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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, the Bad and the Broomsticks

July 11th, 2011 at 22:25

[SPOILER ALERT for several older Discworld novels and one key scene in recent release I Shall Wear Midnight]

Some time ago, I talked on Galactic Suburbia about how I felt Pratchett was one of those writers who you can see noticeably improving and honing his craft as he goes, and that one of the elements he hugely improved in over the years was his treatment of female characters. Someone commented that they hoped we would elaborate on that at some point, and I have always intended to, though I don’t know that Galactic Suburbia is the best place for that discussion – largely because I think I’m the only one of the three who is a huge reader of Pratchett.

I started reading the Discworld books in the early 90′s, when Small Gods was the latest release. This meant that I read all the books before that in (mostly) the wrong order, and all of the books after that in (mostly) the right order. So it took me some time to figure out what was going on with Pratchett’s women, and the chronology of those early books is still a little muddled in my head.

The first ten books of the Discworld series are quite problematic in their portrayal of female characters, particularly the younger women. I certainly don’t think this was intentional on Pratchett’s part, but an unfortunate result of the fact that in these early books he was largely writing parody of various fantasy worlds and tropes, just beginning to develop the Discworld into something more substantial and complex. I also feel that Pratchett was very much aware of some of the dreadful sexism in his source material, and the female characters he wrote were often in direct response to what he saw in the fantasy genre.

His intentions to point out the silliness of the portrayal of women in fantasy, sadly, backfired somewhat.

So in these early Discworld books, we find Pratchett parodying the half-clad, bosomy fantasy females who reward the handsome hero with their sexy selves by creating half-clad, bosomy fantasy females who a) say bitchy things to the (not handsome) hero in the hopes that no one would notice they still look like a complete cliche of the genre and/or b) amusingly fail to fall in love with the protagonist and instead choose to reward a less obvious male character with their sexy selves. We get Bethan, the glamorous priestess who is cross about being rescued from a temple but chooses to hook up with the aged Cohen the Barbarian instead of giving Rincewind a second look; we have Conina, the glamorous warrior woman who chooses to hook up with the nerdy whatsisname instead of giving Rincewind a second look; we have Ptraci, who is totally hot for Pteppic and vice versa, but when they discover they are siblings he literally hands her over to his mate; we have Princess Keli who goes for the dweeby wizard (finally a hot girl with a taste for wizards!) over the equally dweeby protagonist Mort; and of course we have Ginger and Ysabell, who are utterly bitchy to their respective guys, but ultimately sink into their arms.

[I should admit at this point that when I was fourteen and reading Pratchett for the first time, I adored Conina and Ptraci and Ginger and totally wanted to be just like them when I grow up. I look back on that now and shudder, just a bit. Among the many other things I would like to tell my teenage self, 'how about we aspire to be something other than a Josh Kirby cartoon character' would be pretty bloody high on the list.]

Pratchett has a lovely paragraph in The Light Fantastic (1986) in which he describes Herrena the Henna-Haired Harridan, a barbarian warrior, and goes on at length about how in other fantasy worlds she would be dressed in a lurid but impractical costume, but in fact she was wearing some quite sensible armour. Have a cold shower, chaps, the woman is appropriately attired. This elegant and witty paragraph was completely sabotaged by the fact that the cover art, as with all Discworld covers painted by Josh Kirby, depicted Herrena bursting out of a tiny slutty outfit with enormous beach ball bosoms. And that sadly is what I see now when I look back on my favourite Pratchett heroines of my teen years – good intentions which simply didn’t go far enough. The girls got to look pretty and make the occasional sarky comment, but they didn’t get personalities that ran deeper than their bra size. (also, it has to be said, they all pretty much had the SAME personality)

There were some exceptions. Lady Sybil, in Guards Guards (1989), is an unusual romantic interest in that she has a fully defined personality, gets lots of witty lines that aren’t particularly bitchy, and is actually an equal match for the protagonist, Commander Vimes. She’s also a mature age woman who is not lithe and pretty, and thus escapes much of the usual ‘I am standing here in my fur bikini being ironic about the sexist portrayal of women’ depictions of Discworld women. She was developed more substantially later on, but this was a good start.

Then there were the witches. After two books which featured the same hapless wizard running away from trouble and occasionally colliding with astoundingly sexy women who don’t want to sleep with him, Pratchett turned his attention to feminist issues with Equal Rites (1987), a book which tackled one of the most problematic tenets he had saddled his world with: that magic was divided by gender, men becoming wizards and women witches, both types of magic being almost entirely different from each other. In Equal Rites, a girl is born with the magic and destiny of a wizard, and with the help of her mentor witch Granny Weatherwax, has to fight the system to be allowed into the Unseen University.

I hated this book.

Which is bizarre, because it sounds exactly like my sort of thing, right? But I think we’ve already established that teenage reading me is not ME. The problem was that I was reading my way through the backlist of Discworld books in the wrong order, and having read the blurbs, I had completely fallen in love with the concept of that one. So I saved it for last. By the time I got to it, my expectations were through the roof, and I resented utterly the book that it wasn’t: it was about a child, not a teenage girl or adult woman (yep the fact that it wasn’t Conina-Ptraci-Ginger in a wizard’s hat seemed like a flaw), and while the best thing about the book was indeed Granny Weatherwax, I had already read her being far more awesome elsewhere, and she seemed a pale shade of herself without Nanny Ogg or Magrat to grate against. I later revisited Equal Rites more than once, and came to terms with it, though I never really learned to love it. Still, the fact that it remains the least interesting book about witches is hardly relevant now. Given that it’s 3rd in a series of nearly 40 books, that’s good news.

Despite my lack of love for Equal Rites, over the years I was disappointed that while the Discworld was legendary for cameo appearances and continuing characters, we never returned to Esk’s story. No matter how many times we returned to the Unseen University, she wasn’t there. We never saw how she turned out, and never got to see her as an adult. Until, of course, the most recent Tiffany Aching book, I Shall Wear Midnight (2010), which also features cameos from Nanny Ogg and Magrat. I Shall Wear Midnight felt very much like a satisfying line was being drawn under the saga of the Lancre witches, and having that unexpectedly delightful resolution about Esk made me want to go back and revisit the other witches stories, from the beginning.

So, thanks to the wonder of unabridged audiobooks, I reintroduced myself to Wyrd Sisters (1988), and immersed myself utterly in what is still, I believe, one of Pratchett’s most effective literary works. You can praise Reaper Man and Small Gods all you like; I’ll take a Witches book over those two ‘classics’ every time. For the first time, Pratchett stopped satirising fantasy and started looking further afield for material to poke sticks at. And he decided Shakespeare would be his first port of call! This glorious work amalgamates the best and worst aspects of Hamlet and Macbeth, produces one of my favourite fictional double acts of all time (Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg) and for the first time, created a young female character (Magrat) with the same ruthless complexity as Rincewind or Mort. Magrat isn’t a sexy treasure with which to reward the hero (or amusingly reward someone else). She’s a real person, warts and all, and her voice is every bit as compelling and sympathetic as it is, you know, a bit nasal and annoying.

The three witches – maiden, mother and crone (you should hear them argue about which is which) are a masterful creation, and it doesn’t matter what the plot is, an excuse to see them riff off each other, snark at the universe and save it at the last minute, since they have nothing else on, is a genuine pleasure. The surprise in coming back to Wyrd Sisters is just how good the plot is – how cleverly the Shakespearian elements weave together, into an elaborate comedy of errors. Indeed, all of the witch plots tend to be about stories, and about the way stories work in a world of magic, and that meta-element raises them into being far more than just amusing romps with complicated sentences (which I think is a fair description of all the Discworld books before this one, yes, even Mort).

Think about it. These are stories about witches that know fairy tales exist; witches who know about the dangers of cackling too much and getting a reputation for gingerbread houses. Wyrd Sisters is about what happens when the legends and stories about witches are used against them as a weapon; and how they fight back. It was fascinating to read it so soon after I Shall Wear Midnight, because there are huge parallels between the plots of the two books, another reason why I think Pratchett has now written his last witch book. It’s pretty clear from his more recent public appearances and his illness that he’s planning how things are going to end, and for a writer that means more than saying your farewells to family and friends. He’s tying up the loose ends of his legacy, and it feels very much as if the story of the Discworld witches is done.

But back to Wyrd Sisters, the beginning of it all! The female characters are absolutely in command here, on both sides of the story – the Duchess is a magnificently awful villain, one in a long line of marvellous female antagonists set against Granny Weatherwax, and she quite overshadows her husband, as is appropriate considering the parallels to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. I also want to mention that there are also some fantastic male characters. Pratchett writes great beta males, the most obvious early examples being Rincewind, Mort and Vimes, but I was surprised all over again in this reread just how extraordinary is the character of the Fool. Everyone else is taking part in a comedy, up to and including the ghost of the dead king, but the Fool walks in a tragedy, carrying an abusive past and a more recent painful burden along with his unwavering, committed loyalty to Duke Felmet, the villain of the piece. Even when he’s being funny – and he is very funny – he’s utterly miserable. The romance between Magrat and the Fool, with its many wrong turns and awkward silences, is one of the most egalitarian and sincere I have come across in fantasy fiction, and I loved discovering it all over again. On the other side of the scale, Tomjon is a marvellous creation, and I like what Pratchett says about destiny and kings through his character – for all this story is mostly about Shakespeare’s stories, it also nicely undercuts some of the sillier notions of fantasy fiction, notably the legend of the lost king, something later also done to great effect in the guards books. The relationship between Tomjon and his sidekick the playwriting dwarf Hwel is a pleasure to read.

But of course ultimately, the best thing about this book is that triad of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat Garlick, each of them such vibrant characters that everyone else is in the shade. The scene in which the three of them perform a huge feat of magic, recharging broomsticks and flying around the kingdom to transport it in time, is epic and breathtaking – though any scene with the three of them in it makes me happy, even if it’s them talking about cups of tea and what kind of sandwiches they like best.

Once I had finished the 8 hours or so of listening to Wyrd Sisters, I moved straight on to Witches Abroad (1991), which has always been one of my favourites: this is the one which most effectively deals with the role of the witch in stories and fairytales, and is also pure Ogg-Weatherwax-Magrat hilarity from beginning to end.

But only when listening to Nigel Planer read it to me over the last few weeks did I realise something I had never entirely noticed before: this is a fantasy novel in which all the important characters are women. This is a fantasy novel by a bestselling male author in which all the important characters are women. We have the trio of Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Magrat, travelling to foreign parts. We have the witches/cooks of Genua: Lilith, Mrs Pleasant, and Mrs Gogol. We have Emberella, the hub around which the story is constructed. But the only male characters of any note are a) a frog turned into a prince who rarely speaks and is basically a Maguffin, b) a cat turned human who has no agency and no personal needs beyond a bowl of fish-heads, c) a zombie and d) a dwarf one-note-joke about Casanova, who arrives in the final act and provides some extra comic relief. (admittedly he becomes a far more important character in later books, but really if it wasn’t for that I’d barely have mentioned him at all)

How rare is it to have a fantasy novel BY A MAN which is entirely about female characters? How rare to have a story with so many women in it that you don’t even need a romance because the women already have plenty to do? In the fantasy genre. This is completely doing my head in, because this is a book that has existed for twenty years, which I have loved for almost that amount of time, and this particular quite important facet of it is something I never entirely realised before.

So yes. Despite the glamour girls and snarky wenches which mostly populated the first decade of Discworld, the witch books redeem this period for me: books which not only feature female protagonists who are allowed to be as three dimensional, complicated, flawed and fascinating as Pratchett’s best male protagonists, but are allowed to be more powerful and important than the men in their stories.

But that’s not the good news. The good news is that after this, Pratchett only got better at writing women – and in particular, at writing young women who had a soul as well as (or even instead of) a great rack. There was Angua, Cheery, Agnes/Perdita [EDIT: also Susan! How could I forget Susan?] and Tiffany Aching, possibly the most convincing and interesting teenage girl written by a 50+ man. And of course, in more recent years, there was another book that featured all female protagonists… but I’ll talk about that when I get to it.

Pratchett’s Women: The Unauthorized Essays, by Tansy Rayner Roberts – now available as an ebook from Fablecroft, Amazon and many other great e-retailers. The e-book contains all nine essays from this blog plus an essay exclusive to the collection: “Socks, Lies and the Monstrous Regiment.”

You May Also Like:
Pratchett’s Women II – Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening in Lords and Ladies
Pratchett’s Women III – Werewolf Glamour and the Sexing of Dwarves in Guards, Guards!, Men at Arms, Feet of Clay
Pratchett’s Women IV – His Henpecked Voice (Jingo & The Fifth Elephant)
Pratchett’s Women V: The Seamstress Redemption in Night Watch
Pratchett’s Women VI: Pole Dancers, Goblin Girls, and the Family Man in Thud and Snuff
Pratchett’s Women VII: A Wonderful Personality and Good Hair – Agnes Nitt Maskerade and Carpe Jugulum
Pratchett’s Women VIII: Has Scythe, Will Teach School – Susan Sto Helit in Soul Music, Hogfather & Thief of Time

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30 Responses to “Pratchett’s Women: The Boobs, the Bad and the Broomsticks”

  1. Matthew F. Says:

    Nice article, looking forward to you continuing on this subject.

    Could I perhaps suggest inserting a spoiler warning about I Shall Wear Midnight? That character’s reappearance was a delight, but also a surprise – I think I gasped aloud when I realised who it was – and some of your blog readers may still have that surprise ahead of them.

    Ehh, you’re making me want to go pull down Wyrd Sisters and restart it now.

  2. Kathleen Says:

    I really like your observations about Witches Abroad – no need for romance etc.

  3. Aimee Says:

    That rocked. Thank you. Am thinking happy sparkly thoughts and agree with you totally. I think I might happy dance. Hooray!

  4. tansyrr Says:

    Good point, Matthew!

  5. Nicole Murphy Says:

    Oh, how I love the Lancre Witches. How they make my soul dance with delight. I think that sitting and reading all the witches stories beginning to end would be a wonderful pursuit. I shall put that on my list.

    Very much looking forward to reading I Shall Wear Midnight, even though the idea of no more witches fills me with tears.

  6. tansyrr Says:

    Hey Nicole

    If like me you have trouble finding time to re-read, the audio book is the perfect solution! Re-reading can thus be multi-tasked with driving, washing up and exercise…

    I don’t know for certain that he doesn’t plan to revisit the witches, but considering his situation, it does seem likely. Also to be fair he HAS been trying (and failing) to kill off Granny Weatherwax since the mid 90′s…

  7. Camilla Says:

    This is a wonderful article, and I will be re-reading all of these characters with a fresh mind-set as a result. Thank you!

  8. Marina Says:

    I remember buying Equal Rites on my lunch break one day. I got up to the part where she’s confronted by the wolves in the woods and it nearly killed me to have to put it down and go back to work. I was so desperate to find out what happened I even tried reading it as I drove home in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a very busy road. Fortunately I came to my senses before I ran up the back of someone, and decided that no, you can’t combine reading and driving, no matter how slow-moving the traffic is.

  9. tansyrr Says:

    Marina: Pratchett can be so compulsive, can’t he? I made it through about 5 books before I realised he didn’t use chapter breaks. (I’ll get up and do that chore when I finish this chapter, Mum… hang on a minute)

    The cable that plugs my iPhone (and thus my podcasts and audio books) into my car speakers is honestly my favourite possession. It makes me so very, very happy.

    Never drive and read!!

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  11. MatGB Says:

    FWIW, I hadn’t noted Witches Abroad was almost entirely female either. Given that I( and my friends) read it as late teen boys at school and enjoyed it (one paperback between a bunch of us, frantically shared as we were all skint, it’s how I read most of the early ones first time) that says quite a bit I think.

    Regarding the return of Esk, and indeed the improvement of his female ‘voice’, I went to a reading in London with some friends, I think it was Wintersmith, it was about that time, and he was asked specifically about her and what had happened to her and his reaction was almost akin to “you know, I hadn’t noticed I hadn’t gone back to her, do you think I should?” to which the audience overwhelmingly said yes. He also said that he’d worked closely with, and learnt a lot from watching his daughter grow up on the Tiffany books, and that she is very much his daughter in a pointy hat.

    Which I think is kinda cool, and explains the improvement in approach as he developed.

    Equal Rites is the earliest of his books I can stand to reread, the first two are just poor parody, I liked them when I first read them, but I was 12/13 when Light came out so that’s probably fortuitous.

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  14. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Mat. It doesn’t surprise me that Pratchett had just forgotten about Esk – she wasn’t particularly funny as a character, so less appealing to constantly feature in cameos like Dibbler or Nobby – and to be fair he often does let his standalone protagonists lie, unless they get proper sequels. I don’t think we’ve heard much from Pteppic or Victor in later books either.

    But how lovely that he did bring her back by popular demand, and it was such a special moment in that book.

    I have found returning to the first two Discworld books is interesting from an archaeological standpoint, and I do love Rincewind as a character, but yes they’re also quite clunky compared to what was to come later. I never recommend them as a starting point – they were mine, but I was a very forgiving reader at 14.

    I always knew that Pratchett was credited with encouraging whole generations of teen boys to read and enjoy reading what are at times quite challenging books (the language is quite complex!) but I am now taking utter delight in the fact that he sneakily also got them to read books about a complex array of female characters, in between the geek heroes, dwarves, trolls and coppers. I’m feeling a lot more forgiving of the scantily clad treasures than I have in the last decade.

  15. Marina Says:

    I think I’ll have to follow your lead and explore audio books again. Much safer option! Haven’t listened to any since they were on cassette tapes, so it’s been a while.

  16. tansyrr Says:

    Hi Marina!

    I used to listen to those Tony Robinson tapes over and over – he’s still my favourite reader, but the abridgements used to seriously annoy me, because I knew the books so well that I winced over the missing bits. Nigel Planer (and Celia Imrie for Wyrd Sisters) do a very good job on the unabridged books – I’m finally able to justify a subscription to Audible.com!

  17. Ella Says:

    You might also like to mention that many of those female characters were based on real women Terry met on the convention circuit after the first books came out. Githa Ogg is a real woman, Magrat is a real woman. They are accurate portrayals of strong women because they are based on real strong women.

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  19. MarinaS Says:

    Until I put down Midnight, I didn’t even realise that the disappearance of Esk from the canon has been like a niggling little scar in my soul, pulling and smarting and demanding a salve. The resolution provided for her character has probably been the greatest bit of artistic closure in my life.

    Melodramatic, I know; but what I see as the profound narrative inadequacy of Equal Rites has a very personal and painful significance for me, for reasons I shan’t revisit here. It’s almost as if, by bringing Esk back as a powerful, self-determined plot mover (as opposed to the thinly sketched feminist MacGuffin she was originally conceived as), Pratchett the author acknowledged 20 years of criticism from feminist fans, shed 20 years of unearned accolades as a “feminist” author, and sent us a message: I get it now, ladies. I get it.

  20. tansyrr Says:

    Ella – that’s a good point. I knew that Granny Weatherwax’s portrayal was based on two women Pratchett knew, but not about Nanny Ogg and Magrat. I’m not sure whether basing a character on someone you met once necessarily makes a difference as far as a portrayal of strength – I think the author still gets all the credit for doing the work, as it takes a lot more than just seeing some elements of a person that you appreciate and putting them in a book.

    I suspect that basing Magrat on someone real was helpful in creating a young female character that felt like an actual person rather than a pin up girl, but an author could still have taken the images and caricature of a person he met and NOT written such fabulous, crunchy dialogue for her. After Wyrd Sisters, he continued to write ‘treasure and prize’ girls into his books for a while, before he got to the point where all of them were pretty much real people.

  21. tansyrr Says:

    MarinaS: I didn’t know that the disappearance of Esk was a thing for anyone else! But yes, it bugged the hell out of me, because the wizard stories were the first to really embrace continuity, and especially because of the character of Ponder Stibbons who, it seemed to me, was just another version of the boy in Equal Rites – was it simon?

    I did rather love that her return pretty much explained why she hadn’t turned up in other books – she was BUSY, you know?

    Maybe it would be better to just imagine that her lawyers hadn’t allowed Pratchett to include her for some time, for the sake of national security…

    So glad that you had this closure! I wonder whether the next Discworld book will similarly be providing closure in other areas of the story… the fact that it’s called SNUFF is, you know, possibly indicative of that.

  22. Pepper Says:

    Darn it, now I really want to go back and re-read those early books AGAIN! :) I totally agree that you can really see his writing improving as it goes along. It was probably less grating the way I read them – from the beginning, in order (what can I say, I’m anal). I found Herenna the Henna-Haired Harridan a funny subversion of that character trope, without noticing the ways in which it failed, because neither I nor Pterry had got to that point of awareness yet. Equal Rites was a bit boring, but I wasn’t particularly invested yet (I’m glad to hear he’s gone back to Esk, though! It always felt like a loose end). And when the witches turned up, oh how I adored them.

    I think one of his ongoing problems is not so much female characters, but glamorous female characters. He wrote girls and old women and weird, unglamorous young women (Magrat) quite well from Wyrd Sisters on (and arguably in Equal Rites, too, even if it’s disappointing in comparison to the later ones) – but the pretty women always seemed a bit one-dimensional. Angua is the first beautiful woman with a real character that I remember.

    (That was what I loved about Good Omens: Neil Gaiman brought the glamour. I had a dear friend in school – we’re still friends – who also read the Discworld series. When we were teenagers, I always felt as though she was far more a Neil Gaiman character, and I came more from Terry Pratchett. I was okay with that, because although I’d never be Delirium or Death or Desire, I might be Magrat or Nanny Ogg or – someday – Granny Weatherwax. *g*)

  23. MarinaS Says:

    tansyrr: Yes, one does rather wonder if Snuff will be the last ever Pratchett novel… I try never to find out anything in advance about the books, it interferes with my sense of immersion in the story; but I’m sure the answer to that, and a synopsis, are out there for the Googling somewhere.

  24. tansyrr Says:

    Pepper – I think that’s a very good point, and it’s one that I was planning to elaborate on when I look at the next set of books. It’s not quite as obvious just from the number of female characters from the first batch of books, but the writing is on the wall even there – all the beautiful, glamorous women get little in the way of solid characterisation (and the one who gets the most, Ysabell, is also conscious of being fatter than she would like to be). It’s as if a female character can be a sexual object OR a fully rounded person, and the utterly unglamorous witches are a symbol of that.

    Though, I might add, I took offence to Josh Kirby’s portrayal of the witches as ugly troll type women just as much as all the other women as outrageous pin-ups. Granny Weatherwax in particular is supposed to be a handsome woman for her age, who is disappointed in her lack of hook nose and warts… I know Josh Kirby did some amazing work, and his covers were an iconic part of Pratchett’s early work, but he did EVERYTHING wrong and it drove me up the wall. Paul Kidby’s portraits were such a blessed relief after that.

    Angua is indeed the first woman who is glamorously attractive and also gets a fully rounded character, backstory, motivations, active role in the story, and JOB. And after Angua pretty much every female character (or certainly those who are central to the story) has much better balance to her, and as with Sybil and Magrat, we start seeing men who find women attractive that do not entirely conform to the beauty standard of 1940′s Hollywood.

  25. tansyrr Says:

    MarinaS: I have Googled and I can say there’s not much out there. It looks like Pratchett and his publishers keep this stuff fairly close to their chest, and I would guess it’s largely because he’s not entirely sure what his book will become until it’s done. there are plenty of rumours of books that come later, but they seem to be based on throw away comments rather than actual press releases.

    Still, roll on Snuff! I just hope that Pratchett’s circumstances allow him to have some control over how he draws a line under his magnificent career, which is more than many writers get to do. But oh so sad he doesn’t have another 20 years to find out where Discworld would have taken him NEXT.

  26. Liz Says:

    Fabulous blog, a friend pointed me this way because she knew I loved Pratchett and I’m glad she did! I have such a passion for Pratchett’s female characters (well, I generally have a passion for strong female characters in fiction anyway, but Terry does it *SO* well). I have been absolutely bowled over by Tiffany (I think I probably still identify strongly with me teenage self) and it’s fun to hear that he based her on his daughter.

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