The Night’s Watch that Terry Pratchett set up in Guards! Guards! comes into its own in Men at Arms, the fifteenth Discworld novel. The characters are already established, so Pratchett can start in media res although, as always, he includes enough background so that readers new to Discworld can start reading deep into the series as readily as beginning with the first books published.
The Watch features Corporal Carrot, who looks like a human but was raised as a dwarf until he got too big for the mines and was sent to the great city of Ankh-Morpork to earn his fortune. Culturally, he is still very much a dwarf, which earns him points in some quarters and puzzlement in others. There is Sergeant Colon, who is described as “one of Nature’s sergeants.” There is also Corporal Nobbs. A consideration of promoting him to higher rank runs as follows:
“How about Corporal Nobbs?” said the Patrician.
“Nobby?” [said Captain Vimes].
They shared a mental picture of Corporal Nobbs.
Pratchett does not even have to mention the order in which the two spoke.
The cause for the consideration of promotion is the upcoming retirement of Captain Sam Vimes, longtime commander of the Night Watch, newly sober, and even more improbably engaged to be married to an immensely wealthy noblewoman and thus about to step down from his nocturnal duties to take up the life of idle wealth, good works, and boots that do not need replacing.
When he was a little boy, Sam Vimes had thought that the very rich ate off gold plates and lived in marble houses.
He’d learned something new: the very very rich could afford to be poor. Sybil Ramkin lived in the kind of poverty that was only available to the very rich, a poverty approached from the other side. Women who were merely well-off saved up and bought dresses made of silk edged with lace and pearls, but Lady Ramkin was so rich she could afford to stomp around the place in rubber boots and a tweed skirt that had belonged to her mother. …
The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.
Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.
But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could affort fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet. (pp. 34–35)
The good works that Vimes’ bride-to-be devotes her time to are the health and upkeep of dragons. Mostly small ones. Vimes learns quickly that dragons are unstable, not to say combustible, beasts, prone to all manner of illness, and Lady Sibyl is devoted to nursing as many as possible back to good health.
In addition to the boots-up perspective on the government of Ankh-Morpork that Vimes’ career offers, Men at Arms shows some of how the city is run at its highest levels. Once upon a time, the city was ruled by a king, but eventually the line failed, or there were too many civil disturbances, or the nobility grew restive, or some combination of all of the above. At any rate, the throne is empty and power has devolved a few rungs and now rests with a Patrician. The current Patrician combines a certain level of inventiveness with some old-fashioned despotism to keep the city more or less functioning. One innovation is the introduction of non-human species into the city’s Night Watch, by way of accommodating and relating to the increasing numbers of residents who were dwarfs or trolls or whatever. Corporal Carrot had led the way, after a fashion, being a dwarf but strongly resembling a human.
Some of the oldest noble families in the city are unhappy with both the devolution of power and with the Patrician’s innovations. Normally, such families were content to be wealthy and dissipated, but as Men at Arms opens, there are signs that at least one scion is prepared to take action.
Meanwhile, all is not well with either the Guild of Assassins or the Guild of Clowns, whose city locations adjoin. Something crucial has been stolen from the Assassins, and something very funny is going on among the Clowns. What they add up to is what Captain Vimes has to figure out in the few hours remaining before his marriage, upon which he will retire to civilian life.
That is the framework that Pratchett hangs his story on: crimes, the hint of a threat, characters whose traits are known and can be further developed, and a deadline. Characters from other books turn up as well, sometimes peripherally, sometimes in crucial plot points. Gaspode the talking dog from Moving Pictures moves things on, exasperated as always that the beings around him don’t credit him with intelligence. Given the nature of the conflict, Death is also around more often than in other Discworld books.
Bjorn didn’t waste time asking questions. A lot of things become a shade urgent when you’re dead.
“I believe in reincarnation,” he said.
“I tried to live a good life. Does that help?”
THAT IS NOT UP TO ME. Death coughed. OF COURSE … SINCE YOU BELIEVE IN REINCARNATION … YOU’LL BE BJORN AGAIN.
“Yes. That’s right,” said Bjorn. Dwarfs are known for their sense of humour, in a way. People point them out and say: “Those little devils haven’t got a sense of humour.”
UM. WAS THERE ANYTHING AMUSING IN THE STATEMENT I JUST MADE?
“Uh. No. No … I don’t think so.”
IT WAS A PUN, OR PLAY ON WORDS. BJORN AGAIN.
DID YOU NOTICE IT?
“I can’t say I did.”
I’VE BEEN TOLD I SHOULD TRY TO MAKE THE OCCASION A LITTLE MORE ENJOYABLE.
“I’ll think about it.”
THANK YOU. (pp. 82–83)
The greatness of Men at Arms is harder to pin down. Part of it is the slow accumulation of detail that reveals the plots and counterplots among the Guilds, the Guard, the Patrician, and shadowy figures trying to manipulate them all. Part of it is the deftness in how Pratchett’s asides assume greater significance deeper into the book. Vimes’ disquisition on boots, for example, echoes later when he can find his place in the city under trying circumstance because his boots are worn through and his feet know the cobbles. Similar things happen with Carrot’s letters back to his parents in the dwarf settlements. Even Colon’s and Nobby’s dubious traits as Watchmen, as well as dwarfs’ literalness and the apparent mental deficiencies of trolls all play roles in the eventual resolution of the hidden dangers to Ankh-Morpork. Part of it is the humor that arises from the collision of well-rounded characters, as when Carrot’s determined innocence meets Vimes’ world-weariness, or Gaspode’s exasperated instruction. The humor is also written with sympathy to the people on its receiving end; it may sometimes be impatient with human (and non-human) folly, but it is never mean. I think that’s the developing genius of Pratchett, seen very clearly in Men at Arms: generosity toward his characters, empathy with even the wickedest among them, and a sense of the staggering strength of simple decency.