Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!
Terry Pratchett is a craftsman. He takes the mechanics of old stories – fairy tales, legends, fantasies high and low, anecdotes, clichés – and subjects them to careful scrutiny, puzzling over the desires and difficulties that drive them, pondering the question of how they might be adapted to the peculiar circumstances of a modern urban society. Behind him is ranked the massed knowledge accumulated over a lifetime of voracious reading, and the strangeness of this readerly access to the echoing halls and crowded taverns of the past – and of the passages and corridors that take us there, the twisty labyrinthine imagination – never ceases to trouble and delight him. From the Discworld books I plucked Guards! Guards! more or less at random for analysis in the classroom, wondering what it is he has brought to so many readers over a career that was cruelly cut short, and yet delivered an unrolling epic comedy on a scale no one else had dreamed of.
Two elements drive the novel’s plot: the standard story of the dragon and the hero who slays it to rescue the lady, and the story of the unheroic rank and file (here reduced to the ‘rank’, one suspects because of their attitude to personal hygiene) known as the Guards, whose main function in narratives is to be fooled, ignored or randomly slaughtered. Combining the two elements gives rise to an essentially political question: what kind of society perpetuates these particular clichés, one ancient, the other more or less modern (though Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram unseated and casually slew innumerable anonymous knights in Malory), and how do they sit in a world that claims to value democracy and gender equality? How do they sit, indeed, as working models of anything at all? What desires do they cater for? What possibilities for better social structures do they tend to suppress?
One answer, of course, is that both fantasies pander to a certain view of masculinity. Men fight to show their manhood, as the young adopted dwarf Carrot (who is over six feet tall, and rather stooped from having been raised – no pun intended – in the dwarfish mines) has been led to expect, since he sets out on his journey armed with a battered sword and a reinforced codpiece. The hero fights and wins; the Guards fight and lose; the hero thereby confirms his greater share of testosterone. Carrot’s codpiece confirms one of the flaws in this male rite of passage: that even the strongest warrior can be floored by a well-aimed kick in the testicles. The lone hero is ridiculously vulnerable under any circumstances, and the concept of the lone hero facing up to an armour-plated flying monster that breathes fire merely serves to reinforce that vulnerability to a ridiculous extent. Pratchett slightly tips the scales in the hero’s favour by ensuring that his dragons, too, are flawed, despite their scales: their habit of breathing fire involves an insanely volatile digestive system which is vulnerable, in its turn, to spontaneous chemical explosions at awkward moments. The traditional über-masculine hero and the traditional dragon, in other words, are imaginative confections, ill suited to the rough-and-tumble of real city life in any era. Why then do we persist in imagining them, rather than turning our attention to more practical fantasies – such as the unheroic Guards in Pratchett’s book, who prefer not to fight at all, thereby preserving every portion of their bodies, not just the family jewels?
The same thing, of course, could be said of the law – which Hope Mirrlees identified in Lud-in-the-Mist as one of the most inventive products of the human imagination. As well as his sword and codpiece Carrot owns an ancient lawbook, and seeks to put its precepts into practice against all odds, even (at one point) placing a prone dragon under arrest while reciting the charges against it with meticulous reference to the entries in his volume. The city of Ankh-Morpork, to which he travels to enlist in the City Guard, has little respect for either law or order. Indeed its cynical and efficient ruler, Lord Vetinari, has built his success on the principle of encouraging lawbreakers to police themselves in order to protect their own interests – not so much organized crime as crime legitimated, without reference to conventional legislation of any kind. The thieves have their own official guild, which ensures that the proper quantity of robberies is committed each year, and the guilds of assassins, merchants and beggars are equally well integrated into the machinery of the commonwealth. As a result the upholders of the law, the City Guard, have been rendered redundant by the time Carrot joins them. Undaunted by, indeed wholly ignorant of this redundancy, the young man flings himself enthusiastically into the task of enforcing long-forgotten regulations; and in the process he reminds not just the rest of the Guard of the value of what they stand for, but the city as well, whose lapse into absolute pragmatism and self-interest gets arrested – no pun intended – by his quiet assumption that he can do the impossible: uphold the good and protect the weak.
There is something endearing, of course, about Carrot’s idealism, and the city is soon endeared by it – though this is partly because Carrot is immensely strong and, thanks to his codpiece, more or less indestructible by any being of a similar size. He reduces even the troll Detritus to a tearful wreck in a barroom brawl, though here, too, there’s a sound practical reason for his victory: the troll is unfortunate enough not to own a reinforced codpiece. Carrot can stride through areas of the city barred to other Guards, thanks not just to his ignorance but his size; and he can take lodgings in a brothel not just because he doesn’t know what a brothel is but because he affords welcome protection to its workers. Carrot is not just an idealist, he’s a practical asset. And not just because of his strength. His willingness to see the best in everybody helps to forge communities where before there were only loose agglomerations of people banded together for mutual protection. Carrot, then, is not just a stick to beat the wicked, like the traditional hero, but a carrot to tempt them. He has value, which is sometimes measured in carrots – or at least in carats, which are rather less useful than the currency Carrot deals in, honesty, commitment and affection. By the end of the book we have discovered that Ankh-Morpork contains very little gold (the dragon that threatens it is disgusted by its absence); but Carrot imports or restores a new set of valuables – not private parts or a crown, but the simple truths it was in danger of forgetting.
Carrot stands, in fact, for several truths of some importance: that the hero cannot manage on his own; that the qualities traditionally associated with masculinity aren’t enough to sustain an individual, let alone a community; and that the best intentions are useless – indeed highly dangerous – unless they have a solid material basis, a foundation in pragmatism; that is, unless they incorporate a recognition of what can practically be accomplished with the ingredients available. Guards! Guards! is an extended meditation on the precise combination of ingredients required to enable a society to function without falling into either tyranny – totalitarian control by a single authority – or anarchy – not organized anarchism but a Hobbesian struggle for survival. There are a number of characters in it who represent certain points on the scale between the two conditions; and indeed the sheer number of characters that represent these points is what makes each of Pratchett’s later fantasies such a complex feat of narrative engineering.
‘Of all the cities in all the world it could have flown into […] it’s flown into mine’.
It’s worth pausing to consider the narrative form within which these characters operate. A Pratchett novel is made up of a series of short chapters written from different points of view. At first the reader has no notion how these points of view – most of them those of misfits, obsessives and eccentrics – fit together in the machinery of plot; and a final understanding of the role of each element is never achieved until close to the end. No one plot strand takes precedence over any other. It’s a democracy of narratives, a cityscape of storytelling, and enacts Pratchett’s philosophy of collectivism; the notion that any major event involves collective rather than individual action – the precise reverse of the philosophy that drives the fairy tale of the Hero and the Dragon.
Motifs and allusions form part of this assemblage, and like the multiple strands of plot reveal their function in the overall machine only near the dénouement. Guards! Guards! includes, for instance, at least a couple of references to that old chestnut of a movie Casablanca. On p. 94, Captain Vimes of the Guards thinks to himself about the dragon that is stirring up trouble in Ankh-Morpork: ‘Of all the cities in all the world it could have flown into […] it’s flown into mine’. At this point, for Vimes the dragon is a solitary problem and an ungendered one; it bears no relation to any other aspect of the narrative, as far as the Captain is concerned. Towards the end of the novel, however, another quotation from Casablanca shifts the focus to another narrative strand, and draws attention to what has changed in the interim. Having accepted an invitation to supper from the dragon-breeder Lady Ramkin, and enjoyed her company, Captain Vimes searches for a way to express his growing fondness for her. ‘Here’s looking at you, kid,’ is what he comes up with (p. 285). The context for this second reference to the movie is, of course, quite different from that of the first; and it indicates a radical shift in perspective. By this stage in the book the marauding dragon is no longer a neuter ‘it’; the monster has become a female, and ceased to be a monster by teaming up with Vimes’s pet marsh dragon Errol, bred (of course) by Lady Ramkin. As a breeder of dragons, Lady Ramkin has shown an interest in the giant scaled intruder from the start; it is for her a splendid example of the draco nobilis, and therefore related to her marsh dragons. For her, then, the giant dragon is no isolated terror but the member of an identifiable species, linked by blood and habits to the diminutive creatures she rears in her shed. But the dragon’s breed also associates it with Lady Ramkin herself, who is both a member of an ancient breed – the aristocracy – and the kind of large-scale, dominant woman who used in the past to be branded a ‘dragon’. The dragon-breeder’s attitude to the dragon has brought it in out of the cold, so to speak: integrated it into a community, given it a home. And Vimes’s second quotation from Casablanca confirms that something similar has happened to Lady Ramkin. Thanks to the dragon, her status as an eccentric outsider living in isolation in her dilapidated mansion has changed – as has that of Vimes himself, who at the beginning of the novel was a broken-down drunk with only the shreds of an official function. When he parrots Humphrey Bogart, Vimes is looking at Lady Ramkin and really seeing her, perhaps for the first time – not merely (against romance convention, given her size) as a desirable woman, but as a person with many qualities: ‘style and money and common-sense and self-assurance and all the things that he didn’t [have]’ (p. 284). He is looking at her, in fact, as the emblem of the city he loves: ‘she had opened her heart, and if you let her she could engulf you; the woman was a city’. The second Casablanca reference, in fact, identifies the moment when both Vimes and Lady Ramkin settle at last into the urban community – thanks to the dragon who first flew into and threatened that community (‘Of all the cities in all the world…’), and later found, like them, that it had brought her love.
Vimes’s reference to Lady Ramkin as a city reverses the cliché he first uttered in a drunken mumble in the novel’s opening pages: that the city is a woman, who both acts like a ‘lady dog. Puppy. Hen. Bitch’ and also has moments when she opens ‘her great big booming rotten heart to you’, catching you off balance (p. 8). Captain Vimes’s trajectory from solitude to companionship, from half-affectionate resentment at the city to contentment with what it offers him, is the point of the novel, which uses it to illustrate the necessity of coexistence in a complex society, and offers itself as a fable of the techniques that make coexistence possible. His journey to companionship identifies Vimes as a true member of the Guard, all of whom are in the end bonded to the city as well as each other. Sergeant Colon shares his house with a wife he never sees, since she works the day shift and he works nights; they communicate through written notes, but their companionship seems to work well for both of them. Lance Constable Carrot, who begins the novel yearning for the dwarf lover he left behind in the mountains, ends it in a contented relationship with one of the workers at the brothel where he first found lodgings. Corporal Nobbs is a member of a Morris dancing club, which shares its quarters with other clubs – including the secret society that summons the dragon. The Guard is a collective, and seeks companionship outside its ranks (or the rank) as a logical extension of its duty to protect and serve the urban community.
In this communitarian impulse, the Guard stands in opposition to the other strand of myth that shapes the narrative. The legend of the Hero and the Dragon depends on exclusivity and uniqueness: the hero is unique in his strength, the princess offered to the dragon is unique in her birth, virtue and beauty, the dragon unique in its monstrosity. And in this novel, the conventional dragon myth is the product and province of self-centred loners. The anonymous Supreme Grand Master of the secret society that summons the dragon, who scorns the other members of his circle and looks forward to the time when he can rise above such dross (his name, when we discover it, turns out to mean Lone Wolf). The members of the society themselves, each of whom harbours a grudge against his fellow citizens. The dimwitted hero selected by the Supreme Grand Master to defeat the dragon, who has been carefully bred in seclusion to think himself special. The dragon itself, as the Supreme Grand Master conceives it: a lonely being, bigger and nastier than any other creature. All these people perceive themselves, and the dragon they summon, as solitary animals – despite the fact that solitude, for Pratchett, is more or less impossible, since no one can survive for long without the help of others (and solitude in this respect is not the same as loneliness, which is suffering born from the fact that being alone is not a natural state for human beings). Solitude is often the chosen state of the selfish rather than the condition of the disenfranchised. It can be a fantasy as recklessly extravagant as dreaming of dragons. To seek to make that fantasy concrete, for instance by seeking to demonstrate your own uniqueness through an act of reckless daring, can be highly dangerous – to yourself as much as to the community you plan to foist it on. Certain kinds of fantasy, in fact, are pernicious, and no practitioner of fantasy fiction can afford to forget it.
Certain kinds of fantasy, in fact, are pernicious, and no practitioner of fantasy fiction can afford to forget it.
There’s a third element in the novel besides the gregarious Guards and the self-segregating Supreme Grand Master: and this is the Patrician, Lord Vetinari, ruler of the city. Vetinari stands (among other things) for cynical pragmatism: the notion that men and women are ruled not by ideals but by self-interest, and that they can only be controlled by appealing to their concern for their own well-being. It’s on this principle that the Patrician founded the Guild of Thieves; if crime cannot be wiped out, why not make it pay? And of course he has a point. At various moments throughout the novel the citizens of Ankh-Morpork find themselves consenting to atrocities, happy to tolerate tyranny if this will ensure their continued survival. When a king emerges to kill the marauding dragon they forget democracy and make themselves monarchists. When a dragon seizes the king’s throne they put on tunics embellished with a dragon emblem. Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler sells his sausages with equal enthusiasm on every occasion: at the ritual sacrifice of an innocent woman to the dragon, at the coronation of the king who purportedly killed the dragon, and at the dragon’s installation as the king’s successor. For the Patrician, this makes ordinary citizens like C.M.O.T. Dibbler ‘bad people’; people who will ‘follow any dragon, worship any god, ignore any iniquity’, out of a ‘kind of humdrum, everyday badness’ (p. 274). He counts himself among them, which is what distinguishes him from the solitary tyrant (or tyrant’s vizier) the Grand Master wishes to become. Lord Vetinari is thoroughly democratic in his dismissal of the moral fibre of humankind. And he also sees what he calls ‘badness’ as functional. Good people, like Captain Vimes of the Guard, need bad people like himself because they know how to plan ahead, as the good do not. He demonstrates the fact aptly by fitting his prison with a lock on the inside, for the eventuality that he might one day be locked into it, and by making friends with the city rats, ahead of the day when he loses the support of his human followers. Planning like this would have been branded obsessive lunacy or visionary madness by anyone who had known about it before it was confirmed as ‘pragmatic’ or ‘well-planned’ by the Grand Master’s coup d’état, and the Patrician’s imprisonment.
The truth is – as this last sentence implies – that inhabiting a city, and the planning that makes it possible, is not a matter of simple pragmatism, whatever the Patrician may claim (and he admits as much a short while later when he confesses he needs idealists like Captain Vimes). Dreams are necessary, as well as practicality, if the city is to retain its resilience, its endless capacity to reinvent itself in response to every twist and turn of an arbitrary fortune. The adaptability of the citizens of Ankh-Morpork is a testament to their imagination as well as their unerring instinct for survival. They aren’t absolutists – not committing themselves to any one philosophy, since this would limit their capacity for self-defensive metamorphosis. But they are perfectly capable of seeing things from a new ideological perspective when this becomes necessary. And they are also perfectly capable of defending their interests against real oppressors, again when this becomes necessary and not before. A healthy community, in fact, depends on a volatile balance of dreams and pragmatism, much as a dragon’s fire depends on a volatile mixture of chemicals in its various stomachs; and this is the place to return to Carrot, who is the gold standard by which to measure that balance.
As a personality, Carrot has all the qualifications to become a unique hero of the sort the Supreme Grand Master needs to fight the dragon and win the kingdom. A member of the Grand Master’s secret society lists these qualifications before Carrot has even entered the narrative: ‘There used to be some old prophecy or something […] “Yea, the king will come bringing Law and Justice, and know nothing but the Truth, and Protect and Serve the People with his Sword”’ (p. 17). Sure enough, Carrot arrives a few paragraphs later carrying a sword he has inherited, wielding Law and Justice in the form of a book, literal-minded enough to believe he knows what Truth is, and determined to Protect and Serve by joining the Watch. Later in the book, some of his fellow Guards notice something else about him that makes him kingly: ‘“Something odd about that boy,” said Colon, as they limped after him. “He always manages to persuade us to follow him, have you noticed?”’ (p. 253). But by this time Carrot has been integrated into their company; he has changed them and they have changed him. No longer so strait-laced about Law and Justice, Carrot has instilled in them a new sense of responsibility towards their fellow citizens. He may be leading them towards danger like a hero, but before doing so he has asserted the interdependence of the Guards by citing the first part of the famous catchphrase of the Three Musketeers, ‘All for one!’ – to his comrades’ confusion. He has brought them dreams, they have brought him pragmatism, and their qualities have become fused, making all of them stronger. Throughout the book the conventional reader is waiting for the moment when Carrot will be exposed as the true king of Ankh-Morpork – perhaps a few minutes after he has slain the dragon. That moment never happens. The dragon is not slain – it gets a happy ending. Kingship is abolished. The myths are changed. Things are arranged much better than they were in those old stories about winged lizards and expendable nobodies.
Of course, the rearrangement of the stories involves a good deal of magic, though to a different end than the magic of the sword that killed the dragon. One kind of magic involved is the old cinematic magic of the million-to-one chance: the last-minute escape or rescue in a thriller, which is just barely believable, because it could work, but so unlikely as to resemble divine intervention. Another is the magic of the imagination, which conjures dragons into existence as we read. On the final page of the novel, the image of two dragons flying out across the void that circumscribes the Discworld represents just about as magical an ending as you could wish for. The magic that propels the lizard lovers is the special kind Pratchett has engineered out of the components of his tale: a utopian, urban, pragmatic kind of thaumaturgy, unseen outside his books, at least before he wrote them (it has spread since). The sense of community it fosters, too, may last beyond the final page. Or, to paraphrase Pratchett’s last two sentences – themselves paraphrased from the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner – perhaps it won’t. But then again, what does?
You can find more of Rob's eloquent reviews, as well as short stories and other delights, at the City of Lost Books.