The Ancient and Fraternal Order: An Essay on Pratchett’s Men (Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery)

One of the joys of being a Discworld fan is how Pratchett changed his conception of the Disc over his career. It was ever a vehicle for his interests, not some set and unchanging place, and a vehicle he flung around the track with a deft hand and unbridled glee. Yet in a way, that makes the few ideas that seemed to survive more or less unchanged from beginning to end all the more precious. And one of the few things that appears prominently in the opening books that appears come the end, still very much recognisable as of the beginning, is Unseen University and it’s denizens.

The wizards.

For whatever reason, wizards seemed Pratchett’s favourite part of fantasy in those beginning days. They appear prominently in all of the first five books, a claim that only Death comes close to matching, and Rincewind himself is a wizard. Allegedly. And while there is some rapid evolution of the stereotypical wizard from Colour of Magic to Sourcery, the core concept seems fairly fixed. Wizards are academics, their magic due to their learning with the latter exerting a greater effect on their personality, and they are prohibited from sex. In other words, they fulfil the geek stereotype, particularly as it seems to have been back then. Perhaps it was the ability to compare a fantasy stereotype with a real world one that so grabbed Pratchett.

Nerds are, of course, stereotypically male.

In Discworld, magic is divided by gender. The division is predominantly one of gender role and stereotype leading to different ways of viewing magic, which leads to different types of magic, which leads to an ongoing view that one type of magic is for men and one is for women. And Discworld being Discworld, that belief ends up effecting reality a little. This is more or less the core concept of Equal Rites, but all four other novels under study here back this up. Wizards are men doing men things, but without being stereotypically masculine due to being nerds.

There is a non-nerdish challenge to their masculinity in the Wizard stereotype. Wizards have loud, tasteless dress sense and are very invested in it. Witness Cuttlewell’s coronation robes in Mort. We certainly all know men like that, but a particular interest in clothes is not masculine in today’s society, nor is it nerdy. Tasteless, perhaps, loud, sometimes, but not through active deliberate interest among everyone. The interest (and loudness) is however stereotypically gay. Are we meant to read a “if they’re not with women, they’re a bit gay” vibe into the wizards? Possibly. One can also ready other ideas; they are are gaudy like the Freemasons, to pick a famous all male society. There are other all male societies that often end up looking like peacocks on drugs; medieval knights, or public schoolboys. Or perhaps Pratchett simply knew a lot of nerds who really liked tasteless loud clothes. I would also suggest that if Pratchett wanted us to think about a homosocial group being a little homosexual, he would have probably been less subtle about it. Nevertheless, it seems possible societal ideas along these lines influenced Pratchett subconsciously.*

Where they are at their most masculine is their sense of competition. Witness their undignified and lethal scramble to find Rincewind, or Trymon’s attempts to off Galder Weatherwax in The Light Fantastic. Dangle a prize in front of these wizards and they will not hesitate to take the attached limb as well. This is true of Sourcery as well; arguably, it’s rather the point of the book. Offered a world of unlimited power and they all get frankly a bit loopy. In this, they’re nerds through and through, as anyone who’s ever seen a rules lawyer going to town in game will know.

So what does Pratchett do with his nerds? Well, for one thing, he makes them villainous. The Colour of Magic is short on villains, but there’s a rather good (if uninterested and dead) villainous wizard in the Wyrmbeg. The Light Fantastic has one. Equal Rites has them in minor antagonist roles. Sourcery, as mentioned, is bad wizards all the way down. Only in Mort with the young Igneous Cutwell do we get a book free of nefarious wizards. He makes them petty and arrogant too; see some of the jovial sexism in Equal Rites or the initial treatment of Coin in Soucery or the plot for Sourcery. And they’re not particularly courageous except when hopped up on power, as witnessed by their attitudes to Trymon in The Light Fantastic.

Are the wizards at this point more than the butt of a joke, a device for poking fun at Gandalf, Elric, and nerds? The more I think about it, the less sure I am than anything much extends beyond said butt. There is, of course, something. There is something enjoyably wistful about the way senior wizards ruminate about Simon’s teachings in Equal Rites. And there is Igneous Cutwell, the pink-cheeked wizard from Mort stuck with the unenviable job of trying to keep reality together after Mort doesn’t kill Keli. Affable, mildly scurrilous, sharp-witted enough without being sharp edged, he’s the one wizard you wouldn’t mind having a drink with from the opening five books (not counting Rincewind and the Librarian). He’s much more of a model for Ridcully’s Unseen University than the one we’d see.

The most interesting wizard though is Albert, even if – or perhaps because of – not being a wizard for most of Mort. At first you’d never know; he’s just another old man happy with the fixed circuit of his life, grateful to him that put him there and neither particularly here nor there with anything else, albeit in a friendly enough way. A good servant in other words, although you suspect he’d potter along on a different circuit well enough. It’s only when Mort starts making an utter bollocks of things he reverts back to being Alberto Malich, greatest wizard that ever lived, and an exemplar of their traits; arrogant and cutting when holding a strong hand, shrinking like a deflated balloon when he doesn’t. There’s a strong theme of Who You Are vs What You Do in Mort, and the identity of being a wizard clearly changes a great deal about who he is.

Perhaps that’s the sole point of Pratchett’s early wizards; his idea of how power would corrupt in this case, a wrecking ball aimed at the benevolent wizard of Tolkien and, uh, I’m sure there’s others pre-Pratchett’s time. It’s after all the main theme of Sourcery, and it’s repeated in all of the other early Discworlds. I’m not sure how much of an effective satire this is. I mean, yes, I wasn’t even alive when he wrote The Colour of Magic but I am reasonably well grounded in fantasy’s history. The likes of Elric, Gorice from The Worm Ouroboros, the elven wizards in Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, and so on, are bad, mad, and dangerous to know. The wizards here are bad, mad, dangerous to know, and inept; I’m not sure being inept changes that much. It must have made sense or it wouldn’t have worked, but I think it’s probably best to view the wizards as more parody than satire.

In any case, taken as a prism for viewing man, I am left with much the same impressions as from the Rincewind essay (unsurprisingly considering they share the same sources by and large). Pratchett is more engaged with the fantasy genre than with the wider world, and more in making fun of its conventions than building new ones. The biggest point of departure there is in Mort, which conveniently will form part of the next essay.

2 thoughts on “The Ancient and Fraternal Order: An Essay on Pratchett’s Men (Colour of Magic, Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, Mort, Sourcery)

  1. The straight male with garish clothes was very much around in London in the sixties (“dandies without taste” Clive James called himself and his friends). Pratchett was of the right age to be in the middle of all that in his youth, but whether it helped form his depiction of wizards, I’ve no idea.

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