Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: The Fifth Elephant, Part IV

Someone’s learning to take his vacation days and we’re all so proud of him…

Summary

Angua intimidates a member of the Bonk Watch into letting them into the city. When they get to the embassy, Vimes tells Tantony that the Bonk guard won’t shoot him despite being ordered to because they’re on Ankh-Morpork soil. He learns that Tantony let the werewolves take Sybil, demands the guard’s keys and the freeing of all his people. Sybil tells the baroness that she needs to lie down, and winds up using the blankets and sheets to escape via her window. Vimes and company blow the doors of the werewolves’ castle and storm in. Sybil shows up and they mean to make their escape at the same moment that Tantony and others arrive. Tantony tries to accuse the baroness of lying and a fight breaks out; Detritus fires his crossbow, Wolfgang and Carrot go at it, but Carrot tries to fight fair, gets his arm broken and then tossed onto the bridge before Angua. Gavin and Gaspode go after Wolfgang and the three of them fall off the bridge and into the water below. Vimes demands the Scone of Stone from the baroness, and has everyone else seen to—the baroness insists that no crime has been committed because the Scone is a fake. Gaspode pulls himself from the water only to find that Death has arrived for Gavin. Gaspode howls for him.

Vimes and company pull up to the dwarfen kingdom, and Vimes demands to return the Stone personally after he and Sybil are arrested. When this proves a heavy debate, Sybil invokes the Ironhammer “Ransom” song in their famed opera, noting the similarities. They are taken inside where Dee attempts to take the Scone from them, but Vimes and Sybil refuse and demand to see the king. The king arrives and has others (including Albrecht) check the Scone, and they all agree it’s the real thing. The king has everyone leave and asks Vimes to tell him the truth. Vimes explains that he thinks the Scone was destroyed, and ground into sand in the cave where it lay, then a fake was made in Ankh-Morpork and the person who made the fake was probably murdered. He knows the werewolves were involved and probably some dwarfs as well. The king calls Dee back in, makes him place his hands on the Scone, and asks him to explain what happened to Longfinger the candle captain, and to the craftsman in Ankh-Morpork. Dee eventually confesses to the conspiracy, and what’s more, to the reason: that the king is allowing Ankh-Morpork dwarfs to present as they like, to let the old ways die… when she could never allow that for herself. The king has the guards take her away, then Cheery asks to go with her so she’ll have someone to talk to.

Vimes talks to the king and finds that all the Scones are fakes and many dwarfs know it—the Scones change and wither over time and so many more have been made. Rhys finally asks what Ankh-Morpork wants out of all this, and Vimes remembers that it’s fat. But he can’t remember much more than that given everything that’s transpired, so it’s Sybil who negotiates their trade prices, and beautifully too. Vimes crashes and wakes up at the embassy with breakfast cooking. Sybil wants to get them out of the country immediately, and Carrot is on the mend. It occurs to Vimes that everyone has assumed Wolfgang is dead, but that idea doesn’t sit right with him. Sybil tells Sam to put on his dress uniform for the coronation and gets him to sit down long enough to explain that she’s pregnant. Vimes is stunned, but there’s a sound of breaking glass and a scream, and he tells Sybil to barricade herself in the bedroom. Wolfgang and Angua get into a fight and Igor is dying, asking to be put on ice. Wolfgang eventually leaves, but Angua knows he’ll be back to kill Carrot because Carrot is hers. Sybil asks if there’s something Vimes can do, and he realizes there is. He gathers up a few items and runs into the streets, following the trail of carnage. Vimes finds Wolfgang in the square, close to the coronation. He tells him he’s armed and that he’s placing the werewolf under arrest. When Wolfgang laughs this off, Vimes notes aloud that he’s resisting arrest and lights a flare. When he releases it, Wolfgang catches the flare and it explodes in his mouth.

Captain Tantony repeats that Vimes explained he was armed and Wolfgang resisted arrest. Lady Margolotta pulls up in her carriage and Vimes accuses her of bringing Wolfgang back into town so he’s finish him off. She insists that the country will be better off, and Vimes realizes that she knows Lord Vetinari quite well. He gets back to the Igors taking bits of their Igor to redistribute. Then he talks to Cheery, who decides that she doesn’t have to wear a dress to the coronation. Vimes tells Angua that her brother is dead and they leave her and Carrot behind to go to the coronation. Carrot and Angua go to find Gavin’s body and bury him. Wolves come to attack now that Gavin isn’t in charge—Carrot fights the leader and beats him, and promises Angua he’d stop her if she ever became like her brother. Igor brings other Igor’s grandson to join the Watch. Vimes tells Carrot and Angua to head back and let the city know they’ll be returning. He also tells him to arrest the names that Cheery got from Dee back home, and lets Carrot know that he’ll be coming home very slowly. Gaspode finds a merchant barge to take him in, and Carrot comes back to find the Watch in utter disarray and largely unstaffed. He calls Colon to attention, and starts the process of getting things straightened out.

Commentary

The gender dynamics of this book are so good and crunchy. And what’s more, it’s so intriguing to me that Pratchett has to pull Vimes out of Ankh-Morpork to get this kind of story because the Watch is full up of lads, as Angua would put it. In most Watch stories it’s hard to get away from that dynamic, no matter what the plot is going for. There’s a lot of very pointed comparison going on about the spheres that men and women occupy, and how people with many similarities function entirely differently in their respective societies due to gendered expectations; there’s Sybil juxtaposed with Carrot, Angua with Wolfgang, Lady Margolotta with Vetinari (and Vimes to an extent), and so on down the line.

It’s devastating to realize that with very similar temperaments and strengths, Carrot could be a king, but Sybil could not. She makes people feel special and good and seen as Carrot does, she has his exact brand of charisma, but her voice doesn’t carry the same sort of weight to the general population. Plenty of people think Sybil is “silly” while Carrot gets to be extraordinary. And this is the first Watch story to make a point of it, to note that Sybil has these attributes and will never be thought of the way Carrot is. Because it’s not surprising or notable for a woman to be able to bolster others—it’s an expectation.

Wolfgang embraces his wolf side to endless cruelty and malice while Angua must refuse it. She asks Carrot to promise that he’d stop her if she slipped, however. Just in case. Because she’s good enough to know that she’s not perfect. Because she knows how hard she works to control herself for the sake of her fellows.

The same can be said of Lady Margolotta, who knows what it is to be a teetotaler like Vimes, but does it for reasons that are more beneficial to others than herself. She will never have the same level of outward-facing power that Vetinari has, all the same. She demands respect, but she also makes most of her plays in secret.

And then we have Dee’s confession and her self-hatred, which reads truest of all. We love to say “people fear what they don’t understand,” but it’s also true that people often fear themselves. Though the answers are inconclusive, some studies have found that homophobic men show pronounced arousal at gay male porn, for example. And this particular attitude has been replicated in many transphobic arguments we’re seeing lately—because if trans people notice that they don’t align with their assigned gender, what does that mean for everyone else? You’re saying just anybody could be trans? (And yeah, we are, but obviously that doesn’t mean everyone is. Which is a digression, but still important.)

Dee sees Cherry being herself openly, hears about other Ankh-Morpork dwarfs doing the same and thinks, I could never do that. I would never do that because I’m a good dwarf. And if I’m not going to do it, none of them should be allowed to either. So I’ll see to that. Instead of accepting that times are changing and that a different generation might be lucky enough to have what she couldn’t, she tries to forcibly plant a king that would denounce all of them and potentially start a massive war. All while never once guessing that the rightful king being installed was also a woman. The levels of heartbreak here go deeper than their endless network of mines—it’s too much for me today.

At the end of the book we finally drill down on this Ship of Theseus philosophical exercise happening with the Scone of Stone and several other implements besides. But what really makes it effective to me is the subtle way that Rhys applies it to people. The exercise is more intriguing when you think of it that way—as living beings we constantly turn over our own cells and regenerate until we no longer can. You’re replacing yourself, and you’re changing all the time in ways that aren’t even physical. You are the ultimate Ship of Theseus. Always yourself, but never the same twice.

Asides and little thoughts:

  • “It was all too complicated and, where it was complicated, it meant that someone was trying to fool you.” Oh Sam, no it doesn’t. I mean, within the context of his job, I can see why he thinks so, but no. I’m sorry that things are often complicated, honey.
  • The semi-frequent Nazi references thrown in there with Angua’s family is just… it’s a lot. Like, if you need further confirmation that they’re the bad guys, that’s a super clear illustration of the point, but sheesh.
  • Cheery deciding that she doesn’t need to wear dresses is a whole other level of empowering, and also such an important step on many trans journeys, when people finally figure out if they’re performing femininity, or any kind of gender, for themselves or the sake of everyone else (or both, sometimes it’s both).
  • Sam asking if it’s safe for Sybil to have a child, knowing they’re both older and being aware of that danger, that’s giving me some feelings right now. The fact that he thinks of her first, in keeping with what we saw from Granny in the last book.
  • “Self-declared female” look, the allegory can’t really get more glaring than that, I don’t know what to tell you.

Pratchettisms:

Been there, he thought. Been there, done that, bought the doublet…

It’s a terrible thing to admit to yourself, but when the shoulder blades are pressed firmly against the brickwork then any weapon will do, and right now Vimes saw Sybil loaded and ready to fire.

Steam was rising off Wolfgang. He shone in the torchlight. The blond hair across his shoulders gleamed like a slipped halo.

The trouble was that, if you formed a picture in your mind of a sensible person, and tried to superimpose it on a picture of Wolfgang, you couldn’t get them to meet anywhere.

“I think I recognize the type, yes,” said Lady Sybil, with an irony that failed to register with Sam Vimes until some days later.

It was dullness hammered into the shape and form of ceremony.
It had also been timed to test the capacity of the average bladder.

All he knew was you couldn’t hope to try for the big stuff, like world peace and happiness, but you might just about be able to achieve some tiny deed that’d make the world, in a small way, a better place.

He could afford to put up with a nose-breeder in exchange for surgery that didn’t involve screaming and buckets of boiling pitch.

 

Next week we begin… The Truth. We’ll read up to:

“Before we –ing talk about paying,” said Mr. Tulip, “we want to talk to the bloke that wrote the –ing warranty.”

citation

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