I remember looking at Equal Rites in hardback in Waterstone’s and almost choking with laughter at its first two pages. I remember buying the book in paperback, six months later, and being dreadfully disappointed throughout.
After The Light Fantastic, this was something of a blow. Indeed, over the first half dozen Discworld books, which frequently fell under discussion on Tuesday and Thursday nights at the Crown & Anchor, a consensus grew that the odd-numbered ones were pretty crap, but the even-numbered ones were the business.
The pattern’s still there to be seen but, on re-reading the book these many years later, I think it’s due for a decent reappraisal.
Of course there are things wrong with Equal Rites, the biggest one being Granny Weatherwax. It’s her first appearance, but it’s not Granny as we know her. This village witch might have the same temper, and the same attitude to ignorance on her own part, but she uses magic an awful lot more, and more overtly, and she’s far more ignorant than the Granny we know and love. And the finale is completely wrong, and Pratchett was very wise to completely ignore it in all future books.
However, Granny is not the nominal star of Equal Rites, but rather its main supporting actress. The book is about Esk, or more formally, Eskarina Smith, aged nearly nine, wizard.
But Esk, being a girl, can’t become a wizard. True, she’s the eighth son of an eighth son, or rather she’s the daughter of an eighth son, with seven elder brothers, and besides, the dying wizard who has come to pass on his staff can’t wait long enough to check on the baby’s gender.
Esk therefore has the talent (and the staff) but not the training, and she isn’t going to get the training because, well, it’s against the lore. Women can’t become wizards, they have to be witches.
So Granny takes Esk in to train her, except that it doesn’t work. The wizard magic from the staff is too strong. It won’t let witchery take hold. Granny holds out against it for as long as she can, but the end is inevitable: a long and eventful journey to Ankh-Morpork and Unseen University where, exactly as expected, the very idea of Esk as a wizard is poo-poohed. Worse than that, it’s patronised.
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a way into the University, which is round the back, through the laundry and the head Housekeeper, Mrs Whitlow. Esk can clean and sweep (actually, the staff does that) and can attend lectures. Only, she can’t read, and nothing is being explained to her, so it’s all going nowhere.
Until we come to Simon.
Simon is a trainee wizard, met on the journey to Unseen University. He’s the archetypal wimp, with a stammer and terminal hayfever, but he has a highly advanced brain, and the wizards flock round him. The only problem is that use of magic – any use but especially the high level use this entails – draws the things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are constantly attracted to the Universe of warmth and light, and who can make their way in via minds like Simon’s. And Esk’s.
To rescue and restore the souls of this young pair, the staff is needed. Unfortunately, in a fit of fury, Esk has thrown the staff away, and it’s sulking. To save the day, Granny has to team up with Archchancellor Cutangle (who she knew as a child and quasi-courted) to bring it back.
Mission accomplished, everybody relaxes a bit. Simon comes back without his stammer, and with a new theory of magic that will turn on the idea of not using it, as opposed to actually using it.
Pratchett will adopt this as a general course in the future, but for the moment (as we’ll see in Sourcery), that theory is far from his plans.
The other angle, which Pratchett afterwards drops like a stone, is the idea of a potential future relationship between Cutangle and Granny. The experienced mind rejects the very thought, and especially the idea that Granny might be a handsome woman (in any light!). No! No!
At the end of the day, Equal Rites takes a fantasy cliché and gives it a slight twist by changing genders, and then sets out to explore the effect. A dozen, even a half-dozen books later, the concept would have been manna to the mature Pratchett, given the male/female assumption/opposition inherent to the idea, and we would have seen an immeasurably better story. But 1987 was too early for Pratchett to realise the potential of his cute little notion.
However, as I said, it’s a better book than I’ve long given it credit for, despite the false start with Granny Weatherwax. Pratchett would iron out the true Granny for her next appearance, whilst Esk would disappear without a trace, until very very late in the sequence. Simon disappears completely. We’re still a way from the proper Unseen University, (“Oook!”) saving only the presence of the Librarian. That would take a lot longer to pull properly into shape.