighth son of an eighth son was actually a daughter and fated to become a powerful wizard was one of my Discworld favourites. I’ve said before about how my memory of books I’ve read is fleeting. Memoirs always amuse me. I find it hard to trust anyone who can recall their childhood in great detail. All it is is a loose collection of hazy random moments from playing Streetfighter II in the Trocadero (the only remaining memory of my first trip to London) or how Total Recall was a spectacularly inappropriate but incredible choice of film to play during a children’s party for 11 year olds.
But Equal Rites was read and reread; its first page and its excellent opening line – This is a story about magic and where it goes and perhaps more importantly where it comes from and why, although it doesn’t pretend to answer all or any of these questions – somehow easily recalled. So I was excited, but somewhat fearful of coming back to this. Some things are just better left in the past.
Thankfully, it’s a considerable step forward from the first two novels. What both were guilty of, The Colour of Magic in particular, was women who were barely damsels in distress, let alone characters with nuance, dimensions and motivations.
But here we get Granny Weatherwax and she is a marvel. Terrifying, sarcastic, a mind like a blowtorch through snow, incredibly powerful but somewhat fearful of it, Weatherwax is one of Pratchett’s great characters and it’s no wonder he went back to her for Wyrd Sisters a few books down the line.
It’s an interesting book, dealing with Pratchett’s fascination with the power of knowledge and, more importantly, how knowing what to do with it is more crucial. The end of the book is marked with the somewhat neat summation that witches ‘need a head’ and wizards ‘need a heart’, something that sits within traditional gender roles.
Except that isn’t exactly true, based on what we read in the previous hundred pages. It’s a wizard – there are fewer better names for a character than Drum Billet – who sees nothing wrong with a girl going to the highest levels of arcane study in the Discworld to fulfill her potential. It is Granny who dubs wizardry as male magic that’s against nature.
Granny, with her faith in ‘Headology’*, is a dogmatic thinker, rather than someone going off on emotion. But while she is canny, she is too set in her ways. Trite as it sounds, the book tells us you shouldn’t stop learning, regardless of how clever you think you are. If Granny hadn’t have been prepared to let Eske go to the Unseen University, the world would have literally ended (again – that’s two threats of apocalypses out of three novels to date and he is far from done using it). By the end of the book, she is furious at the very idea that the Great Hall in the Unseen University (EDIT – not the Arcane University as I originally wrote. Thanks to Madjo for pointing that out) should be off limits to women. A long way from dubbing wizardry as something only for men.
You’ll note I have rarely mentioned Eske, the eighth daughter of the eighth son. She’s a decent character, albeit a bit thin – Pratchett really doesn’t have a handle on writing children at this point. The end of the book, with another fourth dimensional threat, is also a bit weak. What Equal Rites does best is establish Granny Weatherwax as one of the Discworld’s mainstays. Pratchett has a lot of fun with her. I had a lot of fun reading it too.
*Headology is something that will probably be looked at in greater detail in posts to come but it’s another of Pratchett’s key themes – the importance of ritual and symbols in how we perceive things. Witches don’t wear black hats and own cats because it helps tap into the local sources of arcane power that maximise the efficacy of spells; it’s because that’s what people expect. Symbols, like words, are magic because they transform how people see things.
Previously on Pratchett Job: