Mark Reads ‘Unseen Academicals’: Part 2

In the second part of Unseen Academicals, Ponder discovers a new tradition, and Nutt tries to blend in. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read Discworld. 

Trigger Warning: For discussion of bigotry

HOLY SHIT. 

Traditions

Y’all, there are two HUGE reveals in this part and I wasn’t ready for either of them? Granted, I’m more thrilled by Nutt’s characterization, but I wanted to open this by delving into the importance of what Pratchett has done here with the wizards.

HE CHANGED THEM.

I’ve said this a few times before, and the text more or less confirms this later in this section: Unseen University is basically “amiable, dynamic stagnation.” Which is probably why Pratchett introduces the wizards in the midst of a tradition. The Megapode is based on something that occurred thousands of years earlier, and is repeated through imitation because… well, it’s tradition. It’s just what the wizards do. And that certainly describes so much of their habits and behaviors! It’s customary for wizards to eat multiple meals; to be a unique type of lazy; to bicker constantly, but especially when there isn’t time to bicker and Stibbons just needs one of them to make a decision. Over the course of these thirty-seven Discworld books, the wizards really have not changed. That works for the Science books more than anything else, but I tend to prefer huge character arcs, so I have found myself gravitating towards people like Tiffany, Vimes, Carrot, Angua, and Moist, who all have grown considerably in their respective books. (Seriously, Vimes ALONE has one of the most satisfying arcs in Discworld, and I hope there’s another Vimes book before I reach the end.) 

Yet in the middle of a paragraph—not even at the beginning of anything!!!—Pratchett drops the most significant change to the wizards EVER:

It had been tricky since the Dean had left, very tricky indeed. Whoever heard of a man resigning from UU? It was something that simply did not happen!

WHAT??? WHAT??? As I theorized on video, I’m guessing this is why I had to read The Science of Discworld III before this book, as it would have been very confusing to see the Dean among the regular staff. But holy shit, not only did he leave, but he was poached by another university? Okay, maybe that’s not the right term, as he appears to have found the ad for the position and went and interviewed of his own accord. Y’all, this was genuinely shocking to me! The Dean is just… he’s always been there! He has been a vital part of the dynamic of the wizards! Who else is gonna take some competitive thing way too seriously??? Oh my god, if he’d been around for the football tradition, he ABSOLUTELY would have become murderously competitive about it! 

But he’s gone. Because of that, other characters have changed, too, and I’m thinking specifically of the volatile state that Ridcully is in, who feels personally betrayed by what the Dean has done. Which is understandable! The wizards maintain a life that is… well, amiably stagnated. They keep things the same because that’s what they do! So what the hell happens when someone so visible and integral just leaves? You might react as Ridcully does: he lashes out in anger, he frequently rants about what a traitor the Dean is, and there’s an air of uncomfortable stillness around him.

It seems the perfect thing to do is to create a large-scale distraction. I can’t imagine something more fitting than the wizards trying to play a football match after NOT having done so for twenty years. Give or take, of course. I was also fascinated by the idea that football games are, by and large, banned in Ankh-Morpork. I mean, yes, they’re still happening in back alleys and out of sight of Vetinari and the Watch, but the intensity that surrounds them feels… weirdly realistic? While football is not necessarily as popular here in the States, it has always been HUGE in my life because I grew up within Latino communities that follow it religiously. I said on video that I even played as a forward for a semester in high school, so I’m pretty familiar with the game. And yeah… people got really intense about their teams, and I’m seen matches devolve into brawls. More than once? Oh, way more than once, actually. It happened a lot? I feel like it’s got a different attachment than American football does, and I imagine part of that is because the game itself operates so differently. Football has way more drama and tension because—and this is my take/perception—so much more time passes between goals/scoring. I’ve seen American football games with like ten touchdowns in them, and while that’s exciting if your team is winning, it’s nothing like the first goal after 45 minutes of play.

Anyway: the wizards are gonna be a hot mess, I CAN’T WAIT.

Nutt

OH MY GOD, THE CLUES WERE TOTALLY THERE. Smeems’s weird reluctance around him??? The way he kept pausing and then saying, “…man.” Oh my god, NUTT IS A GOBLIN. I don’t recall there being a major goblin in any of the previous books. Maybe only a mention? (There are gnolls, though, right? Which we haven’t really seen much either, at least not since The Truth.) Either way, I love the reveal here, which challenged my assumption that Nutt was human. From this, Pratchett imbues Nutt’s story with a lot of textual and subtextual detail to build his character out. His cleverness isn’t just funny; there’s a sense of survival that runs through him. And it’s not just survival; there’s a powerful motif of the fear of failing to assimilate into a new culture. (Well, new relative to Nutt.) We learn that there’s a social stigma of sorts to working down in the vats and why that’s significant to Nutt. In short, after the horrible treatment he got in the “high country” (which sounds like Uberwald, I think?), Nutt had already experienced the lowest of the low. There, in the candle vats, among many of the dispossessed, ignored, abandoned, and forgotten members of society, no one treated Nutt badly. As he puts it:

No, the dippers were no problem. He did his best for them when he could. Life itself had beaten them so hard that they had no strength left to beat up anyone else. That was helpful.

Despite this, Pratchett puts so much discomfort into the text. Some of that is discomfort others feel towards Nutt, since as a goblin, his people have no written history from their perspective. Because others—be them humans or trolls or dwarfs—wrote down the “history” of the goblins, it’s allowed others to define the race on their terms, which means goblins are… well, they are not viewed kindly by anyone. It was only someone named Pastor Oats who rescued Nutt. From what, I’m not certain. Something happened between his time in the “high country” and arriving in Ankh-Morpork, and I say that because I believe that’s what all the bolded parts are about. Someone taught Nutt how best to fit in when you are so undeniably different. An example: 

Smile at people. Like them. Be helpful. Accumulate worth.

And let me just tell you, as someone who has had to deal with being an outcast for being both Latinx and queer in spaces where those things are seen as negative qualities, this is immensely real and uncomfortable. Indeed, I’d say that I was massively preoccupied with being likable and helpful because maybe then, people would “overlook” the other qualities. And when you’ve got internalized shit like this brewing in your mind, it’s very easy to think that this is the only way to achieve worth. At the same time, I recognize that this is about survival. In that, I feel like Pratchett is borrowing from a very real phenomenon, one that I recognize because of how often I’ve had to try and mask my queerness because I was in a hostile space. Which was often met with varying success, and I usually could not succeed at it. That’s relevant in that Nutt’s philosophical outlook is about what he can do not just to fit in, but almost disappear. What behaviors will make it so that people momentarily forget he’s a goblin? What things will allow him to directly counter stereotypes to keep himself safe and almost sterile?

Holy shit, y’all, I’M SO INTO SEEING HOW THIS WILL PLAY OUT. Protect Nutt AT ALL COSTS.

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About Mark Oshiro

Perpetually unprepared since '09.
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