Terry Pratchett Equal Rites Corgi 1987 (1987)
“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.”
With such a portentous opening sentence, and especially with such a qualifying caveat, it is clear from the start that this a Terry Pratchett novel. The third novel, in fact, in his Discworld series. But, as he goes on to add, it is also a story about sex (something we might have deduced from the punny title) and “primarily” a story about a world (the Discworld, if you hadn’t already guessed). And though this is early on in his series of over forty Discworld novels it’s full of typical Pratchett tics — the humour (both slapstick and sly), the sense of the ridiculous (with occasional sparkles of the sublime), the fast-paced and consummate storytelling (despite the many asides) and the sheer joy of Creation (an irony which would have tickled the professed atheist).
Eskarina Smith is the eighth child of an eighth son, a fact which has marked her out as something special, as special as the seventh son of a seventh son in our world. Except that Esk is a girl. Which means she technically can’t become a wizard because — as any fule kno — wizards are men. Esk’s own granny Esmeralda Weatherwax is a woman and therefore it is only right that she is able to be a witch. But there is a problem: Esk was handed a wizard’s staff at her moment of birth. And that is a very big problem.
Now we see where the sex fits in: if Esk has the staff and the powers of a wizard why can’t she be accepted as one? (Overlooking the fact she is not even in her teens, let alone of the appropriate gender.) This requires an arduous trip with Granny Weatherwax down the Ankh river towards the capital of Discworld, Ankh Morpork, where her task is to be accepted into the wizards’ Unseen University. The ‘world’ is of course the Discworld, but our own world is obliquely referenced too — which is where the question of magic comes in. We toy with ideas of the supernatural, don’t we, and continue to be frightened of ghouls and suchlike lurking in dark corners and under the bed until our dotage (don’t we? Or is it just me?) — so is that not a kind of magic? Where does it come from if not the imagination? Why do we entertain such impossible thoughts? What happens if we infect other people with our fears and outlandish dreams?
Equal Rites riffs on the ideas that everybody, whatever their age, gender or abilities, deserve consideration on their own merits, not on what is stereotypically ascribed to them. It riffs too on our potential for creative imaginings and whether it ever has limitations; and let’s not forget that Discworld is our own world in a distorting mirror, that it’s the only world we’ve got and that we need to take care of it.
Eskarina is a charming creation, the daughter of a smith (in our folklore smiths had a reputation for magic, of course) and the granddaughter of an equally riveting character, the irrepressible Granny Weatherwax. While Granny reappears frequently in subsequent novels Esk, more’s the pity, disappears for far too long in the series. As I understand it, being a neophyte Discworld explorer, I haven’t missed out by neglecting earlier titles in the series, so I shall just rely on serendipity to determine my future expeditions there. Which I gather is entirely in keeping with Discworld philosophy …
Too many to enumerate here are the features that delighted or pleasantly perplexed me, but I’ll mention just one or two. The name Eskarina (‘Esk’ for short) is, as far as I can work out, Pratchett’s own invention. As is my wont I was tempted to conjure up an etymology for it — is it a compound of the river name Esk and the girl’s name ‘Karina’? Is it derived from Modern Greek Έξι (pronounced ‘ex-ee’) meaning ‘six’ and therefore a convoluted joke because she’s the eighth child? — but these just seemed to be dead ends. I suspect that Pratchett liked the sound, perhaps influenced by the name Esme or Esmeralda, the forename he’d arrived at for Granny Weatherwax.
The name of the wizard who hands the baby Eskarina his staff before promptly expiring is a little more easily explained (though the reasons for this choice of name are no less obscure): Drum Billet — for it is he — gets his unwieldy moniker from a shaped solid metal part used in a motorcycle engine.
No, nor me either.
Equal Rites is my choice for the annual event March Magics hosted by Kristen at WeBeReading.com. and supported by Lori at Emerald City Book Review. It was formerly known as Diana Wynne Jones March, a “celebration of the late, great fantasy author. This year the focus has been expanded to include Terry Pratchett, another giant of the fantasy world who is greatly missed.”
Author alphabet: P