Academic journal article Mythlore

Magical Genders: The Gender(s) of Witches in the Historical Imagination of Terry Pratchett's Discworld

Academic journal article Mythlore

Magical Genders: The Gender(s) of Witches in the Historical Imagination of Terry Pratchett's Discworld

Article excerpt

Terry Pratchett (1) Has been writing the satirical fantasy Discworld series since 1983 and has published forty novels. Over thirty years of writing and publishing, the historical context of Discworld, and the broader fantasy genre, has changed significantly, providing a never-ending stream of ideas which Pratchett incorporates into his fantastical world. Simultaneously, Pratchett's style has matured and evolved from mere parodies to engagement with diverse questions of philosophy, history, and politics.

Ten novels and one short story comprise the Witches sub-series, which is largely concerned with the historical imagination of gender. Specifically, the major theme of the Witches stories is the protagonists' quest to balance performing the roles expected of them while still pursuing their own desires. This narrative produces interventions into both genre fantasy as well as our own (historical) imagination of gender. Through these interventions, Pratchett demonstrates to readers that gendered narratives play a constricting force in our lives and that freedom comes when we create the power to subvert or break from constructed narratives.

I will make my argument in four parts: Firstly I will consider gender in fantastical literature and establish the context of Discworld's intervention; secondly I will examine how historical gender archetypes are transcended by the witches of Discworld; I will then consider the way in which Discworld intervenes in historical discourses on gender, using Judith Butler's application of the Foucaultian concept of genealogy to the history of gender; finally I will draw upon the actions of Tiffany Aching in order to demonstrate Butler's concept of 'subversive performances' as a method by which gender archetypes are transcended. 1


From Ursula Le Guin's powerful exploration of sexual and gender identity through an androgynous race of humans in The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969 to Starhawk's 1993 juxtaposition of a dystopian and patriarchal Los Angeles against a utopian eco-feminist San Francisco in the post-apocalyptic novel The Fifth Sacred Thing, gender has long been a powerful source of imagination for fantastical literature. What is important about both of these books as well as the enduring fascination with gender in fantastical literature is the way in which gender is conceptualized and treated by authors. This process has massive implications for the histories and futures which construct their fantastic worlds, just as it does in ours. In 1960, Kingsley Amis went so far as to claim that:

   the sexes are far less divided in this way than we all make them
   out to be [and] an ideology which turns one sex into a norm of
   humanity, and the other into a divergence from that norm, has got a
   lot to be said against it. [...] [A]s things are, the only kind of
   fiction in which [ideas like female emancipation] could be deployed
   is science fiction. (89) (2)

Despite this potential of fantastical literature to provide a unique forum for imagining worlds with alternative histories of gender, texts that deal with gender equality and female emancipation are a minority, especially within the fantasy genre. For the majority of popular fantasy, from the modern Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to mythologies of King Arthur and Dracula, gender remains a problematic and conservative force. These popular and cult texts draw upon and constitute an inter-subjective, evolving world with "public domain plot items," which Pratchett calls the "consensus fantasy universe" (Why Gandalf Never Married). Because the consensus fantasy universe is an intersubjective imaginary, it is dependent on each reader's context--to some readers it might look a lot like Middle-earth while to others it might take on the shape of the world of Camelot. Regardless of the specific form it takes, and the particular worlds that shape the reader's and author's context, the consensus fantasy universe represents a mash-up of canonical fantasy worlds. …

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