“Down there… are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no.”
— Lord Vetinari, Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett
This article is split into two halves. The first contains no spoilers. The second, after a big red warning, contains many.
I’ve read nearly every Discworld novel. To some, it’s silly English satire. But I count myself among the ranks of devotees who consider it the best literature of the modern era on par with, as correctly asserted by Brandon Sanderson, Shakespeare. Yes, really. No, don’t @ me.
“Pratchett isn’t just funny, Pratchett is transcendent. There are lots of funny writers. Some are hilarious. A few are good at making you think at the same time. But most humorists, while brilliant, have trouble with story. If I put their book down, I remember the laughter, but feel no urgency to return. Those narratives don’t get their hooks in me — they don’t have that pull, like gravity, that a good plot builds. In short, they don’t make me think — bleary-eyed at 3:00 a.m. — that I need to read one more chapter.
Pratchett, on the other hand, routinely makes me lose sleep. His best stories… have excellent narrative urgency, but add to it a level of riotous wit. Then, if that weren’t enough, they kick you in the head with moments of poignant commentary — unexpected, brazen, and delightful.
This has to be the highest level of fiction. It does everything that great fiction does — but then makes us laugh too.”
— “Terry Pratchett’s Discworld Might Be The Highest Form of Literature on the Planet” by Brandon Sanderson for Tor.com
There’s something very special about the mastery of craft seen in Discworld alongside the brazen, utter irreverence of the narratives. There’s no doubt that Pratchett, had he been of the mind, could have written non-humorously and had a real chance at some of the highest literary accolades. But, for many reasons both complex and simple, he didn’t. If I had to guess why in a nutshell, I’d say it was because he had what Contrapoints calls the darkness, that roiling anger which drives almost every comedian you’ve ever encountered.
“There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny; anger at his early American publishers who could not bring his books out successfully.”
— “Neil Gaiman: ‘Terry Pratchett isn’t jolly. He’s angry’” excerpted by The Guardian from Gaiman’s introduction to A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Non-fiction by Terry Pratchett
Guards! Guards! is the 8th installment in a series of 41 Discworld novels, all of which take place on a flat disc supported by four elephants who stand atop the shell of a giant turtle. It is not, in fact, turtles all the way down. Everyone knows turtles can swim.
Discworld is actually several subseries mostly independent of one another, though meandering interconnectivity is common. Guards! Guards! is the first of the subseries called the City Watch, at the center of which is the chronically dour Captain Vimes. In this book, Discworld finally discovers its heart, where the complex balancing act of its narratives finally finds its stride, and that stride is along ancient cobblestones in a pair of cardboard-soled boots worth $10.
See, the first Discworld book was bald-faced parody, a fantasy comedy that, in the words of Pratchett, “was an attempt to do for the classical fantasy universe what Blazing Saddles did for Westerns.” The first three or so are good, but few would count them among the classics. Book 4, Mort, is the first in the Death storyline, is excellent, and is the one most cite as the first to really feel like a Discworld novel.
The first seven novels steadily improve and are in no way bad reads. In revisiting Guards! Guards!, I would even argue the first half of this book feels like Old Discworld, to some extent. But, somewhere in the middle, Pratchett really starts to dig in.
Vimes, deliberately or not, is a clear avatar of Pratchett himself on the Disc, defined by an irate, self-debasing internal monologue, alcoholic escapism, and obvious depression. But, like I said, we don’t start to truly feel like we’re in Real Discworld until about halfway through. The book begins with Vimes, but I’d argue that the captain, by himself, is not the core of the series — the Hub of the Disc, if you will.
The heart of the Watch is Vimes plus Lady Sybil Ramkin. It is not until the dragon-obsessed aristocrat meets and eventually courts Vimes that the book really starts to delve into themes explored throughout the rest of the series.
It’s important to note several things about Lady Ramkin as a foil toward Vimes’s search for a purpose in life.
- Sybil is introduced as a person whose enormous personality is only matched by her physical size. She is an absolute powerhouse of presence. “Even shorn of her layers of protective clothing, Lady Sybil Ramkin was still toweringly big. Vimes knew that the barbarian hublander folk had legends about great chain-mailed, armor-bra’d, carthorse-riding maidens who swooped down on battlefields and carried off dead warriors on their cropper to a glorious roistering afterlife, while singing in a pleasing mezzo-soprano. Lady Ramkin could have been one of them. She could have led them. She could have carried off a battalion. When she spoke, every word was like a hearty slap on the back and clanged with the aristocratic self-assurance of the totally well-bred. The vowel sounds alone would have cut teak.”
- Vimes is a scrapper who grew up poor to a single mother, and knows his way around a fight. By making Sybil more physically imposing, Pratchett establishes that she is more powerful than Vimes in every way imaginable. He states this explicitly, too. “Vimes’s ragged forebears were used to voices like that, usually from heavily-armored people on the back of a war charger telling them why it would be a jolly good idea, don’tcherknow, to charge the enemy and hit them for six. His legs wanted to stand to attention. Prehistoric men would have worshiped her, and in fact had amazingly managed to carve lifelike statues of her thousands of years ago.”
- Though she is unapologetically upper-class, her passion (tiny, ailment-prone swamp dragons) has made her an outsider among the aristocracy, just as Vimes considers himself an outsider among, well, pretty much everyone.
- Over the course of the story, it is not Sybil’s size nor wealth that makes her an ally to Vimes, but rather her intelligence, in particular her encyclopedic knowledge of dragons.
- She represents everything Vimes simultaneously hates and wishes for himself. Despite this, he eventually realizes that (just like him) she wants nothing more than to be the best person she can be in spite of it all.
- It is no stretch to imagine that Pratchett, an animal conservationist so devout he made an orangutan a main character, symbolized her innate goodness as kindness toward animals. The swamp dragon species in Discworld is the lowest of the low, a genetic mishap just as likely to explode by accident than survive long enough to procreate. Sybil’s love for these downtrodden creatures despite her wealth and power is at the heart of her character.
These come together to create a person that, frankly, confuses the hell out of Vimes. He is both intimidated by her and, more importantly, doesn’t understand her at all. Vimes is constantly portrayed as a man who experiences reality just a little too intimately, a state which hounds him and drives his alcoholism. Pratchett explains this as other guardsmen discuss Vimes and the Discworldian concept of “knurd.”
“Nine dollars a month,” said Colon. “I saw the pay scales once. Nine dollars a month and two dollars plumes allowance. Only he never claimed that bit, Funny, really.”
“He wasn’t the plumes type,” said Nobby.
“You’re right,” said Colon. “The thing about the captain, see, I read this book once… you know we’ve all got alcohol in our bodies… sort of natural alcohol? Even if you never touch a drop in your life, your body sort of makes it anyway… but Captain Vimes, see, he’s one of those people whose body doesn’t do it naturally. Like, he was born two drinks below normal.”
“Gosh,” said Carrot.
“Yes…so, when he’s sober, he’s really sober. Knurd, they call it. You know how you feel when you wake up if you’ve been on the piss all night, Nobby? Well, he feels like that all the time.”
“Poor bugger,” said Nobby. “I never realized. No wonder he’s always so gloomy.”
“So he’s always trying to catch up, see. It’s just that he doesn’t always get the dose right.”
— Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett
I don’t think you could show that to any frequent imbiber alive without it resonating. I happen to be a person who, while never quite dipping into the swimming pool of alcoholism, have certainly waded in the shallow waters of, “Listen, I’m your doctor and we tested your liver and we might have just a few slight but extremely important recommendations, okay?” Or, as Sir Terry once said toward the somber sunset of his life, “I drink enormously. It makes you feel better, and feeling better is part of it.”
By the end of the novel, the acerbic, self-loathing Vimes has saved the city of Ankh-Morpork against all odds with the help of his fellow guards and Lady Sybil Ramkin. And also a rambunctious little swamp dragon named Errol whose story, I still maintain, probably inspired the female dragon romantic subplot in Shrek. But anyway.
The second half of Guards! Guards! deviates from previous novels in that it truly asks questions that have no answer. Rather than shine light upon, as is generally the purview of satire, it delves into the nature of. It asks not only about good and evil, but the concept of them in the sense of the utterly mundane — the difference between inequalities our species accepts vs. those we resist.
This double-edged theme is explicitly stated in a pair of exchanges, the first stance of which is uttered by the stone-cold Patrician, Lord Vetinari, the soft-spoken, razor-sharp, steadfastly non-despotic dictator of Ankh-Morpork. The quote is at the top of this article, relating to the banality of wickedness by the average person, who need only do nothing to abet the villain.
Vimes balks at the Patrician’s view, but struggles to come up with a convincing counterargument. Here’s the full conversation:
“Down there,” he said, “are people who will follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any inequity. All out of a kind of humdrum, everyday badness. Not the really high, creative loathsomeness of the great sinners, but a sort of mass-produced darkness of the soul. Sin, you might say, without a trace of originality. They accept evil not because they say yes, but because they don’t say no. I’m sorry if this offends you,” he added, patting the captain’s shoulder, “but you fellows really need us.”
“Yes, sir?” said Vimes quietly.
“Oh, yes. We’re the only ones who know how to make things work. You see, the only thing the good people are good at is overthrowing the bad people. And you’re good at that, I’ll grant you. But the trouble is that it’s the only thing you’re good at. One day it’s the ringing of the bells and the casting down of the evil tyrant, and the next it’s everyone sitting around complaining that ever since the tyrant was overthrown no one’s been taking out the trash. Because the bad people know how to plan. It’s part of the specification, you might say. Every evil tyrant has a plan to rule the world. The good people don’t seem to have the knack.”
“Maybe. But you’re wrong about the rest!” said Vimes. “It’s just because people are afraid, and alone — ” He paused. It sounded pretty hollow, even to him.
He shrugged. “They’re just people,” he said. “They’re just doing what people do. Sir.”
Lord Vetinari gave him a friendly smile. “Of course, of course,” he said. “You have to believe that, I appreciate. Otherwise you’d go quite mad. Otherwise you’d think you’re standing on a feather-thin bridge over the vaults of Hell. Otherwise existence would be a dark agony and the only hope would be that there is no life after death. I quite understand.” He looked at his desk, and sighed. “And now,” he said, “there is such a lot to do. I’m afraid poor Wonse was a good servant but an inefficient master. So you may go. Have a good night’s sleep. Oh, and do bring your men in tomorrow. The city must show its gratitude.”
“It must what?” said Vimes.
The Patrician looked at a scroll. Already his voice was back to the distant tones of one who organizes and plans and controls.
“Its gratitude,” he said. “After every triumphant victory there must be heroes. It is essential. Then everyone will know that everything has been done properly.”
He glanced at Vimes over the top of the scroll.
“It’s all part of the natural order of things,” he said.
— Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett
This conversation is during the denouement, after the dragon has been beaten. To sum up, Vetinari says everyone is inherently bad, but they are also inherently bad at it because they’re lazy. Ignoring all the interesting characterizations we can conclude about the Patrician here, it stirs up a flurry of questions Vimes has no answer to:
Where does Captain Samuel Vimes stand in a worldview like that? Say what you want about Lord Vetinari, but isn’t he always, in a general way, correct? What’s Sam’s place in the natural order? For that matter, where does the City Watch stand? Or the Lady Sybil Ramkins of the world — the historic commanders of the rabble infantry from which Vimes descended?
As part of its response to these questions, the ending of Guards! Guards! makes a promise. The promise goes like this: Alright, Vimes, you always hated the upper crust, right? Resented them, shook your fist at them, right? Well, now you are one. Right! So, who are you, Vimes, when you’re not poor? When you’re not the wallowing rabble infantry? When you have more titles than “just a copper?” Who are you when you have everything handed to you on a porcelain plate that has got blue line drawings of windmills and things?
Who are you, Sam Vimes, if you love someone you always thought should be despised?
That’s why Sybil & Vimes are inextricable as the heart of Discworld. It’s also why so many people feel betrayed that the BBC cast Lady Sybil as a very slight person who stands 5 foot 5 (and who I’m sure is very nice and talented and we must remember casting is not the fault of the actor thankyouverymuch). It is popularly contended that her imposing physical presence is almost a character in its own right.
To say nothing whatsoever of how profoundly Vimes’s mannerisms should not, in any way, resemble a certain rum-loving pirate from a popular Hollywood franchise.
Vimes is many things, but he’s not a talker. His strength is in actions, not speeches. That’s why, when he finally discovers the refutation to Vetinari’s argument, he doesn’t say a damn thing. There’s no clever dialogue or anything. He just laughs.
Let’s set the scene. Vetinari gathers the Watch and offers them a reward, whatever they want as recompense for saving Ankh-Morpork and, possibly, the entire Disc. But the Patrician is genuinely surprised and annoyed to discover Vimes never imagined there would be a reward, much less what it might be. The guards, thankfully, come to his rescue. They request, quite nervously, a $5-dollar increase to their wages, and a replacement for the tea kettle inadvertently eaten by Errol the Swamp Dragon.
The Patrician leaned forward, gripping the arms of his chair.
“I want to be clear about this,” he said coldly. “Are we to believe that you are asking for a petty wage increase and a domestic utensil?”
Carrot whispered in Colon’s other ear. Colon turned two bulging, watery-rimmed eyes to the dignitaries. The rim of his helmet was passing through his fingers like a millwheel.
“Well,” he began, “sometimes, we thought, you know, when we has our dinner break, or when it’s quiet, like, at the end of a watch as it may be, and we want to relax a bit, you know, wind down…” His voice trailed away.
Colon took a deep breath.
“I suppose a dartboard would be out of the question — ?”
The thunderous silence that followed was broken by an erratic snorting.
Vimes’s helmet dropped out of his shaking hand. His breastplate wobbled as the suppressed laughter of the years burst out in great uncontrollable eruptions. He turned his face to the row of councilors and laughed and laughed until the tears came.
Laughed at the way they got up, all confusion and outraged dignity.
Laughed at the Patrician’s carefully immobile expression.
Laughed for the world and the saving of souls.
Laughed and laughed, and laughed until the tears came.
Nobby craned up to reach Colon’s ear.
“I told you,” he hissed. “I said they’d never wear it. I knew a dartboard’d be pushing our luck. You’ve upset ’em all now.”
— Guards! Guards! by Sir Terry Pratchett
Throughout his early career, Sir Terry struggled to be taken seriously as a writer. It was also (as mentioned in the above Gaiman quote) very difficult to break into markets outside the UK, the only place where Discworld’s brand of scathing, understated wit was immediately identified as an art form. Pratchett’s first major writing award was the British Science Fiction Award for Pyramids in 1989. See, that was the immediate predecessor of Guards! Guards! and…
Look, I can’t help but put together a bit of a narrative here. After seven consistently excellent books, he at long last found some slight validation, anything to give credence to his passion for writing fantasy. It must have been an amazing feeling, and also a very complicated one. Scary terms like impostor syndrome and whatever the term is for oh shit oh god what do I do now have I peaked is this it then is it over where do I go from here and WHY do I go from here and so on and so forth.
The “why” is the thing, really. Vimes isn’t a talker, and he certainly isn’t a writer (looking at you, Stephen King). He’s barely a reader. He doesn’t have a whole fantasy series to work out the why for himself. But Vimes does have laughter, and that’s what he does, in the end. That’s his answer to Vetinari. It’s the thing to which Vetinari has no rebuttal. Humor, you see, is how we win.
So the not-yet-Sir Terry Pratchett wins a big award and probably hears a lot of talk during that process where important people say, “He’s a talented man by gum no doubt about that, but why’s he got to do humor? Why’s everything he write have to be so silly?”
By the end of Guards! Guards!, Discworld finds its answer, the final product of a potion whose ingredients include a pervasive, searing fury alongside an overdose of reality. The answer is to laugh and laugh, and laugh until the tears come.
I’m writing a new article after finishing each book of the Watch during this re-read. I will continue to mourn the fact it’s not a show, mostly because it means I can’t call it the Watch Re-Watch. By day, I’m a musician and author who just started shopping around a Syrian cyberpunk manuscript. By night, that’s none of your business. Thanks for reading.