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