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Literature / Equal Rites

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The last thing the wizard Drum Billet did, before Death laid a bony hand on his shoulder, was to pass on his staff of power to the eighth son of an eighth son. Unfortunately for his colleagues in the chauvinistic (not to say misogynistic) world of magic, he failed to check on the new-born baby's sex...

Equal Rites is the third Discworld novel. This was the first to demonstrate the series was not simply about Rincewind, instead shifting to new locations and a new set of characters. It is the first book in the "witches series", although the setting is only half-formed. Pratchett himself noted later on that the Granny Weatherwax that features here is a much more limited character than the one that appears in fully crafted form by Lords and Ladies.

The plot begins with a dying wizard who wants to bestow his staff and power upon a suitable baby — an eighth son of an eighth son. However, due to some confusion, he does so to the eighth child of an eighth son, who happens to be a girl who is given the name Eskarina. The book centres around Eskarina being brought up and trained by Granny Weatherwax the witch, and muses on the difference between wizard magic and witch magic (broadly speaking, out of the sky and all mythic grandeur vs. out of the earth and to do with people). After failing to raise her as a witch because of the constant interventions of the sentient staff, Granny decides to take her to Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork to see what the wizards make of her. An up-and-coming (if gangly and clumsy) wizard genius named Simon provides added spin to Esk's quest to figure out just what kind of magic she's part of.

Because of the book's feminist slant and the fact that the name Terry can be unisex, a lot of female authors praised the book while assuming Terry Pratchett was a woman (this was, of course, before he was a near-household name), which is why copies these days usually have his photo on the back.

Preceded by The Light Fantastic, followed by Mort. The next book in the Witches series is Wyrd Sisters.

Equal Rites provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Achievements in Ignorance: Esk is able to teleport something without a "counter-weight" because no-one's ever told her this is impossible. This later undergoes a minor retcon where another character states it is possible to do this, just very risky.
  • Animal Reaction Shot: The goats that watch the wizard. And then watch — well, nothing — go up the road.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: One of the first paragraphs of the book proclaims that it's "a story about sex, although probably not in the athletic, tumbling, count-the-legs-and-divide-by-two sense". The Polish translation essentially turned that phrase into "about intercourse, but not about intercourse".
  • Body Horror: The Things from Dungeon Dimensions put together their own physical bodies with only a vague idea of how any of that is supposed to work, resulting in pure disturbing results. Many of these bodies are also incredibly unwieldy, and Esk manages to shove one over with little trouble.
  • Born During a Storm: Esk is born in the Ramtops, noted to be thunderstorm country, and the wizard who comes for her when she is born arrives in a storm.
  • Breaking the Glass Ceiling: Eskarina, a girl who wants to be a wizard and not a witch. Both witches and wizards would mostly prefer that this not occur, but she becomes the first female student at the Unseen University anyway. Based on her eventual reappearance in I Shall Wear Midnight, she did well for herself - but Unseen University still seems to be a male institution despite having made an exception for her.
  • Break the Haughty: Esme Weatherwax. She's so certain that women can't be wizards that the staff and Eskarina's growing magic have to beat some sense into her. Justified in that when she realizes that Esk needs wizard training, that it will make Esk's life much harder. Afterward, Granny never talks about the one time she failed big time.
  • Brick Joke: The mirror scene sets up one which comes to fruition in Witches Abroad.
  • Call-Back: Treatle briefly gets freaked out by the statues in the Great Hall, because "The statues of very powerful dead mages were sometimes more lifelike than any statue had the right to be". It's not clear if he knows what happened to the senior wizards in the previous book, or indeed if at least some of these statues really are those statues.
  • The Call Left a Message: Drum Billet's staff. Also his giving into Reality after opting out and choosing reincarnation as an apple tree.
  • Cannot Tell a Lie: The Zoons, a river-trading people who are mostly physically incapable of lying, except for their political leaders who are specially trained and known as Liars. It's noted that the first lie they ever achieved was "Actually, my grandfather is quite tall", and the current Liar attained his position with the bold claim that his grandfather was seventeen feet tall.
  • Curse: Granny puts this into its correct context for witches. they don't do it, but when they need not to do it most, they don't do it by halves.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check:
    • An innkeeper and his wife try to keep Eskarina at their inn for as long as possible when it turns out she can turn milk into brandy, and such. The staff begs to differ, especially when the innkeeper tries to steal it.
    • It's mentioned that highway bandits spend so much time and money setting up ambushing than they would be better off getting a legitimate job.
  • Death by Genre Savviness: An innkeeper and his wife take in Eskarina and notice that she innocently turns several barrels into peach brandy, which would be valuable for them to sell. They realize keeping her around, or her staff, might be a good idea. The innkeeper after a foolish attempt to steal Esk's staff quickly checks the barrels afterward to see if they've reverted to normal. They don't. Not until the next morning.
  • Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: For the second time already, it's established that it's actually fairly easy to punch out Cthulhu. Until Cthulhu starts menacing your friends.
  • Droste Image: Simon conjures an image of the Discworld to demonstrate his talent upon arrival at UU. It expands to show a tiny image of himself, which is conjuring a tiny image of the Discworld, which contains a tiny image of himself, etc.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness:
    • As early as her second appearance in Wyrd Sisters, this portrayal of Granny Weatherwax was almost as big an inconsistency as the infamous first appearance of the Patrician in The Colour of Magic. It's finally established in Maskerade that she tried to pretend the whole thing never happened out of embarrassment, to the point that even Nanny didn't know about most of it.
    • The Kingdom of Lancre ... doesn't seem to exist yet. Bad Ass is just a village in the Ramtops, with no suggestion of any larger polity.
    • Likewise, Nanny and Magrat are never mentioned, despite later books establishing that Granny and Nanny have been close since childhood.
  • Editorial Synaesthesia: When Borrowing (a light form of possession) the minds of different animals, their minds are described in these terms. Predator minds are purple arrowheads, herbivore minds are coiled silver springs, and human minds are complicated silver clouds.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The Things from the Dungeon Dimensions. Subverted in that they are actually quite weak when attacked in their own dimension, being cobbled together out of parts from random creatures. This may explain how Rincewind survived there after being transported to the Dungeon Dimensions at the end of Sourcery. Whilst his stay there might variably have been three days or seventeen years (good cases can be made for both), he had both a brick-in-a-sock and the Luggage to defend him.
  • Empathic Weapon: Esk's staff. The link is strong enough that what one feels, the other feels (First, when the staff is put into the fire. Second, when Esk is in the Dungeon Dimensions).
  • Epic Fail: Drum Billet and Mr. Smith committing one of these is what kicks off the book, particularly in the latter's refusal to let Granny get a word in edgewise about Eskarina's gender.
  • Feminist Fantasy: The book was serialised on the BBC's feminist-leaning Woman's Hour on radio. For quite some time afterwards, the author received fan-mail addressed to Ms. Terri Pratchett, Ms. Teresa Pratchett or simply Ms. Pratchett, from fans who simply assumed a woman had written the book and who even when informed of the error, simply refused to believe a man could have written such a book with such strong female characters.
  • Forced Transformation: Esk turns her teasing brother Gulta into a pig.
  • Foreshadowing: Not within the book itself; Equal Rites very obviously has its roots in a speech Pterry delivered in 1985 (after the publication of The Colour of Magic and before the publication of The Light Fantastic) where he started out talking about cliches in the fantasy genre before narrowing in on the sexist stereotypes of male magic always being inherently superior to female magic. He even ended the speech by dropping the term "equal rites".
    Pterry: Can you imagine a girl trying to get a place at the University of Gont?
  • Genius Loci: The building of Unseen University itself has become partly alive and self-aware due to being exposed to so much magic. Granny is even able to Borrow its mind. The forest around Granny's cottage is also mentioned to have a collective "mind" of sorts.
  • Heavy Mithril: Word of God is that the Steeleye Span track The Two Magicians influenced this book. Its themes of magical war between a Witch and a Wizard are echoed both in the chauvinism expressed by Wizards towards Witches, and more directly in the magical fight between Granny Weatherwax and the Arch-Chancellor. (It in turn was based on much older myth and legend, as was T. H. White's depiction of a duel of this kind between Merlyn and Madame Mim.)
  • Hypocritical Humour: At a couple of points, Granny Weatherwax disdains wizards because of their arrogant certainty that their way of doing magic is the best and only real way of doing magic. This, it must be said, is not a million miles away from Granny's own views on the subject of witches and their way of doing magic.
  • I Have Brothers: Esk is blessed with seven and the onset of magic allows her to win the war of sibling rivalry.
  • Innocent Inaccurate: When Granny is making a love potion for the wife of a glassblower, Esk says that she thinks the man doesn't blow much glass because she overheard his wife calling him "Old Mister Once A Fortnight."
  • Inn Security: The proprietors of the Fiddler's Riddle invite Esk to stay with them gratis, but only so they can try to steal her staff. Luckily, although Esk isn't world-wise enough to discern their bad intentions, the staff itself isn't having any of it.
  • Logic Bomb: the best way to defeat the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions is to not use magic (though only if you're capable to use it). Magic only makes them stronger, but they cannot comprehend a wizard who is able to use magic but DOESN'T.
  • Lovely Assistant: Referenced, the members of the Guild of Conjurers are accompanied by "sad thin women in spangly tights" (as in The Amazing Bunko and Doris).
  • Magic A Is Magic A: Granny laments that she can't use her Headology on rocks after letting Esk drive the broom. Except, in The Colour of Magic, we seen Druid magic use Headology on rocks to fly them into position for building stone-circle computers, and they consider it to be one of their magic systems Four Elements (they call it "Persuasion").
  • Magical Seventh Son: Except, of course, that on Discworld, the magical number is eight. And Eskarina is the eighth child, not the eighth son, which isn't supposed to work, but somehow it does. Women are supposed to be witches, not wizards, but Eskarina is simply too wizardy.
  • The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: Played for horror when Eskarina tries to stay in the body of an eagle for too long.
  • Monster-Shaped Mountain: The Paps of Scilla, a mountain on the caravan-route from Zemphis to Ankh-Morpork, has stirred a lot of speculation about the lady in question, because it has eight peaks.
  • Painting the Medium:
    Esk gazed down defiantly. Granny glared up sternly. Their wills clashed like cymbals and the air between them thickened. But Granny had spent a lifetime bending recalcitrant creatures to her bidding and, while Esk was a surprisingly strong opponent, it was obvious that she would give in before the end of the paragraph.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: All it takes for Esk's wizard staff to go unrecognized in a University full of wizards is a bunch of straw tied on one end so it can pass for a broom. Never mind the crawling sigils on its shaft.
  • Power Incontinence: Esk's lack of proper training in her wizard's magic causes it to start leaking out whenever she gets emotional.
  • Protection from the Elements: In the introduction, Drum Billet is easily recognizable as a wizard, first by his staff, and second because the raindrops from a thunderstorm evaporate before they touch him.
  • Readings Are Off the Scale: When Esk is in the Dungeon Dimensions and the staff (standing upright in the river) empathically feels this, it grows impossibly cold, freezing the river — but the water immediately around the staff is so cold that it actually anti-boils.
  • Reincarnated as a Non-Humanoid: Discussed when Drum Billet dies. His ghost asks about reincarnation, so Death warns him that he'd have to start small and work his way up — "AND WITH YOUR KARMA AN ANT IS TOO MUCH TO EXPECT." He still tries it and ends up reincarnated as a tree.
  • Retcon: Blink and you'll miss it, but this is actually the first book to refer to the leader of Unseen University as the Archchancellor — in The Light Fantastic Galder Weatherwax was just described as the Chancellor. Later books retconned the Archchancellor title as always being there.
  • Roguish Romani:
    • A town-based witch is worried gypsies might kidnap Esk. Granny Weatherwax, who knows a bit about them, finds this unlikely.
    • Zoons are barge-traveling merchants who find the concept of lying strange; the ones who are good at dealing with outsiders call themselves Liars because that's what they have to do. Zoons are, of course, distrusted, because there's nothing more suspicious than someone who's being honest.
  • Series Continuity Error: This book violates one of the ironclad rules of magic laid down The Colour of Magic and reiterated in later novels, specifically that it is impossible for anyone, up to and including the gods themselves, to magically alter the appearance of their eyes or anyone else's. But here, Granny changes her eyes to pure silver during her duel with Cutangle.
  • Shapeshifter Showdown: The duel between Cutangle and Granny, inspired by those in the Arthurian Mythos (and perhaps best known to modern eyes through Disney's The Sword in the Stone) which illustrates the difference between wizard and witch magic, Cutangle turning into powerful things and Granny into more modest things that restrain them through subtlety.
  • Shout-Out: The other worlds that the Things are trying to break into include a flat world with a World Tree, another flat world with the Midgard Serpent (also referenced in The Colour of Magic) and a round world which is, of course, implied to be ours.
  • Silent Snarker: Eskarina's staff doesn't like it when Granny tries to ignore it, or set it on fire. Granny talks back to it.
  • The Talk: Averted constantly. Either Esk is dense or really good at faking.
  • Talking in Your Dreams: Esk does this when assailed at night by Dungeon Dimension things. They inflict a sadistic dream on her - about Wizardry refusing to admit a female - knowing the result is going to be a delicious explosion of raw angry magic.
  • Thanks for the Mammary: Cutangle accidentally grabs Granny Weatherwax in this fashion while riding behind her on a broomstick. He apologizes profusely. And then, after some thought, she reminds him that he really ought to move his hands elsewhere.
  • To the Pain: How Granny threatens the staff into compliance, as she avoided damaging it while Esk was still alive. If she dies due to the staff refusing to help...
    'You were saved from the fire once, because you could pass the hurt on to her. Next time it won't be the fire.'
    Her voice sank to a whiplash whisper.
    'First it'll be the spokeshave. and then the sandpaper, and the auger, and the whittling knife-
    'I say, steady on,' said Cutangle, his eyes watering.
    '- and what's left I'll stake out in the woods for the fungus and the woodlice and the beetles. It could take years.'
  • Training the Gift of Magic: A major driving factor in the plot. As Esk's unique talent for wizard magic emerges, Granny Weatherwax first trains her in witchcraft as a good enough way to help her control it, and then has to take her to Unseen University for actual wizard training.
  • Unequal Rites:
    • Trope Namer.
    • Wizard (as well as a lineage of lesser male magicians), Witch, and Druid magic are all different, and seemingly mutually-exclusive. While Wizard and Witch magic were, up until now, Gender-Restricted, it was implied in the previous books anyone could learn Druidism, which can use "headology" on rocks (through Persuasion), which Granny laments is impossible after letting Esk drive the broom for a while.
  • Watch Out for That Tree!: Granny imposes this trope on a hungry bear, making it walk headfirst into a tree and knock itself out.
  • Wild Magic: Esk is not too good at casting magic directly, but her staff radiates with magic and causes rather... random phenomena.
  • Wizard Duel: Wizard-vs.-witch duel in this case. It was interrupted by the arrival of the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions. Up until then they were apparently evenly matched; both seemed rather embarrassed about it after the fact, since it was completely pointless.
  • Women Are Wiser: Zig-Zagged. Granny Weatherwax thinks Witch magic is better. Her characterization implies that she believes women to be more "in tune" than men (a wizard wouldn't "borrow" a creature because it simply wouldn't occur to him to ask nicely and share rather than sneak in and dominate), suggesting she has a less than stellar opinion of men in general. Apparently her biggest reasons to dislike wizards is that "they think their magic is the only one worth using." On the other hand, Granny's prejudice against wizards, as well as knowing the wizards' prejudice against women, means that her attempts to train Esk in withcraft go pear-shaped, since Esk's magic is clearly wizardry.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Despite Granny's best efforts, Eskarina has to become a wizard. She then has to train in the arts. Granny was trying to help Esk become a witch so that Esk wouldn't face the challenges of being the first female wizard. The staff protests about this.