From time to time I binge on Discworld. This week, on holiday, I’ve been rereading some of the Terry Pratchett novels that tackle bigotry and racism. They are deeply satisfying combings from the beard of his invention. They don’t offer a unified theory of how people could be nice to each other, but they are superb as reflections of the human condition.
Feet of Clay (1996)
This one has a very high joke count, including the immortal ‘We can rebuild him, we have the pottery’, which only readers of 50ish will ever appreciate fully. * Feet of Clay is The One About The Golems, in which Lord Vetinari is incapacitated by a mysterious poison, Nobby Nobbs is raised to the peerage, Cheery Littlebottom is encouraged to express her feminine nature with illicit lipstick, jewellery and high heels, though she refuses to shave her beard off, and dwarf bread makes its terrifying entrance as a fighting weapon.
Cheery transitions from a standard if slightly nervous male dwarf demeanour to a more feminine self-presentation with the help of a well-established non-human, Delphine Angua von Uberwald, the only werewolf on the Watch. It’s not just because they’re both minority females in a professional milieu full of males, but they are both struggling with how to reconcile their natural feelings. Cheery wants to be able to wear a skirt and not be shouted at by male dwarfs who think openly-displayed femininity is disgusting (we’ll find a much more precise sandblasting of this mindset in The Fifth Elephant). Angua would like to not have to hear (muttered) jokes about what and who she eats. Pratchett’s deft slicing apart of the layers of social prejudice is done with the sharpest of filleting blades. Class, sex, lineage, race, species, deadness, aliveness: all participate in a complex plot jostling with remarks about how it’s normal to hate different people because They and Everybody says so.
The golems show this most concisely, since a golem is a not a person, and is not legally alive. Yet how can a machine be accused of murder? Once the religious confraternity have begun fighting among themselves on this question, one golem learns to speak, develops self-awareness, and develops the financial acumen to work out how to free the other golems by earning enough to buy them. This is a rather nice result from a pyramid chain, since Carrot started it by buying Dorfl for one dollar: one good turn produces an autonomous new species. We are only left with the problem of who organised the poisoning.
* The Six Billion Dollar Man? Steve Rogers? Blonde man with permanent sun-squint runs very very fast in slo-mo? YOU remember ….
The Fifth Elephant (2000)
The One In Which Vimes Goes to Uberwald. I love this novel because it has the Igors, the traditional servants of the vampires who are accomplished surgeons and recyclers of body parts. Vimes goes to Uberwald to represent the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, and to solve the crime of the stolen Scone of Stone, without which the Low King of the dwarfs cannot be crowned.
The Lady Margoletta (is that an echo from Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club …. surely not) is a vampire on the wagon, a modern vampire lifestyle about which we will read a great deal more in The Truth. She goes to mutual support groups and drinks a nasty red drink that probably tastes like cough mixture, but otherwise has a keen interest in sporting events involving werewolves chasing Vimes through the snow. Angua’s father, the Baron, is clearly almost completely wolf, while her mad brother Wolfgang is a Nazi with fangs. Pratchett puts black and silver fascist insignia on Wolfgang’s racial purity nonsense to ram that point home: fascism is beastly and savage, and does not belong in civilised society. Wolves, and other dogs, are completely civilised and natural within their own ecological niche. Werewolves are simply terrorists of nature.
The dwarfs have an internal problem, traditionalists versus reformers, and their hardcore deepdowners refuse to look at sunlight or even go above ground. These traditionalists call Cheery Littlebottom some very foul names because she wears a skirt, but under pressure even they are forced to use the feminine pronoun. This is a dark novel, due to the fundamentally uncompromising nature of fanaticism, but accommodations can be made as you step around the bodies.
The deep vein of sardony (from which Pratchett mines his sardonic) can be seen in the plot twists around the stolen, faked and mysterious Scone of Stone. It is a fundamentally silly thing, a super-toughened lump of dwarf dough, carrying the echo of our own dear Stone of Scone, upon which the monarchs of Britain are crowned. Tradition bestows truth and meaning on the most ridiculous and ordinary objects, like a stone and like bread, and people die if these are disrupted or changed. Pratchett’s genius lies in moving his narrative from comedy to tragedy in the flip of an adjective.
The One With ‘Where’s My Cow?’ When you need dramatic tension, you add a baby, psychotic fundo dwarves with flamethrowers, race riots and the steadiest werewolf on the Watch attacked by class consciousness and sexual jealousy. This one has everything. The anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley is approaching, a historic conflict between dwarves and trolls, but no-one knows who won. Dwarves are being murdered underground, and there’s finally – finally! – a vampire on the Watch, and she can hear heartbeats in the next room. The phenomenally attractive but very innocent pole-dancer Tawnee is taught the facts of life, and her choices, by three friendly non-human female Watch officers in a night of dubiously named cocktails. Trolls do drugs, dwarves do religion, and everybody has to show a little bit of adaptation and compromise if we’re going to make progress. Vetinari even uses italics for emphasis, something I don’t think we’ve seen before.
The central idea of the plot – that the historic antipathy between trolls and dwarves is being exploited by somebody or something – is beautifully expressed in the central metaphor of the game of Thud, a board game with two halves. You play your opponent either as a dwarf or a troll, and then you play it again from the other side’s perspective. This seriously brilliant concept leads to young dwarves and trolls playing peace games in a cellar, learning about each other’s culture and mindset. The older generation haven’t done this, and they’re the ones who cause trouble, and keep Vimes from getting any sleep for what seems like a week.
As Pratchett matured his art, his themes became more universal and more perfectly expressed to model human behaviour. I really do think Thud is one of his finest novels, up there with I Shall Wear Midnight (community responsibility and male aggression), and possibly also Lords and Ladies (power and violence do not a ruler make). The debate is open.
I’ve posted reviews of other Pratchett novels here and elsewhere, which you can get at through this link to The Shepherd’s Crown.