Academic journal article Mythlore

The Education of a Witch: Tiffany Aching, Hermione Granger, and Gendered Magic in Discworld and Potterworld

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Education of a Witch: Tiffany Aching, Hermione Granger, and Gendered Magic in Discworld and Potterworld

Article excerpt

CONTEMPORARY FANTASY OFTEN REFLECTS SOCIAL ANXIETIES about issues such as education and gender and the responsible use of power. The training of a young person in how to use his or her budding talents wisely is a common trope in children's and young adult fantasy, echoing a primary concern of its audience. Tied up with the depiction of education are broader social issues of gender inequality and access to power; in keeping with this, some fantasy novels depict societies where education in women's magic and men's magic is entirely separate and reflects deeper social divisions, while others show more inclusive societies where both sexes are educated together to use more generic powers and expected to participate in society in a more equal fashion. (1)

The defining characteristic of the heroines of two recent YA fantasy series is a similar overwhelming determination to learn how to use their magical powers against any odds. Both the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and the Tiffany Aching sub-series of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books feature a young heroine whose thirst for knowledge overcomes all obstacles. However, the environments and societies in which they work towards their goals are very different, and reflect two important ways of thinking about gender in education, work, and power. The system in Harry Potter's world is one of co-education, where all humans who have magical potential theoretically have equal access to the same education and to positions of power in any field after graduation; in contrast, on Discworld, witches and wizards occupy totally different niches, are trained separately according to traditional concepts of gender-related strengths and weaknesses, and tend to value and excel in different types of work. Both heroines face obstacles from the very start: Tiffany is from the sheep-farming, magic-distrusting Chalk Downs country, and it is common knowledge (among witches, at least) that you can't grow witches on chalk (Wee Free Men 7), while Hermione is summoned to Hogwarts from a pure Muggle family with no history of magical talent. Responding to a calling in the blood, Tiffany and Hermione both recognize that the opportunity to gain knowledge is the opportunity to gain power--power to control their environments, to chart their own courses in the world, and to protect those they care for.

Both series start with the premise that magic is ethically neutral and equally accessible to both genders, though some individuals have more innate power than others. Beyond that, it is personal ethics that marks the good or evil practitioner of magic. However, one key difference is that in Potterworld, there seems to be an inexhaustible supply of magic, and how much you use has no effect on you physically or morally and does not affect any sort of balance in the world (Pinsent 31). On Discworld the situation is entirely different. Though wizards seem more willing to use magic day-to-day than witches, both know that magic is subject to specific physical rules; that using too much attracts unwanted attention from the monsters of the Dungeon Dimensions; and that relying too much on magic can scour away one's ethical sense. On Discworld, the truly great witches pride themselves on rarely actually using magic. (2)

What is the significance of co-educational versus single-sex education to issues of gender and power? At heart, the question is: should girls and boys be educated in exactly the same way? Which leads to a number of related questions: Does educating boys and girls separately and differently lead to inequities of access and reinforce biases and anxieties about expectations, power, and achievements? Does coeducation deny unique gender-related strengths and prevent any allowance for different learning styles that might help children learn better? Can single-sex education allow each group to reach its potential by supporting their strengths and removing gender-related distractions? Is education attuned to women's learning styles and in "women's skills" more likely to be devalued simply because they are practiced by women? …

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