Published in 1987, Sir Terry Pratchett’s Equal Rites does not get the credit it deserves for its social commentary on feminism and power balance. There are many things that set this novel apart from the other 40 books in the series, but its bold tackling of literal Bad Ass girl power isn’t understated or metaphorical. Equal Rites was the first of the Discworld novels to break the structural pattern of the first two books and begin to explore various arcs throughout the world — Rincewind and Twoflower are nary a thought in the world of witches, and we get our first introduction to the Wyrd Sisters. We also start to see a lot more worldbuilding and it’s clear Sir Terry Pratchett is beginning to find his stride.
Sir Terry Pratchett’s attitude towards magic and sex is best summed up in his 1985 talk, “Why Gandalf Never Married”, a title derived from the first page of Equal Rites:
“The sex of the magic practitioner doesn’t really enter into it. The classical wizard, I suggest, represents the ideal of magic — everything that we hope we would be, if we had the power. The classical witch, on the other hand, with her often malevolent interest in the small beer of human affairs, is everything we fear only too well that we would in fact become.”
In Discworld, wizards are always men, and witches are always women. We’ve come across this briefly in The Light Fantastic, but the distinction between both types of magic are truly developed in this third installment. Neither party needs to be born with magic to wield it; magic either finds them or they seek it out. In Rincewind’s case, both were true when the eighth Octavo spell found a home in his head. The whole premise of Equal Rites is that Eskarina is granted a wizard’s powers the day she was born, making her the first female wizard on the continent.
Granny Weatherwax (who bears a distant relation to Galder Weatherwax, the late Archchancellor of Unseen University and Supreme Grand Conjurer of the Ancient and Truly Original Brothers of the Silver Star, Lord Imperial of the Sacred Staff, Eight-Level Ipsissimus) explains that Witch magic is magic “out of the ground, not out of the sky, and men could never get the hang of it.”
The witch versus wizard argument comes to a head in excruciating detail in a conversation between the Vice Chancellor of the University, Treatle and Esk. It becomes glaringly obvious how different classes of magic are tied to sex, and Equal Rites really speaks for itself:
“‘I happen to believe that witchcraft is a fine career, for a woman. A very noble calling.’
‘You do? I mean, it is?’
‘Oh yes. Very useful in rural districts for, for people who are — having babies, and so forth. However, witches are not wizards. Witchcraft is Nature’s way of allowing women access to the magical fluxes, but you must remember it is not high magic.’
‘I see. Not high magic,’ said Esk grimly.
‘Oh no. Witchcraft is very suitable for helping people through life, of course, but-’
‘I expect women aren’t really sensible enough to be wizards,’ said Esk. ‘I expect that’s it, really.’
‘I have nothing but the highest respect for women,’ said Treatle who hadn’t noticed the fresh edge to Esk’s tone. ‘They are without parallel when, when-’
‘For having babies and so forth?’
‘There is that, yes,’ the wizard conceded generously. ‘But they can be a little unsettling at times. A little too excitable. High magic requires great clarity of thought, you see, and women’s talents do not lie in that direction. Their brains tend to overheat. I am sorry to say there is only one door into wizardry and that is the main gate at Unseen University and no woman has ever passed through it.’”
Despite Treatle’s claims, there’s no biological reason for the magical disparity, it’s all a cultural bias: men are better at systemization (hence the wizard hierarchy and the Unseen University) and women have strong intuition and common sense. It can also be viewed as the difference between herbalism and ritualistic mathematics, but Granny prefers Headology, which is essentially applied psychology without the negative connotation of psychiatry hanging over it:
“Listen,” said Granny, “If you give someone a bottle of red jollop for their wind it may work, right, but if you want it to work for sure then you let their mind make it work for them. Tell ’em it’s moonbeams bottled in fairy wine or something. Mumble over it a bit. It’s the same with cursing.”
The story begins in the town of Bad Ass where the eighth son of an eighth son is about to be born – much like Tibetan Buddhisim in our world, the Roundworld. The wizard Drum Billet knows he’s about to die so he decides to pass his staff to the prodigal son, this is huge because do you know how wizards like to be buried? Reluctantly. However, Eskarina Smith was born a girl to everyone’s surprise, and becomes the first female wizard and grows up under the wing of Granny Weatherwax — a powerful woman who uses books as toilet paper and flies around on a terrible broom that only works at night. Death informs Drum Billet how long it takes to achieve human reincarnation, so he becomes a tree in Gordo Smith’s backyard and watches Esk grow, and later returns at the end of the novel as an ant at the University.
During her early training, Granny teaches Esk about Borrowing. Essentially, it’s taking over the mind of a creature in a way that you’re only along for the ride. As a human, Esk would be a terrible hawk, so it makes sense to tag along for only a little while. However, this doesn’t stop her from spending too long taking over the hawk, and begins to forget about her life as a girl becoming nothing but a bird. Not only does this showcase Esk’s frustrations at the limitations of witch magic, but also develops her as the curious student she is.
As a side note, we also get the first mention of cats having “a private and complicated life”, which becomes important in later novels and an unaffiliated Pratchett novel, The Unadulterated Cat. It’s also notable that Granny Weatherwax “couldn’t abide cats.”
As Esk’s powers mature, it becomes apparent that she needs to seek out a wizard education from the Unseen University. Her and Granny travel to Ankh-Morpork and immediately get separated. Esk finds herself with the Zoons; a race of traveler tradesmen incapable of lying. Any Zoon who discovers they’re able to lie in any capacity are encouraged to further their talent and earn the title of Liar. Amschat B’hal Zoon, whose boat Esk stows away on, is the current Liar. The Zoons are a direct mirror of the Romani people, and Pratchett plays with and undermines Roundworld traveler stereotypes. Zoons are a brutally honest race who aren’t trusted for this reason, but they are well regarded for their successful trades and strong family values. Esk was never in any danger during her time with Amschat, and Pratchett’s tongue-in-cheek socio-political commentary pokes fun at their title:
“Other races get very annoyed about all this. They feel that the Zoon ought to have adopted more suitable titles like ‘diplomat’ or ‘public relations officer.’ They feel they are poking fun at the whole thing.”
On her travels back to Ankh-Morpork from the Zoons, Esk meets a fellow wizard-to-be named Simon who is plagued by hay fever and a fierce stutter. He’s on his way to the University as a young protege apprentice to Treatle. Upon arriving at the Unseen University, Granny and Esk aren’t allowed entrance and instead become employees.
Granny becomes the pivotal point of fascination for Mrs. Whitlow – an amateur fortune teller and washerwoman – and we get an interesting mention of the maiden, mother, crone imagery often associated with women, especially in fantastical context. Esk undoubtedly takes the role of maiden, Granny as her mother figure, and Granny’s mentioned elders as the crones she looks up to. In sort of the same train of thought, the maid at Unseen University, Ksandra, is also a possible reference to Cassandra from Greek Mythology whose prophecies were never believed. Due to her profession rather than divine intervention, no one understands Ksandra because she talks with a mouth full of clothes pegs.
Esk spends her free time sneaking into classes and learning from the back wall. She runs into Simon a few more times and realizes she can’t read on account of never trying. After many visits to the library (where we run into a certain orangutan librarian), the Things attack and Esk chases Simon into wherever he is, which is exactly Out of His Head. In this proto-Dungeon Dimension, Esk realizes the Things attacking Simon are only real because they believe them to be.
Meanwhile, Granny and the Archchancellor Cutangle fight before retrieving Esk’s staff from the river and return back to a flooding University. Cutangle points out the impossibility of finding a discarded staff in an flooding river during a thunderstorm, to which Granny replies “‘Million-to-one chances,’ she said, ‘crop up nine times out of ten.’”
Back at the University, we’re introduced to the idea that the stone is semi sentient on account of it being so old, and the University’s extreme reaction to the rain is on account of the building being afraid of thunderstorms. Cutangle and the other wizards decide that it’s better for an artisan to repair the roof than use magic to fix it (once again begging the question of what do wizards actually do?) and join the scene at the library.
With the staff returned, Esk realizes the way to fight the Things is to not use magic at all. They’re reliant on magic to exist, so the thought of not using magic terrifies them. She is able to pull Simon back into his body and things return to normal. In a fun nod to The Light Fantastic, Simon notices the statues of dead wizards and is horrified by how eerily lifelike they seem to be. The book ends with her and Simon founding a new study and practice of magic, by not using it at all, and Cutangle offers Granny a position as Chair since he will start admitting girls into the University.
Another interesting thing sprinkled throughout Discworld lore so far is the magic number eight, literally. The eighth color of the rainbow is Octarine, the color of magic only visible to wizards and cats. We were introduced to the eight-spelled-Octavo in The Color of Magic, and it doesn’t escape notice that Eskarina is the eight year old eighth child of an eighth son, making her a prime candidate for wizard magic. More than that, Esk traveled to Ankh-Morpork and noted that “the first eight years of her life the world had been a particularly boring place and now that it was becoming interesting Esk wasn’t about to act ungrateful.” Besides clever world building, the auspicious number eight is a sacred Buddhist symbol representing the Dharma Wheel, which once again parallels magic on the Disc to philosophical ideas on the Roundworld.
Equal Rites is dedicated to Neil Gaiman “who loaned us the last surviving copy of the Liber Paginarum Fulvarum”, which essentially translates to the Phonebook of the Dead. This is a fun easter egg since the Phonebook can be found in Gaiman’s Sandman series as well as their co-written Good Omens novel. It’s used to summon Death, although it never ends well. The Necrotelicomnicon mentioned in reference to Bel-Shamharoth is another reference to the Phonebook and doubly serves as a pun on Lovecraft’s Necronomicon.
Equal Rites marks the beginning of the Witches arc in the Discworld. The end of this novel isn’t a farewell to Granny Weatherwax who we meet again in several other novels – notably Wyrd Sisters. As the third installment of the Discworld series, it’s becoming obvious Sir Terry Pratchett is finding his footing in the world he created, and recommendations to start reading his series with Equal Rites are undoubtedly not wrong. There’s a serious lack of well written women in sci-fi and fantasy novels, especially in ones written by men. Not only is Esk a delightfully real woman with well developed character flaws and growth, but the fun Sir Terry Pratchett had adapting sexist stereotypes and feminism into a gendered magical binary is beginning to blow Discworld out of the water and into the stars.