Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian notion of society; which is a mechanism by which human beings remind another that they are…well…human beings.
When you open Men at Arms, you are confronted with a hitherto unseen thing. Early Discworld books had the odd quote from science fiction and fantasy magazines lauding Pratchett as a comic and literary genius. With Men at Arms, there are the names of The Financial Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times. Even OK! Magazine. The Discworld author has gone all respectable. Granted this is a move long overdue because every book since Pyramids (bar
Faust, Eric) has been a doozy.
As I wrote last week, Lords and Ladies was one of Pratchett’s finest books to date but an incredibly difficult one to discuss. It so skilfully dealt with the themes I have been looking at during the past few months that I felt I had little to say beyond a series of links to posts where he first looked at power, death, the strength of belief, gender and so on. This was frustrating as the book managed to arguably be the best representation of what he wants his fiction to do.
Nevertheless, Lords and Ladies felt like the closing of Act One of the Discworld Saga. The reader needed a change and we get it with Men at Arms, which sees the welcome return of the Night’s Watch. Here Pratchett throws race and class into the mix. Like Guards! Guards!, it has its flaws but it’s a healthy sign that Pratchett knows where to take the Discworld next.
Edward D’Eath, an aristocratic and ambitious assassin fallen on hard times, discovers Ankh-Morpokh’s one true king is alive and conspires to usurp The Patrician, its current ruler, and place the rightful royal on the throne, bringing back an era when lords and ladies had power, not these upstart Guilds ruining the place. He steals a gonne from the Assassins’ Guild and sets about his plans.
Meanwhile, as any reader of Guards! Guards! knows, Ankh-Morpork has its true king in Corporal Carrot, the human raised by dwarfs now walking the mean streets as a man of the Night’s Watch. The Patrician has decided to swell the Watch’s ranks to incorporate more of the Discworld’s myriad species. So dwarves and trolls are added into the mix, as well as its first woman (and first werewolf), Angua.
Pratchett uses the various species of Ankh-Morpork piled on top of one another to examine race. His conclusions are relatively straightforward – that tolerance comes with the knowledge and experience of other races (something that sits firmly within Pratchett’s belief that worldliness is vital for humans) – but what he does to get us there is fantastic.
Practically everyone in Men at Arms is speciesist. Dwarves hate trolls, trolls hate dwarves and it is this backdrop of simmering tension between the two that provides the backdrop to the novel. Perhaps unsurprisingly, speciesism also stretches to the police. Vimes, the no-nonsense copper at the head of the Watch, would probably be the first to say “I’m not speciesist, but…”
Vimes disliked vampires. Dwarfs were law-abiding little buggers when they were sober, and even trolls were all right if you kept them where you could see them. But the undead made his neck itch. Live and let live was all very well but there was a problem right there, when you thought about it logically…
Even Carrot (CARROT!), the innocent and lovable country boy and destined king of the city, is uneasy about the undead. The only people who don’t seem to be speciesist in the novel are The Patrician and Cut Me Own Throat Dibbler, who doesn’t view anyone with any prejudice; they are all just purses and wallets to him, the city’s greatest trader of dubious cooked meats.
It adds a degree of complexity to the novel rather than just drawing the easy ‘racist = bad/non-racist = good’. The reader knows that Carrot and Vimes are good people; the latter we find out has been rendering himself destitute by giving money away to the families of those who lost their lives in the line of duty. But their flaws and the tensions that these generate make them great characters.
Having first met him literally in the gutter, Vimes is going up in the world ahead of his pending marriage to Lady Sybil Ramkin, the richest woman in Ankh-Morpork. His social climbing puts him in touch with some, um, interesting characters. Like the Duke of Eorle:
“I admit that the old kings were not necessarily our kind of people, towards the end…but at least they stood for something, in my humble opinion. We had a decent city in those days.People were more respectful and knew their place. People put in a decent day’s work, they didn’t laze around all the time. And we certainly didn’t open the fates to whatever riff-raff was capable of walking through. And of course we also had law.”
Which is clearly a nonsense. As we read at the start of the novel, former rulers of the city included (and I utterly adore these names) Mad Lord Snapcase, Homicidal Lord Winder, Deranged Lord Harmoni and Laughing Lord Scapula.
Is The Patrician much better? I love The Patrician but during our time in Ankh-Morpork since the first Discworld novel, we have seen countless apocalypses, chaotic Guilds either blowing things up (alchemists), opening doors to other dimensions (magicians at the Unseen University) or robbing according to public contract (the thieves and the mandated level of crime they can carry out per year).
There are no easy answers but the Patrician appears to be the least worst leader, bringing to mind Winston Churchill’s famous quote about democracy. “You have to hand it to him,” said Viscount Skater, “the city operates. More or less. Fellas and whatnot do things.” By winding Vimes up like some sort of crime-solving clockwork toy by standing in his way at every opportunity, Vetinari galvanises the divided Watch into a force that finds the gonne and ultimately saves his own life.
Then there’s the firearm. Built by Leonard da Quirm, the reclusive genius who has more than a hint of Vinci’s most famous son about him, the gonne is more powerful than those who wield it believe. It wrests control over D’Eath and when he is bumped off by Dr Cruces, head of the Assassins’ Guild, it has influence over him too.
Pratchett has been brilliant before about the power of symbols and objects and here is no different. There’s a lovely scene in the Mr Hammerhock’s forge, after the dwarf is killed. Vimes is somewhat bemused to hear all of his tools were melted down when he was killed and asks whether someone else could use them:
“What, use another dwarf’s actual tools?” Carrot’s mouth twisted in distaste, as though someone had suggest he wear Corporal Nobbs’ old shorts. “Oh, no, that’s not…right. I mean, they’re…part of him. I mean…someone else using them, after he’s used them all these years, I mean…urrrgh.”
Like in Guards! Guards!, the crime genre gives Pratchett something solid to hang the rest of the plot off. Its climax is thrilling as he deliriously cuts from scene to scene to scene as Vetinari is shot, the dwarf recruit Cuddy murdered and the Watch scramble to apprehend the criminal. The procedural format gives the plot a hell of a lot of momentum; so much that it’s only after that you wonder whether Carrot’s solving whodunnit and why(dunnit) was as straightforward as you read. It doesn’t matter because the book is so enjoyable and complex. And it’s not as if classics of the genre have watertight plots. You never find out who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur in The Big Sleep but who is going to criticise Chandler?
Nevertheless, there are problems, largely down to the strong characterisation in the previous Watch novel. Sybil Vimes was a wonderfully warm and clear-headed character in Guards! Guards! but is somewhat a bit-part player. As is Vimes, to an extent. Carrot is the hero of the novel, growing in stature and confidence as the novel goes on. But he doesn’t take the final step and reclaim the throne. Why? “Mr Vimes always said a man has got to know his limitations. If there was a king, then the best thing he could do would be to get on with a decent day’s work…” And for Pratchett, there is no higher praise.
(As an aside, some have said that this book sticks out because Carrot regresses to his original character in future books and is not the leader in waiting he is at the end of Men at Arms. It is Vimes who takes over from this point on. As a standalone novel, none of this matters.)
It’s a brilliant book and one that bodes well for the future of the Discworld. The Watch novels are generally considered to be among his best, with his greatest to come. Next up, Death is back and a new regular Discworld character is introduced…