The latest part of my complete Discworld reread
Is it just because Pterry is dead? I don’t think so: I think it’s true of the book itself – this book feels like the end of Discworld. This is where it all ends.
I know, that’s hyperbole. The Discworld cycle didn’t just collapse after this installment – it went on for more than a dozen more novels. Some of those novels are good. Some of them may even be great.
But this feels like the end. This is where the world shuts down, gets a little smaller – from here on in, Discworld will seem smaller, and in a way less real. The Fifth Elephant brings the stories of Carrot, Angua and Vimes (and even Colon) to a fitting, even inevitable conclusion, and caps off the story of the Watch as a whole – leaving Night Watch as one last ‘Scouring of the Shire’ epilogue.
The fact that Pratchett didn’t realise this and wrote two more Watch novels after Night Watch, not to mention a whole bunch of cameo appearances (even the very next book after The Fifth Elephant, The Truth, was written as a Watch novel and contains heavy Watch presence) may be important for the cycle as a whole, but doesn’t in my mind change the finality of this novel, taken as a novel in itself.
But it’s more than that: The Fifth Elephant seems to me to represent the final obsolescence, in both practical and thematic terms, of the adventures of Rincewind and of Granny Weatherwax – the taming, in a sense, of the worlds that they inhabited. This is more striking as TFE immediately follows Granny’s Carpe Jugulum, and is largely set in the same part of the world… but not only is the book itself much more succesful than its predecessor, but its protagonist, Vimes, has a much easier time of it than Granny does in the end, despite a few tricky moments along the way. The juxtaposition of the two books underlines the thematic shift: the world that Vimes is conquering is the world that Granny lived in (there’s even a derogatory little jibe at Lancre along the way).
Because this is a novel about conquest. It’s that rare thing in modern popular literature: a pro-colonialist novel.
The Fifth Elephant is set in Uberwald: a vast, uncharted, mountainous nightmare forest of werewolves, vampires, and subterranean dwarven kingdoms, straddling the middle of the continent. Uberwald is bestial, backward… and in the way. Ankh-Morpork is spreading its tendrils all across the world, in the form of a network of semaphore towers marching step by step into the deep dark wood, and Uberwald is the dark age lying between the lights of Ankh-Morpork and of Genua. The semaphore towers are symbolic of the progress of modernity, of Ankh-Morpork, into the ancient cultures of the land. Uberwald is a place where men are hunted to death by werewolves and eaten… but now the werewolf daughters are educated at Ankh-Morpork finishing schools for ladies, and the vampires are toying with pink knitted jumpers and temperance societies.
But there is a problem. The Low King, ruler of all the dwarves, is dead, and the ripples of a bitter election to replace him can be felt as far away as Ankh-Morpork itself. There is hope that the new king will be a candidate more forward-thinking, more friendly toward Ankh-Morpork. But Something Is Afoot. If natural caution didn’t tell Vetinari that, the fact that his ambassador to the region, Mr Sleeps, has just disappeared in mysterious circumstances would be enough to make clear that something was up. Uberwald isn’t somewhere where people just wander off for a long walk in the snow – not if they want to come back, at least. Sleeps was spying on his hosts… but which one of them killed him, and why?
To cut the Gordian knot of espionage and diplomacy, Vetinari appoints a new ambassador to attend the dwarven coronation – a man of singular tact, subtleness and nuance… common-man policeman Sam Vimes.
If the basic conceit – spy goes missing in delicate situation, send someone to find out what’s going on – seems familiar, that’s no surprise. It’s how the first Bond film, Dr No, gets started. In a way this is a spy novel, even if (as in many spy novels) little actual spying gets done. It is a novel of deception, cold-blooded politics, brutal violence, and a hero who is a very, very long way from home. But Bond isn’t just about spying – it’s also about Empire. The twin assumptions behind Bond are the the Empire’s needs define the priorities of the world (the sinister goings on around whichever embassy it is this time only matter insofar as they affect British interests) and that the Empire’s values define progress and modernity (the British may be questioned regarding a few details of method, but are always doing the right thing overall). And exactly the same colonial assumptions play out in The Fifth Elephant: Vimes is in Uberwald to further Ankh-Morpork’s interests, and advance its civilised, law-abiding culture at the expense of the terrible old ways of the backward place he finds himself in. Pratchett is aware of these issues, and flags them up himself: characters explicitly question Vimes’ assumptions of superiority. But while the novel is at pains to point out that the world cannot be reduced into simplistic “us good them bad” terms, that the world is far more complicated than that, it never seriously challenges the idea that sometimes we are the good guys. While Vimes has his certainties bruised a little, we are never in any doubt that, in general, Vimes is the good guy here. And Vimes is a man who explicitly identifies the idea that ‘good and evil are just different ways of seeing the same situation’ as something that bad people say. Let’s be in no doubt: so far as this book is concerned, although tact and awareness of local complexities are necessary in carrying it out, imposing modern colonial values onto the savage mediaevalisms of Uberwald is the right thing to be doing.
Oh, and extracting favourable trade terms for the local resources, of course.
Ironically, though, this approach to Uberwald is much more succesful I think that that of Carpe Jugulum. Attack vampires and werewolves through magic and myth, and the only way you can win is by reducing the monsters into cartoons – the terrifying Magpyrs must be belittled into camp horror film cliches in order to make them be defeatable. But come at them through economics, realpolitik and information technology, and you can compass the whole of them while still being able to defeat them. The old Uberwald that is dying away in The Fifth Elephant feels much more real – and hence more intimidating – than the Uberwald that seems on the verge of conquest in Carpe Jugulum.
Of course, it helps that Pratchett is much better with his werewolves than with his vampires, and although there are vampires in TFE it is the werewolves who really shine. Pratchett never really seems to know what he wants his vampires to be – demons, funny people in evening dress, or anything in between – or in particular how they can fit in to the more realistic Discworld he is developing at this point in the cycle. But his werewolves, he has captured perfectly. Normally, well-written werewolves are those that are convincingly both wolf and human, while badly-written werewolves are humans who sometimes look like wolves (or wolves who sometimes look like humans). But these werewolves are more sinister than that: they are beings that are neither wolf nor human. Sometimes they look and act like humans, sometimes they look and act like wolves… but there’s always something wrong about them, something uncanny, something irreducibly alien. When Angua exclaims in this novel “I’m not human!” she’s not just saying that in the Fantasy “everyone’s human basically but some of them have pointy ears” sense, she really means that she is something inhuman. Something that would enjoy killing and eating humans, if its borrowed-from-humans sentiments weren’t getting in its way.
It’s a really great depiction of werewolves, that manages to present them as both genuinely threatening and as thoroughly alien. On which note: I’ve mentioned elsewhere that it’s impressive how Pratchett manages to sneak a lightly BDSM relationship into mainstream fantasy in the form of Carrot and, as she herself calls herself, ‘his bitch’ Angua, who is physically incapable of disobeying him. Well, it’s also impressive that at one point in this book a female character has a male canine as a potential love interest and it barely seems strange. That’s partly because of how much Pratchett’s dogs and wolves feel like real people, even if their non-humanity is always evident… and it’s also because of how alien his werewolves feel. They’re not humans, they’re not wolves, they’re just imposters – why shouldn’t they be just as likely to be interested in four-legged companions as in two-legged ones? Assuming, of course, that the opportunity arises – because wolves are better at spotting werewolves than humans are, and if you think humans don’t like the shapeshifters we’ve got nothing on lupine xenophobia…
The best world-building here, though, isn’t undead at all: it’s the dwarves. Dwarves have always been around in Pratchett’s books, but they’ve never really had much unique identity, beyond being short, drunk, literal, xenophobic, rat-eating and gold-obsessed. That all changes here with a fascinating, detailed, and original dwarven culture sketched out beneath the snows of Uberwald. There are elements of Judaism here of course (dwarves always seem to be Jewish in Fantasy, for some reason), and perhaps of Catholicism – the Low King is more of a pope than a traditional monarch, although the dwarves themselves believe themselves to have no religion. [I think part of what Pratchett is doing here is simply trying to call into question the distinction beteen religion and non-religion], and perhaps of Japan (at least, that’s what dwarvish opera made me think of) and of course of Germanic myth, and probably of Tolkien, and of mining culture, and perhaps some elements all new. And again, as with the werewolves, Pratchett stresses that these are not humans with different heights. Taking the most obvious example: previously, the idea (derived from a joke about Tolkien) was that dwarven women were indistinguishable from the men. But here we see the dwarven side of things: there are no dwarven women (and by extension no dwarven men). This is not a concept that makes sense to them. Vimes is puzzled by the mythological romance between two legendary dwarven heroes: so which was male and which was female then? He is corrected sharply: they were both dwarves. Oh, sure, perhaps there were some anatomical differences that became relevant when the two of them were alone together and curious about babies. Or perhaps there weren’t. But none of that is relevant to who, or what, they were.
There’s something admirable about that dwarven refusal to draw unnecessary distinctions, but it sets uneasily with the general tone of the book. Because now some Ankh-Morpork dwarves, including a minor character, are starting to wear dresses and lipstick, because they’re girls and that’s what girls do. There is never any doubt in this book that female dwarves should have that right, and it seems pretty straightforward that those who are horrified by public displays of femininity are the bad dwarves, the conservatives, who will be washed away in the tide of progress, the tide of Ankh-Morpork’s cultural hegemony, which is going to stamp its gender roles onto every damn culture it can sink its teeth into. But at the same time, it’s hard not to think that maybe this freedom for female dwarves to express themselves is only a freedom to conform to Ankh-Morporkian demands rather than the demands of their own societies, and that maybe something will have been lost if the question “so which one was really a woman then?” begins to be meaningful for dwarves. Pratchett doesn’t come down on that side… but he acknowledges that it exists, and that things may be more complicated than we might at first imagine. Just because progress is good, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t bad too. The old werewolf baron is bad, and a bright new future where people aren’t hunted by werewolves would be good… but the progressive Wolfgang, he of the flags and the calisthenics and the racial purity, is much worse than even the bad old ways.
There’s too much in this book to talk about, I think. But I must draw attention to what I think is the best little bit of the whole book: the towers. On one level, the semaphore towers are a minor detail, which could be gotten rid of with only minor alterations to the plot. But on another level those towers are the book. They are beacons of civilisation in the wilderness. They are, for the Ankh-Morpork citizens in the middle of the primordial forest, almost a literal lifeline. They are like a distortion in the fabric of space-time: if you can’t get to a tower, you’re in the middle of nowhere, but the instant you reach one you’re just a few days from Ankh-Morpork itself, or at least from Ankh-Morpork’s power. They take on an oversized resonance within the novel, and I think they’re a little element of genius within the book.
Anyway, I should try to say something more general. This is a really good book. It has a gripping plot and some great action scenes – the feeling of menace in Uberwald is perhaps the strongest that Pratchett has mustered (you know you’re in a bad place when the courtyard of your castle has a cage over it to keep out enemies who can fly). It has some very good character work, and the best Boba Fett of the cycle. It has solid and evocative worldbuilding. It’s well-written, it’s insightful, and in places it’s funny. [Although I must say, this is the book that made me realise that, at least outside his early work, Pratchett isn’t a comedy writer at all – at least, not unless Dickens is a comedy writer. The jokes are incidental… but, probably because it’s fantasy and hence ‘silly’, people assume the work is a comedy just because you can laugh at it. In perhaps the opposite phenomenon from The Wire – an often-hilarious series that nobody ever refers to as a comedy because it’s so ‘realist’.]
It’s hard, really, to find anything wrong with it. A couple of characters aren’t in it as much as I’d like, but I understand why; some are in it more than I’d like, but I understand why. There are, I think, two missteps in the plot near the end – one is very obvious and a bit annoying but ultimately trivial, and the other is harder to notice (the way Pratchett does it works, just not as well as something else would) but more substantial. As a result, and I guess because Vimes is a somewhat distant protagonist (compared to his more vulnerable characters), it’s not really a perfect book. But it is very, very good!
Adrenaline: 5/5. Perhaps not a perfectly thrilling book, but as exciting as you could reasonably want. I found it very hard to put down. A general high pace and plenty of twists are punctuated by a few great scenes.
Emotion: 3/3. Not a deeply emotive book – as I say, a collected and ever-rational Vimes doesn’t yank your emotions around too much – but there are touching moments along the way.
Thought: 4/5. Pace and a light touch keep the book from getting deep into any topics, but the provocative conceit and the worldbuilding make this a thought-provoking read.
Beauty: 4/5. There are no stunning, sublime moments, but the prose is elegant and the description beautiful and evocative throughout.
Craft: 5/5. A really well-crafted book, and he even sticks the landing. Literally two things I think he might have done better near the end, but that can’t detract from the essentially flawless craftsmanship.
Endearingness: 4/5. Perhaps because it’s Vimes (who I really like, don’t get me wrong, but who I don’t find huggable), and there’s not quite enough Angua, and I guess because it didn’t go in any particularly emotional places, I didn’t love this book. But I did really like it. It’s always been one of my favourites, though that partiality has been tinged with doubt – I seem to remember when it came out many people were disappointed with it, and that led me to second-guess my own feelings. But now I remember how much I liked it.
Originality: 4/5. It’s one of Pratchett’s more innovative works, I think. Sure, little bits here and there are familiar, but overall it’s a distinctive plot in a distinctive place.
Overall: 6/7. VERY GOOD.
Close to brilliant, even. I don’t think it quite reaches Small Gods and Lords and Ladies, but I’d put it firmly on the second rung (and hey, the difference between one rung and the next is always likely to be a matter of taste – call one of my ‘good’ books ‘brilliant’, or one of my ‘brilliant’ books merely ‘good’, and I may have an issue with that, but call a ‘good’ book ‘very good’ or a ‘very good’ book ‘brilliant’, I can’t really complain.
This does, as I say, feel like the end of Discworld (particularly with the way the novel ends), but if Discworld had ended here it would have gone out with a bang. This is one of Pratchett’s strongest outings – smart, fun and very well-made. With the enormous caveat that Night Watch is still to come, this probably edges Feet of Clay as the strongest Watch novel yet.
For the record, while I’m at it, here are my current assessments of the first 24 novels:
Brilliant: Small Gods; Lords and Ladies
Very Good: The Fifth Elephant; Feet of Clay; Reaper Man; Pyramids; Maskerade; Hogfather
Good: The Colour of Magic; Equal Rites; Mort; Wyrd Sisters; Guards! Guards!; Moving Pictures; Witches Abroad; Men at Arms; Soul Music; Carpe Jugulum
Not Bad: The Light Fantastic; Sourcery; Eric; Interesting Times; Jingo; The Last Continent
I haven’t yet found a genuinely bad book among them (The Light Fantastic comes closest), which is frankly a shockingly high level of quality and consistency, especially for a writer who evolves so much over time, and is so willing to experiment. [Going back to my ‘end of Discworld’ thesis: the world and characters of The Colour of Magic simply could not coexist with those of The Fifth Elephant]