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Jun 15 2017

The Fifth Elephant by Terry Pratchett

The dwarfs of Uberwald will soon be crowning a new Low King, and Ankh-Morpork needs to send an ambassador. In times past, the powers-that-be in the great city of Ankh-Morpork might not have noticed such a change in under-Uberwald, and if they had noticed they would not have felt any need to be involved. But as the Discowrld series has developed, the world in which the stories take place has changed as well. As a result of ongoing migration, Ankh-Morpork has become the home of the largest dwarf population anywhere. Divisions in Uberwald’s forests and mines are making themselves felt on the streets of the city.

“The dwarf community has been talking about little else for months, sir” [said Captain Carrot].
“Really?” said Vimes. “You mean the riots? Those fights every night in the dwarf bars?” (p. 27)

Uberwald is a bit tricky, in terms of international relations.

“Only that it’s not really a country,” said [the Patrician, Lord] Vetinari.
“It’s rather more what you get before you get countries,” said Carrot. “It’s mainly fortified towns and fiefdoms with no real boundaries and lots of forest in between. There’s always some sort of feud going on. There’s no law apart from whatever the local lords enforce, and banditry of all kinds is rife.”
“So unlike the home life of our own dear city,” said Vimes, not quite under his breath. The Patrician gave him an impassive glance. (pp. 28–29)

It’s not only the ties of new city dwellers to their ancestral homeland that has drawn official interest, there is of course money involved. The dwarf mines under Uberwald produce not only metals but some of the finest fat on the whole Disc, the remains, according to legend, of the Fifth Elephant. All of the big countries want a piece.

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” said Vimes. “Uberwald is like this big suet pudding that everyone’s suddenly noticed, and now with this coronation as an excuse we’ve all got to rush there with knife, fork and spoon to shovel as much on our plates as possible?”
“Your grasp of political reality is masterly, Vimes. You lack only the appropriate vocabulary. Ankh-Morpork must send a representative, obviously. An ambassador, as it were.”
“You’re not suggesting I should go to this affair, are you?” said Vimes.
“Oh, I couldn’t send the Commander of the City Watch,” said Lord Vetinari. “Most of the Uberwald countries have no concept of a modern civil peacekeeping authority.”
Vimes relaxed.
“I’m sending the Duke of Ankh instead.”
Vimes sat bolt upright. (pp. 29–30)

And so Vimes is off, hoist by his own coronet.

Another recent development on the Disc is the invention and rapid spread of speedy communication via long-distance semaphore, called “clacks” in the books. The Fifth Elephant was published in 1999, so it was being written just as the first dot-com boom was gathering force. The spread of the clacks and some of the changes it brings with it draw on parallels to both the spread of the internet and, more than a century earlier, the telegraph. News that had previously taken weeks to travel from one place to another can suddenly arrive in a matter of hours. That’s bound to complicate a semi-medieval collection of societies.

Semaphore had been around for centuries, and everyone knew that knowledge had a value, and everyone knew that exporting goods was a way of making money. And then, suddenly, someone realized how much money you could make by exporting to Genua by tomorrow things known in Ankh-Morpork today. And some bright young man in the Street of Cunning Artificers had been unusually cunning.
Knowledge, information, power, words … flying through the air, invisible … (p. 77)

Pratchett is interested in more than just structures, of course. He has built up a splendid collection of characters in the various storylines of the Discworld, and just because he is writing an open-ended series doesn’t mean his characters are going to stay the same. Carrot grew up in a dwarf mine and still considers himself a dwarf, despite a height well above six feet. He has gradually become part of a pair with Angua, another member of the Watch, who happens to be a werewolf. Early in The Fifth Elephant, she leaves Ankh-Morpork with little advance warning.

Vimes nodded. The other part, which no one talked about, was children.
Sometimes it seemed to Vimes that everyone knew that Carrot was the true heir to the redundant throne of the city. It just so happened that he didn’t want to be. He wanted to be a copper, and everyone went along with the idea. But kingship was a bit like a grand piano — you could put a cover over it, but you could still see what shape it was underneath.
Vimes wasn’t sure what you got if a human and a werewolf had kids. Possibly you just got someone who had to shave twice a day around a full moon and occasionally felt like chasing carts. And when you remembered what some of the city’s rulers had been like, a known werewolf as ruler ought to hold no terrors. It was the buggers who looked human all the time that were the problem. That was just his view, though. Other people might see things differently. No wonder she’d gone off to think about things. (p. 87)

Another great aspect of the depth of characters that Pratchett has built up is that when he decides to have a farce he can keep it going and going. Once Vimes departs for Uberwald, that leaves a gap at the top. Normally Captain Carrot would do the job fantastically yet unobtrusively, but he has resigned his commission to find Angua. Next in line is Sgt. Fred Colon, a noncom’s noncom. “As a lifelong uniformed man, a three-striped peg that had found a three-striped hole very early in its career, he subscribed automatically and unthinkingly to the belief that officers as a class could not put their own trousers on without a map. He conscientiously excluded Vimes and Carrot from the list, elevating them to the rank of honorary sergeant.” (p. 105)

Cpl. Nobby is confronting him with the options of what to do now that orders have come down from on high: tell the Patrician he won’t do it (“The panic in Colon’s face was replaced by glazed grey terror.”), accept it and make a hash of things so as to have to give it back (“You might think you’re making a little cock-up and then it blows up in your face and it turns out to be in fact a big cock-up and in those circumstances, Nobby, I’m sort of worries that what his lordship might take away from me wouldn’t just be the job.”), or put up with it. Nobby says it will only be for a couple of weeks before Vimes is back. “Yeah, but supposing he isn’t? Nasty place, Uberwald. I heard where it’s a misery wrapped in a enema.” With no real choice, Colon takes the promotion, and it isn’t many lines before he’s discovered a taste for it. “[A]nd that’s Captain Colon, thank you very much,” said Colon as his resolve stiffened, “and I’ll thank you not to forget it!” (pp. 104–06)

Sergeant Colon is in way over his head. True to character, he barks and bullies, minding the small details but missing practically everything important. Pratchett has the confidence to just keep the farce going, to let the situation continue to escalate. Colon’s new duties eventually include a meeting with the Patrician, where his noncom’s vocabulary in the presence of a much higher rank (“Sah!”) prevents any communication whatsoever.

On the diplomatic front, Vimes shows that you can put a man into a ducal coach but you can’t make him like it. “Vimes hated and despised the privileges of rank, but they had this to be said for them: at least they meant that you could hate and despise them in comfort.” (p. 146) And even as he draws closer to Uberwald, a crime back in Ankh-Morpork is potentially causing repercussions in that mysterious country. Nor does the complexity subside when he arrives; if anything, it increases. Local rulers include werewolves (Angua’s family, in fact), vampires (one of whom knew Vimes’ wife way back when at an upper-class school), and several factions of dwarfs. The incoming Low King is too perceptive for Vimes’ comfort.

“And you had a famous ancestor, I believe, who was a regicide?”
Here it comes, thought Vimes. “Yers, Stoneface Vimes,” he said, as levelly as possible. “I’ve always thought that was a bit unfair, though. It was only one king. It wasn’t as if it was a hobby.”
“But you don’t like kings,” said the dwarf.
“I don’t meet many, sir,” said Vimes, hoping that this would pass for a diplomatic answer. It seemed to satisfy the King.
“I went to Ankh-Morpork once, when I was a young dwarf,” he said, walking towards a long table piled high with scrolls.
“Er, really?”
“Lawn ornament, they called me. And … what was it … as, yes … shortarse. Some children threw stones at me.”
“I’m sorry.”
“I expect you’ll tell me that sort of thing doesn’t happen any more.”
“It doesn’t happen as much. But you always get idiots who don’t move with the times.”
The King gave Vimes a piercing glance. “Indeed. The times … But now they’re always Ankh-Morpork’s times, see?”
“I’m sorry?”
“When people say ‘We must move with the times,’ they really mean ‘You must do it my way.’ And there are some who would say that Ankh-Morpork is … a kind of vampire. It bites, and what it bites it turns into copies of itself. It sucks, too. It seems all our best go to Ankh-Morpork, where they live in squalor. You leave us dry.”
Vimes was at a loss. It was clear that the little figure now sitting at the long table was a lot brighter than he was, although right now he felt as dim as a penny candle in any case. (pp. 231–32)

There is a plot in The Fifth Elephant; actually, quite a number of plots are afoot. Someone has stolen a key artifact needed for the Low King’s coronation. Some of the people in Vimes’ diplomatic train are not who they appear at first. Different dwarf factions have competing ideas about who should be the Low King, and indeed, about what should happen to a representative of Ankh-Morpork. Ruling vampires and ruling werewolves have their own separate notions of who should be on top in Uberwald. Angua wants to set some things right, and Carrot wants to catch up to Angua. In the end, all of these are caught up in each other. Pratchett’s plotting is deft and seamless, or at least close enough to carry a reader happily along in rapidly changing events. The real pleasures of the book, though, are the amount of life that Pratchett brings to his characters and his confidence in letting events unfold true to their nature.

About the author

Doug Merrill

Writer, editor, translator, project manager, reformed bookseller. Currently based in Berlin, following stints in Moscow, Tbilisi, Munich, Washington, Warsaw, Budapest and Atlanta. Also blogs at A Fistful of Euros, though less frequently than here these days.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/06/15/the-fifth-elephant-by-terry-pratchett/

1 ping

  1. Thief of Time by Terry Pratchett – The Frumious Consortium

    […] of the things that I liked most about The Fifth Elephant is that Pratchett lets a farce with Sergeant Colon in a position of authority simply keep running. […]

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