May 27, 2024

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Discworld Read-Along #5: Sourcery


Continuing my occasional series in which I work my way through Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, one book at a time.

Up next:  the fifth book, Sourcery.

First Appearance:  This time for sure, the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork Havelock  Vetinari.

Introduced to Discworld:  why rule by magic is a really bad idea

The plot:  Eighth son of an eighth son Ipslore the Red is about to die, and he’s not happy about it.  He’s a wizard who decided the “no sex” rule didn’t apply to him and just had an eighth son of his own.  Just as Death is about to claim him, he passes his infant son, named Coin, his metal staff and gives the lad his power, attaching his soul to the staff in the process.  Death can only claim him when the boy voluntarily ditches the staff.  Wizards don’t do that sort of thing, but there has to be a loophole.  Death is a little annoyed, but he knows this sort of thing never works out as planned and decides to just wait.

A couple years later, just as Unseen University is about to set up a new Archchancellor, Librarian’s Assistant Rincewind notices that every non-human living thing in the University is fleeing the grounds.  Ants, rats, gargoyles, even Rincewind’s own matress (being carried by bedbugs) are all making a break for it.  Seeing this is probably bad, Rincewind grabs some stuff, wakes the Luggage, grabs the Librarian, and makes a break for it himself.

This turns out to be a very good thing for all involved.  Coin, now about 10, is coming to the University to claim the seat of Archchancellor himself.  He’s a sourcerer, a word Spellcheck doesn’t like, as in a source for magic.  He’s the most powerful magic-user to walk the face of the Disc in centuries, and after a couple casual deaths, he starts showing off real magical power, all in a quest to, it seems, make wizards the real power of the world.  Kowtowing to non-magical authority figures isn’t something he sees as good.

It turns out there’s a reason there hasn’t been a sourcerer in ages.  They tend to upset the balance of things.  Really powerful wizards just want to fight each other, and that can lead to the Apocralypse, the aprocryphal apocalypse, when a tyrant rules the world, the gods are helpless, the Ice Giants begin to plow over everything, and the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions come back.

The day will need to be saved, mostly by a wizard with no real magical power, a homicidal trunk on legs, the Librairan, and a handful of random allies.  That’s about par for the course.

Commentary:  Just as the previous book seemed like the first real Discworld book, so too does this one seem more like a real Rincewind book.  The various other wizards that run around Unseen University and seem incapable of making a decision are no where to be seen yet, but Rincewind’s expert cowardice has hit the point it should be at and the Librarian’s formidable nature is finally appearing.

Rincewind, you see, as a wizard with no magical skill, has some uses.  He knows the Lore, even if he doesn’t know any spells.  He does have the standard pointy hat that proclaims him a “wizzard” and the robes, but he knows he’s a wizard even if he’s a bad one. When an ally suggests he could just remove the hat and robe and be something else to stay out of danger, the idea makes no sense to him.

Indeed, Rincewind surrounds himself with people this time who all would rather be something they clearly are not.  There is:

  • Conina, daughter of Cohen the Barbarian.  An expert fighter and thief, she just wants to be a hairdresser.
  • Nijel the Destroyer, son of a merchant, a very polite young man who wants to be a barbarian hero.
  • Creosote, Seriph of Al Khali, an Arabia stand-in, son of the very rich (as in “as rich as Creosote”) former ruler, who wants nothing more than to listen to stories, drink, and write poetry.  That last thing he is very bad at.

The big difference here is, when push comes to shove, Rincewind will do something heroic.  He’ll do it when there are no other options, when he can’t run away any more, and when all hope should be lost, but he’ll do it.  He’ll do it armed only with a sock with half a brick in it, though, since, you know, he has no magical skill.

Fortunately, this is still Discworld, where good sense and being a decent human being is still enough to get things done.  Yes, the wizards seem to be going bad, but as one of the more ambitious ones says near the end, he only wanted a little respect, and that comes after he tried (and failed) to fix things.  Coin himself is just a kid being bullied by the spirit of his dead father in his own staff.  The Librarian is no longer just an ape inclined to hold you hand.  He possesses a good deal of good sense.  He gets things done.  He’s also immensely strong and tends to try and unscrew heads when people mess with him.

In fact, it may be that basic decency that makes Rincewind the least wizard-like wizard on the Disc.  When he first flees the University, he does go back for the Librarian first.  When everything goes south at the end of the book and Coin needs help, he’s the only wizard to even try and assist the lad.  He’s cynical and fatalistic, inclined to run at the barest hint of trouble, but now he’ll warn people to run with him when staying somewhere is a really bad idea.  He may not want to die anytime soon, but he likewise doesn’t seem inclined to leave others to do so either.  He knows in his core he is a wizard; he just doesn’t have any other proof that he is one.  He’s the least competent, least magical wizard there is, and yet he still manages to save the day.  His greatest skill, as mentioned back in The Light Fantastic, is simply Not Dying.  That seems to be enough.

Rincewind and the Luggage (which spends most of the book on its own eating everything in its path after having its heart broken by a woman who kicked it) end the novel trapped in the Dungeon Dimensions.  Pratchett lets the reader know that is not a permanent situation.  After all, Rincewind left his hat behind, and a wizard always comes back for his hat.

Next book:  The kingdom of Lancre is having some problems of a Shakespearean nature.  Who’s there to fix things?  Three witches?  Huh.  Granny Weatherwax returns, this time with her coven, in Wyrd Sisters.

Previous entries:

The Color of Magic

The Light Fantastic

Equal Rites