Season six of Game of Thrones has been a benchmark in that the showrunners have treated women vastly better than previous seasons, though that still does not amount to much. It has, however, been fun watching the leading women on the show take charge in the absence of condescending male patrons, and actually drive the politics of Westeros in very decisive ways. Between Sansa and Arya Stark, Brienne of Tarth, Yara Greyjoy and of course, Daenerys Targaryen, the show has made up for a lot of the pointless, gratuitous excesses of the previous season. Between Arya (my favorite character in the series) turning out as a superb assassin, her sister taking charge of the battle for the North and the Mother of Dragons committing multiple Dothraki regicide, the badassery has come thick and fast.
That said, it’s nearly over, this season. And any fantasy that replaces GoT in your schedule after that has to be nearly as good, right?
How about better?
Enter Terry Pratchett.
For the uninitiated, the late Sir Terry (he died last year) is the creator of the Discworld, a flat, circular planet borne on the backs of four elephants, who in turn stand on the back of the great turtle A’Tuin, who swims endlessly through space towards a destination only He/She knows.
The Discworld novels combine fantasy, a bit of science fiction, great jokes, bad jokes and dreadful jokes along with a tapestry of characters more delightful than any others in my personal reading list. 41 of these novels have been published, which basically means that every time you pick one, it is pretty much like walking into a roomful of your favourite people. Very bad for your social life (not that you will regret it).
What makes Discworld stand out among other, more traditional speculative fiction is the women. This is one fantasy universe where the strength of its female characters never comes across as the author trying to ‘make up’ for mistreatment or prejudices elsewhere. Pratchett’s characters amble in and out of the books with an ease that is rare and delightful. They are who they are, and you never get the sense that the author is trying to prove a point through them. I’d argue that you could get through pretty much most of the Discworld books if you read them solely for the exploits of the seven characters named below:
Known as Granny Weatherwax, she is the most experienced witch in the series. Discworld’s witches are powerful, authoritative figures, deeply connected to the land. While ostensibly they spend most of their time functioning as vets, doctors, herb-collectors or midwives in remote villages, they usually turn out to be the Discworld’s surest, and wisest line of defence against the dark forces threatening it. Granny is a master of ‘headology’, the driving principle of witches’ magic. Reluctant in the extreme to admit her mistakes, a hard taskmaster to her apprentices, a (rather affectionate) terror to the villagers under her care, a supremely skilled wielder of a hat-pin and prodigiously bad at flying a broomstick, Granny Weatherwax is the ultimate head-of-magical-order character across a wide swathe of fantasy literature.
The unofficial deputy to Granny Weatherwax though possibly just about as experienced, Nanny Ogg presents the lighter, happier side of witches’ business. Much-married and a mother of 15, she rules over an empire of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren spread across towns and villages in the land. Partial to her alcohol and lenient with the apprentices, she makes the perfect good cop-bad cop team with Granny.
Magrat is the first of the apprentices in the series, who later winds up as the queen of a mountain kingdom called Lancre. She plays the witches’ game by the book and is a stickler for procedure. A caring, empathetic witch of prodigious talent, she makes the restoration of a true heir to a kingdom a rather cheerful, painless affair.
The character of Tiffany Aching is one of Pratchett’s great achievements. She enters the novels as a very young girl, with a lot of potential as a witch, up against adversaries even the likes of Granny have not faced. Tiffany’s character shows Pratchett’s supreme skill in developing the underdog. Wise for her age, she is elected an honorary leader by the Wee Free Men, a tribe of six-inch high claymore wielding blue marauders (they need a whole post to themselves). Her power extends as far as the seasons, and she is, on one occasion, able to win Summer back from the Wintersmith through sheer force of magic ability. Pratchett wrote many, many spellbinding characters in his books, but the last Discworld novel, published posthumously, had Tiffany Aching in it. The characters she beat to that honour are no mean works of art themselves.
If you’ve seen The Hobbit, you’ve possibly noticed how Tolkien mainstreamed the image of dwarves as a wise, powerful and dark race, as opposed to their largely comic portrayal elsewhere. If you liked that, Discworld is your next stop. Not only do the dwarves here become many-layered, complex and even darker, Pratchett explores gender in this popular fantasy race in a manner hitherto not attempted before. The established trope of dwarves says that males and females are indistinguishable in their race, except to themselves. Both sexes have beards and for some reason, for female dwarves to make themselves known is thought blasphemous. Pratchett brings this trope into his work, and then in Cheery Littlebottom, officer of the Night’s Watch of Ankh-Morpork, Discworld’s greatest (and filthiest) city, gives us the first dwarf who breaks out of that stereotype. More dwarves follow suit, and every story is one of great delight and very entertaining political and narrative consequences.
Represents werewolves in the novels. And is practically the most feared member of the Night’s Watch. Enough said. Really.
Lady Ramkin is the scion of one of Discworld’s noblest and richest families. Pratchett specifies that in arguably his best dreadful joke: “The Ramkins were more highly bred than a hilltop bakery.”
She is married to Commander Vimes, head of the Night’s Watch. (Also another of Pratchett’s great achievements in character development). To say more about her entails spoilers, but her hobby bears mention over here.
She is a dragon tamer.
The full list of brilliant women characters in Discworld is longer, but to access that you must read the books. It’s not light reading, but it is remarkably enjoyable. Primarily because Pratchett is funny in a way nobody else is. And to read through his vision is amazing because of how unapologetic he is for any of his characters. And if his own mind was as free of prejudice as the writings he put to paper, what a person he must have been.
Views the article are solely of the author.