Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: Guards! Guards! Part III

We’re getting ready to watch a dragon-slaying—or are we? Let’s get back to Guards! Guards!

Summary

The mob turns up at Lady Ramkin’s door assuming one of her dragons must be the culprit of all the chaos. Vimes intervenes with one of the dragons, suggesting it might destroy the whole crowd, but also pointing out that none of the dragons Sybil had were the size of the one they saw. The crowd disperses after offering up some money to dragon charity. Sibyl notes that the dragon Goodboy Bindle Featherstone has taken a shine to Vimes. Carrot sends his mother another letter where he informs her of the goings on, and also that he has moved from the brothel (that he still doesn’t know is a brothel) into their new Watch House because it has nice furnishing and lodging. Sibyl and Vimes show up at the new Watch House with Goodboy—now to be called Errol—who will now be the Watch mascot. The Librarian is also hanging out around the place and has been sworn in as a Special Constable. The Elucidated Brethren are starting to feel strange when the dragon is summoned, but the Supreme Grand Master insists on doing the ritual one more time.

The Watch plans to try using Errol to sniff out the dragon lair, starting in the Shades. They’re all cowed into doing it because Lady Ramkin is ever so praising of the entire Watch team, having no idea of their reputation. She insists on coming along. They patrol the Shades and find nothing, but when they arrive back at Pseudopolis Yard, Errol starts acting up. Vimes looks up to find the dragon on their roof, and they are about to be burned alive when a horn sounds out, drawing the dragon away. The Watch and Lady Ramkin head to the city plaza where people are gathering because a “rightful heir” to the throne of Ankh has arrived and plans to fight the dragon. The city denizens seem to find this reasonable, all except for Vimes, who is mortified that the people can be so easily swayed by the concept of a king. The fight happens, the dragon is defeated, there’s celebration in the streets. Vimes is bothered because none of it makes sense, including the fact that there’s no bits of dragon to find after the fight, it just exploded and vanished at once.

The dragon (obviously alive and back where it came from) is angry and wants back into the city. Vimes heads into the city, and so does Lady Ramkin. The rest of the Watch are drunk (well, not Carrot), and Nobby and Colon are recalling Gaskin’s death. The Librarian knows something is wrong, knows it’s to do with his missing book, and makes his way to L-space. Vimes heads to the place the dragon was dispatched with Errol, certain that something is amiss. He ends up finding a tunnel in the sky and just as everything is about to go sideways, Lady Ramkin’s carriage shows up to snatch him away. Lightning emerges from the tunnel, searching, and finds the Library. Then it suddenly produces the dragon in the plaza. Vimes starts putting things together, figuring that the dragons probably existed back when there was a lot of magic about, and that someone has been feeding this one until it figured out how to feed itself. Lady Ramkin strolls up to it, convinced that she can treat it as she does her swamp dragons. It almost works, but for the moment when she breaks eye contact.

Errol takes to the sky to distract that dragon so that Vimes can get Lady Ramkin to safety. The dragon swats Errol out of the sky, and Vimes has to catch him—otherwise he might explode. The dragon is done with them and flies off, so they head after it—following Errol, who’s decided it’s his job to attack the giant thing. The rest of the Watch see the big dragon go by, hardly believing it, and they’re also piled into Lady Ramkin’s carriage to continue the search. The Elucidated Brethren (minus the Supreme Grand Master), get a visit from the dragon and are quickly dispatched and collected by Death. The only brother not present for that event is Brother Fingers, who is grabbing takeout. Colon recognizes him as a Thieves Guild man and someone who also did odd jobs for the Unseen University. Vimes begins piecing it together, and tells them to charge him with the theft of the book the Librarian has been looking for. A figure in a cowl shows up, but gets away, so Vimes and Carrot head to the Patricians palace—now the King’s Palace—to let people know what’s going on.

The palace guards aren’t feeling cooperative, so Vimes tells Carrot to charge them, which Carrot takes literally. They arrest the guards, and Vimes heads into Wonse’s office to tell him the dragon is back. Wonse appears unmoved and insists that Vimes is probably exhausted. Oddly enough, Vimes does fall asleep, and wakes up in the Yard. Colon tells him that their suspect ran, and that they’re expected to attend the coronation tomorrow. Vimes tells Colon that he wants the Watch on the rooftops instead, so they can see what the dragon does. He checks on Errol, who seems sad—Carrot shows up with a toy for him. Then Vimes goes to one of his favorite eating spots only to find that things have been changed on account of the king. In L-space, the Librarian finishes reading the stolen book, and heads back.

Commentary

I mean, this kind of plays into my point from last week, doesn’t it? It’s funny to have Vimes do the Dirty Harry bit, but at the end of it, Lady Ramkin has the mob putting in money for dragon charity. It’s sort of meant to teach them a lesson in blaming the poor things she takes cares of, which I understand. But also, she’s extremely wealthy. So getting the (ostensibly pretty poor) mob to put in coin for the dragons is a little off base when you get right down to it.

Pratchett’s description of the dragon here is where we get a proper bit of Smaug-ian narrative, if such a thing could be said to exist. The explanation of what it feels like to be this creature, and how they feel about being used, it’s all just very evocative and chilling and well done. So are the bits about L-space, which really gets me thinking—when you start out with Discworld books, Pratchett is a little less precise on how he talks about magic and space-time and all of that. As we go on, things get much clearer, even if they’re still inherently unknowable, which I love.

Okay, so I believe this is the first major hint that Wonse is, in fact, the Supreme Grand Master, with Vimes falling asleep and so on. It’s all very sly and clever, along with the narrative making the comparison that the Supreme Grand Master basically is a dragon himself, just very small. When you look back on how Vimes thinks of Wonse, how he remembers him from their childhoods, all the clues were there, really. Vimes might feel bad for not having ambition, but the people who have all of it… well. They’re dragons as humans, which is a pretty scathing indictment, all things considered.

There are just so many great bits in this section with Carrot being so preposterous, and also so very good, in that painfully earnest but lovely way. I’d actually forgotten the charge bit with the palace guards, but on rereading, my brain instantly went “oh no, he thinks you mean actually charge them physically” because it’s a goofy joke, but it’s still a darned funny one. It’s also fun to get into the bits where everyone starts doing actual detection work—the real reason people love mysteries and film noir and cop narratives is ultimately down to that most days. Getting to solve the case, work through the clues. But in Vimes’s case, we the reader know more than he does in places, which makes for an unusual mystery. Usually it’s all kept from us to perpetuate the suspense, but that’s only part of the fun here.

So the real thing going on in this section is acknowledging how quickly people get into royalty and saviors and all that. The instant this “king” shows up, Ankh-Morpork makes the decision that they love royalty, and this is their heritage now, and everyone wants to embrace the heck out of it. It’s particularly interesting to be getting into this right now, when the royal family seems to be running a smear campaign against Meghan Markle and Prince Harry for not wanting to be a part to that circus. People are liable to say “well, of course you’re not into that, you’re American,” but my gosh, have you met some Americans? Plenty of them adore monarchy. And sure, as a kid I enjoyed reading and watching stories about kings and queens and all that. Not so much as an adult.

Pratchett is very explicitly criticizing how there’s a part of humanity (in the genes, as it were) that genuinely wants to believe that certain people are grouped off, special and above everyone else. Ankh-Morpork is a city full of individuals that go about their own business—they’re a community because they occupy this space together, and there’s a certain code that comes with being crammed in like that. But the instant a “king” shows up, everything becomes about catering to that idea, to that individual. Of course, it’s illustrated more comically when Colon goes off about this, only to snap at Nobby for calling him by his first name; point being that Colon is all for hierarchy, he just wants the one he recognizes.

But Vimes can’t handle it at all. He’s one of those salt-of-the-earth types who just wants people to be who they are. And in this moment, you can hardly blame him for being heartbroken.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • It may be silly of me, but I sort of love how Carrot’s dwarf-ness is referred to as “borrowed genes”, as a way of describing how someone relates to their adopted culture? Also saying that dwarf blood flows in him by “the principle of morphic resonance”. It’s just a good one.
  • The thing about the “Special Ape Services” having the same initials as the British SAS was… you know, I don’t think I’d actually heard of them before, and then I did some reading. (I guess the American analog is possibly the Navy Seals here?) And this is the part where I can’t help but wonder if Pratchett wouldn’t like to critique some of these topics just a bit more, and maybe thought this was the wrong forum for it?
  • Look, the point is that when he talks about bookshops and the Library, Pratchett keeps getting closer to describing Aziraphale’s bookshop, and I have feelings about it. Also, I love watching him get closer and closer to ideas that he fleshes out in other stories.

Pratchettisms:

The reason that cliches become cliches is that they are the hammers and screwdrivers in the toolbox of communication.

Vimes was not certain how long he would be able to put up with Nobby the social mountaineer.

It wouldn’t play with you, or ask you riddles. But it understood all about arrogance and power and cruelty and if it could possibly manage it, it would burn your head off. Because it liked to.

Vimes stalked gloomily through the crowded streets, feeling like the only pickled onion in a fruit salad.

People were stupid, sometimes. They thought the Library was a dangerous place because of all the magical books, which was true enough, but what made it really one of the most dangerous places there could ever be was the simple fact that it was a library.

You go through your whole life and end up a smear swirling around like cream in a coffee cup.

Very gently, shaking his head in despair, crying in his heart for the essential servility of mankind, Vimes let him go.

Next week we’re up to “Oh yes,” said Nobby sadly. “Lucky old us.” See you then!

citation

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