May 31 2015

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Guards! Guards! , the eighth Discworld novel, introduces Captain Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork’s Night Watch, to which the book’s back cover assigns the apt adjective “ramshackle.” Pratchett is perfectly clear about what he’s up to in the novel. He dedicates it as follows:

They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No-one ever asks them if they wanted to.

This book is dedicated to those fine men.

In the course of the book, Pratchett does much more than ask whether they want to be slaughtered one by one (spoiler: no). He asks how the Night Watch came to be in such a ramshackle condition in the first place, what they are like in their time off, and how they feel about heroes and dragons fighting in their fair* city. The answers, in short, are (1) because that’s how the powers-that-be want them; (2) not what you would expect; and (3) very cross indeed. Although once the dragon shows up in full strength, the would-be heroes mostly scamper, leaving the regular folk and the Night Watch to sort things out or face the consequences.

The three remaining members of the Night Watch are Captain Vimes, Sargeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs, and the latter two are a duo that an Elizabethan history play would be happy to have as comic relief. They are soon joined by a new recruit, Carrot, who has grown up as a dwarf but is actually human. When Carrot finally grows too big to get along comfortably in the dwarfs’ tunnels and mines, he learns some of the truth of his heritage, and is sent out into the world to make his way.

He’d always known he was different. More bruised for one thing. And then one day his father had come up to him or, rather, come up to his waist, and told him that he was not, in fact, as he had always believed, a dwarf.
It’s a terrible thing to be nearly sixteen and the wrong species.
“We didn’t like to say so before, son,” said his father. “We thought you’d grow out of it, see.”
“Grow out of what?” said Carrot.
“Growing. But now your mother thinks, that is we both think, it’s time you went out among your own kind. I mean, it’s not fair, keeping you cooped up here without company of your own height.” His father twiddled a loose rivet on his helmet, a sure sign that he was worried. “Er,” he added.
“But you’re my kind!” said Carrot desperately.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said his father. “In another manner of speaking, which is a rather more precise and accurate manner of speaking, no. It’s all this genetics business, you see. So it might be a very good idea if you were to go out and see something of the world.”
“What, for good?”
“Oh no! No. Of course not. Come back and visit whenever you like. But, well, a lad your age, stuck down here … It’s not right. You know. I mean. Not a child any more. Having to shuffle around on your knees most of the time, and everything. It’s not right”
“What is my own kind, then?” said Carrot, bewildered.
The old dwarf took a deep breath. “You’re human,” he said.
“What, like Mr Varneshi?” Mr Varneshi drove an ox-cart up the mountain trails once a week, to trade things for gold. “One of the Big People?”
“You’re six foot six, lad. He’s only five foot.” The dwarf twiddled the loose rivet again. “You see how it is.”
“Yes, but — but maybe I’m just tall for my height,” said Carrot desperately. “After all, if you can have short humans, can’t you have tall dwarfs?”

So out Carrot goes into the world, with great strength, literal-mindedness, letter of recommendation to the Watch, and a book of the laws of Ankh-Morpork. He joins the Watch, much to the consternation of everyone he meets, not least Vimes, Colon and Nobby.

The story turns on a plot by a secret brotherhood to use dragon attacks to overthrow Ankh-Morpork’s ruling Patrician, and replace him with a king who would be controlled by the brotherhood. The dragon, once summoned, has other ideas, and they don’t involve succumbing to the fate that the brotherhood has planned.

It’s easy to say that Pratchett puts something funny on nearly every page, but writing humor that well and that consistently is difficult, all the more so because he does not look down on any of the characters in the book. (The main villain, when he is eventually revealed, is perhaps an exception.) The older members of the Watch are not so much corrupt as ineffectual, and Carrot is a zealot, with all the enthusiasm of a new recruit and the physical strength to make enforcing the law a real possibility. The collision of these two attitudes provides humor throughout the book, and then later, without anybody changing character but by the gradual accretion of acting alongside one another, they are no longer colliding but working together for the greater good of their city.

Men like Corporal Nobbs can be found in every armed force. Although their grasp of the minutiae of the Regulations is usually encyclopedic, they take good care never to be promoted beyond, perhaps, corporal. He tended to speak out of the corner of his mouth. He smoked incessantly but the weird thing, Carrot noticed, was that any cigarette smoked by Nobby became a dog-end almost instantly but remained a dog-end indefinitely or until lodged behind his ear, which was a sort of nicotine Elephant’s Graveyard. On the rare occasions he took one out of his mouth he held it cupped in his hand.

Dearest Mother [wrote Carrot] Talk about a Turn Up for the Books. Last night the dragon burned up our Headquarters and Lo and Behold we have been given a better one, it is in a place called Pseudopolis Yard, opposite the Opera House. Sgt. Colon said we have gone Up in the World and has told Nobby not to try to sell the furnishings. Going Up in the World is a metaphor, which I am learning about, it is like Lying but more decorative.

Another aspect that’s worth mentioning in Guards! Guards! and the Discworld series as a whole, is the violence. For a heroic fantasy world, there’s not a lot of it, and most of what violence there is takes place off the page, by implication. But when it happens — and in Guards! Guards! I am thinking about a particular dragon attack — it is sudden, and instantly changes the situation. It is shocking, not because of gruesome details or any grossness, but for its irrevocable eruption into the expected flow of events. I found this very true to life.

The underlying politics of Guards! Guards! are interesting, too. Pratchett is generally on the side of the little people, but in this novel, it is precisely the resentments of the common man (and they are all men in this case) made corporeal that bring flame and destruction into the city. I’m not sure that Pratchett is saying anything in particular with this set of choices, but it’s worth a little consideration.

Lest anyone think that Pratchett is only jolly, there’s this:

You have the effrontery to be squeamish, [the dragon] thought at [the summoner]. But we were dragons. We were supposed to be cruel, cunning, heartless, and terrible. But this much I can tell you, you ape — the great face pressed even closer, so that [the summoner] was staring into the pitiless depths of his eyes — we never burned and tortured and ripped one another apart and called it morality.

There are several more Night Watch novels in the overall Discworld canon. I’m looking forward to them.

* Ankh-Morpork is as “fair” as its Night Watch men are “fine;” the appropriateness of either adjective is very much in the eye of the beholder.

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