He said to people: you’re free. And they said, hooray, and then he showed them what freedom costs and they called him a tyrant and, as soon as he’d been betrayed, they milled around a bit like barn-bred chickens who’ve seen the big world outside for the first time, and then they went back into the warm and shut the door—
Discworld fans will know that Pratchett is fond of revisiting old plots. I’m not breaking any new ground here; it’s something I’ve touched on on earlier posts. The Death novels are perhaps the guiltiest of this – the Grim Reaper needs a break, learns about humanity and the distance keeping him/her/?self from what makes us human, he talks IN CAPITAL LETTERS and then we close the book.
This is the third novel featuring the Watch. Both Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms have had threats to the Patrician at their heart, as someone looks to knock the supreme ruler of Ankh-Morpork out of town and place their own puppet in charge. Feet of Clay is no different. But whereas there’s a roll of the eyes when you realise ‘great, Death is a bit bored. Again’, Feet of Clay is fantastic. From a pure craft perspective, it’s astonishing. So why does it work where Death (and others) don’t? Let’s start with a personal organiser and a quibble. Lady Sybil, the philanthropic lover of dragons and wife of Sam Vimes, the commander of The Watch, was sadly relegated to a bit part in Men at Arms and is so here. But she has given her husband a thoughtful (but useless) present. Vimes is armed with a proto-smartphone, a pocket organiser run by an imp that is as infuriating to use as an iPhone in dire need of an upgrade. It’s fun to read, particularly when Feet of Clay was published in 1996, a time when Android belonged to Asimov, not Brin and Page.
Throughout the novel, he is interrupted by its erroneous bleating. Vimes holds his own tiny rebellion, nowhere near the scale of his humdingers with the Patrician, but a notable one all the same. When he can, he resorts to his notebook because he likes it. It feels right. It’s not massive but Vimes rebels where he can, swapping his Michelin-grade shoe leather for that of a lackey, so he can feel the cobbles under his feet. Or eschewing the closer shave from his butler Willikins for doing it himself. He hated the very idea of the world being divided into the shaved and the shavers.
Feet of Clay is filled with acts of rebellion, with the golems a perfect vehicle to drive this. They create a king from their own clay, with the help of a priest and baker. This king is then ordered to make poisoned candles to be used in an attempt on the Patrician’s life. Overloaded by the strain of conflicting demands from his masters, the golem goes mad, killing his priest and baker creators (what a sentence to write!). The other golems who created him kill themselves out of guilt, with the final one, Dorfl, handing himself in as the guilty murderer.
IN THE MEANTIME, the Patrician has been poisoned, due to the aforementioned poisoned candles (the fact Pratchett hides this so well until the very end of the novel is so very skilful), with the Watch at a loss as to what to do next. Nobby Nobbs, the insalubrious Night’s Watchman, has been positioned as the true heir to Ankh-Morpork’s throne, despite EVERYONE knowing it belongs to his colleague Carrot. Oh, and there’s a new recruit called Cheery Littlebottom, whose name is the least thing worrying the latest dwarf hire. Cheery is a woman, despite her beard and general dwarvishness and is struggling with her own identity as she battles to free herself from dwarfish preconceptions.
That’s some 400 pages of plot distilled into two clumsy paragraphs. Pratchett sets up the novel in a dizzying opening of some 30 pages, juggling the introduction of Vimes and Carrot, their characters and motivations, the sale of the mad golem and the killing of the priest. The latter two are so shrouded that you are immediately given two mysteries to ponder. They are swiftly followed by Angua, the werewolf Watchwoman determined to leave the city, and the tantalising references to her mysterious father (which are never resolved until The Fifth Elephant).
Those mysteries swirl around the wider whodunnit, which is a doozy. We also learn Vimes has a colourful past in Ankh-Morpork. Discworld experts (A’tuined to the history of the world? Sorry) will remember how the last king was usurped before the Patricians swept into power. What we learn is it was a Vimes wot dun it. Suffer-Not-Injustice Vimes wasn’t a pillar of the community. He killed a king with his own hands. It needed doing, but the community, whatever that was, didn’t always like the people who did what needed to be done or said what had to be said.
Vimes the Elder was a rebel but it is the out of control murderous golem kicking against the pricks that is the ultimately doomed upstart of the novel. And this is why Feet of Clay is so good for me. The golem gone mad sweeps through the novel, with destruction left everywhere he exits. But he feels like a known villain. There’s an empathy there for the reader. And that’s because of Cheery.
The dwarf with the preposterous name initially appears to be comic relief, the Watch’s first forensic expert and someone who will be the butt of Vimes’ jokes (remember that for all his heroics, Vimes can be rather prejudiced. I mean speciesist). But then our expectations are flipped as Cheery is a she and keen to explore her femininity outside of the tightly drawn boundaries of dwarven life. She’s someone using the Big City to find herself, an old trope but yet another so well written by Pratchett.
Feet of Clay’s finest piece of writing is subtly making the reader sympathise towards Cheery, as she experiments with nail polish, skirts and high heels, while showing how constrictive her former life used to be*. So the golems become sympathetic, slaves to the words that were in their own heads and the whims of their owners. No wonder they strived for something more. The problem is that when the golems try to make one of its own free, it backfires so badly.
It’s down to Vimes, with his, um, complex relationship with the myriad species of Ankh-Morpork to sum up the uncomfortable relationship with the golems, who do a lot of the dirty work of the city. Given how we use them, maybe we’re scared because we know we deserve it…
What complicates things is how the novel shows that automation works and works well. Ankh-Morpork under the Patrician is frequently compared to a machine, like the golems. It worked like a machine. That was fine except for the occasional people who got crushed in the wheels. There is a splendid segment describing how the Patrician dictating how the city should work is the best thing for it and its inhabitants. He’d tamed it like a dog. He’d taken a minor scavenger among scavengers and lengthened its teeth and strengthened its jaws and built up its muscles and studded its collar and fed it lean steak and then he’d aimed it at the throat of the world. And then there’s the small matter of the Patrician knowing who was responsible for his poisoning all along but wanting Vimes to wreak havoc among the Guilds that plotted against him to show them how important he is.
Amid a drum tight plot, Pratchett throws his usual array of fun flights of his imagination. Like how bulls believe they have two heads because their eyes are so far apart. That’s why they sweep their heads from side to side. Guards! Guards! made great use of cop tropes and here Colon being a few days away from retirement makes you root for him and his travails like he was a Discworldian Roger Murtaugh. He doesn’t die, thank Blind Io.
The eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that I never really answered the question posed at the top of the post, that of why this novel can get away with the same plot as its Watch predecessors. The answer, now that you have clicked through, is that I don’t really know. Yet, anyway. I hope I can piece it together because I find it fascinating. How can three of my favourite Discworld novels have the same plot and yet I utterly adore them?
There’s a richness to the Watch novels that the others don’t quite share. The Witches are close, arguably better, but the Watch novels are an ensemble piece. Vimes is brilliant, Carrot, Angua, Nobby and Colon a joy to read and Detritius is a rock. You get maybe 50 pages of Dorfl after he’s been freed by the Watch to make his own destiny but it builds brilliantly on what came before. The discussion with Vimes as the book closes is a neat summation of what we have just read:
‘Is It Frightening To Be Free?’
‘You said it.’
‘You Say To People “Throw Off Your Chains” And They Make New Chains For Themselves?’
‘Seems to be a major human activity, yes.’
Dorfl rumbled as he thought about this. ‘Yes,’ he said eventually. ‘I Can See Why. Freedom Is Like Having The Top Of Your Head Opened Up.’
It’s a supreme novel about control, power and agency. Like his other Watch novels, there is a sneaking suspicion that the myriad of threads don’t come together (as the excellent Vacuous Wastrel has also observed) but it does not matter given how you hurtle through the plot. Like our other times with the Watch, there’s a depth and darkness to the novel that means it sits with you once it’s read. I wrote this post after I finished Hogfather but the plot, characters and themes had hung with me for several weeks since closing the book for the last time.
Next week, it’s Christmas in March as Death gives up Grim Reaping, again. Why? Because the Hogfather has gone missing…
* Every single time I write about Granny, or Eske, or Angua, or Susan, I think ‘right, this is where I write about how brilliant Pratchett is at writing female characters’. Because his characters are as flawed and fascinating as his blokes. But this is not the post. Again. You have no idea how not exploring this again annoys me.