Unseen Academicals is my surprise favorite Discworld book (…I know I’ve called at least three of them my favorite now – it’s fine). I initially read the summary and thought, “Eh? Sports?” But it was Discworld, so I had to read it. And my god am I glad that I did. Because, you see, Unseen Academicals is not just about football (soccer) – Terry Pratchett books are seldom just about what they say they are – it’s about community, fellowship, and acceptance.
Unseen Academicals is a bit of a Romeo and Juliet story, with Trev and Jules, supporters of opposing football teams, of course. Neither of them is exactly the brightest bulb, but they’re both good people at heart. Despite some trials and tribulations (like Jules briefly becoming the goddess incarnate of football), they fall in love and get their happy ending. It is a rather charming and cute love story. But it is not The Love Story here.
You see, along the way, Trev and Jules are helped along by their friends, Nutt and Glenda. Nutt is an orc (the first orc we ever see in a Discworld book). This causes some problems for him, namely the fact that everyone is terrified of him. Until, that is, he proves to be an extraordinary football coach. Glenda is… me. Even more than Agnes Nitt is me. And that’s saying something. But from her inability to stop herself from mothering her friends to her struggle to overcome tall poppy syndrome (here referred to as the crab bucket), she is me. They fall in love. It is described in a scene that I have reread so many times that the spine of my book is cracked in that spot. I read it when I’m sad. I read it when I’m happy. I read it when I’m in or out of love. It is probably one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve ever encountered. (…Yes, I typed it up below)
But yes, football. In this book, it brings people together even more than it tears them apart. It leads people to accept those they might not otherwise. It creates a community out of otherwise unconnected people. It even makes the normally solitary, competitive wizards work together as a team. In fact, the climax of the book is a football match between the wizards of Unseen University (hence the Unseen Academicals) and a bunch of street teams, arranged by Lord Vetinari. It’s like 50 pages of football, and I don’t think I’ve ever been that enthralled by any real sport. Great, right?
Yeah, let’s talk about Glenda some more. I mentioned tall poppy syndrome – do you know what that is? The aphorism it comes from is “the tall poppy gets cut down.” It’s what happens when people try to be on the same level as someone else perceived as better than them – but they don’t do so by trying to elevate themselves; they do so by cutting the other person down. In UA, it’s described as the crab bucket – if two crabs are placed in a bucket together, you don’t need to put a lid on it, as the crabs will constantly prevent the other from getting out. It’s a real thing, and it’s incredibly hard to overcome, even when you know it’s happening. Over the course of the book, Glenda starts to recognize it, realizes how much she’s been living by these rules, and decides to change – if only with herself. Her line compares the phrase “I don’t care” to drawing a sword, and it came to me at just the right time in my life. I was having a lot of issues with anxiety and caring too much at the time. Giving myself permission to not care was incredibly empowering.
Anyway, this book is super important to me and you should read it (though admittedly it does not serve well as an introduction to Discworld, so read a few others first).
“‘You asked why I am strong? When I lived in the dark of the forge, I used to lift weights. The tongs at first, and then the little hammer and then the biggest hammer, and then one day I could lift the anvil. That was a good day. It was a little freedom.’
‘Why was it so important to lift the anvil?’
‘I was chained to the anvil.’”
“Don’t be smart. Smart is only a polished version of dumb. Try intelligence. It will surely see you through.”
“The truth of the matter was that Juliet would look good in a sack. Somehow, everything she wore fitted perfectly. Glenda, on the other hand, never found anything good in her size and indeed seldom found anything in her size. In theory, something should fit, but all she ever found was facts, which are so unbecoming.”
“‘I can’t remember when I last had some depravity.’
‘Tuesday,’ said Pepe.
‘A whole box of chocolates is not depraved. Besides, you slid out the card between the layers, which confused me. I did not intend to eat the bottom layer. I did not want the bottom layer. It was practically assault.’”
“Watching Nutt look up was like watching the sun rise, but a hesitant sun afraid that any moment the gods might slap it back down into the night, and hungry for reassurance that this would not be so.”
“And I really don’t care, Glenda thought. I don’t care. It was like drawing a sword.”
“‘Oh, that’s crabs for you. Thick as planks, the lot of them. That’s why you can keep them in a bucket without a lid. Any that tries to get out gets pulled back. Yes, as thick as planks.’ … Crab bucket, thought Glenda as they hurried toward the Night Kitchen. That’s how it works. People from the Sisters disapproving when a girl takes the trolley bus. That’s crab bucket. Practically everything my mum ever told me, that’s crab bucket. Practically everything I’ve ever told Juliet, that’s crab bucket, too. Maybe it’s just another word for the Shove. It’s so nice and warm on the inside that you forget that there’s an outside. The worst of it is, the crab that mostly keeps you down is you…”
“If there is any kind of supreme being, I told myself, it is up to all of us to become his moral superior.”
“‘What does ‘worth’ mean, Mister Nutt?’
‘It means that you leave the world better than when you found it.’”
“We are going to stick to the rules. And the thing about sticking to the rules is that it’s sometimes better than cheating.”
“All kinds of reasons why she shouldn’t foamed in Glenda’s head. Everywhere were responsibilities, commitments and the never-ending clamor of wanting. There were a thousand and one reasons why she should say no. ‘Yes,’ she said.”
“What do we do now?” Glenda said.
“I have no idea. But can I tell you something very interesting about ships?”
It wasn’t exactly what Glenda had expected, but somehow it was one hundred percent Nutt. “Please tell me the interesting thing about ships,” she said.
“The interesting thing about ships is that the captains of ships have to be very careful when two ships are close together at sea, particularly in calm conditions. They tend to collide.”
“Because of the wind blowing, and that?” Glenda asked.
“No,” said Nutt. “In fact, to put it simply, each ship shields the other ship from lateral waves on one side, so by small increments outside forces bring them together without their realizing it.”
“Oh! It’s a metaphor?” said Glenda, relieved. “You think we’re being pushed together.”
“It’s something like that,” said Nutt.
“So, if we don’t do anything we’ll just get closer and closer?”
“Yes,” said Nutt.
“This thing with the ships… Does it happen quite quickly?”
“It starts quite slowly, but it’s quite quick towards the end,” said Nutt.
“[That line] Didn’t quite work? I know,” said Nutt. “I feel rather bad about that.”
“Oh, please don’t! It’s a wonderful poem!” Glenda burst out, and felt the ripples in the calm sea.