Study Guide

Rincewind in The Color of Magic

By Terry Pratchett

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Think of a typical wizard traveling the pages of a fantasy novel. Chances are you thought of an old and philosophical bachelor. He wears the robes of his order along with a pointy hat and a long white beard while carrying around a staff. He's also wise, brave, and unassuming, and wanders around the world using his magic for the betterment of mankind. Basically, he's Gandalf, right? Rincewind, though? Yeah, not Gandalf.

Sure, Rincewind wears the pointy hat of wizard folk (though he wasn't granted mageship from the Unseen University), he is a bachelor (though not by choice), and he wanders the world (though, again, not by choice), but that's mostly where the similarities end.

He-Man Complex

Before we talk about Rincewind, we'll have to back up a bit and discuss the fantasy hero with a quick historical survey.

Fantasy heroes and heroines have their origins in mythology—though, to be fair, what aspect of literature can't you say that about? If you've ever read or seen an adaptation of the Hercules or Perseus myths, then you'll know this isn't that much of a leap for us to make. Hercules and Perseus both are superheroes who represent the Greek's idealized man in terms of strength, cunning, and intelligence, though they both come with a tragic flaw or two to keep things interesting.

Scanning literary history from the Greeks to our modern version of fantasy genre, we can see the trend continue in such characters as Beowulf, Merlin, King Arthur, and Prospero. In all of these cases, we see characters featuring idealized traits—whether its Beowulf's strength or Prospero's art—that allow the audience to identify, even wish to be, them. They also come with a tragic flaw, which they either overcome or are destroyed by in the end.

Another important aspect of the fantasy hero is his reaction to the call of action. When adventure comes a-knocking, some fantasy heroes are reluctant to take up sword and shield, such as Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit, or Ned Stark from A Game of Thrones. Others, like Leiber's Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, can't wait to get started. Either way, once the adventure gets going, fantasy heroes set themselves to the task of seeing it through and saving whomever needs rescue.

As for those tragic flaws mentioned earlier, they can be hit or miss within the genre. Some fantasy heroes practically stab themselves with their flaws before even walking out the door to do some adventuring. Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melniboné is a great example here. But other fantasy heroes like Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian or Kull of Atlantis are strong, handsome, and intelligent men who handle the ladies as deftly as they handle a sword, and these guys know the difference between point and pummel. The closest thing they exhibit to a flaw is too much awesomeness.

And then, there's Rincewind.

Short-Changed Hero

Rincewind plays off all of these aspects of the fantasy hero for laughs, but he's also enables the novel to inspect the genre's tropes, too.

As the occupation "gutter wizard" (1.17.3) suggests, Rincewind has practically no idealized traits whatsoever. He's "scrawny," with "a quickness of wit that put[s] his acquaintances in mind of a bright rodent" (1.4.24). He knows only one spell, thanks to an accident involving a magical tome called the Octavo, and he won't even use the thing because he doesn't know what it will do—though chances are it will horribly mess with "the very fabric of time and space itself" (1.14.5). Oh good.

Adding to the heroic mess that is Rincewind is the fact that his swordsmanship is best described as "incompetently misjudged" (1.23.14). He's also a full-fledged coward, though, to be fair, he's honest about his cowardice.

As we mentioned above, fantasy heroes may or may not want to go on their quests, but eventually they all take up the cause and do what needs doing. Rincewind, on the other hand, never stops struggling against the call to adventure. If he'd just take up the whole hero gig from the beginning, he would probably save himself a ton of time and energy. Consider the following examples:

  • He tries to abandon Twoflower to his fate at the Broken Drum and only returns when the Patrician threatens him with an even more horrific fate (1.7).
  • He tries to abandon Twoflower to his fate at the Broken Drum—yes, again—and he's only stopped by Luggage's dogged perseverance (1.14.19).
  • He attempts to bail on Hrun and Twoflower and only rescues them when Kring threatens to chop off his head using his own arm (3.9.42).
  • Rincewind tries to convince Twoflower that they leave Hrun to his fate, though, in this case, that might have worked out better for the barbarian (3.16.1).
  • He argues they should get off the Potent Voyager because the idea of traveling into unknown space doesn't excite him the way it does Twoflower (4.17.40).

In other words, when Rincewind exclaims that "[he doesn't] know how to be a hero" (3.9.43), he clearly means it.

The closest Rincewind gets to a heroic act is when he rescues a frog from the Rimfall because he "wonder[s] what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place" and ultimately decides it would be "[p]retty similar to his own" (4.2.34). In a twist, Rincewind isn't a heroic character with a tragic flaw—he's a heroic character with several tragic flaws, and only one truly admirable trait. He's a pretty empathetic, caring guy. Or, he can be. Sometimes.

In a way, this makes him more relatable than most fantasy protagonists.

Lucky Lad

Rincewind is only truly skilled in luck as he escapes certain death four times in the novel:

  • He manages to flee the burning city of Ankh-Morpork with Twoflower right as the city gate burns down (1.25.2). 
  • He manages to survive an attack from Bel-Shamharoth thanks to a camera flash (2.10.85-88). 
  • He escapes a terminal velocity free fall by jumping into another dimension—our dimension—and then hopping back into his (3.18.1-2). 
  • Finally, he survives a scythe swing from Scrofula, though, to be fair, scrofula isn't all that deadly (4.18.41).

And we're not even counting his escapes from a death less than certain.

This lucky streak is perhaps the only quality Rincewind shares with his fantasy-hero counterparts. Think about it: All fantasy heroes are really lucky. They go on adventure after adventure, fight against fearsome odds each time, and then walk away with their lives and probably some treasure. Authors may provide a variety of explanations for this—from strength to intelligence to the Force— but the truth is that a helpful heaping of luck accounts for most of it.

In a way, this novel is simply being honest when it comes to Rincewind by pointing out that his success has more to do with the Lady's patronage than anything else. Looked in this light, it makes sense that Rincewind wouldn't want to go on another adventure—after all, Rincewind doesn't know he's the hero of a fantasy novel. He doesn't even begin to fit the bill.

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