Cover of Equal Rites by Joe McLaren
As I said in my first post about rereading Pratchett, it’s been a very long time since I read these books. I had vague, possibly fond, memories of Equal Rites, but I really didn’t remember anything other than it’s about a girl who wants to be a wizard or something along those lines. And, basically, that’s what the book is about — except, you know, since it’s Terry Pratchett, there’s way more to it.
Before I started reading it, though, I talked to my sister about it. She’d recently listened to Mark Reads Equal Rites (you can listen/read his recaps here). One version (found here, on the left) describes the book as such: [when] feminism and sorcery collide. Which, um, is not really what the book is about. My sister, therefore, was disappointed when she finished it and I don’t blame her.
You see, Equal Rites is FULL of sexism and misogyny, which is surprising considering that wizards in the Discworld are basically quite sexist. That’s not to make it okay, because it’s not, but that’s kind of the point.
The story begins with Eskarina’s birth — a wizard shows up in her village and proclaims that since she is the 8th son of an 8th son, she’ll be a wizard. And in spite of protests from a woman we later learn is a witch named Esmerelda Weatherwax (though everyone calls her Granny), the wizard gives his staff to Esk and then promptly dies. Which is also when he finds out that the baby is a girl, not a boy, and girls certainly cannot be wizards, it just isn’t done.
As the novel progresses, Granny Weatherwax feels the same way. At first she, and Esk’s parents, hope that the magic never manifests itself, but when it does, Granny decides the only logical thing to do is teach her to be a witch. That goes as well as to be expected because Esk is, after all, destined to be a wizard.
Much of the middle of the book follows Granny and Esk as they try to make their way to Unseen University. Esk grows up quite fast in some ways — including when she runs off from Granny and one of Granny’s friends and ends up on her own trying to get to Ankh-Morpork and the University on her own. She befriends several people and slowly begins to learn the value of the staff she possesses. She also understands that most people aren’t fond of magic and she must learn to hide it.
But it’s not until she’s found a caravan traveling to Ankh-Morpork that Esk meets real wizards. She befriends a boy, probably her own age, named Simon, and the wizard taking him to university. Simon and Esk get on all right, but both of them firmly believe that Esk will never be a wizard because she’s a woman (Simon, though, is amendable because he’s much more worldly than, well, mostly people in the Discworld and also just a really nice boy who is friends with Esk). When the wizard accompanying Simon basically tells Esk she can’t become a wizard, she gets angry and runs away.
Lots of things happen, including her discovery of the creepy creatures that feed on magic and are attractive to magic. This is how Granny finds her and basically rescues her. The two finish their journey to Ankh-Morpork and the university. Once there, they slowly become accustomed to the pace of life in the city while trying to sort out how Esk will join the school. One day, they run into SImon and the wizard from the caravan, the latter generously (though in a horrible and patronizing way) invite Esk to join them. She does and is given the chance to prove she can be a wizard and, of course, she fails.
We learn, later, that it’s because the staff has been protecting her and using her as a conduit for the magic and not Esk using the staff. But before that happens, we follow Granny as she comes up with a very clever way for Esk to enter the university — as a maid, basically. This is all well and good until, as expected, Esk runs into trouble.
Obviously everything works out and I won’t go into detail, because half the fun of reading (or listening, as I did) to these books is how one gets both into and out of trouble.
Neither Esk nor Granny are feminists in the activist term of the word. In fact, Granny is very set in her ways and believes, as do most people in the Discworld, that women cannot be wizards (and men cannot be witches). There’s no movement of Granny and Esk trying to get the people of Discworld to change their view of the world and accept women into the university. Basically, Esk wants to be a wizard because that’s what she wants to do and Granny wants to make sure that Esk doesn’t destroy the world with her inability to control the wizarding magic she has in her.
According to Wiki, the definitely of feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men. There is none of that in Equal Rites and that’s fine, there doesn’t need to be (that would be a totally different book, actually). What the book is, though, is a start. There are hints of feminism, especially near the end when it looks like, perhaps, the wizards will in fact let women, not just Esk, into Unseen University.
I will say, though, that one of my favorites lines is when Granny and Cutangle (the wizard in charge of Unseen University) return to the university after [spoilers about their adventure] and Cutangle is all ‘I’ll have to make you an honorary wizard’ because all the wizards are starring at her. And Granny, because she’s so flipping awesome, says ‘well, that case I’ll have to make you an honorary witch.’
This is not a feminist novel in the same way the books listed here are feminist novels. But it is a novel that lives up to it’s title. Equal Rites is about equal rights — Esk is a wizard who happens to be a girl and she deserves all the same rights as wizards who happen to be boys. You can read into it, of course — I did major in English in undergrad! But you don’t have to, either.
Equal Rites is fun and it’s a shame we don’t get any more books about Esk’s life. Though I’m sure there’s fanfic out there, somewhere.