In Praise of Pratchett: Sourcery


The early Discworld books were certainly inconsistent: odd was naff, even was good. Sourcery certainly lived up, or down, to this syndrome.
It’s definitely a step back from Mort. Rincewind is once again the main character, along with the Luggage, but for the most part, the supporting cast add very little to the setting, and it’s perhaps not surprising that Pratchett feels the need, at the end, to reset Discworld’s reality to negate everything that’s happened in a decidedly ‘…and then they woke up and it was all a dream’ style.
Having tackled deeper matters, Pratchett moves back into pure fantasy, the novel being solely about magic, and the wizards of the Discworld. It’s an old saw of fantasy that wizard’s are made from the seventh son of seventh sons (which translates into eighth of eighth on the Discworld) but what if we go a generation further. What is the magical status of the eighth son of a wizard? He is, in fact, a sourceror.
The pun is obvious, but it’s also central to Pratchett’s conception of the subject. Wizards manipulate the natural magic of the Disc, sourcerors are a conduit for raw magic itself. Into the comfy, cosy world of Unseen University, which is rapidly beginning to evolve away from the serious practice of magic as seen in earlier volumes, towards the Old Buffers’ Club we recognise from today, is dropped a sourceror, with much the same effect as a red-hot iron on a best dress shirt.
The sourceror’s name is Coin, and to everybody’s surprise, he’s only ten years old, a suitable age it may seem for the faux-naivete with which he approaches any question that interests him. And there’s only one question that interests him, which is, why aren’t wizards ruling everything by eminent force.
The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, that, since the Mage Wars of aeons ago, there is no longer the strength in the Discworld’s natural magic field to enable them to do so, and secondly, the wizards don’t really want to rule. They want to potter around, leisurely, making sure to not be too far from the table when the next meal is served.
But Coin brings with him so much raw magic, accessible by all – even Rincewind can perform spells, which should tell you all you need to know – that the first objection is just blown away. And whether it be by fear of the boy sourceror, or else reverting to natural type when accessing unlimited power, Coin pretty much overwhelms the second objection as well.
Not that it’s actually any of his fault. Coin, we deduce, is being manipulated, even ordered about, by his ultra-powerful Octiron staff, in which the spirit of his bitter, twisted father, Ipslore the Red, has taken refuge to escape Death (but not forever, naturally).
Where does Rincewind fit in to all of this? Far from having become Archchancellor, as the ending to The Light Fantastic hinted, he’s ended up as Assistant Librarian, in charge of the banana supply. But despite his utter ineptitude, he finds himself becoming responsible for preserving the Archchancellor’s hat, the true ‘head’ (heh, heh) of wizardry, and keeping it from being possessed by Coin.
In this quest, he is aided by what must be two of Pratchett’s weakest creations, Conina and Nijel the Barbarian. I would prefer not to say anything about Nijel, a barbarian of three day’s standing, who’s obeying his mother’s instructions not to take off his woolly vest. Only the, mercifully brief, presence of a yuppie genie, horrendously dated, spares Nijel from being the worst thing in this book.
As for Conina, she’s a perfectly normal, sweet, platinum blonde with an ambition to become a hairdresser, who just happens to be a daughter of Cohen the Barbarian and to have inherited all of his strength, speed, reactions, instincts and skills. It’s an attempt to pull two widely disparate stereotypes together, and for once Pratchett fails to pull it off.
Indeed, he fails to pull the story off, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rincewind, Conina and Nijel racket around, getting the Hat to Al Khali, where it ends up gravitating to the Grand Vizier, after which a straightforward magical battle with Coin and the Ankh-Morpork wizards ends in the destruction of the Hat, with no more consequences than the destruction of an ordinary cloth cap.
Pratchett also tries to pull off another pun in the threat of the Apocralypse (a kind of Apochryphal Apocalypse that no-one really believes in) which calls for the riding out of the Four Horsemen, except that Rincewind, Conina and Nijel steal everyone’s horses from outside the pub so they stay for more drinks and never set off. It’s a scene the mature Pratchett would have knocked off in his sleep, but in this book it just fails to generate a single bubble of laughter.
In the end, it all boils down to the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions, who are forever lurking in the background in these early Discworld books. Coin’s magic is too much of a draw for them. Rincewind manages to get far enough with a half brick in a sock to finally inspire Coin to stand up against his father, but all its gets them is trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions. One wrong move…
That wrong move never comes. Rincewind identifies the need to avoid the use of Coin’s magic as that would tip the balance and, in an excess of courage, uses the other sock, full of sand, to draw the Things away on an eternal, seemingly fatal chase, whilst Coin returns to Discworld and puts everything back the way it was, with most of the memories clouded.
The ending feels very much like a writer trying to dispose of a character he’d grown tired of, like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes. Whether or not Pratchett felt anything like that, and having had Rincewind as hero for three out of five books so far, with a cameo in a fourth, it’s possible that he may have felt confined by his audience’s expectations, he still left a note of hope that, in due course, would be happily fulfilled.
There’s little else to say, save to note that Sourcery is where the Patrician is first named as Lord Vetinari, and first outlined in the shape we know him as, although he spends most of the book transformed into a small, yellow lizard. Pratchett is yet to appreciate the subtlety of the man.
It’s also noticeable, and faintly worrying, that Sourcery sees a recycling of ideas by Pratchett, and only five books in. They may have been created for different purposes, but Coin and Eskarina Smith cousins under the skin: children possessed of a magic that they may control physically to an extent unsuspected by them, but who lack the moral imagination and life-experience to understand the full implications of their actions.
Above all, though, I see Sourcery as a slight failure of nerve on Pratchett’s part, a retreat to pure fantasy after entering deeper waters in Mort. If so, it’s only a momentary hesitation. The Discworld pendulum would swing up again for the sixth book – even numbers – but after that it would only rarely swing back occasionally, as Pratchett’s humour, and the depths we was prepared to explore, took his readers to ever increasing heights.

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