In The Colour of Magic, we learn that:

"Can't tell you. Don't really want to talk about it. But frankly," he sighed , "no spells are much good. It takes three months to commit even a simple one to memory, and then once you’ve used it, pow it's gone. that's what's so stupid about the whole magic thing, You know. You spend twenty years learning the spell that makes nude virgins appear in your bedroom, and then you're so poisoned by quicksilver fumes and half-blind from reading old grimoires that you can't remember what happens next."

So clearly: a spell is something you need to create, and you can use but once. And it's something utterly useless as a consequence.

In Equal Rites, Esk is able to do MANY spells without creating any of them. And afterwards, it seems that The Colour of Magic description of how magic works never holds...

Does Rincewind lie? Is there an explanation I missed out?

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    'Inconsistent treatment of x' is pretty much the definition of Pratchett's work. The rule of funny applies throughout.
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 14:34
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    @Valorum : Terry Pratchett's work is mostly consistent with its absurd foundations. I beg to differ. (I had also gasped when Death killed a man in book 1 after having read all the following ones, thanks for the link)
    – Pierre
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 14:38
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    You need to remember that Rincewind is a special case. He is to wizardry as zero is to the real numbers :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 17:06
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    Hmm, I haven't read them recently enough to confirm whether this would work for an "in-universe" reason, but since by the end of The Light Fantastic Rincewind has said the Disc saving spell (the only spell to work when all magic seemed to stop), it could very well have rebooted magic in some way that is not really mentioned. Not enough to make in easy like in Sorcery, but enough to make sure spells aren't one time things.
    – Philbo
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 9:47

6 Answers 6


The best explanation is that the first two Discworld aren't really "Discworld" books as much as they are "Rincewind" books. They're much more aimed at being parody of a large number of fantasy genres than they are designed to be a unique work that starts a brand new franchise.

There's tons of inconsistencies between the early books and the later. In the first pair of books, for example, Death only showing up at the death of Wizards, and in Rincewind's case, he only gets Scrofula. In (IIRC) Equal Rites, (EDIT - sorry, Weatherwax is from Light Fantastic - it's Archchancellor Cutangle in Equal Rites. The Management apologizes for the inaccuracy.) we meet Archchancellor Weatherwax of Unseen University, and the rules of magic seem based in balance - the Archchancellor wants to fly up to another level of the hall, so he casts a spell that makes a bit of concrete of equal weight fall downwards. He's replaced by Ridcully in later books, especially after Granny Weatherwax became a major character. (There's a callback to that in a later book, where Ridcully mentioned that they'd had an Archchancellor Weatherwax, and Granny offhanded mentioned that he was a distant relation and didn't know him.) He's even chosen to bring back characters that proved popular, like Gaspode the dog, who appeared to have a definitive (albeit somewhat happy) end of his tale in Moving Pictures.

As with any number of series by many creators, the rules and continuity don't really settle down and become what we really see as the proper series for a book or three. In the Destroyer series, Master Chiun is described as having been hired to teach Remo Williams (shudder) Karate. The Sun Source of all Martial arts, Sinanju, is only mentioned in book three, Chinese Puzzle. There's also the Kids in the Hall bit about the Doors - "Their third album is really their first - it's what we call...'The Departure Point'."

Some writers choose to go back and "fix" the earlier books to more correctly reflect the later-established continuity, some prefer to let them stand, and in both cases, the fans may or may not choose to create headcanon to explain the "errors".

But if you need to find a real explanation, all of the inconsistencies can be blamed on Quantum.

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    I put some of it down to Wizards in general being deliberately obfuscating about magic. The more people know about it, the more likely they are to come banging on their door wanting them to do things, when they just want to sit down to Elevensies or Second Breakfast (Yes, yes, I know, I'm mixing my fandoms :P)
    – Irishpanda
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 15:25
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    There's certainly facets of that. Professional organizations have a history of making their profession look much more important (and far more difficult to practice) than it really is. Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 15:27
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    Rather say, it's probably all down to quantum :p Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 15:35
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    @JanHudec - at the end of Moving Pictures, as the magic of Holy Wood starts to fade, Gaspode loses his human-level intellect and pads off, a normal dog again. He has recovered his intellect at the beginning of Men at Arms due to sleeping rough hear the High Energy Magic building. This would not have occurred if A) he had not been a popular character in MP and B) Pterry had not decided to use him again. If Pterry had not decided to bring him back, his narrative end would have been at the end of MP. Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 20:55
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    I would add that arguably there’s a fair amount of hand waving between Rincewind’s saying the Great Spell, the Sourcerer, etc. the majority of the old guard died off, and those who arose had a fundamentally different understanding of the mechanics of magic. Additionally, in Equal Rites, Esk isn’t really doing spells so much as her staff is doing spells through her- and we don’t really know the magic rules for sentient staffs of octarine. In other words, there is, I think, a not entirely unreasonable argument that the rules of magic changed on the Disc.
    – Broklynite
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 10:56

Pratchett himself always claimed that all consistencies in his work were accidental so there almost certainly is an inconsistency. That's the first point.

Secondly Rincewind is a special case, he has a very nasty spell in his head that chases other spells away so what he says is probably his exact experience of trying to learn other magicks.

Thirdly Esk is a special case as well, she's a female wizard and many of the usual rules of magic do not seem to apply to her. Simon's even worse.

There also seems to be major difference between Magic and Spells in the Discworld setting. Spells as formalised rituals are used far less than Magic; raw power applied to problems using a rough and ready, brute strength and massive ignorance approach.

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    Shortly afterwards a Sourcerer arose, filling the world with new magic. Maybe that could account for the inconsistency?
    – Valorum
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 14:44
  • Same as Valorum, I consider that the Sourcerer book is a very good reason for the rules of magic to be altered, as fresh wild magic was added to the world. And for the inconsistencies... despite this declaration of T. P. , the books are mostly consistent.
    – Pierre
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 14:47
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    @Pierre There is a marked difference between The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic and the rest of the Discworld novels, for one in terms of readability but also in the consistency of the setting, they seem to be set somewhere else that just happens to be visually similar. There are in-universe justifications for why things may have changed, Sourcery being a major one, but they come after that fact.
    – Ash
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 14:53
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    Side note: I believe Pratchett also blamed the inconsistencies as the result of the Time Monks trying to stitch everything back together again and not always getting things quite right.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 15:12
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    @FuzzyBoots That was definitely responsible for the geographical inconsistencies of the world, both in the layout and when it comes to weird travel times and the like that's the monks keeping the balance.
    – Ash
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 15:14

Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.

If you try to make sense of it, it stops being magic.

If that is not a satisfactory explanation for you, remember that on the disc, nothing is constant for too long. Even the stars tend to move and form new constellations, much to the chagrin of astrologers.

Last but not least, we are getting that information from secondhand sources and hearsay. Take the Rite of AshkEnte, for example. It only takes a simple incantation and two cc's of mouse blood, but if you ask the faculty for instructions they will include candles, cauldrons, a circle of eight and more paraphernalia. If you don't know better you may be fooled by wizards' love for power displays and drama.

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    Two cc's of mouse blood? You can do the ritual with two bits of wood and an egg. It has to be a fresh egg, though.
    – Mark
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 20:39
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    But when you add the alligator skulls and dribbly candles and such, then you start to drift into the Boffo of it all, which ends up further away from Wizards (or a Wizzard) and closer to Witchcraft, possibly verging on hedology
    – ivanivan
    Commented Aug 27, 2018 at 21:59
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    Make sense and be consistent are different matters. For example A'Tuin makes no sense, but is always there, and everything is consistent with its existence.
    – Pierre
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 8:41
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    Magic on Discworld essentially is technology. So what? Applying this quote to explain incongruity (here, but also in general) is a cop-out. Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 9:23

You do need to remember that this is Rincewind saying this. He's an extremely bad wizard. For him, it's almost certainly true.

Certainly Rincewind did have a spell living in his head which stopped him from learning other spells. But even after it's released (at the end of The Light Fantastic), Rincewind remains unable to do magic. This seems to be partly due to simple incompetence, partly due to a natural reluctance to put any effort into learning, and partly due to a further natural reluctance to put himself forward for anything which would enable him to learn.

As Rincewind himself tells us, on the various occasions when Ridcully and Ponder Stibbons have blackmailed him into doing something on threat of being expelled from the University, he isn't a wizard because he's competent at magic; he's a wizard (or "Wizzard" according to his hat) because he can't imagine calling himself anything else.


A strong thread throughout the Discworld books is the idea that what people believe causes what actually is real on the Discworld (and especially that our fiction drives the Disc's reality), and its close relative idea that narrative causality is a real force and that events on the Discworld actually do conspire to make stories true. Discworld is like a mirror that takes themes and tropes from our fiction and shows them, distorted and changed around, in a new way.

Given these basic facts, which are pretty fundamental to the nature of reality on the Discworld, and the fact that there are a lot stories that have different kinds of magic that work in different ways, it seems pretty unremarkable that there are multiple different ways for magic to work on Discworld. It wouldn't be able to mirror our fiction effectively if it didn't have room for all of those ideas.


My interpretation is that in "The Colour of Magic" you don't have to create the spell to use it. You have to "capture" it (or channel it, if you prefer) and that spells have an existence beyond the manifestation of their effect.

It would seem that pronouncing a spell lets it free in the world allowing it to influence it as it is its nature. Powerful spells are often portrayed as having a will of their own in Pratchett's work and spells as a category are often referred to as "unstable" and "dangerous", which could be interpreted as a description of their temper instead of a description of their effects. By that line of thought it could be that you could "acquire" a spell either by finding it through inspiration or by reading it or by walking a particularly bad patch of wild magic. You don't quite need to "create" it as spells can have an existence of its own (but of course it could be possible, after they have to come from somewhere).
Esk is a skilled magician. As such it would make sense for her to be able to recognize spells almost intuitively. Of course such a thing is rare but on occasions spells (and magic in general) have a way of being attracted to certain individuals, just like Rincewind was able to catalyze and attract magic when he was exposed to it or other magicians at times are shown using magic almost reflexively without actually preparing spells. Esk would probably be able to channel such forces while Rincewind actively tries not to for everyone's sake (but mostly his sake).
Also there was Sir Pratchett's utter disregard towards the limitations of consistency when he had a fun idea.

  • Could you edit in some evidence for this, such as quotes?
    – TheLethalCarrot
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 10:55
  • that would be a nice way of resolving the apparent inconsistency... I'll think of it further. Nice one!
    – Pierre
    Commented Aug 28, 2018 at 12:29

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