Wizzard: An Essay on Pratchett’s Men (The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Sourcery, Eric)

(Some Spoilers)

In her excellent series of essays, Tansy Rayner Roberts someone suggested someone should write essays on Pratchett’s men.

I am stupid enough to think I can be that someone.

In the spirit of building off what she has done, I would start with the observation that all of Pratchett’s early characters are shaped by “the fact that in these early books he was largely writing parody of various fantasy worlds and tropes.” That goes for the men as well as the women, particularly in the early books featuring Rincewind.

That was something I only half-grasped when I first read these books. I started reading them in the late 90s in higgledy-piggledy order – Jingo was the first Discworld I got when it was released – and they were among the first fantasy books I read. I guessed that the Wyrmberg owed something to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern but a number of other references to Leiber, Moorcock, White Dwarf, and so on, were only understood a long time after.

But even with limited knowledge of fantasy, I understood that Rincewind and Discworld was different.

Back then, I was very sure what a fantasy hero was like. They were brave, skillful, morally upright. They probably had a sword. They’d help people do difficult things that needed a brave type skillful with a sword. They were like Aragorn or Martin the Warrior. The appearance of this scrawny, cowardly, gaudily yet shabbily dressed incompetent in the protagonist role was like nothing I’d seen.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I didn’t really take to him.

With the benefit of more years and maturity, I understand more of what he is and have come to see him in somewhat of the same light Rayner Roberts sees Pratchett’s women from this period; an attempt to challenge the genre’s then (and sometimes current) preoccupations that backfired somewhat (although less so than, say, Herrena). I like him more, but still haven’t completely taken to him though.

A lot of this has to do with the shape of the early Discworld. Rincewind exists in a world of deadly swordspeople, malevolent tyrants, and sinister wizards. This both shapes Rincewind’s character, and the other male characters we see. The idea of Rincewind as a riposte to the fantasy readers, one that says “we all know that other stuff’s all a bit out there, we’d all shit ourselves if we actually had to do those things and anyway who really wants to be like them” is somewhat undercut by the existence of Hrun the Barbarian being willing to fight everything and ending up with the scantily clad beautiful lady of the Wyrmberg as a result. While he gets his manly rewards, Rincewind gets lined up for sacrifice. If the aim had been to get young boys to want to be less interested in reading people like Hrun, or being like Hrun, it seems an odd way to get there.

It seems like Pratchett might have agreed as the barbarians Rincewind meets in The Light Fantastic and Sourcery are of a somewhat different breed. Cohen is fearsome and fearless but as a very old man, he suffers from the same pains and indignities as everyone else, something epitomised by his struggles with being toothless, something he shares with Twoflower. It’s a problem that Cohen, after advice from Twoflower, solves with a dramatic flair; false teeth made from troll’s teeth (I.e. diamonds), but not before the problem is etched in our minds. Njel is physically scrawny and not from a barbarian culture at all; he still has many of the hallmarks of someone brought up in a family of small shopkeepers in the city. However, both end up showing a great deal of physical courage and the end story in the traditional position of the hero, that is to say alive, happy, and with a beautiful woman. If there is a message here, it would seem to be “keep being macho even when you’re not cut out for it”.

As a counter argument, Rincewind is only effective at lampooning how many men are under the posturing, rather than presenting an alternative path. Rincewind’s fun to laugh at, but he’s not someone you’d want to be. Offer men a choice between being Rincewind and Cohen, and I imagine most would pick to be Cohen, myself included. He just has a lot more fun with his life. And while Cohen’s struggles with the infirmities of old age make for a more nuanced look at masculine strength, it also reinforces the power fantasy even more so. Being a barbarian hero, feared by men and admired by women, is cool. Being one at the age of eighty is even cooler.

It is at this point I’d like to talk about Twoflower.

If Rincewind is a parody of the S&S hero, a “come on lads, this is how we’d really be in that situation, right” comment, then Twoflower can be viewed as a straight up avatar of the average modern urban man. He’s just a bloke who works in an office and likes to believe that what they do has worth while not really enjoying it or admiring themselves for it. They do it to pay the bills and have a little cash to maybe do something cool, like travel the Disc meeting great barbarian heroes. He’s just like us, even if it turns out that he is even more dangerous than any of those heroes due to his mixture of naive curiosity and unshakable optimism (albeit mainly to himself).

Nevertheless, he is a straight-forwardly admirable and likable character, even if also a figure of fun. His optimism also makes him courageous and calm in the face of calamity. He is friendly and helpful as well as naive. We even see him display a moment of awesome in the Wyrmberg, where the power of his imagination allows him to call a dragon stronger than any of the others there. It’s an important moment, showing how Twoflower is more than just some unbearable tourist seeing a world none of the rest of us see. His ability to see things differently is more than that, and can genuinely change the world for the better. It is perhaps the first we see Pratchett use that idea in some form in the Discworld. It also probably increases the sense of identification for fantasy fans; which of us doesn’t value their imagination and its power?

There are worse things to be than Twoflower. Twoflower isn’t a parody of Swords & Sorcery masculinity. He is a genuine alternative. I don’t think I particularly appreciated that when I first read these books – I was too busy enjoying Cohen and the Librarian, and frankly wishing I was reading about Sam Vimes or Granny Weatherwax instead – but I appreciate it now.

The Librarian, however fleetingly we see him, is another alternative and one that is attractive to traditional masculinity. He is hugely strong and utterly ferocious in defence of his domain – masculine. However, he feels no urge to use those traits unless pressed. He just wants to spend a lot of time with his books and be well fed. Maybe have a good stock of library supplies. The fact he’s an orangutan is more or less inconsequential; he is someone who can be strong, but not ruled by strength.

That isn’t the majority of the rest of the cast from the first four Discworld books. Not with men like Stren Withel, disgruntled contender for worst man in the world, or Abrim, a man considered too mentally unbalanced for admission to Unseen University, around. The vast majority of male characters in The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, and Sourcery are straight from the canon of dangerous men doing dangerous things. Death has an air of malice. The wizards routinely have a go at each other (more on that later). The Patrician we see in The Colour of Magic is such a far cry from the Vetinari we know I prefer to think it is a predecessor, even if Pratchett has explicitly said otherwise. The actual definite Lord Vetinari in Sourcery feels very different, and less interesting, than the character we see later too. While we can see the evolution of Pratchett’s view to the value of playing with those concepts change over the three books, they are mostly coherent with one another; after Sourcery, Pratchett would mostly put those concepts away to play with other concepts.

We can see Pratchett’s mind evolve as well to a certain point. It is hard to imagine the later Pratchett including descriptions like the below:

“Scrawny, like most wizards, and clad in a dark red robe on which a few mystic sigils were embroidered in tarnished sequins. Some might have taken him for a mere apprentice enchanter who had run away from his master out of defiance, boredom, fear and a lingering taste for heterosexuality.”

I read it as desiring female company over celibacy, but it’s not hard to read the sentence in other less flattering ways. Pratchett’s view of masculinity here might be mocking the superman, but it perhaps is still not much bigger than the idea of men who go down to the pub, think about talking to women, and complain about life. They are not supermen but their lives are heavily influenced by those who are, be it the despotic Patrician, a sinister wizard, or a mighty barbarian. That would change.

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