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Book review: “Equal Rites” by Terry Pratchett

In Equal Rites, the third of his Discworld novels, Terry Pratchett thinks deep thoughts…and silly thoughts.

Sometimes, at the same time.

For instance, Esk is a girl of nearly nine who is in training with Granny Weatherwax to be a witch and maybe a wizard. And she is astonished that Granny hasn’t given her goats names. “I imagine,” Granny says, “they’ve got names in Goat….What would they want names in Human for?”

Esk ruminates about this, and so does Granny:

Goats did have names for themselves, she well knew: there was “goat who is my kid,” “goat who is my mother,” “goat who is herd leader,” and half a dozen other names not least of which was “goat who is this goat.”

They had a complicated herd system and four stomachs and a digestive system that sounded very busy on still nights, and Granny had always felt that calling all this names like Buttercup was an insult to a noble animal.


“Cesspit cleaners”

That’s pretty silly. And maybe a bit deep.

Published in 1987, Equal Rites is about whether Esk — who was born at the same time a wizard was dying and inherited the wizard’s staff and, hence, the wizard way of life — will be accepted in the all-male realm of wizard-dom, particularly at the Unseen University where wizards learn to harness and develop their powers.

But, first, Esk learns how to be a witch.

On the Discworld, witches do a lot of practical magic to take care of people, while wizards are all words and ideas and power.

In the Ramtops witches were accorded a status similar to that which other cultures gave to nuns, or tax collectors, or cesspit cleaners. That is to say, they were respected, sometimes admired, generally applauded for doing a job which logically had to be done, but people never felt quite comfortable in the same room with them.


Neighbors, guts and fabric

That’s kind of silly, but not really.

Truly silly, though, are the puns that Pratchett lodges here and there in his text, such as his mention of the place where Granny and Esk stay in the metropolis of Ankh-Morpork in hopes of getting into the Unseen University:

The lodgings were on the top floor next to the well-guarded premises of a respectable dealer in stolen property because, as Granny had heard, good fences make good neighbors.

Before getting to the city, the caravan in which Esk is traveling is attacked in the night by a party of nasty gnolls, a kind of stone goblin. However, the gnolls find themselves face to face with the magic in the little girl’s wizard staff.

Some escape, but others aren’t as fortunate:

Bits of gnolls hung from the nearby rocks, giving them a sort of jolly festive air…It was a relief to get away from that macabre sight. Gander considered that gnolls didn’t look any better inside than out. He hated their guts.

In another silliness, Pratchett has Esk eavesdropping on a lecture in wizardry.

Phrases filtered down to her hiding place. “Basic fabric of the universe” was one, and she didn’t understand what that was, unless he meant denim, or maybe flannelette.



Let’s just say that nothing is written in Equal Rites without something comic in the vicinity.

Still, a lot of the comic stuff is like the setting of a jewel of wisdom, such as Granny’s concept of “headology”:

“So people see you coming in the hat and the cloak and they know you’re a witch and that’s why your magic works?” said Esk.

“That’s right,” said Granny. “It’s called headology.” She tapped her silver hair, which was drawn into a tight bun that could crack rocks.

“But it’s not real!” Esk protested. “That’s not magic. It’s — it’s —”

“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 faiyr wine or something. Mumble over it a bit.”


“Setting foot outside”

Much of Equal Rites is about how working so closely with magic is a dangerous endeavor. By skirting as close as possible to the edge of mystery, witches and wizards are in peril of going under to the dark Things from the Dungeon Dimension.

Maybe that sounds hokey, but it’s that what artists of any sort do — push themselves into scary places.

At one point, Granny tells Esk:

“As you grow older you’ll find most people don’t set foot outside their own heads much.”


Witches, wizards, artists and thinkers

In what passes for real life, most people seek a comfortable existence, a safe and easy time.

It’s the artists and thinkers who brave the unknown to think strange thoughts and paint strange images and create strange sounds. They are, in their way, magicians, willing to accept the pain and labor of wrestling with mystery.

For the witches and wizards of Discworld, there is a danger of getting lost on the other side. For artists and thinkers, it’s a question of sanity.

Yes, Pratchett is pretty silly in Equal Rites. And pretty deep.

Patrick T. Reardon



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