Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Guards! Guards! Part I

It’s time to meet the Ankh-Morpork City Watch! Well, what’s left of them. Let’s call on some Guards! Guards!

Summary

The Supreme Grand Master of the Elucidated Brethren of the Ebon Night tells his order of a plan. With a little bit of leading he gets them all to agree that they are oppressed and unhappy with the way things work in Ankh-Morpork, and that things would be better if it went back to olden times when the city had a king instead of a Patrician. But to do that, they need a king to show up, and to do that, there must be a dragon to slay. They can summon said dragon with a book of magic that the Supreme Grand Master had stolen on their behalves, but they must all agree to this course of action. In fact, the Supreme Grand Master wants to do this to install a puppet king in the city and rule it himself with rules that he approves of. He believes his order to be populated by idiots, and would like to associate with the better class of people, smart but not too smart. At the same time as they begin to enact this plan, Carrot Ironfoundersson comes to the city, while City Watch guard Sam Vimes sits in a gutter and thinks sadly on a fallen comrade.

Carrot is a human who was raised among dwarfs and only very recently learned that he wasn’t a member of their species. His father, their king, talks to a human named Varneshi, who’s the one who comes up with the idea to get Carrot employed by the City Watch, as it’s a good opportunity for him to be among humans, and a good steady job. His father sends a letter to the city Patrician about getting him the job, the application is accepted, and he sends Carrot off with a woolen vest and an unremarkable sword (it is not the least bit magical, but they found it with him amongst the destroyed caravan that had been set upon by bandits). Mr. Varneshi gives him a codpiece and a book of the laws and ordinances of the city that belonged to his great-grandfather. He tells Carrot that he’ll need to know the laws to be a good officer—which Carrot takes literally, of course, because dwarfs are literal.

The Elucidated Brethren use magic to summon a dragon, but it only appears very briefly, and vaporizes a thief with fire. (Death comes to collect the man, suitably surprised himself.) They reckon that they need more magic to sustain the dragon’s appearance. Carrot sends a letter home to his father about his first days at the Watch, not realizing that he’s spent the night in a brothel (he saved a woman from being robbed, and she invited him back, but he just fell asleep) or that the Thieves Guild is simply part of how the city runs. The President of said Guild goes to the Patrician after Carrot arrests him and walks him bound through the streets. Lord Vetinari tells his secretary, Lupine Wonse, to see to the matter, not wanting it to interfere with the delicate balance he’s created for the city. Wonse calls Vimes in—they’ve known each other since childhood—and tells him to fix this problem immediately.

Outside of new recruit Carrot, there are three members of the Night Watch: Vines, Sergeant Colon, and Nobby. Colon brings the daily reports to Vimes and tells him that he sent Carrot out with Nobby, which Vimes thinks was probably a bad idea, so they set out searching for them. Nobby is busy asking Carrot why he had to become a member of the Watch, asking what terrible things he might have done. He lands on the possibility that he “got a girl in trouble”, which Carrot figures must be accurate because the girl he liked back home (Minty) always got yelled at by her dad whenever he came around their home. Misunderstandings ensue. Carrot tries to bring up the book of laws he was given, but Nobby doesn’t want to hear about it. They come across a dwarf bar where there’s fighting going on; Carrot is understandably shocked. He wades in and tells the lot of them off for fighting and carousing, and tells them they all probably ought to write to their mothers. Then he tells them that he’ll be back every night to check on them, and that they should behave themselves.

Nobby tells Carrot never to do anything like that again and drags him into the Mended Drum where Carrot proceeds to take notes. He sees the librarian of the Unseen University having a drink there, asks to see the landlord, and informs the man that he’s under arrest for selling alcohol so late and having a monkey in the tavern. This is taken about as well as one can expect, and by the time Vimes and Colon show up, they find Nobby outside, mortified at the fight going on inside. After making awkward small talk, they eventually decide they should go check on things, quite carefully. Carrot is standing in the middle of the floor as he recites a slew of citations against the entire bar and then promptly collapses. Vimes tells Nobby to give all the felons cautions and they leave. Meanwhile, the Elucidated Brethren prepare to do another ritual…

Commentary

I kept thinking about this book coming up, and precisely how I was going to tackle its discussion. Because the Ankh-Morpork City Watch is sort of a parody of the clichés around British policing. And in recent years it’s become even more glaringly obvious (on my end, coming from a place of privilege as a white person) that positioning cops as inherently “good guys” is not helping us societally. There’s just too much corruption and exploitation surrounding policing systems, and we also use the police for tasks that they have no business being called for. Even the British police, which Americans will often cite as a “better version” of the system America has, are riddled with many of the same issues. The clichés that Pratchett cleaves to here are a fantasy in and of themselves. He’s ultimately parodying something that doesn’t exist in the real world.

I’m not saying that he’s unaware of the issues here entirely; the makeup of the City Watch that Carrot enters is a fairly good representation of the sort of people who often populate bodies of law enforcement. Colon, who’s largely in it for the paycheck and the desk work, and shows himself within the Discworld series to be prejudiced against anyone too “foreign”; Nobby, who is a lot smarter than he seems, but whose trauma and sense of self-preservation makes him unwilling to throw himself into danger; and Vimes, who is a self-described set of bad habits swimming in alcohol. Then you add Carrot, the new wrench in their crew, who essentially winds up embodying the cliché of the “good British cop”—the Nicholas Angel type, obsessed with regulation and doing the work right. Taken at face value, you could perhaps argue that it’s pro a very specific type of policing.

However, it’s still possible to engage with this story for how its characters occupy their society, and what they are actually fighting against. The City Watch has very little function in Ankh-Morpork because the city Patrician has organized crime to the point where it has quotas and allowances. Cops have very little use in a system like that, which clearly bothers Vimes because he doesn’t believe that everyday people should harassed for quotas in that manner, but you won’t catch him saying so because speaking up has already gotten him bitten one too many times. It’s not that Vimes is a “good cop”—it’s that he would prefer (somewhere deep down) to be a useful person, and the system he’s currently enmeshed in doesn’t allow for that. Carrot doesn’t care about being a good cop because he believes policing is some grand calling or honor—he just cares about following rules and doing what is expected of him.

I’ll have a lot more to say on that going forward, but to start: Carrot occupies a special place in my heart for being one of the few “Lawful Good” (as the D&D parlance goes) characters I genuinely like. As an alignment, I’m mostly against it, partly due to my own chaotic leanings, but also because it’s difficult to find examples of that type who don’t make the concept of lawfulness distasteful. Being down with authority is not an attribute I’ve ever personally prized, but Carrot comes by it honestly—because it’s a matter of literalness, not belief in the “goodness” of law.

Carrot is called what he’s called because of the shape of him, and that is particularly bemusing to me because these days, all I can think of is the discourse around Chris Evans being shaped like a Dorito when he’s got his Captain America uniform on. (This was a thing, for ages, but particularly after the release of the first Avengers film, and it will always come back to me in odd moments.) Apparently this is just the thing for characters like this.

I do have some questions about Pratchett’s building of dwarf culture in these books because I think he may have contradicted himself a little, but that might be the point? I was thinking about Hwel making the comment that dwarfs aren’t supposed to be able to read, but Carrot’s people certainly do, so the question becomes—was Hwel misinformed on that? Internalized prejudice maybe? And there’s also the extreme literalness of Carrot’s people, which isn’t technically an attribute we’ve seen before. My assumption is that he needed dwarf culture to work a certain way for Carrot, so he had to then find workarounds to explain what he’d already written. (Hence his reasoning here behind the dwarf bars being all night brawls and so on.)

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Dwarfs use “he” pronouns to indicate both men and women because gender is optional for dwarfs, according to the footnotes. Granted, she pronouns are also used, so I guess you can use them if you want? I actually kind of wish Pratchett would get into this system more, rather than just tossing it in as a joke, because I kind of love the conceit.
  • Love the little cameo by Magrat Garlick, telling them how to stop spelling recommendation. (Which I admit to often having trouble with myself because which are the letters you double up on, and why not just double up on all of them?)
  • There’s this thing here about Vimes thinking that he hasn’t mastered ambition, it’s a thing that happens to other people, and I feel that deep down in my soul, honestly.
  • There are film noir-ish touches all over Vimes, and then then City Watch’s motto which does not actually translate to “To protect and serve” but to “Make my day, punk” aka Dirty Harry. Which, I know there’s one artist who always drew Vimes to look like Clint Eastwood but that is emphatically not the vibe I get from the character.

Pratchettisms:

They could put you in mind of a can of sardines, if you thought sardines were huge and scaly and proud and arrogant.

The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.

It wasn’t eye contact, because the Supreme Grand Master had made sure the Brethren’s hoods shrouded their faces in mystic darkness, but nevertheless he managed to silence Brother Doorkeeper by dint of sheer outraged silence.

The gutters of the city gurgled softly as the detritus of the night was carried along, in some cases protesting feebly.

It’s a terrible thing to be nearly sixteen and the wrong species.

Yes, they’d both started in the gutter. But Wonse had worked his way up whereas, as he he himself would be the first to admit, Vimes had merely worked his way along. Every time he seemed to be getting anywhere he spoke his mind, or said the wrong thing. Usually both at once.

Nobby had long ago been told about fighting fair and not striking a fallen opponent, and had then given some creative thought to how these rules applied to someone four feet tall with the muscle tone of an elastic band.

Next week we’re going up to “And awoke to the sound of a mob.” See you then!

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